Barbie Carlson takes us backstage as the Ramona players prepare for pageant season. Be sure to watch our behind the scenes footage at www.thevalleychronicle.com
■ By Corey Evan / Reporter
Each year, hundreds of people work practically ‘round the clock to make the Ramona Pageant, California’s official outdoor play, look and feel like audiences are actually witnessing history. This year, Ramona Atmosphere Cast Coordinator Barbie Carlson, who is in charge of the actors with non-speaking roles, invites readers of The Valley Chronicle to take a behind-the scenes look at how “Ramona!” is brought to life.
The Ramona Bowl, according to the official website, is situated on 160 acres, which makes the sheer size of the property one of the largest sets of any outdoor play. But it takes more than a main cast to bring this life-size play, which is celebrating its 94th anniversary, to life.
Carlson’s role in the play involves “not just a lot of different personalities, but a lot of different ages, a lot of different experiences… There are people who have been in the play for many, many years, and then there are people for whom this is the newest thing that they’ve done. We have color, we have pageantry – we are the ones who are adding to this.”
Carlson coordinates her group’s coverage of 75 different areas within a scene. It’s also worth noting that Carlson also plays an atmosphere role or two herself, so she does what she teaches her team to do. “One of the things I do is take out all the props for the beginning of the show; I hide a weaving loom, and I use one as part of a scene.”
Why two looms? “I hide one in case one is mistakenly put away.”
Good to hear she has a backup plan! Carlson also handles props for other actors as well, including a flute used to summon the Natives to take their places.
Carlson highlighted one member of the atmosphere cast, Shelly Lee Baxter, of whom she is most proud. Baxter almost went for a behind-the-scenes job, but when it came to helping her reach her potential as an actor, “Barbie talked me into it.”
The main cast certainly appreciates their efforts, including Cesaria Hernandez, who plays “Marta the cook.”
“The atmosphere is what makes the Hacienda, and indeed the entire play, seem real to people! Because without them, then we’d be just a few actors out here and we’ve got a lot of space to cover out here in the Bowl,” said Hernandez.
The atmosphere cast is made up predominantly of volunteers, who give an incredible amount of their time and resources to help make the pageant a success. These individuals may not be paid for their work, but they lend the play its authenticity and the experience they gain from doing so is infinitely valuable to each of them.
Of course, those select young women who get to play the title character are blessed with a prime opportunity. That said, the supporting cast is just as important to the story. Just ask Theresa Seaton, who plays “the Ancient Mara.” Seaton began performing in “Ramona” at age 10, playing various roles until she moved away from Hemet in the 1960s… only to come back.
“Three or four years ago, they asked if I would like to do the Ancient Mara, and I said ‘No, I’m not an actor.’ Never dreamt of being out there saying something to the public. So, they convinced me that I should… My goal now… is to make it to 90.” Seaton turns 87 on April 25, by the way. The atmosphere cast helps Seaton out by ensuring she doesn’t fall down during the play. It’s just part of showing respect for our elders and betters!
As the play has gained notoriety and publicity over the years, the bowl has increased its seating capacity to allow the throngs of fans to come see it. With this growth has come the need to add technology to modernize how the play is presented.
According to Sound Technician Tim Moore, there are 32 wireless microphones hidden on the actors (such as under a hairpiece or a scarf) to ensure every word they say is heard loud and clear over multiple speaker boxes. With an audience capacity of more than 5,000 people (at one point, the Bowl was rated for 6,662 people), that sound system’s genuinely needed.
“My niece helps me out. And just two of us take care of 32 wireless body mics,” says Moore. Can you hear that?
Costume Designer Arlene Richardson says some costumes in the current collection date back more than five decades – and keeping them in good shape is no small task:
“It’s very busy, it’s not difficult; I have been involved since the ‘80s in the costume department, and the lady I took over for, Pat Espinoza, took over for her grandmother, Mabel Height,” explained Richardson. “So I’m probably the third costume committee head in probably 50 years. I learned very much from Pat, and the people from before.”
Richardson likes to think she has the best crew in the world! “I’m a bit biased. Couldn’t do it without them,” she says.
All these things combined help the pageant make some noise… That is, when their cannon isn’t making a big noise.
Ramona will be playing the Bowl for three weekends only: April 22 and 23, 29 and 30 and May 6 and 7. Tickets are available at www.ramonabowl.com or by calling (800) 645-4465 for $18 to $44, depending on your seating preference. If you’ve never seen “Ramona” before, make this the year you do!
Get more behind-the-scenes looks at the making of “Ramona” at thevalleychronicle.com.