Director Debuts Her 20th Pageant of the Masters
Twenty Years of Pageant Themes from Diane Challis Davy
The Pursuit of Happiness, the 2015 Pageant of the Masters – Laguna’s world-famous theatrical celebration of art in tableaux vivants – “living pictures” – is shaping up to be a big crowd pleaser this summer. It’s an exciting mix of classic Americana, vivid storytelling, wildly diverse international art and social history all presented in the outdoor splendor of the Festival of Arts’ Irvine Bowl, with live music, narration and dazzling theatrical illusions, effects and stage magic. It’s also exactly the sort of polished, professional entertainment Pageant audiences have come to expect from director Diane Challis Davy during her 20 years at the helm of this unprecedented production.
It was the fall of 1995 when Diane “Dee” Challis Davy assumed her role as director/producer of the Pageant of the Masters. In the two decades since, Challis Davy has proven herself to be a tireless risk-taker in her efforts to complement the show’s artful presentation of tableaux vivants with imaginative additions to the programs’ theatricality. During her tenure, the program has incorporated more seamless transitions, occasional use of live singers and dancers, special effects and video projection, even animal co-stars, all in a concerted effort to keep the Pageant theatrically vital.
But, of all her innovations, it is her assigning of different themes to her programs that has set her shows apart from the rest. In the process, her themes have had another beneficial effect: they encourage happy patrons and enthusiastic volunteers to keep coming back to see what she’ll do with her new themes year after year. And these days, Challis Davy especially enjoys watching as her themes seem to have a knack for unintentionally dovetailing with popular online social media memes. After serving as assistant director for more than a decade, Challis Davy already had themes in mind when she took over as director. “The idea of doing a themed show was Don Williamson’s,” she said, referring to the Pageant’s director from 1964-1978.
“It was 1976, the U.S. Bicentennial,” she continued. “I was 19, and I remember all the celebrations and pride. Don’s program that summer consisted of all American art and American artists. I appeared as a volunteer that year in Mary Cassatt’s ‘Tea Party’ as part of a group of works by ‘The Expatriates.’ The show was very memorable for me and stood out over the rest. I can still name pieces in that show, probably because there was a theme, and I connected with the concept.”
Challis Davy’s 1996 Pageant devoted its first act to “The American Masters,” as a kind of trial run for her reintroduction of themes. Reaffirming her longstanding admiration for Don Williamson’s many contributions during his time as Pageant director, she added, “I was also paying tribute to someone whom I thought ended his tenure without the appreciation he deserved.”
Having grown up in Laguna Beach, volunteered in the Pageant, been a Festival scholarship recipient and having working behind the scenes since 1980, Challis Davy continues to bring a thorough understanding of Pageant history and tradition to her job as director.
Already collecting ideas for the not-yet-public theme of the 2016 Pageant, Challis Davy leaves no detail to chance. She remains an inspirational leader to her veteran staff of professional theatre artists, her network of award-winning composers, and her army of nearly 500 dedicated volunteers. These tireless participants give of their time assisting in dozens of different ways backstage, or appear in the two complete casts – roughly 150 each, designated the Blue and Green Casts – who alternate weekly throughout the summer. Challis Davy is always on the lookout for ways to encourage them to want to keep coming back.
Pageant scriptwriter Dan Duling, Challis Davy’s collaborator throughout her tenure, doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge his “fearless leader.” “She’s a renaissance woman of the theatre, and her dedication to this production, to keeping it fresh, smart and always theatrically exciting, is remarkable,” Duling states. “I really can’t imagine anyone bringing more imagination, creativity and professionalism to this production than she does. She’s taken this show to a new level of theatrical sophistication and made it a must-see event year after year.”
Challis Davy was far more modest about her 20-year tenure, longer than any other director in Pageant history. “Our audiences expect a great night of theatre and music, and we want them to have a great time, tell their friends and want to come back. Same for my backstage artists and volunteers. Obviously, we can’t please everybody all the time. But, that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to give it our very best shot.”
Director Diane Challis Davy’s own “pursuit of happiness” seems to have led to right where she wants to be, directing the show she knows inside out and has loved for as long as she’s been at the Pageant.
1996: Act One theme: American Art
1997: Hidden Treasure
1999: The 20th Century
2000: California Dreamers
2001: Beyond the Horizon
2002: Heroes and Heroines
2004: Portrait of the Artist
2005: On the Road
2006: A Passion for Art
2007: Young at Heart
2008: All the World’s a Stage
2009: The Muse
2010: Eat, Drink and be Merry
2011: Only Make Believe
2012: The Genius
2013: The Big Picture
2014: The Art Detective
2015: The Pursuit of Happiness