Vanessa Harkelroad’s wrinkled nostril is slightly crooked.
She stands up from her chair under the blinding fluorescent lights and lets her makeup artist check the dark brown line down the side of her nose before making a few adjustments. The two laugh together about the mishap like old friends despite meeting just a few minutes before.
Finally, they perfect the look and get approval from the backstage hand for Harkelroad to put on her wig. Though she’ll be on stage for a mere 90 seconds, she’s got an important role to play. Harkelroad is, after all, Cleopatra in Laguna Beach’s annual Pageant of the Masters.
Known for its tableaux vivants or “living pictures,” the Pageant of the Masters is a performance in which people recreate works of art by donning costumes, makeup, and more and posing. Props and backdrops add further detail, while a professional narrator, orchestra, and vocalists help bring the whole thing to life. Part of Laguna’s yearly Festival of Arts, the show has been running since 1933—with only a four-year interruption during World War II—and continues to draw huge crowds for eight weeks of performances at the Irvine Bowl amphitheater every summer.
Of course, it’s a very different production today than it was back when it started. It’s more work now that there are over 1,200 volunteer actors, costume experts, makeup artists, and stagehands to wrangle, not to mention some 56 performances to put on throughout the season. Still, all the work is worth it for a show almost too wild for words.
“I would say you’re going to see a variety show in a lovely amphitheater about a mile from the Pacific Ocean,” pageant director Diane Challis Davy said humbly when asked how she would describe the performance. In reality, she knows it’s much more involved than that. Davy started working with the pageant as an intern in 1975 and is now responsible for setting the theme each year.
For 2019, she chose “Time Machine.” Inspired by H.G. Wells, the 90-minute show starred a bumbling time traveler who traverses the centuries, learning about humanity through its most magnificent works of art.
“When we’re about to open, I’m kind of weak in the knees because I’m hoping everyone is going to like the show,” Davy said about the preperformance jitters she still gets all these years later. “I’m a little nervous, just hoping that everyone is delighted with what we planned.”
Davy has little to worry about, however, because the community volunteers who dress the actors, apply makeup, create the set pieces, and act in the show care about its well-being as much as she does.
“The crew is really great,” Harkelroad says as she dons her wig for her starring role in Cleopatra on the Terraces of Philae, painted by Frederick Arthur Bridgman in 1896. Unlike Davy, she has no doubts about the show’s ability to please the hundreds of people who come to watch it every single night from June to September. “If you’re doing something for free, you’re going to do it well,” she says, referring to the hundreds of volunteers that help put on the pageant. “If you aren’t motivated, you don’t show up for free.”
This year, pageant volunteers ranged in age from 5 to 80. Most came from the Laguna area, although some did travel to be part of the show, and most of them plan to help out again next year—even if it means having to show their butt to the audience.
James Conway started volunteering for the pageant in 2005 at the suggestion of a woman he was dating. While their relationship didn’t last, his involvement with the show did, and this year he proved his dedication by getting painted as a bronze statue and appearing on stage in the buff. “Tonight in the Mechanics Monument, I’m the guy with the butt out. That’s me,” he joked. His performance had nothing on the time he played King Neptune in the Trevi Fountain, though. “Everyone knows that piece,” said Conway.
Davy’s nerves and Conway’s nudity aside, the show went off without a hitch. In fact, it was breathtakingly artistic, with the actors’ bodies molding right into the canvases painted by local artists and illuminated by lighting experts.
By the end of the summer, volunteers had given more than 60,000 hours of their time in the name of art and entertainment—a fact that could only ever be possible in a small, closely knit community like Laguna. The show is “very well protected,” said Conway. “There are people that are still coming back after 30 years. People aren’t just friends here, they’re family.”
The 2020 show is set to run from July 8 to September 3. Though the theme has yet to be revealed, it’s sure to be as spectacular as ever—whether or not Conway is wearing a costume.
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