Regional Theater Preview: THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS (Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach)

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by Tony Frankel on July 8, 2015

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


In writing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson borrowed a phrase from 17th century English philosopher John Locke, who spoke of “life, liberty and property,” property perhaps being the key to happiness in the age of servants and nobility. But Locke had plenty to say about happiness in one of his essays: Pursuing true happiness was the foundation of liberty, he wrote. And true happiness may mean being “obliged to suspend the satisfaction of our desires in particular cases.” On the surface, the phrase “pursuit of happiness” is clear: we are equally endowed with the right to follow our hearts. But look a bit deeper, and it easily becomes more complicated than it sounds.


In the age of technology, gadgets which promised to free us up to pursue happiness have become a lock and chain: The average time that Americans spend in front of a screen is nine hours. And yet millions of people have scoured these same screens looking for the key to happiness—an issue that is infiltrating our culture from politics to art.


It’s also a subject that resonates with Pageant of the Masters’ director Diane Challis Davy, who has chosen The Pursuit of Happiness as the theme for this year’s Pageant of the Masters, which opens tonight, July 8 and runs through August 31, 2015. For those who don’t know, the Pageant, now in its 81st year, is a singularly unique entertainment that has perfected the art of tableaux vivants (“living pictures”). A different theme is selected each year. With world-class designers and over 600 volunteers (including actors and a research team), this elegant and classy outfit—equal parts museum, play, concert, and lecture—re-creates for seated spectators at the Irvine Bowl classical and contemporary paintings, sculptures, and other works of art. Supported by a 35-piece orchestra, terrific writing, superlative artisans, and a top-notch narrator, you cannot find a better way to spend a summer night under the stars.


Every year without fail, one of the highlights is a glimpse into the making of these living works. In dim light, the background set—inside a giant shadow box—rolls onto the playing area facing upstage. Next, the costumed cast members—bewigged and body- and face-painted (including shadows)—assume their stance as they are posed by stage managers: An arm stretched this way, a head turned that way, a knee bent. (Sometimes, the detailed costumes are half-worn and half-painted on the set.) Once they are in place, a massive frame is adjusted to fit the “canvas.” But as the stage lights come up, the magic transpires: Individual elements, silent and motionless, cease to exist as they melt into the background and transform the scene into a living work of art. The photos you see here show actors being prepared for this year’s presentation of Edward P. Moran’s 1917 oil, Betsy Ross Presenting Flag, and the same actors posing below.


The Pageant is also a great way to discover artists relatively unknown to the average museum-goer. While you may recognize Rockwell or Homer, you will want to know more about Evans, Ferris and Ball. (I would never divulge more of the program—it’s best as a surprise.)

Davy notes, “The desire for happiness is integral to being human. Today we share the same basic wants and face the same struggles as our distant ancestors. The need to be ‘happy’ is a trait that unites us across all nationalities, races and religions.


“We are living a fast-paced existence in the digital age. Maybe this is a good time to slow down and consider the ways in which art reflects the quest for happiness in different eras and different cultures. I think we will find we have more in common with previous generations than we thought.”

Challis Davy is also a costume and scenic designer; she not only has a keen eye and a sense of pure showmanship, but keeps the pace of the Pageant running like a Swiss Cuckoo Clock. No wonder this is her 20th season at the helm.


Tickets are always a hot commodity for this world-renowned event. Not only are you saturated in beauty, art and community, but you will be inspired by the invention and beauty that mankind is capable of producing. I promise the show will leave you with misty-eyed hope. There is no need to pursue happiness at Pageant of the Masters; joy will land right in your heart, and your pursuit will be over—for the time being anyway.


photos by Festival of the Arts/Rick Lang

The Pursuit of Happiness
Pageant of the Masters
part of The Festival of the Arts
Irvine Bowl, 650 Laguna Canyon Road in Laguna Beach
July 8 through August 31, staged nightly at 8:30
for tickets, call 800.487.3378 or visit

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