Still-Life Onstage, Bedlam Backstage

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a novelty act rarely produced anywhere outside Southern California, the Pageant of the Masters mixes high art and ample kitsch.

Visitors from throughout California and beyond flock each summer to the Irvine Bowl, an outdoor amphitheater in Laguna Beach, for two months of sold-out shows. When the curtain goes up, the music swells and a narrator sets the scene in a booming voice. The performers stand stock-still for 90 seconds in tableaux that imitate works of art. Their poses range from the apostles in Da Vinci's "The Last Supper" to the space aliens in posters from such sci-fi movies as "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and "The Invasion of the Saucer Men." It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but no one can deny that the pageant is an enduring tradition. It has played in Orange County since 1935 with few interruptions and in recent years has netted an average of $4.3 million annually in ticket sales.

"It's a variety show in the best sense of the word," says the show's director, Diane Challis Davy. "And at the same time, it's preserving the original idea of what living pictures are all about."

The theme for the 69th pageant is "Beyond the Horizon," a survey of the world's frontiers on land, in the sea and in space, from the American West to the Himalayas to Galaxy X. But behind the onstage vistas there's a wild and woolly frontier ripe for exploration: backstage.

This week a motley crew of artisans, volunteers and technicians is in the last phase of months of preparation. In the final days before Saturday's opening they are hustling like crazy to make the show picture-perfect.

Here's a peek into the mad workshop of the hundreds of people--mostly volunteers--whose works will coalesce into tableaux vivants , sketching scenes by Winslow Homer, Paul Gauguin, Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet and Toulouse-Lautrec.

The McDermott family of Mission Viejo is among the legions of volunteer actors. Dozens of families sign up each year, hoping all will be cast, resulting in a summer of unforgettable togetherness.

By the time the last curtain goes down, the four McDermotts will have clocked at least 800 volunteer hours.

Most of that time is spent either scrambling or dying of discomfort.

Actors check in and wait for their calls for wardrobe and makeup, which can take up to an hour. Costumers and makeup artists painstakingly apply heavy makeup; in some cases they use body paint on the performers.

After actors are loaded into their sets, they are strapped in with safety harnesses and rolled out on stage. There, directors position them and recheck them carefully before the curtain goes up.

Runners scurry to fetch laggers so that no cues are missed.

"People on staff are running around in a panic. There's a lot of rush, rush, rush to get you on the set, and then you get to rest a few minutes before it's your turn on stage," says matriarch Donna McDermott, 41.

She will appear as a hideous Himalayan demon-god, sitting atop a water buffalo with skulls on her headpiece in "Dharmapalas," a gilt bronze by an unknown artist. Her husband Pat, 39, will be a Spanish conquistador with a pointy beard, puffy pants, tights and a sword in "The Discoverer," an oil painting by N.C. Wyeth. Son Taylor, 12, whose real-life hair is a 2-inch wall of Bed Head wax and hair gel, will don a red turban and an "Arabian Nights"-style costume for "View From Under the Portico of Dayr-el-Medeeneh, Thebes," a lithograph by David Roberts. Daughter Kylie, 11, will be Geisha No. 7, wearing a kimono and chopsticks in her hair in "Reception for a Visiting Nobleman," a woodblock print by Eiri Rekisentei.

The actors are told not to drink or eat while in costume. Pat McDermott isn't allowed to sit in his outfit, so he stands for hours waiting his turn on stage.

After Kylie's makeup is applied, it starts to get drier and drier. At times she can barely move her lips. Enter Mom with a cool soft drink; she draws the straw up to Kylie's mouth for a few seconds of blissful relief.

Thirst is curable. But the uncomfortable itches created by the cumbersome costumes are impossible to scratch.

And then there's the mental fatigue. Between the twitches and the frantic moments, there are long periods of downtime. The family catches up on homework, crossword puzzles and novels. The kids have learned new card games and how to play chess.

"There's a lot of waiting time before they roll you on stage," Donna McDermott says.

But it's all worth it.

"We thought it was a good way for the family to spend time together this summer," Donna McDermott says. "Our kids are getting older and pretty soon it's not going to be cool to hang out with mom and dad anymore, so we're taking this opportunity to be doing this with them."

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People call them dangerous. But sculptors Judith Parker of Lake Forest and Lyle Brooks of Laguna Beach say they are simply handy with their steely knives. They wield them with samurai speed as pieces of foam fall away like flakes of snow.

The two artists belong to a small group of professionals hired by the pageant to build sets and "costumes"--that is, sculptures fitted to the bodies of some actors.

They have 15 sculptures to finish before the pageant begins, some so large that a crane is required to hoist them from the back-lot studio onto the set. Recently they prayed for divine enlightenment while completing the set where an actor will appear on a dais as the Dalai Lama.

