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Pageant of the Masters: A Living Art Experience

Pageant of the Masters photo

A collision of fine art and theatre at Pageant of the Masters

Have you ever attended an event, or visited a special place, that was so unique, so different from anything you had ever experienced, that you realized right while you were there that you’d have no way to describe it to others back home later, that the only way to “get” this was to be right there in the middle of it?

Seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time was such an experience for me. Watching the Cirque du Soleil show Ka in Las Vegas was like that. Experiencing the show Sleep No More in Manhattan also qualified.

The Laguna Beach Pageant of the Masters is such an experience. I know of no other place in the world that puts on an event like it, and just as it is difficult to convey the experience to anyone, I find it very challenging to describe it here.

The Pageant of the Masters has been put on since 1932. The venue is an outdoor amphitheater and it starts at 8:30 pm, just as dusk turns to dark. I estimated that the theater holds more than 2,000 people, and they seem to fill it up every night from the end of June to the end of August. There is very little advertising, the event is not cheap – it’s like going to a concert and it lasts for about two hours.

While the day in Laguna Beach was hot and sunny, the night turns chilly right away and savvy Pageant goers bring jackets, sometimes blankets and definitely binoculars. You can also rent blankets and binoculars.

There is a narrator that guides the audience, and a full orchestra plays specially composed music and sometimes sound-effects. Essentially, the object of the Pageant is to recreate real paintings or other famous artworks using stagecraft and human actors.

The stage and theater are completely dark. The narrator talks about a period of ancient Rome and describes the history of a fountain. The orchestral music underscores the theme and sets the stage for the painting to appear. Suddenly the lights come on and there is that fountain, with all detail.

Pageant of the Masters Fountain

This picture shows the fountain. The five humans, various Roman gods, in the fountain are real actors. They do not move. They are as frozen as the marble of the real fountain in Rome would be. Not a finger, not a hair, not an eye moves. While the music plays, the  scene is in front of the audience for maybe a minute or two, while the narrator describes the various features of the artwork, or its history, and makes it come to life. Then, as abruptly as it appeared, the lights go off, and it’s gone. Only a memory is left, like a beautiful song sung live, it was there a moment ago, and now it is no longer.

The narrator transitions to the next work of art, and then it appears. Most of the art are paintings, some of which we recognize, of course.

Washington Crossing Delaware Photo

They always “build” one scene right in front of the audience. The stage hands push in the scaffoldings turned around with the lights on. The audience then sees the actors climb up into their positions, all while the narrator describes what is going on. The stage hands then turn the scaffolding around, the backdrop comes down, the actors move into their final positions, the curtain closes around the painting boundaries and then – presto – the lights come on and what was a scene of stage props and actors moving around turns into a frozen painting where nothing moves and you’d swear you’re looking at the original in a museum. When this happens, an audible gasp escapes from the several thousand people in the audience, expressing disbelief of what just happened in front of their eyes. A painting materialized.

Every year, the grand finale of the Pageant, is the same: The Last Supper by Michelangelo. It is an image so powerful, so real, so authentic, it gave me shivers.

The Last Supper Pageant of the Masters

I was literally experiencing a completely independent and different form of art, combining orchestral music with stunning visuals, in this case classic paintings reproduced in real life by real people. I look forward to the event every year. It is an institution, unique in the world, an adventure of sound and image.

[You can find tickets for the 2016 Pageant of the Masters Here]


Our guest blogger Norbert Haupt is a software executive, hiker, artist, blogger and, above all, critical thinker. He started writing his blog at www.norberthaupt.com over eight years ago and has reviewed every book he has read and every movie he has watched. He prides himself of his passion for art on all levels and is always interested in seeking out new forms of art.

Image sources: Stage and Cinema, Festival of Arts/Pageant of the Masters, The New York Times