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90 Seconds of Unflinching Stardom : Actors Heed Siren Call of Stage for Standing Roles in Laguna's Pageant

March 11, 1987|PATRICK MOTT

At this time every year, hundreds of people rush to Irvine Bowl in Laguna Beach, mill around tables, fidget in lines, pace nervously and gesture expansively while waiting to learn if they'll be given a chance to stand absolutely still. They come to audition for one of the world's most famous staring contests: the Pageant of the Masters.

In four months, nearly 270 people in the crowd--all of them unpaid volunteers--will be dabbed with makeup, trussed into costumes and strapped onto backdrops. They'll hold themselves motionless for 90 seconds at a time as they take their places in living canvasses and sculptures to recreate 25 masterpieces of art on stage at the bowl.

The second of two casting calls for the 51st performance of the pageant was held Sunday at the bowl (the first was in January). Dozens of pageant veterans and newcomers filled out audition forms, had their pictures snapped and waited to see if hair, height, build and facial features would turn out to be just the thing for, say, a Winslow Homer canvas or the traditional Leonardo da Vinci "Last Supper" scene.

During the pageant's 53 nightly performances, July 10 to Aug. 30, the volunteers usually play to sold-out houses in the bowl, which seats nearly 2,500.

While most of the tableaux change from year to year, "The Last Supper" is a constant, and one of the most elaborate set pieces in the pageant. It has become like home to Max Owens of Irvine, who showed up for the casting call in hopes of landing his familiar part in the scene.

Owens, tan, dark-haired and affable--a chemist by profession--has spent part of the last 11 summers as Judas Iscariot. "I just tell people it's type-casting," he said, laughing. "Actually, one year I was a Moorish horseman--I'm pretty sure that was 1981--but the rest of the time I've been Judas."

The formerly clean-shaven Owens grew a beard for the part. Cast coordinator Lisa Kennedy said that many men have sacrificed facial hair to play their roles.

The result is worth it, Owens said. "It's a really nice association with all the people here. There's a good spirit of cooperation and camaraderie, especially among the 'Last Supper' people. On closing night we have a last supper with the 'Last Supper' cast at a restaurant, and we line up at the table in the order in which we perform."

In the Pageant of the Masters, looks rather than talent are the main criterion for acceptance, coordinator Kennedy said.

But it helps to be able to stare properly, Owens added.

"I just sort of unfocus my eyes," he said. "I always tell my friends to bring their binoculars, and I'll say, 'Watch me. I won't blink.' And I don't."

The audience can usually tell veteran cast members, he said, "because they learn to freeze pretty easily. Still, you're up there for a minute and a half and if you're really straining (to hold a pose) your muscles just sort of start screaming."

In this year's pageant, however, several cast members won't have to worry about that. For the first time in pageant history, movement will be incorporated in set pieces. Sunday's casting call, in fact, was held mostly for those who wanted to audition for roles as marionettes in a recreation of a performance by the famous Sicilian Puppet Opera.

Dressed and made up as wooden marionettes, the players will be required to move their limbs in jerky, puppet-like motions as they perform part of the puppet opera's production of "Orlando Furioso," a drama featuring Charlemagne-era knights and Saracens.

"I know I'm gonna trip. I know it!" giggled Gail Kawabata, 20, a pageant rookie who had just been picked for a return audition for a puppet role. She had come to the tryouts with her friends, Michael Nisco, 19, and Michelle Wagner, 16. Kawabata and Wagner were called back. Nisco wasn't but held out hope that he'd be picked for a static role elsewhere in the pageant.

"I've been to see it a couple of times and I've been fascinated by it," he said. "I wanted to see it up close. Also, I was looking for something to do over the summer, and this seems like a lot of fun."

Each year about half the cast is composed of returning members, said casting director Nancy Shirkani. Many are teen-agers who participated as children and have decided to come back, she said.

"When they hit age 15 or so, it's like they have other fish to fry," said Shirkani. "But often they come back again as young adults because they miss us."

Occasionally, participation is a family affair. Larry McAdoo, 31, of Laguna Niguel has been involved with the show for the past five years with his children Sarah, 13, Micah, 12, and Nina, 10. The family has held various on-stage and backstage roles in the pageant. "Six years ago, we came and saw the show, and we came down and signed up the next year," McAdoo said. "It's sort of a traditional thing, and it feels like a comfortable, family thing to do."

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