By Rachelle Cano, Special to the Independent
Since 1933, art aficionados, and people from all walks of life and from every age group near and far have eagerly made their way to Laguna Beach each summer hooked on the rare performance of “tableau vivant” or living pictures.
The performance is a unique window into the masterpieces of art. These are not ordinary pieces of art; these are pieces that truly come to life right before your very eyes. If you read the colorful history of Laguna Beach’s “Pageant of the Masters” on their website, things haven’t changed much in the way that eclectic artists have been drawn to live and work in this California coastal paradise and in return, earn a living selling their art to the multitudes of tourists who flock to its shores each summer to see the show and check out new artists. This year’s Pageant theme is, “Partners” and it not only showcases the types of predictable partnerships, it also features a special Hollywood segment highlighting the most famous and beloved dance partners from the Golden Years of Hollywood film, including Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
But something has changed this summer. It’s not just a performance aimed to please wealthy art patrons, annual festival members, or those coming from Orange County white-privilege. This year’s show has a rare, ethnic twist. Who else would you invite to the party if your creative intention were to produce an art show that would be considered by all to be all-inclusive in a geographical area that 15 million plus Latinos call home? You’d call on the two most artistic Latino heavyweights in history, Frida Khalo and Diego Rivera, whose contribution to the art world and whose passionate life stories could bring down the house nightly. And, that’s exactly what they did with a robust performance of music and dance, alongside an exciting presentation of their most famous works of art. But, it is not enough to “see” the visual art they present, for one must understand the context, and history of each fascinating vignette presented.
The segment is brought to life through the colorful words of playwright and screenwriter, Dan Duling, PhD. of Los Angeles, a long-time scriptwriter and historian for the Pageant. A carefully written narration accompanies each scene or art selection that adds to the story you see and brings the art to life through an enlightening script spoken by professional narrator, Richard Doyle, who has worked on the show for the past seven years. Narration spoken at just the right volume with the appropriate vocal inflections, enriches the experience, making sense of the art as history, lending a deeper understanding that puts each artist’s contributions into perspective, showing us how their work has touched humanity.
Prior to seeing the performance of “Partners,” and while sitting with Duling in the empty, but majestic, open-air auditorium, we talked for over an hour about the creative and historical aspects of the Festival of the Arts and “Pageant of the Masters,” whose final curtain for this season is Wednesday, Aug. 31.
I asked him to kindly elaborate on the theme and what audience goers should expect: “With this year’s theme, ‘Partners,’ we didn’t want to just look at husbands and wives, or artists and their muses, but also artists and patrons, the partnerships as subjects for art—we feature a larger suite of courtship and the search for your romantic partners that become one of a series of light pieces that is both classically beautiful and that make really wonderful tableaus, but sort of eases the audience into the lighter and more fun concepts of partnerships before we get into some slightly more sophisticated, or complicated, or more intriguing stories.”
(Could he be referring to the hot-headed couple from Mexico placed among the Swedish and French husband and wife teams in the line up?) It doesn’t’ get more complicated than Frida and Diego.
When asked about how the Pageant goes about selecting the theme and art selections each year, Duling noted there is an opportunity for feedback and suggestions given from a volunteer research committee who are interested in wanting to have some input in the selection process. The group meets with producers and writers where they are invited to present their ideas based on having been given foreknowledge of the theme and the committee collaborates with the artistic team exchanging ideas. Ultimately Duling and the show’s director of 19 years, Diane Challis Davy, make the final artistic selections.
“The best themes are those that have some elasticity to them. And I’m always looking for the non-traditional sort of expectation that would come. You really want a show filled with variety. With last year’s show, ‘The Pursuit of Happiness,’ we really wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just filled with all sweet, happy art; it had to have something with a little more gravitas…with a little more opportunity for interesting storytelling that was not just about how many types of happy you can have.”
I expressed how excited I was to see that they had included Frida and Diego in this year’s program, and he burst out with equal enthusiasm.
“I love the opportunity for story telling that this provides, and as the resident feminist in the staff, I’m really dedicated to more opportunities to showcase women artists and I’m happy that we have a couple of really great stories, probably chief among them Frida and Diego. Now, there is a partnership that is two extraordinary artists, two incredibly complicated human beings with two incredibly rich stories and we’ll be able to showcase some of their art that we haven’t done before.
