What is a Tableaux Vivant? Travel Tips for Finding These Living Pictures
The tableaux vivant, also called Living Pictures, is a very old custom and art. There are records of the British Royal family (ca. 1890’s) performing tableaux vivant for the entertainment of their guests, but there is evidence the tradition goes back much further. It was an entertainment at court and among the landed gentry, and it was a way of instructing the uneducated classes in history and religious lessons.
A tableau vivant is an imitation of a scene in art: the art, in turn is assumed to be a presentation of life. So, it is an imitation of an imitation. So, you might wonder what possesses people to do this, and there is not clear answer to that except that, when well executed, it is just marvelous. You have to see it to believe it. And yes, there are places that you can go to see tableaux vivant today.
Think about it. Just about all the traditional art you can picture in your mind are scenes of people frozen in a setting and a light-scape. A perfect example would be Georges Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte 1886. In a tableaux vivant, a group of individuals – men, women and children, in this case – pose for a considerable amount of time in customs, holding props, in an elaborately constructed set carved, painted, and lit to accurately recapture the original painting. The wonder in this, the artistic moment, so to speak, occurs when the audience appreciates the excellence of the accomplishment. If the audience is not left in awe at the accomplishment, then, it has failed. In other words, the achievement is not just in the accuracy of the imitation but in the audience’s recognition of the achievement. It is the “awe” in “awesome.”
Tableaux vivant are resurrected at a number of sites in the United States, usually in academic settings. They may be quaint assignments in learning at summer camp on in theatre school. But, the single finest realization of the concept is the annual Pageant of the Masters during the Laguna Beach Festival of the Arts.
Laguna Beach, California is that extraordinary seaside resort that has been featured in numerous Hollywood films. Picturesque and artsy, it is home to people passionate about its beauty and preservation. Actually, the old town of Laguna Beach is increasingly surrounded by up-scale housing, but the downtown consists of just a few streets of elegant shops and galleries canted toward the crescent shaped beach. There are really only two roads in and out of Laguna: the Pacific Coast Highway runs north and south, parallel to the ocean, and the canyon road which winds itself through the environmentally protected Laguna Canyon from the closest inland freeway. This canyon is still home to artists, an art school and culinary school, and a number of erstwhile hippie hangovers. Once the home of Tennessee Williams, Betty Davis, and other celebrities, it still leads to the Irvine Bowl and the Pageant of the Masters.
Introduced in 1932 by Lolita Perine, the tableaux vivant were peopled with townsfolk in the amateur, “let’s give it a shot” tradition. The pageant has continued annually –despite the small town politics and bickering – since then, except for suspension during WW II. The Pageant now runs for two months through July and August, consuming 6,000 volunteer hours, participation of 500+ community volunteers on stage and behind the scenes. The show lasts 90 minutes with music provided by a full orchestra and a professional narrative script and voice.
On stage, the “actors” pose in position under unique lighting effects that vary from scene to scene. Sometimes, the actor only shows a body part, such as a head or leg or hand, posed through a theatrical set and blended into the scene with make-up and lightning. Sometimes, the actors appear as statues or bas reliefs – sometimes apparently in the nude. (There are many backstage legends about actors being caught dashing from one changing venue to another, crossing streets and running through parking lots.)
In the dark, just before the announcer introduces the tableaux, the actors position themselves on the set. Stagehands blend them into the set with adjustments to make-up, costumes, and props. On cue, the set revolves to reveal itself to the audience amidst selected theme music. As the lights come on, the effect is simply stunning.
Tickets are in high demand, and the best seats are pricey, but you can make your arrangements on line or through ticket brokers. A good suggestion is to schedule drinks and dinner at local venues within walking distance.
· Have a cocktail outdoors at Las Brisas. The view of the Pacific and the seals on the rocks below is one-of-a-kind. Dine at Las Brisas in a very comfortable dining room where tables are tiered so everyone has a view through the big windows.
· Watch the sunset with a cool drink on The Terrace at the Hotel Laguna. Enjoy a light dinner, or reserve a table at Claes’ Ovation. This “old school” hotel overlooking the beach had been a Laguna fixture longer than anyone remembers.
· Join locals who frequent the Sorrento-Grille, a Zagat rated restaurant, with its active bar and gourmet tapas and small items menus.
There are major restaurants at the major resorts nearby, for example, The Montage, The Ritz Carlton, and The St. Regis, and these resorts will arrange transportation to the Pageant of the Masters. But, Las Brisas, Hotel Laguna, and Sorrento-Grille are within walking distance of the Irvine Bowl, or you can take the local free “trolley” cars.
If you are planning a trip to this part of the Pacific Coast, for business conference or vacation pleasure, book your trip with the Pageant of the Masters in mind. While you are there, stop in at The Sawdust Art & Craft Festival across the road from the Pageant. Enjoy the richness of this entire unique experience!