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Master of the Pageant? That would be Diane Challis Davy, long-time director of the show

Story by MARRIE STONE

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Diane Challis Davy’s mind must work like a carefully curated museum. If we could wander around inside, I imagine we’d find vast halls filled with classic paintings, marble sculptures, antique clocks, and art deco furniture. Chamber music might swell at any moment – maybe a minuet or an occasional Beach Boys song. I picture long corridors of mental rooms where costume makers sew taffeta gowns, makeup artists apply their magic, and set designers paint every blade of grass with precision. Diane, known as “Dee Dee” or “Dee” amongst associates and friends, has not only been the director and producer of the Pageant of the Masters for 23 years, she’s been the visionary, the overseer, and its chief cheerleader.

The longest running director in the Pageant’s 85-year history, and one of only a small handful of women in that role, Dee imprinted both her vision and passion on the Pageant and made it utterly her own. “I can think of no one more perfect for the position,” says Dan Duling, the 38-year veteran scriptwriter for the Pageant. “She grew up in Laguna, studied theatre and art, volunteered in the Pageant, learned all she could about every aspect of theatre during her education at Laguna Beach High and later CalArts, and proved herself capable behind the scenes at the Pageant, mastering every facet of production.”

It takes a unique personality, and a complicated mixture of skills, to wear so many simultaneous hats and wear them all equally well. Dee has mastered the art.

LLP dee dee

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Diane Challis Davy, aka Dee Dee, aka Dee

The art of organizing art

The notion of orchestrating the Pageant around a chosen theme was Dee’s brainchild. Prior to her involvement, the show was simply an assemblage of random pieces of art produced by “masters.” The only exception was the 1976 Bicentennial show. That show, its theme and its organizational structure, inspired Dee. Now the theme is selected more than a full year in advance. In fact, “Time Machine” has already been announced as the 2019 theme.

“It’s been a godsend for writing and researching the show, as well as for marketing each year as being fresh and worth coming back to see what’s next,” says Duling. “I think of it as looking at art through different prisms, and sometimes being able to re-approach a piece we’ve done before but from such a different angle and storytelling perspective that it feels brand new.”

So when Malcolm Warner, Executive Director of the Laguna Beach Art Museum, approached Dee last year to suggest the Pageant commemorate the Laguna Beach Art Association’s 100th anniversary, the spark for this year’s theme ignited. “Dee was very interested in our 1930s model of the original LBAA art gallery, and worked hard to include it in the program,” says Janet Blake, Curator of Historical Art at the Laguna Art Museum. “It’s a great tribute to the LBAA, which we really appreciate.”

LLP lineup of scenes

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Dee surveys the lineup of scenes for the Pageant

In many ways, Dee’s role seems as much curator as director. “I see a curator as a catalyst, generator and motivator,” Hans-Ulrich Obrist, art historian and critic, once said. “A sparring partner…and a bridge builder, creating a bridge to the public.” I don’t know if Dee would agree, but decades of sold-out shows suggest she’s built innumerable bridges.

Making the magic happen

How does Dee do it, year after year? “You have to be aware and open to new ideas,” she says. “With Google, it’s easy to dream on different subjects, and easy to do research. In the 1980s and early ‘90s, it was a lot of trekking to the library.”

Once she settles on a theme, a group of volunteer research committee members begin their annual competition for selecting the pieces of work. They take the theme title and start making suggestions. “It’s a competitive game we play, the 80 to 100 people who sign up to make recommendations vie to get their work in the show.” Dee holds a “show and tell” meeting in September, allowing every member to argue their case for a piece of art. 

“Dee and I have the most fun…when we start kicking ideas around, daring each other to try things we’ve never tried before, looking for as fresh a variety of elements as we can,” says Duling. “We put things on the board, rearrange them endlessly, the reject pile gets bigger and bigger, and just when we think we’ve come up with a great show with a beginning, middle and end, we pick it apart and make it even better.” 

“Hundreds of images are emailed,” says Dee. “They have to be analyzed based on whether they will be presentable on the stage, whether they can be reproduced.” Then they must be sequenced. “We like to move the show from side stage to roof to garden. We make a program that has movement and good pacing.” 

Selections are made in late October, and the launch party occurs in November. By January, the cast is selected and rehearsals are underway every Thursday evening (rain, shine, wind or frigid air) until the Pageant debuts in June. “June is panic time,” Dee says. “We rehearse like mad. We bring in the professional orchestra and rehearse four times with them.”

