One town masters the art of standing still

In Laguna Beach, actors pose like figures in artworks

When a pigeon landed on the head of the Statue of Diana, the "goddess" didn't flinch; but the audience gasped.

Diana is actually a real woman posing on stage in a reproduction of the Vatican's Roman statue, and not even the pigeon could tell she was not really made of stone.

This experience in trompe l'oeil (fooling the eye), an artistic extravaganza once featured on "Ripley's Believe It or Not," takes place not in Hollywood, but 50 miles south in the hilly coastal art colony of Laguna Beach. Quiet most of the year, and filled with white water, surfers, and artists, the village comes alive every summer as it hosts the Laguna Beach Art Festival and the internationally acclaimed Pageant of the Masters, where a cast of thousands have mastered the art of holding still - for about 90 seconds.

For seven weeks every summer (July 6 to Aug. 29), local residents take their positions against painted backdrops and pose like the painted or sculpted figures in reproductions of great works of art from Monet and Leonardo de Vinci to Japanese woodcuts and Steuben glass.

Thanks to special lighting effects, makeup, and costumes, members look exactly as if they are painted on canvas, carved in marble, or etched in glass.

They are celebrating a tradition conceived in 1933 by civic leaders who adopted the old art form of tableaux vivants (living pictures), to accompany their summer art show.

"Few performers [all unpaid volunteers - from teachers to lifeguards and architects] realize they are upholding an ancient tradition of tableaux vivants dating back to medieval Europe when church fathers held pageants to recreate stories from the Bible," explains pageant director Diane Challis Davy, now in her eighth year as creative commander in chief.

This year's theme is "Seasons." Selections will run the gamut from the traditional favorite of Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper" to nostalgic Americana, Norman Rockwell's "First Day of School" and Edward Hopper's "Summer Evening," as well as selections of marble, bronze, Wedgewood, and woodblock prints.

Even when the stage hands assemble a presentation in front of spectators, as they do at least once during each performance, the sold-out audience of 2,600 remains incredulous. It's like watching a magician teach a trick. During the two-hour show, as many as 50 works of art may be reproduced. Some are set on the main stage. Others are shown in niches at the sides of the main stage, on the upper stage, the hillsides, even on the roof of the building.

To recreate Pissaro's "The Gleaners," four young girls walk across the main stage in costumes mottled with blue shadows and misshapen hats streaked with red paint. They climb into the backdrop and take their positions on raised metal steps inserted into a flattened field of yellow. Then, after a momentary blackout, full lighting reveals the rolling honey-wheat field of "The Gleaners," in its deep three-dimensional glory; the four girls appear as women rolling and harvesting wheat.

As a moth flitted around one little girl cast member, she momentarily broke her pose to flit it away. "Thank goodness," a man in the audience whispered. "Now, I can believe it's real!"

To appear exactly as the original, many of the most difficult artworks demand detailing, such as Georges Seurat's pointillist masterpiece, "Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte," where the figures must appear flat in the park setting. Other complex paintings include postimpressionist Toulouse-Lautrec's "At the Moulin Rouge, The Dance," and Winslow Homer's illustrated remembrance, "Art Students and Copyists in the Louvre."

For Laguna's living pictures, there are no auditions, just casting calls run by Davy and key production personnel, many who serve without pay. Volunteers' statistics are filed by size and used to fill about 275 places with two casts which perform on alternate nights. There are no understudies. And the show always goes on.

"Even when a figure once slipped backstage just before curtain time," says Davy, "she valiantly posed with bleeding thigh and nary a twitch."

Another time, a member of the cast fainted just before showtime and a spectator in the audience was recruited. Before he knew what hit him, he was in makeup, costume, and "freezing."

The volunteers return year after year. "It's the camaraderie that brings them back," says Davy. Friendships form backstage amid chess games and Trivial Pursuit. Davy says the experience teaches the youngest volunteers responsibility and gives them a sense of pride in doing a job that is seen by thousands. They also glean an appreciation for the artist and art in general. But, best of all, says at least one volunteer, the pageant can create family togetherness.

Todd Nelson is a father of two who has been volunteering for 10 years. He was drafted when his daughter asked him to drive her for an audition. He got the part - he happened to be the right size - she didn't, at least not until the following year. Then his son, who felt left out, signed up, and the three of them appeared together.

"They've outgrown it, but I haven't!" he says with a laugh.

A stroll backstage gives a surreal glimpse into the wizardry. Clothes are painted and stiffened with white glue into their wind-swept attitude for Louis Maurer's racing painting, "The $500 Contest."

A southern belle's flowered skirt is plastered into a frontal view of layered crinolines, but its back is nonexistent.

A boy, who will appear in silhouette in a circus poster, sports makeup on one side of his face, culminating with a blue line painted down the center of his nose. Other volunteers, who will appear as Dresden porcelains, wear impasto spackling makeup, the crevices between their fingers painted a nutmeg brown.

It's all part of Laguna Beach's annual effort to prove that you can fool all the people, most of the time.

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