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‘It’s like family’: Over 500 Pageant of the Masters volunteers and staff prepare for this year’s theme, ‘The Time Machine’

Diane Challis Davy has seen and done a lot during her 24 seasons as director of the famed Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach. In some ways, her job has actually gotten easier.

“In my early pageants, it was in the infancy of computer searches and Google was just up and coming,” said Davy, who has worked at the pageant since 1980 — about 16 years as assistant director. “So 24 years ago, we were doing a lot of research through libraries and hauling books around. Search engines have improved. Getting media is easier. It’s wonderful that I can sit at my desk and search museums around the world. I can buy sound effects from my computer and wonderful media for inspiration.”

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It seems appropriate then that the theme for this summer’s 86th annual Pageant of the Masters is “The Time Machine.” The theme, some of the tableaux vivants, or “living pictures,” that will be presented in the show, and a handful of this summer’s volunteers were revealed to the press on June 10.

The Pageant of the Masters has become a Laguna Beach tradition, mixing theater and performance with visual art and art history. The show, which includes live narration and original music performed by an orchestra, attracts visitors worldwide.

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Every night during the pageant’s run, hundreds of volunteers step into life-size re-creations of artworks, some very well known, some a bit obscure. The volunteers wear makeup, costumes and head pieces, blurring the lines between three and two dimensions, between reality and fiction.

The annual production is the crown jewel of the Festival of Arts, a showcase of 140 Orange County artists that will be celebrating its 87th year from July 5 through Aug. 31. The pageant will start at 8:30 nightly, July 7 to Aug. 31.

Each year, the pageant boasts a different theme. “The Time Machine” resonates with Davy, because “all of us need to be mindful that time passes and everything changes. A great way to understand history and times of the past is to study art.”

Some of the works that will be re-created include Johannes Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson” (circa 1662-64), Georges Seurat’s “Les Poseuses” (1886-88), Salvador Dalí’s “The Nobility of Time” (1984) and Norman Rockwell’s “The Final Impossibility” (1969).

There will be several contemporary or 19th and 20th century references as well, from H.G. Wells’ 1895 novela “The Time Machine” to the 1960 movie of the same name, to Dr. Who and the unsuspecting time traveler Marty McFly in 1985’s “Back to the Future.”

Some surprises will be sprinkled in, including laser lights, an authentic 1959 jukebox, even the re-creation of a UFO.

“I brought back live singing to the show,” Davy said. “We also experimented with pop music. That changed the show quite a lot. Another big change is we have a wonderful digital video projector. It has made a huge difference with production values and the pacing of the show.”

The pageant will commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci. And in keeping with tradition, the pageant will conclude with a life-size re-creation of da Vinci’s masterpiece, “The Last Supper” (1495-98). But audience members may hear different music accompanying the piece this time.

Of course, the pageant would be nothing without the 500 volunteers and staff who participate each year. Dozens are in the tableaux, holding their poses for 90 seconds each, but dozens more are behind the scenes, applying makeup, fitting costumes, arranging and disassembling sets and, in the months leading up to the pageant, painstakingly constructing the artworks.

Daniel Stonebreaker sculpted a gigantic re-creation of Dalí’s “The Nobility of Time,” using Styrofoam, scenic paint and molded polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. It took about a month to complete.

“You have to be careful, because Styrofoam doesn’t like to bend,” said Stonebreaker, an Anaheim resident who sculpts in the workshops on the festival grounds. He also works with volunteers backstage, placing them into scenes and making sure they match the original artworks.

“A small, thin blade works really well for carving through Styrofoam,” he said. “You can also use a heat knife too, but you have to make sure you have a lot of ventilation for that, because melting Styrofoam does give off a lot of fumes, so you have to be safe that way. We also use a lot of respirators.”

Kim Knowlton has helped behind the scenes since 2002. She has been on the payroll since 2009. Knowlton worked on visual effects animation for the original three “Star Wars” films and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

Now she paints all of the costumes for the pageant.

“The most challenging thing in painting costumes is that it’s really just a floppy piece of white material when I get it, and I have to paint it to look like three dimensions, and all I have is that reference, the print,” she said.

While she admits the backstage workshops have more men than women, she said the film world is that way as well.

“I’m used to it,” the Laguna Niguel resident said. “It’s always been a boy’s club. I’m fine. It’s an environment I’m used to. Plus I have three sons.”

Knowlton, 64, echoes the feeling that many staff members and volunteers express when they explain why they keep coming back, year after year.

“It isn’t like a regular job. It’s like a family. That’s what’s special about it. I don’t feel like I’m going to work. I feel like I’m going to hang out with friends and do something I love.”

IF YOU GO

What: 86th annual Pageant of the Masters

Where: Festival of Arts, 650 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach

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

Cost: $15 to $240

Information: (800) 487-3378 or PageantTickets.com

Richard Chang is a contributor to TimesOC. Follow him on Twitter at @Ricardo77.

For more news and features about Orange County, visit TimesOC.com or follow us on Twitter @timesocofficial.

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