For him, the pageant never ends

For Dan Duling, there's only one drawback to a career in theater — closing night.

Fortunately, there is a silver lining. While preparing to see his yearlong efforts put away, Duling finds himself hip-deep in work for the next season of the Pageant of the Masters, a unique re-creation of artworks using live people.

Although faced with its ephemeral nature, Duling, the event's scriptwriter of 33 years, believes that art is simultaneously powerful and inclusive. The pageant — this year titled "The Big Picture" and slated to begin Sunday — is a striking example.

"[It] has the capability to touch all of our lives and impact our understanding of history, culture, individual sacrifice, ambition and all of the things that go into someone making the still-difficult choice of devoting his or her life to art," he said.

This wasn't always his mind-set, though, he admitted.

When former director Glen Eytchison invited him in early 1981 to audition for the position, Duling thought the enterprise sounded "ridiculous." Based on previous exposure to tableaux vivant, he was inclined to label the craft a "marginal gimmick."

"In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, its primary impact was that burlesque and vaudeville producers in London and New York found a way to get around public indecency laws," he noted. "They presented naked women — painted up — on their stage as tableaux vivant. If they didn't move a muscle, they were art, and if they moved, they were indecent and the police would come in and shut them down."

He also imagined the pageant, with more than 500 volunteers on deck, to be an "amateurish" community theater project.

However, a rehearsal one week after Eytchinson's phone call served as an eye-opener, showcasing a staggering level of efficiency and the "professionalism and polish" of a Broadway or Hollywood production, he recalled.

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'Art that lives and breathes'

Watching an army of volunteers sacrifice the summer inspires an overwhelming level of loyalty, he said, as have Roy and J. Marie Ropp — remembered as the father and mother of the pageant — former board member and director Don Williamson, and current director — or in Duling's words "heir apparent" — Diane Challis Davy.

Tracing the history of the pageant, Duling was impressed that the Ropps utilized five downtown Laguna Beach locations until 1941, when the Irvine Bowl was secured as the event's permanent home. One spot was an alley near the Hotel Laguna, another near City Hall and a third next door to what is now the Laguna Art Museum, he said. Although the choice was initially based on which site was available in the summer, the couple began looking for larger arenas as the turnout grew.

Roy used his backyard to build and paint the backdrops and the venue to construct the stage and seating area, and "at the end of the run — no matter how long it was — he would tear it all down and start from scratch the following season," Duling said in amazement.

Marie would simultaneously stitch costumes and headgear, apply makeup, help write a script and even scour the area for live performers. In an essay in the pageant's 1939 souvenir program, she wrote about the event as a tribute to, rather than a substitute for, great art.

"We realize that our effort to bring before you the visions of great men, endowed with brush or chisel who were able to make manifest on canvas, on stone, or in bronze the work of their creator, is a presumptuous task," she wrote. "The Pageant of the Masters affords a comprehensive survey of art activity here and abroad — one essentially human, individual and universal in its appeal."

Similarly, Williamson, who was director between 1964 and 1978, drew on his training as an architect to lay building blocks — literally and metaphorically — for the Laguna Beach institution. Duling credited him with the creation of the stage house, festival grounds, Forum Theatre and Tivoli Terrace.

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A hidden narrator

Challis Davy, who is in her 18th season as director, inspires Duling. She has done full justice to the tradition of the live pictures being accompanied by a 29-piece orchestra and narrator.

It's a pleasure, he said, to share a creative vision and inkling for adventure with the show's director, who has often been told, "Well, you just can't do it," only to flip it on its head to, "Yes, we can."

Working in tandem, the two select pieces by the preceding November, with room to move things around until casting calls in January. The pieces must fit the year's theme, have recognizable human subjects and be strong candidates for staging at the Irvine Bowl.

"We are almost revolutionary by doing the opposite of what the rest of our culture is doing," Duling said. "We are saying, 'Don't multitask for a moment. Take the next minute and a half and really look and think about this artwork and the artist who made it. ... Spend, perhaps, longer than you would if you were walking by the piece in a museum, but on some level, let it really stop you in your tracks.'"

Donning the official title of scriptwriter, Duling said he also has oversight of the pageant's cohesion and flow and works closely with narrators, who stand in a booth out of the audience's view and describe the images onstage.

One narrator is Richard Doyle, who will join the pageant for his third year this summer and calls Duling "the jewel" in Challis Davy's crown.

"His pageant texts are a joy to interpret," Doyle wrote in an email. "He constructs stories and fills them with tidbits of life, science, socioeconomic info that give much-needed context — bringing both art and artists to life."

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Watch out for skunks

Live theater does come with the potential for glitches, said the veteran who has survived a slew of snafus — fused lights, short circuits and billowing curtains. A memory that tickles him is of a skunk wandering into the pageant's orchestra pit, bringing the evening to a temporary halt.

Still, a point of pride — and relief — is that that pageant has experienced rain-outs only twice in 80 years, Duling remarked, wagering "good money" that rain would not interrupt this year's fun.

Thinking back to his early days, Duling said he was frustrated that none of his favorite artists could land a spot in the show, considering that abstract work is off-limits. He learned, though, to be aware of what can't be included and maximize what can.

Even the 90-minute show's transitions are often conducted in full view of the audience, he said — a well-thought-out decision to enhance the night's theatricality.

"At its best, I like to think of it as a magician showing you exactly how he's going to do a trick, then doing it and it's still magic," he remarked.

Based on last year's gratifying feedback, the organizers could easily have opted for a re-run of "The Genius," but such a repetitive move would violate everything they stand for. Boring is synonymous with "sin," he said, and disrespectful to artists, volunteers and the audience.

Why does a crowd of 150,000 people, with a substantial number of out-of-towners, pour through the gates each year?

"When Hollywood is spending millions of dollars on creating 3D illusions, why would we still be in the business of taking 3D people and sets and costumes and making them look two-dimensional?" Duling said. "And my best answer — it is fun."

If You Go

What: Pageant of the Masters — "The Big Picture"

Where: 650 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach

When: 8:30 p.m. July 7 to August 31

Cost: $15 to $120

Information: http://www.foapom.com/pageant-of-the-masters or (949) 497-6582

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