Bringing Frida and Diego back from the dead is not an easy task, but stage producers, artists, lighting masters, writers, dancers, and performers mesmerize us during a special segment, that celebrates their extraordinary lives as artists, and people, resurrecting their artistic souls with a vibrant musical and special props number, echoing Mexico’s ancient ritual, El Dia del Los Muertos, or day of the dead, the day when souls are remembered as the living celebrate their souls, helping them to pass on to the afterlife. This was my favorite part of the show—not because I am Latina, but because it had “corazon.” It had plenty of heart— enough to reach the most introverted audience member in the back row and cause a visceral response.
After seeing the show I had dinner the following week over at Carmelita’s Mexican restaurant in Laguna Beach and coincidentally glanced up to see the familiar face of Frida Kahlo hanging on the restaurant’s wall. I mentioned having attended the show to Carmelita’s general manager, Daniel Osorio, who said he had not gone this year, but was quick to say that when he attended a performance in the past how, “something was missing.”
(Could it have been there was no familiar cultural thread to create the kind of synergy that causes self-reflection, or sparks excitement about one’s own cultural roots?) I told him to go back and see the show because things are evolving, and the production team really is digging deeper to allow for personal art experiences for all of us who live here in Southern California. I pointed to the portrait of Frida near the bar window as the sun lit Frida’s face and said, “Frida Kahlo may not have been written into the textbooks on futurism or feminism, or even modern art, but nowadays she clearly makes the cut.” I then raised my glass of wine towards the painting thinking we’ve come a long way since my days growing up in Orange County grammar schools being cruelly singled out by boys for my dark hair color.
By featuring Frida and Diego, it is evident that the show’s director and scriptwriter were consciously aware of and contemplating the idea of pleasing not only a privileged audience of the past, but were indeed focused on building a wider audience; one that might attract a younger more diverse audience of mixed races by equally acknowledging the brilliance and mutual futuristic elements of the work by Mexican artists, Frida Khalo and Diego Rivera. What better way to inspire an interest in art and art history than to bring to the attention of second and third generations of Mexican-Americans, that their cultural heritage has produced some of the finest artists of the past and present? The huge Latino population in California may have not had the exposure to the arts, nor had the opportunity as Mexican-Americans in the U.S. to learn extensively about Mexican art or history in American schools. The Pageant may fill the gap only slightly, but light the fire and the thirst to learn more.
During our interview I asked Duling if he had written any of the script in Spanish for the Frida and Diego segment to appeal to the native tongue of the Mexican artists, and to the audience in order to present an authentic experience.
“No there has not really been that demand. My theater ambitions have always been about risk-taking and art, and this for what it is, a public entertainment for all audiences is…and I tell my cynical, jaded, Hollywood friends, so much more than you could ever imagine until you sit in this beautiful environment and experience the music, the stage illusion, and the sense of really using art as a window into other cultures, other time periods, and what makes art really a window into the human experience.”
After seeing the performance of “Partners,” I’d have to say that Duling and his artistic team hit their mark in taking a risk crossing ethnic barriers, and by going beyond the classics in Western art we all know that are safe and universal. And, that’s even harder to do in a town that thrives on the idea of nostalgia, and memories of early Laguna. Not only was the segment informative to those not familiar with Frida and Diego, and/or Mexican art, it brought real, raw emotion into the theatre. That kind of collaborative performance layered with several art forms takes the audience beyond the norm, to the next level beyond the typical intellectual contemplative state of viewing of art, into a space of outward, demonstrative feelings that are bi-directional— from the exuberant stage energy and orchestral wall of sound that exudes emotional waves to the audience and bouncing back through the smiles, movements and vibrations beaming back to the stage—all this is authentic like the art, making it an extraordinary moment of truth post-mortem. It’s really a give and take in theatre, and the Pageant succeeded in creating a harmonious feeling of human emotion for a total experience.
