Pageant Tech 101
by Dan Duling, Ph.D.
Advances in the Technology of Tableaux
During her 17 years as Pageant director, Diane Challis Davy has always been on the lookout for ways to make the Pageant just that much more theatrical, engaging and imaginative while still honoring the sense of tradition and history the Pageant has created during its nearly eight decades. As a painter, costume designer and theatrical artist, Challis Davy has reintroduced themes, occasional live singers and other theatrical gestures to her Pageants.
As a result, the Pageant has become more fluid, with seamless transitions often performed in full view of the audience. Other technical advances have provided some of the Pageant’s most memorable moments: In the heat of the summer of 2003, it “snowed” in the Irvine Bowl. And in 2011, giant dragons “breathed fire” and held court in the Irvine Bowl.
One other constant has been the unique challenge of live performance in a 2,600-seat outdoor venue. This summer, that venue will showcase subtle but invaluable improvements to both lighting and sound.
With an extensive background in audio, and 21 years with the Pageant, Jon Tschirgi is a master of many domains. Last year, he was listed not only as Sound and Video Engineer, but also credited for his contributions to Video Production and Video Special Effects. When asked about what technical improvement excites him most, there was no contest. “Last year, with our brand new L-Acoustics all-digital sound system, the sound was phenomenal,” he said with infectious enthusiasm. “There was a clarity and excitement in the sound that we have never come close to. This L-Acoustics system is the same sound system they use at the Hollywood Bowl and the Civic Opera House. And in Orange County, we are the only venue that has this sound system.”
Richard Hill has been the Pageant’s Technical Director for 22 years. He’s still energized by his collaboration with director Diane Challis Davy. This summer, he’s especially excited about the implementation of an LED stage lighting system. “With these new LED lights, you can dim them and they retain the correct color temperature.”
Since reliable, high-resolution video projectors became affordable, director Challis Davy has been especially pleased with the opportunity this has created for crafting mini-documentaries that can “tell more of the story.” Here again, advances in computer technology and software have given Tschirgi and Hill the tools to create these visual effects in-house. And with the appearance of the flying saucer hovering over the hillside in 2001’s Beyond the Horizon, the use of inflatables also became a popular addition to Pageant special effects. Since then, inflatables like King Kong (2009) and a dragon (2011) have all made memorable Pageant appearances.
The Stage House and Shops
Technical Director Hill recalled some of the challenges he faced when he first came to work at the Pageant in the 1980s. “When I got here, we used to hoist the [lighting instrument] pipes up and down with block-and-tackle. There was no counterweight system. There was also no turntable stage (adjoining the stage house to the audience’s left), until the late 1980s. Its impact on the pace and rhythm of the Pageant since then cannot be overstated. Director Challis Davy has been particularly pro-active in creating multiple uses for the turntable stage to dramatic effect. But, in Richard Hill’s estimation, even more significant was the completion in 2004 of the new scene shops. These made it possible to create more and larger sets and provide for their storage and easy movement onto the stage.
The Internet and Software Revolution
Director Challis Davy also noted how the search for Pageant artworks used to require hours of searching through the Pageant’s limited art library as well as all other local library systems. Today, she marvels at the ability to explore the world’s greatest art collections at the click of a mouse. Her longtime scriptwriter Dan Duling concurred.
For all the improvements and innovations, the Pageant is still live theatre with a live narrator and professional 30-piece orchestra, and hundreds of volunteers making up the cast and backstage support teams. Director Challis Davy, for one, wouldn’t have it any other way. Throughout, she has maintained a clear vision of what’s fundamentally unchanged during its history. “Our very ‘hands on’ way of building tableaux will never change. There is no replacement for the time-consuming, trial-and-error work that is done by the team. Set construction, set painting, making costumes, applying makeup…these tasks are exacting and must be done the old fashioned way. It’s a proverbial labor of love.”
Challis Davy and her team agree that sometimes magical moments where art and life intersect are possible. That’s why, nearly 80 years later, the Pageant is still in the business of making “living pictures.” Evolutionary, and maybe just a little bit revolutionary.