A few weeks before Thanksgiving every year, art teacher Judy Waters strolls through the cafeteria of the Roland Park Country School, a private girls school in Baltimore, searching for students who have the right look. Some girls, knowing why she's there, strike a pose. If chosen, they'll audition for a role that involves no speaking, no moving and hardly any breathing.
Waters puts together "living reproductions" -- elaborate tableaus that meticulously imitate paintings and sculptures by masters from the Renaissance to modern times -- for Roland Park's annual Christmas program. A group of teachers organized the school's first tableau in 1929, and Waters herself has been producing them for more than 40 years. She calls them "living reproductions" because, she says, the more common term tableau vivant brings to mind something too clumsy -- "a little child stumbling on a stage, then getting into position in front of a manger. If you say `reproduction,' I think people get the right image."
After selecting students who closely resemble characters in the works she plans to reproduce, Waters auditions them. The girls must hold a pose for eight minutes, and -- most important -- they have to be the right size. Not only must the costumes fit, but if one girl is too tall or short, everything within the tableau's 8-by-12-foot frame will be out of proportion.
Although several will play angels or ethereal-looking Madonnas, many more girls will have cotton beards glued to their faces than wings strapped on their shoulders. It's a privilege that is not accepted lightly. Substitutes are chosen in the event there is an illness. Even two damaging fires at the school, in 1947 and 1976, failed to prevent the show from going on.
Waters's attention to detail is painstaking. Students on the tech crew stand behind the frame and hold spotlights to cast precisely the same shadows that are seen in the original works of art. Even opening the curtains is a daunting task, says a tech crew member, "because the curtains are not supposed to squeak."
During the program, a student gives a brief reading to explain the work of art; then the tableau is presented to the audience for about 90 seconds. This is less a spectacle than it is a serene meditation on art and spirituality. After the first viewing, the curtains close, then open again for another minute, as if to leave a lasting impression.
Throughout, Waters's role is strictly behind the scenes. In the four decades she's been doing them, in fact, she's never been in the audience to see one of her living reproductions live.