Walking backstage at the Worship Center of Rolling Hills Covenant Church in the weeks leading up to Easter feels a bit like navigating a tight maze with walls made of towering framed paintings and sculptures.
But something is missing from each of the Christian-themed classical masterpieces. There are empty cutouts where heads, hands, feet or bodies should be. Behind them are supports, straps and even seat belts.
On Friday, more than 60 models coated in layers of body paint will climb into the spaces, position themselves precisely and freeze, recreating scenes of the life of Jesus Christ to the accompaniment of a choir and orchestra.
The 14 living artworks are the centerpieces of the Rolling Hills Estates church’s 30th annual “Pageant of Our Lord,” a powerful Easter-time production that has drawn more than 300,000 spectators since its inception. The show runs for two weeks through April 4.
It all started when longtime music director David Halverson was inspired after seeing the “Pageant of the Masters” in Laguna Beach.
“The first year we did six pieces of art and we had only four presentations, and now it’s grown to 14 pieces of art and 17 presentations,” he said, standing beside a 14-foot-wide terra-cotta reproduction of Benedetto da Maiano’s circa-1490 “Christ and the Samaritan Woman,” one of this year’s additions.
Halverson estimates the church has made about 50 pieces over the decades and still has 28 that rotate. A few new ones are added each year.
Two longtime paintings were completely redone for the 30th production: Antonio Ciseri’s 1871 “Ecce Homo,” and a crowd favorite, Leonardo da Vinci’s 1498 masterpiece, “The Last Supper.”
“One of the exciting moments for all of us is the first time we see one of these pieces of art under lights,” Halverson said. “It always takes your breath away.”
Although each piece is only on stage for about three to four minutes, planning and production is a year-round process.
Halverson and art director Brad Hicks are already thinking about next year’s theme. Once they decide on which artworks will best convey the message, Hicks will get to work in his studio at Lions Auto Body in Harbor City, Halverson will choose the music, and script writer Guy Forest will start crafting narration.
Each artwork takes about three months to build after it is reconfigured and scaled to fit the stage using Adobe Photoshop. Although he has a few volunteers, Hicks — a former film background artist for Disney Studios — sketches, paints, carves and fits each piece around the models.
The show has transitioned from basing designs off photos in books to using high-resolution images from the Internet. A special mixture of glue and paint keeps clothing stiff while appearing to flow. On stage, the pieces move seamlessly to computerized lighting cues.
“The backstage crew has really got this figured out like a chess game,” Hicks said.
Over the 17 performances, makeup artist Jodine Tamble and her team of 26 will paint the models — as young as 6 and into their 80s — with 30 gallons of water-based makeup and body paint blended to perfectly match each piece.
The shows aren’t without their hiccups, of course. That was literally the case one year.
Just before he was about to climb to the top of a crucifix for Adam Lenckhardt’s 1653 “Descent from the Cross,” a young model suddenly got the hiccups.
“He was going to be up there hiccuping, so we said a quick prayer, he went up there and his hiccups went way,” Hicks said. “His mother told me it usually takes forever for them to go away.”
Another time, when Mary in Michelangelo’s 1499 “Pietà” was a no-show, a boy already painted ivory for “Descent from the Cross” slipped into her place.
“You have all these kinds of crazy things that will happen from time to time, but the Lord sees us through,” Tamble said. “People are so willing to step in at any time.”
Reflecting on 30 years, Halverson said one of the most rewarding experiences has been witnessing Rolling Hills Covenant inspire productions at a church in Walnut Creek, Bob Jones University and even Beirut, Lebanon.
It’s become a tradition not only for the congregation and the families of the almost 400 people involved — Hicks’ children are models and his wife and mother are makeup artists — but also for the Peninsula and the South Bay.
More than half of the 10,000 people who see the pageant each year are first-timers, and the production has gotten the attention of tour companies. Buses will come from as far as Utah and Arizona in coming weeks.
“It takes a lot of creativity and bravery for somebody to say, ‘Hey, I saw the Pageant of the Masters, we can do that at our church,’” Hicks said, gesturing to Halverson, who calls the pageant “one of the greatest joys” of his life.
“He had the faith and fortitude to do this and, 30 years later, it’s very successful.”