The low budget, word of mouth advertising that the Pageant has enjoyed through the years allows for a nearly sold out performance each and every night during the festival. Parking may be a problem during the Pageant months, but locals don’t mind. Long-time Laguna Beach resident and business owner, David A. Rubel of Fredric H. Rubel Jewelers in Laguna Village attends the show each year with other Chamber of Commerce members, and states that although parking on his street is packed, he’s delighted to see the boost in tourism as visitors come in from all over the globe to see the show and shop in the local stores.
“When someone comes into our store that is going to the Pageant they usually have no idea what they are going to see,” Rubel said. “I try not to reveal what the Pageant is. I think that part of the fun in seeing it for the first time is the unknown. I believe that most of the travelers I have spoken to about the show have had a very positive experience. I can’t really recall ever getting a negative comment about the ‘Pageant of the Masters’.”
And, Laguna’s oldest Italian restaurant Ristorante Rumari down the coast at Pearl Street has gone as far as to offer specials to Pageant goers with an offer on Facebook. Vince Crivello, chef proprietor, says his family is a big supporter of the Pageant and he admires the Festival of Arts scholarship and grant program that has given out more than $3 million in college scholarships in various disciplines including film, performing arts, visual arts and writing. These scholarships are also given to art students at Laguna Beach High School where Crivello’s two daughters attended before heading off to college. The community is well aware of the Pageant’s generous impact on the lives of aspiring young artists from Laguna. Art is a natural part of their lives in this artistic coastal enclave.
There’s still time to see this one of a kind and brilliant performance of Laguna Beach’s beloved Pageant of the Masters
through the end of August. Where else can you meet some of the most influential artists of the centuries who through their artistic creations immortalized their own lives, while enriching ours in the chronicling of the complex human story via visual art? It is true that art imitates life, and when you are in this beautiful open-air theater, you will see the reverse, life imitating art in the most convincing way. If you have never attended the show, you are missing out on one of the most magical performances on earth. The Pageant is on par with any Broadway theatrical production, or mainstream theatre performance. You will be entertained and for a brief time, taken out of the fast-paced lifestyle, and into the world of rich art history via “tableaux vivant,” or ‘living pictures.” And take note, if the extent of your art knowledge begins with Michelangelo and ends with Monet, don’t worry. It’s not just for art aficionados, but for everyone to enjoy.
If after reading this article you are still thinking, what exactly is the Pageant?
Duling describes it best: “The Pageant of the Masters is a jewel right next to the ocean, a truly unique and unprecedented event that celebrates art through ‘Living Pictures’ with musical scores written by the composers and performed by a symphony orchestra that is set to professional narration. Everything is done live. It’s art, stage illusion, narration, and music creating and environment for the appreciation of humanity in art and the things that unite us and that art includes us in, in our experience. You will not see anything like it anywhere else in the world—not this large with nearly an all volunteer cast from a base of more than 500 volunteers who return year after year to be a part of the performance. It comes down to family and friends and something you can do with your kids. How many things can you do in the summer with your teen-agers, where you’re having a good time and they’re having a good time? It’s a fun night for the whole family. A show like this is unprecedented in more ways than one.”
He’s right. There is no other place in the world where you will see this kind of production that includes this kind of collaboration between artists, sculptors, set designers, lighting engineers, costumers, make-up artists, performers, writers, composers and live musicians; it just doesn’t exist anywhere except in Laguna Beach at the Pageant of the Masters— a place where an annual art festival gives power and opportunity to local artists, while keeping audiences coming back for more each festival season.
Don’t be surprised if next year you hear the foreign languages of some of the artists who have made their mark on humanity. I think that a talented guy as open-minded as Duling just might use Google Translate or call on a translator to add a new touch to spark the element of surprise for an unsuspecting audience coming to see thec. Most young people do welcome an edge when they buy a ticket for a live performance. If there had not been Frida and Diego, I still would have been as thoroughly entertained and mesmerized by the amazing stage production and artistic presentation put on by the Pageant, but I would not have danced right out of my seat with that Latin beat. It’s the rhythm in our blood. Thank you for inviting us to the party.
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For tickets: https://www.foapom.com/ or call 800-487-3378
Link to Live Interview with Dan Duling excerpt on Youtube:
Festival of Arts Website: