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Behind the scenes at the Pageant of the Masters

Photography by Mark Rightmire
Diane Challis Davy in 1988.

Two singular experiences frame the breadth of Dan Duling’s writing career. One, the 1997 sci-fi movie “Last Lives,” featured a man grappling “against time, space, and his own mortality,” in the words of the review website Rotten Tomatoes, and starred “a criminal from an alternate universe who has a psychic link with a woman on Earth named Adrienne.”

“I can’t say I recommend it wholeheartedly,” says Duling, who wrote the screenplay and also played a crime-scene official in charge of body bags, one of which starts moving. Duling laughs recalling his one snatch of dialogue: “But he was dead, I tell you! Dead!”
“Therein lies my great moment of immortality on the silver screen,” he says.

The 65-year-old playwright, whose dark comedies have filled 99-seat theaters in Los Angeles and New York, is far better known a the other defining gig of his long career: writing the scripts for the Pageant of the Masters, a rite of summer in Laguna Beach that rarely ventures to outer space – though helium-filled “planets” were a part of the spectacle in 2012 – and instead derives its sedate, high-brow mise-en-scene from the longtime intellectual collaboration of Duling and Diane Challis Davy, the show’s director.

A magnet for many art lovers, the pageant draws 2,600 people a night to the Irvine Bowl, an amphitheater wedged into Laguna Canyon, during its run from July 8 to August 31. It is a showcase for the all-but-lost art of tableaux vivants, or “living pictures,” in which actors pose motionless inside sets that replicate framed paintings.

Curtains open, special lighting is applied, and the living figures look for all the world to be painted images in, say, an Edouard Manet landscape.

Teams of makeup artists, set designers and 150 or so volunteer cast members are necessary to stage each performance, but Duling and Davy are the creative forces behind it, selecting the 40 or so famous art pieces (including sculptures) that will be rendered, deciding on the order in which they will be presented onstage, writing and honing the live narration, and curating the music composed especially for the show and played by a 28-piece orchestra.

The narration and music must merge seamlessly as each art piece is illuminated onstage. Shows last about 90 minutes and are scripted out to the second.

Working from a theme, which Davy chooses more than a year in advance, Davy and Duling begin by compiling an enormous list of art pieces that might illustrate the message. Dozens of volunteer researchers aid in the search.

“They must bring me hundreds of things,” Davy, 57, says of the research committee. “Dan and I kind of bicker and argue and chat over what we have available, then winnow it down.”
Davy, whose late father, Richard Challis, was an art dealer for decades at a gallery on Pacific Coast Highway, grew up in Laguna Beach and performed as a child actor at the old Laguna Playhouse before studying theater and costume design at California Institute of the Arts. She is essentially the editor of the pageant, exercising final authority over all creative decisions.
Now marking her 20th year as director, she is a practiced decision-maker with a profound knowledge of art and a deft feel for the tone, pacing and musical nuances that give the show its appeal, say those who know her.

Duling, who has written the script for 35 years, is a cerebral sort, an outside-the-box thinker who can take a single topic or question and fill the next half an hour with monologue. His task is to turn themes and images into stories.

One year’s theme, “The Muse,” gave Duling a vehicle for examining the role of women in art. Two years ago, “The Big Picture” became a chance to explore the nexus of art and movies; Duling and Davy staged a scene from Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” in which a portrait of Carlotta Valdes appears in the background.

That theme was particularly gratifying to Davy because it allowed the show to pay homage to Oscar-winner Bette Davis, a former Laguna Beach denizen who even rehearsed as a pageant volunteer in the mid-1950s, preparing to pose (although she never appeared before a crowd) in the 1784 painting, “Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse,” by Sir Joshua Reynolds. The 2013 show re-created that  work of art.

Last year’s theme, “The Art Detective,” was a favorite of Duling’s because it opened avenues to the mysteries – some solved, others not – that have permeated art for centuries. He grows almost giddy recalling the story of Audrey Munson, the model for much of the public sculpture in New York City early in the 20th century who was prominent in San Francisco as well and who in 1915, became the first woman to appear nude in a feature film.

The mystery surrounding Munson was why she vanished from society for nearly 70 years. Nina Rietsch, a member of the research committee who also has appeared many years on stage in the pageant, stumbled upon Munson’s tale and brought it to Duling and Davy. The model was a tragic figure. A would-be suitor murdered his wife. Munson lost work and attempted suicide and was committed to a psychiatric institution, where she languished throughout World War II and the moon landing and every other key event of the century, before being discovered by a relative. She died at age 104 and was buried in Ogdensburg, N.Y., in an unmarked grave.

“I was so thrilled to know her story finally got in front of an audience,” says Rietsch. “She was so talented, so beautiful, and sadly forgotten for so many years.”

Duling wrote a narrative to go with a short slide show of Munson’s career, and the pageant staged a rendition of one of her best-known sculptures – a goddess that adorns a monument to the battleship Maine, a figure riding a horse-drawn chariot.

“The great fun of the pageant is that 2,600 people will sit and hear that story – and be moved, be entertained, and feel like they’ve learned something,” says Duling, who was far less enamored of this year’s theme: “The Pursuit of Happiness.”

Philosophically, Duling has an issue with the concept of happiness as a goal. “There’s ample evidence that if happiness is your goal, you’re almost doomed to fail,” he says. “You’re looking at it the wrong way. Happiness should be a by-product of who you are, what you are, what you do.”

Still, Davy likes to vary the theme, and happiness was seen as a lighter counterpoint to last year’s sleuthing, so they commenced in unison, as early as late last summer, to look for ways to convey the search for happiness through art. It was clear that such a theme would be steeped in Americana; the pursuit of happiness was a tenet of the founding fathers.
Even so, Duling, a man who writes sci-fi gore and does small theater in polyglot Los Angeles, took a contrarian view.

“We were looking at a theme fraught with pitfalls,” he says. “America’s history is full of, to be polite, ironies, in that almost all of the happiness of white folks came at the expense of people of color.”

One of the steps in the process of winnowing down the art possibilities is to create a visual storyboard. In the cluster of offices where Duling and Davy work, behind the bowl’s main stage, photographs of art pieces are hung on a long wall where actors come and go in face paint and elaborate head dresses. The top row is Act 1, the bottom row, Act 2.

The first lineup, heavy on Winslow Homer, Norman Rockwell and Currier & Ives, was exactly Duling’s nightmare. “You could do a show that was essentially all nostalgic white America, and a large portion of our audience would probably be perfectly happy,” he says. “I would not be happy because I would feel like that was a whitewash, pun intended.”

And yet, fixing it poses a problem: “How can we talk about the treatment of Native Americans and the end of slavery and not have the air just go out of the show?” Duling says. The point of the pageant is entertainment and appreciation of art, not political commentary. Nor do they want the vibe of a lecture hall.

A solution emerged through more research. They found art pieces of a medicine man and tribal chief, and picked out Eastman Johnson’s 1862 oil painting “A Ride for Liberty” about the Underground Railroad – works that suggested hope, rather than oppression. The wisdom of the medicine man was still relevant today in chasing what’s important.

Setting the art line-up progresses throughout the fall, more than six months before the curtain opens, with lots of jockeying, pieces moving around, some being dropped and replaced. Telling the American story filled up Act 1. Act 2 became a natural place to showcase international art – pieces celebrating dance, for example, and other jubilant pursuits in Africa, India, Japan and Europe.

Writing begins in earnest in January, Duling says. “The biggest challenge is taking a wonderful story” about a particular painting or artist, “and compressing it into 60 or 90 seconds or less of narration,” he says. Some years ago, the pageant expanded its roster of composers from one to six. Each creates 10 to 30 minutes of original music to accompany the art and narration, meaning Duling is under pressure to supply them with at least some idea what the words will be.

By January’s end, he has fashioned chunks of material that the pageant narrator will turn into demos for each composer. The script becomes fragmented into about 18 sections that will be fitted back together, mosaic-like, once the music  is done – with adjustments being made to the music or script  as Davy sees fit. The musical segments must have adequate variety so that two adjoining scores never clash nor sound too much alike.

“We often make decisions on the fly in terms of going slightly different directions or changing the timing,” Davy says.

The pageant’s final image, “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci, has been the traditional ending since 1935 (the pageant debuted in 1933), so no one would think of omitting it, despite its occasional thematic challenges. One year’s theme, “Only Make Believe,” virtually assured an outcry over the biblical work’s inclusion, so Davy substituted the similar, but surrealistic, “The Sacrament of the Last Supper,” by Salvador Dali.
“It had mixed response,” she concedes.

Duling tries to be done with the script by early April – and all the work after that is fine-tuning as rehearsal after rehearsal take place before opening night. He and Davy say they love the work, especially when the result exceeds even their best hopes – such as when they suspended colored helium balloons, up to 20 feet in diameter, to represent the planets in honor of Galileo and Copernicus for a show themed “The Genius.”

“With the music and the night sky and those planets miraculously appearing in different sizes in different places, it was magical,” Duling remembers. “It was just so cool.”

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