Nerves of steel, that's what Judy Waters demands of students she chooses for Roland Park Country School's holiday tableaux.
"We don't talk about being nervous because we're not allowed to have that," said Waters, who has taught art at the private girls' school for 41 years. She also directs the tableaux, a 70-year-old tradition, in which students pose in elaborate costumes to re-create paintings and sculptures that tell the Christmas story.
"They learn fast, they'd better," said Waters, a 1950 graduate of the school, who tells performers to stay loose before they pose. She often can be found shaking stiff arms to get her girls ready for the stage.
Given her artistic experience and unflagging dedication, the holiday tableaux -- a practice popular with wealthy families in the United States about a century ago -- are almost wholly Waters' creations.
She starts preparations weeks in advance -- painting backdrops, buying materials and sewing costumes.
Then there are the actors. To find them, Waters scours the school cafeteria for girls with just the right look to play an awed shepherd, a joyous angel, or a pensive Mary.
This year's tableaux -- three were presented yesterday in two performances -- re-created paintings from Florence and Rome, and a sculpture by a modern artist, 95-year-old Josephina de Vasconcellos of Liverpool, England.
The sculpture, "The Holy Family," was performed by Roland Park Country students Elizabeth Brushart and Meredith Forbes, who donned thick, white clown makeup and heavy acrylic costumes so they would look like statuary.
"I look like a mime," joked Forbes, 16, of Baltimore, who portrayed Mary's husband, Joseph. "Maybe I should go and stand on a street corner after we're done. I might be able to earn some money."
"I'm going out tonight, will this wash off?" she asked.
An answer came from the other side of the room. And it wasn't good.
"Last year, [another girl] had that on for two days," said LibbyCole, 14, of Hunt Valley, who played the role of a shepherd boy in last year's tableaux. This year she's helping out behind the scenes.
"We sort of get drafted," Cole explained.
Cole takes her role seriously. Dressed in black T-shirts, she and 11 other girls, most of them former performers, set up and change the tableaux, which depend on detailed backdrops and precise lighting to re-create intricate artwork.
Between performances, it is up to Cole and her entourage to pin and primp the actors, who sit, kneel or stand behind a gilded frame. Actors hold their poses for up to three minutes -- barely breathing.
For some of the actors, it's an experience in patience.
Preparation for the performance takes hours. Applying make- up, and in some cases, beards, can be tedious for the girls.
"It feels weird to have hair on my face," said 13-year-old JoAnna Simms, who played the role of Joseph in a tableau re-creating a painting called "The Adoration of the Magi."
Applying liquid glue and long strands of fake beard to Simms' smooth face was 17-year-old Sjoukje Graillot, a four-year veteran of the tableaux and a self-proclaimed "beard expert."
"I kind of expect to do the beards," said Graillot, who waited for Waters to give Simms' beard a final trim.
Waters takes pride in getting the sculptures and paintings just right. To better understand de Vasconcellos' sculpture of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus, Waters corresponded with the artist and an employee at the cathedral where it is displayed.
"I just fell in love with it," said Waters of the sculpture, which depicts Joseph and Mary in a sweet, loose embrace. "Usually, Joseph plays a very background role, but not here. This is where his strength comes out."
As the first performance ended, Waters breathed deeply.
"One down, one to go," she said, fussing with a performer's gown after the stage curtain had fallen.
"Ready or not," Waters said, "I always see something that's not quite right."