"Once you get caught in pageant fever, it's like a vortex," says lead sculptor Parker, as she cranks up the mood music. "When it's tense we put on something calmer, like classical. And when we have to work faster, we listen to 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show.' That's great music."

For six months, the sculptors bury themselves in the studio. Parker has worked at the Pageant for 18 years.

"Sculpture is a much more physical art than painting," Parker, 56, says. "You get physically involved with your work, and there's a certain sense of satisfaction to be totally worn out by the end of the day."

The exhaustion was taking its toll until Brooks came on board part time six years ago. His musical taste runs the gamut from Gustav Mahler to Kate Bush.

"They keep us as far back from civilians and the visitors as possible. It's just the running joke because we have knives," Brooks, 41, says.

The sculptors use 60 carbon steel implements, knives ranging from jungle machete to surgical scalpel size. They find their tools in antique malls, thrift stores and culinary shops. They share a 2-foot butcher's knife that's "beautiful" and use a high-tech whetstone "to keep our edge," Brooks says. They recently finished John Wayne's horse, Dollar, which will be used as a set piece in a still from the movie "True Grit."

"Once in a while you get a piece that you look at and say, 'Oh my God, how on Earth are we ever going to get this done?"' Brooks says. "But in the end, we deal with the technical problems and make it so it's all looking pretty."

High above the stands, Davy sits in the catbird seat. She's the show's director, and this is her perch, the control booth.

She wears a headset and speaks into a microphone to the technicians and stage managers backstage. She gives them notes: The lighting is too bright or too dim, that tableau was a beat behind, the special effects don't look right.

She's worked for the pageant for 21 years, and in the last six, as its director she has included dance, vocal and orchestral performances, live horses on stage, multimedia touches and surprises such as unidentified flying objects.

A Laguna Beach native, Davy first got involved with community theater at age 7, posing as Tweedledee in "Alice in Wonderland." That started a lifelong romance with theater and stagecraft.

"The pageant, like theater, takes you into a fantasy world where you can imagine yourself in a painting. You step into this magical world of the painter. It's just ineffable," she says.

Once an aspiring stage actress, Davy realized her talents were more in stagecraft and technical wizardry. She studied costume and set design at CalArts in Valencia, then worked in England, mostly on period productions. She was drawn by fine detail.

"Every aspect of the production was the very best," Davy says. "All the costumes were made at all the best costume shops in London. The authenticity of the entire production amazed me. I saw the finest costume tailoring, and all the wigs were hand-hooked, two hairs at a time. The shoes where specially made by a cobbler. All the turn-of-the-century collars were starched and pressed. It was an amazing experience coupled with the fact that it was in this foreign country. Theater takes hands-on experience."

Her stints in England led to a job offer from the Glyndebourne Opera Festival in England, but she turned it down to be closer to her family in Southern California.

After returning from England, she started working at the festival in January 1980 as a costume seamstress. Then-director Glen Eytchison realized she had painting skills and promoted her to become his assistant. Six years ago, she was named the pageant's director.

"I'm hoping that I can bring a new life to the pageant," Davy says. "If you're not careful, it can be a static art form. So I try to put some real theatricality into the pageant. We seriously strive to make a better show and improvements, so people won't feel that if they've seen it once, they don't need to see it again for another five years."

Davy begins nearly a year in advance dreaming up the pageant's theme and any new pieces she might want to feature. She's as interested in venerable, thoughtful works, such as "Final Impossibility," an oil painting by Norman Rockwell of two astronauts who make tracks on the moon, as she is in pulp fiction art, for example "The Last of the Duanes," a 1924 movie poster based on a Zane Grey novel.

The latter is one of three lithographs from popular classic western serials made into plywood stage sets that stand about 13 feet high and 8 feet long, featuring figurative cutouts for actors to slip into. In keeping with the theme, the works are a tribute to cowboy legends and America's fascination with exploration.

"'The Last of the Duanes' is not our most elaborate set, but the scenic painting is exceptionally done," said Davy, who flipped through volumes of Sotheby's and Christie's catalogs to find the most colorful and impressive western posters. "We start with Buffalo Bill and the romanticism of the American West and then segue to how the West was commercially adopted and romanticized by show business in the movies and on television."

The pageant features 39 new pieces this year, plus the traditional return of "The Last Supper."

"This show is different than previous years, because it has a sense of humor and a sense of playfulness," Davy says. "Working with the theme 'Beyond the Horizon' has really inspired me to select artwork that I may have overlooked in the past and opened up a lot of different subject matter."

She loves her job, organizing the backstage chaos so the audience sees only the serenity of the masterpieces.

Although her responsibilities are much greater, it's easier than her childhood star turn as Tweedledee because she doesn't have to worry about stage fright.

"Being director of the pageant is rather stressful," she says, "but I would still much prefer to be behind the scenes."

* Pageant of the Masters, 650 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Staged nightly at 8:30. $10 to $60. Saturday through Aug. 31. (949) 494-1145.

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