The surrounding neighborhood always gets a sneak peak. “They heard music by the Beach Boys this year and got pretty excited,” she laughs.

The importance of surprise

The goal is to keep the show fresh, interesting and exciting. That might mean a gondola floating into the audience, an unexpected ambush by Native American Indians, or a horse galloping across the stage. The audience should expect something new, year after year.

And, because it’s live theater, anything can happen at anytime. Surprises aren’t always reserved for the audience. Once, a skunk wreaked havoc in the orchestra pit. More recently, a posse of raccoons fought so loud in the bushes, it became a significant distraction. Then there were those “privacy patches” that failed to adhere. And a marble sculpture who fell from his perch and was forced to crawl off stage. Of course there’s always the child actor who wiggles or giggles. 

“These are some of the audience’s favorite moments,” says Dee.  Of course, she’s right. Art is best when it’s fun, and even better when it’s unpredictably funny. When art is relatable and human, full of frailties, vulnerabilities and surprises, the audience feels as much participant as observer. They know they’re seeing something unique and special, just for them.

llp boat scene

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The audience loves to see the secrets behind the “living painting” – this one is "Catching Fish at the Beach" by Franz A Bischoff

And, of course, context is everything. “Dee and I share a deep fascination with the psychology of time and the paramount importance of context,” says Duling. “Context can make a tragic image funny, a comic motif painfully sad, a failed life a personal success, a simple gesture a life-changing moment.”

If you build it, they will volunteer

The Pageant of the Masters has operated under the philosophy, “If you build it, they will come” for 85 years. Not only does the amphitheater sell out night after night, but the volunteer staff grows year after year, swelling now to over 500 members. Of an original pool of 1,300 in the initial casting call, only 450 people are chosen. A full two-thirds are turned away. There are two rotating casts of roughly 150 people each, as well as substitutes and understudies.

“Volunteer sign-ups have continued to grow during Dee’s tenure,” says Duling. “The volunteer research committee was once a handful of folks looking to take part in the earliest stages of the creative process. Now it numbers over 100 members. This is all because Dee knows that the more involved people are, the more the show’s success will mean to all involved. She leads by enthusiasm, example and a superhuman work ethic. And she does it with grace, style and a wicked sense of humor.”

I ask Dee what contributes to this enthusiasm. “It’s the cachet of being at the beach in Laguna. It’s tradition. Plus people are fun backstage,” she says. “They love to meet lifelong friends. Generations of families participate – little kids and grandparents. It’s a generational mix and people just love to be there.” 

Dee met her own husband during the show. In the early 1980s, Steve Davy came as a guest of local photographer Rick Lang. He met Dee backstage and then, a second time, when Dee entered his antique shop to have a Chinese screen repaired. They began dating then, and went on to have their only son, Tommy Davy. 

How frequent are those marriages and connections at the Pageant? Dee laughs. Two years ago, Dan Duling did an entire article for the souvenir book on the many connections forged at the Pageant.

The enduring gifts of Dee and the masters

Dee has a ribbon of nostalgia that runs right through her core. She recently moved into the apartment over her father’s old art gallery. The Patriots Day Parade is her favorite annual event, along with the Pageant of the Monsters (held once every five years). “I’m really into the nostalgic local traditions,” she says. 

I suspect that streak plays a critical role in her success. Along with her love for theater, art and costume design, Dee’s passion for connecting the audience to the past, as well as fostering lifelong bonds within the community, is what makes the Pageant both emotional and beloved, whether one is spectator, cast or crew. 

“This is where we live,” says Duling. “In a theatre of art, telling stories abetted by surprising, original music, and using stage illusions to reveal what the Pageant has always been about at its core: a testimonial to art’s inclusiveness, the belief that it has something for all of us. Endlessly simple, mind-bogglingly complex.”

Shaena Stabler is the Owner, Publisher & Editor.

Dianne Russell is our Associate Editor & Writer.

Michael Sterling is our Webmaster & Designer.

Mary Hurlbut is our Chief Photographer.

Alexis Amaradio, Barbara Diamond, Dennis McTighe, Diane Armitage, Lynette Brasfield, Marrie Stone, Maggi Henrikson, Samantha Washer, and Suzie Harrison are our writers and/or columnists. Scott Brashier is our photographer.

Stacia Stabler is our Social Media Manager & Writer.

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