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For him, the pageant never ends

Dan Duling, who has scripted Laguna's living art performance since 1981, doesn't focus on one year for long.

July 03, 2013|By Rhea Mahbubani
  • Dan Duling, Pageant of the Masters scriptwriter, stands in front of pageant sets of recreated film stills from Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times" and Buster Keaton's "The General" at the Festival of Arts and Pageant of the Masters on Monday.
Dan Duling, Pageant of the Masters scriptwriter, stands… (KEVIN CHANG, Coastline…)

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."

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"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.

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