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Volunteerism keeps alive the Pageant of the Masters, the place where art comes to life

Cast members who play in the "Declaration of Independence" tableaux vivant wait before they take the stage.
Cast members who play in the “Declaration of Independence” tableaux vivant wait before they take the stage in the 2021 Pageant of the Masters show “Made in America.”
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

The lights go up, the audience goes quiet and all else is still.

In that very moment, the crowd is transported to another period as it gazes upon the re-creation of artwork in a unique style known as tableaux vivant.

It is the great draw of the Pageant of the Masters, a show that like the art it replicates, has stood the test of time. The living picture show started in Laguna Beach in 1933.

As seen from a distance, the subjects in the reproductions are largely humans inserted into the frame, becoming nearly indistinguishable from the original artworks when costumed and painted.

Michelle Liggatt, who stands in as the Statue of Liberty sculpture, waits backstage to take her position.
Michelle Liggatt, who stands in as the Statue of Liberty sculpture, waits backstage with a few redcoats as she waits to take her position.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Those that pose as the living pictures themselves are volunteers, as well as many behind the scenes preparing them to play their parts for 90 seconds in the spotlight.

The shared experience, often with other family members, is a key aspect of what keeps the volunteers coming back.

Nikki Harris, 63, of Huntington Beach joined the Pageant of the Masters as a makeup artist after her son, Alex, showed interest in being cast in the show after they had seen it as a family.

She said Alex, 24, has been in the show for close to a decade now, and her son’s fiancée has now joined her in the makeup room, where the cast literally becomes living works of art. A paint-by-numbers scheme is followed to complete the transformation.

“The piece that I love about it is every summer we come back, it’s the same people,” Harris said. “We kind of become a Pageant family, and that’s been really a stronghold for me and for my son, too.”

Bret Helvig, who stands in the "Declaration of Independence," waits to take the stage in the 2021 Pageant of the Masters.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Often, the Pageant of the Masters is an introduction to the arts, as it was for Costa Mesa resident Devin Hovis, who said he has now been featured in the show 14 times.

Hovis, 28, said it was the Pageant that requested that he play a part the first time, as all roles are dictated first and foremost by the height of the individual. He was 8 on that occasion.

The Pageant theme this year is “Made in America,” and Hovis was already in costume backstage for his role in “Fur Traders Descending the Missouri,” an 1845 oil painting by George Caleb Bingham, when he elaborated on how the show has influenced him.

“It reminds me that things can still stay very traditional in our modern world that is always accelerating … because it’s a very old stage and old lighting, but it still works,” Hovis said. “It still has the same charm.

“I do digital art for a living, so it definitely inspired me to learn about art and different aspects that I could apply.”

Milan Jovanovic, who stands in the Daniel Boone piece, has makeup applied by Katie Palino moments before he takes the stage.
Milan Jovanovic, who stands in the Daniel Boone piece, has makeup applied by Katie Palino moments before he takes the stage.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

From veterans to first-timers, the Pageant has them all. Ella Toth, 14, of Laguna Hills is in the show for the first time after previously watching her cousins participate. She plays a part in “Declaration of Independence,” an 1818 oil painting by John Trumbull.

“Honestly, it was just really cool to see people go from regular people to go in a painting,” Ella said of what excited her about being cast in the show.

The Pageant of the Masters has additional parts that make it special, including a narrator, an orchestra and professionals who perform dance routines and vocals.

The choreographed Louis Armstrong, played by Isaac Robinson-Smith, that accompanies the set of Susan Dysinger’s “The Hot Five” (1997) is simply poetic.

But the show cannot go on without its volunteers, and that was a concern for Pageant director Diane Challis Davy and staff coming out of the coronavirus pandemic intermission.

The final decision to have the show return was not made by the board of directors for the Festival of Arts until April 14, one that was made largely in conjunction with the belief that masks would not be required in outdoor venues such as the Irvine Bowl.

Director Diane Challis Davy prepares for another busy night at the 2021 Pageant of the Masters show "Made in America."
Director Diane Challis Davy prepares for another busy night directing the 2021 Pageant of the Masters show “Made in America.”
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“There was a great deal of trepidation, wondering if we would have enough volunteers who would say, ‘Yes,’” Challis Davy said.

“So we had to call everybody who was previously cast, and we had almost finished casting everything. Of course, we found out that many of the children had grown.”

Challis Davy debuted in the Pageant of the Masters as a volunteer in 1976, and she now pulls the strings for the production. This is her 25th year as the director of the Pageant.

“I started working in the costume shop in 1980 … in the same room that they’re building costumes,” Challis Davy said. “I spent every summer here, so as you can imagine, it was so extraordinary when all of a sudden, there was no Pageant in the summertime when I’d spent every summer for the last 40 years here.

“That was a surreal experience. Wandering [the amphitheater], there were weeds that were waist high because nature started just to take over the [Irvine] Bowl. It was a very eerie experience.”

Sean Higuchi sells programs in front of the Irvine Bowl theater at the 2021 Pageant of the Masters show.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

As one volunteer pointed out, tradition can be found at the Pageant. An example is in the behind-the-scenes frame featured in this year’s show.

Attendees get a step-by-step look at how Winslow Homer’s “Breezing Up” (1873-76) is constructed on stage, which Challis Davy said is the same artwork that was used when that feature was added to the show in 1966.

It was a reunion of sorts for renowned photographer Matthew Rolston when he featured the volunteers of the show in his work.

That project is now an exhibit entitled Art People: The Pageant Portraits at the Laguna Art Museum, bringing two staples of the Laguna Beach arts community together.

For Richard Doyle, 76, of Irvine the opposite was true when he signed on to become the narrator of the show a decade ago. When he was approached for the job by Challis Davy and scriptwriter Dan Duling, Doyle had never seen the show.

What appealed to him was the goal of providing a theatrical experience, one attached to themes and stories that would allow him to give context to the pieces being shown.

“It is the most unique voiceover job that I’ve ever had,” Doyle said. “Very unique in that it is voiceover, but it’s before a live audience, and the story that I am narrating is unfolding in front of the audience that I am telling it to, so … that is a unique experience.”

Cast members dressed as British redcoats, left, and American revolutionary soldiers, wait backstage.
Cast members dressed as British redcoats, left, and American revolutionary soldiers, wait backstage.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

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