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Every picture tells his story

Dan Duling keeps Pageant of the Masters narration lively, insightful.

July 05, 2007|Elizabeth Kaye McCall | Special to The Times

SOUTHERN California may be filled with scriptwriters -- both actual and wannabe -- but among them, Dan Duling of Echo Park has one of the longer gigs going. Twenty-six years, to be exact.

You won't find his work at the multiplex, however. Instead, he's the man behind the stories at the Pageant of the Masters, the annual Laguna Beach spectacle that employs living, breathing yet motionless performers to replicate artistic masterpieces on stage. The event's 74th edition, featuring the theme "Young at Heart," opens Saturday as part of the Festival of Arts.

"I write from my empathic response to the artist's life as much as I do the artworks themselves," says Duling, 57, who blends history, humor and tales of the heart for the live narrative accompanying the tableaux vivants, or "living pictures," in a 90-minute production.

Duling is a playwright with a PhD in drama from University of Texas at Austin, and a former journalist, and he uses the skills from both professions to shape his script. He begins by researching the art and artist.

"It always begins with the artwork itself," Duling says. "The toughest part of my job is the winnowing process -- knowing I've got a great story that should be told in two or three minutes and I may have 40 seconds. It's almost as demanding as writing poetry in terms of no wasted space, no wasted time, and maximizing those rare opportunities when one can have a moment of comic aside."

Such was the case in his narrative last year for a Paul Manship sculpture, "The Flight of Europa," depicting the Greek god Zeus disguised as a bull to woo the heart of Europa. Duling described it as "beauty and the beef."

Over the years, Duling says he has received more creative leeway than when he first started. Part of that is because of Diane Challis Davy, who became pageant director in 1996, has encouraged him "to bring a more contemporary lightness to the narration, without deemphasizing its educational value." And part of it has been because of a change in narrators.

Thurl Ravenscroft -- the original voice of Tony the Tiger, the Dodgers and the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland -- was the narrator when Duling began. "Thurl had one of those reverent voice-of-God styles of narration which was so distinctive. I couldn't just write anything," Duling recalls. When Ravenscroft retired 14 years ago -- his knees could no longer handle the stairs to the narrator's booth -- Skip Conover took over. "With Skip, I have more of a wide-open palette," Duling says. "I can give him something that's very witty or something more quiet and reverent, and he can make those gearshifts fairly quickly.

"In the last few years the show has increased its pace and flow," he adds. "There isn't the long period of time necessary anymore for most set changes. We have more artworks in the show now than ever before."

Raised in the small town of Maupin, Ore., Duling grew up on a wheat farm. "I found myself in some ways miscast as a farm boy for the first 18 years of my life," he says. "I didn't have the stoicism for [agriculture]. I have a theatrical metabolism. I like the big crescendo, the big buildup to opening night." And that starts sooner each year.

"My deadlines are the first to come down because the music director is working in conjunction with my script," he says. "As early as November or December, Richard Henn, the music director, and I meet to plan out the continuity of the show within a minute or two of what it will be like in July.

"We've already started getting ideas for next year's show, the theme of which is 'All the World's a Stage,' " Duling says. Besides his primary role as scriptwriter, Duling also handles rights and permissions, writes the program text and is writing a commemorative book on 75 years of Festival of Arts and pageant history, expected out next year.

"The pageant is a rarified experience because tableaux as an art form is antique," he says. "I think people really appreciate that we haven't cut corners, that we don't look for ways to use canned music or prerecorded narration. I think tableaux is to see the human within artistic expression."

One such example profoundly touched Duling himself: John Register's painting "Man on the Road," portrayed in the 2005 show. "It was the last painting he did before he died and he described it as himself on the road to the vanishing point," says Duling, who discovered Register's artwork at a Pepperdine University retrospective and brought it to Challis Davy's attention. Duling made the unusual point of being photographed on the set of "Man on the Road" to have it for a keepsake. "It resonated with me that strongly."


Pageant of the Masters

Where: Irvine Bowl, 650 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach

When: 8:30 p.m. Saturday through Aug. 31

Price: $20 to $90; except Aug. 25, gala benefit, $50 to $300

Info: (949) 497-6582,

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