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Bringing a Natural Gift for Storytelling to the Pageant of the Masters

Richard Doyle, narrator, Laguna Beach Pageant of the Masters, South Coast Repertory Theater founding actor, and longtime Irvine resident, believes that live theater is about creating performances that enable viewers to reflect on themselves and to enhance their understanding of the world around us. “It is important for actors to let the audience in,” he explains.

“Before we had language,” the loquacious Doyle adds, “people acted things out. In the old days, people told stories, often about the hunt. In fact, storytelling is prevalent in our culture.”

Photo courtesy of Festival of Arts Laguna Beach

As an engaging storyteller and narrator, Doyle is enamored with the pageant’s 2019 production of The Time Machine, with its globe-trotting journey around the world, and into the past, present and future, in search of great art. He is especially interested in the show’s emphasis on artist/scientist/inventor Leonardo da Vinci, who died exactly 500 years ago. Inspired by the polymath’s pioneering creative and scientific efforts, and by his profound wisdom, Doyle says, “The genesis of all art came from Leonardo. He predicted many things, and his great gift was his imagination.”

Talking about his own childhood, Doyle recalls growing up with a mother who encouraged his appreciation of the arts. He was also fortunate to live in Italy from ages 8 to 13, to have the opportunity to see great art, to live among the scintillating colors of the ocean and the sky, and to learn foreign languages there — a skill that he regards as good preparation for acting. He adds that, as he was telling stories from an early age, he was destined to become a pageant narrator.

Discussing the long arc of his career, Doyle recalls meeting David Emmes, South Coast Repertory founding director, at Long Beach City College in 1964. “I joined SCR that year, worked with the theater for a few more years, and then was drafted into the army and went to Vietnam. In 1969, I returned home, attended Long Beach City College and then transferred to the Cal State Long Beach Theater Arts Department. I also rejoined South Coast Repertory, as Emmes told me that Orange County was growing and needed the arts.”

Photo courtesy of Festival of Arts Laguna Beach

Doyle has performed in more than 200 productions at SCR. He has played the Ghost of Christmas Past in A Christmas Carol many times, and performed in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak’s Godspell, and Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. He has had parts in the TV shows Cheers and Mash TV shows, and done voice-overs for Hanna-Barbera cartoons — often playing the bad guy — and for a variety of video games.

He began narrating the Pageant of the Masters (also referred to as tableaux vivants or living pictures) in 2011, with the theme of, “Only Make Believe.” “While preparing for that year’s production,” he recalls, “the managers walked me through the backstage, introduced me to the script writer, Dan Dulling, and even asked me to help write the script.” Beginning with that year’s show, pageant managers have sent Doyle their demos, written text and story ideas, and encouraged him to help determine the trajectory of the story. “Narration here is a collaborative effort,” he says, adding that the pageant composer listens to him read the story lines and then puts music to the narration.

For the 2012 pageant, “The Genius,” he related to the audience stories about the relationship between art, science and technology, perhaps preparing himself for this year’s show. In the 2013 production, “The Big Picture,” he explained how masterpieces of art have inspired and informed the movies. And for 2014’s “The Art Detective,” he described the unsolved mysteries that fill art history. The 2015 “Pursuit of Happiness” show was family-friendly, and 2016’s “Partners” pageant, with its theatrical and scientific partnerships, was enhanced by live dance routines, which Doyle graciously introduced.

Photo courtesy of Festival of Arts Laguna Beach

While preparing for the 2017 pageant production, “The Grand Tour,” Doyle re-connected with his childhood years living in Italy. That show, he explains, was based on letters from children, and explored how they experienced great art. It was a device to take the audience through the art of Europe. “I also learned a lot about the art I saw as a child,” he says. The 2018 pageant, “Under the Sun,” with its emphasis on European and California impressionism, provided another learning experience for both the narrator and the audience.

Photo courtesy of Festival of Arts Laguna Beach

Doyle explains that he narrates to 2,700 people, seven evenings a week over eight weeks. And as the pageant is live theater, each night is special. Before intermission during a 2012 production of “The Genius,” as the special effects had NASA’s rover “Curiosity” land on Mars, the audience cheered for several minutes. Doyle patiently waited for the spectators to quiet down, then encouraged them to enjoy the intermission. “Quality communication is still possible between human beings, without electronics,” he says. “You can sit as a group together and experience a live performance, an exchange of ideas.”

One of Doyle’s most enlightening experiences at the pageant occurred in 2016. Shortly after that show ended, a woman from the audience walked into the narrator’s booth at the back of the outdoor theater and asked, “Are you the narrator?” When he replied that he was, she thanked him, saying, “I felt like you were talking to me.”

“That was the moment when the light came on,” he recalls. “Creating the character of the narrator, the spirit guide if you will, of the evening, is the challenge for me, so that the character can tell the general story of the evening, delve into these various little dramatic episodes, and underscore what’s going on onstage.”

As pageant narrator, Richard Doyle continues a tradition dating back to 1933. During that summer, artists put on costumes and strode through Laguna Beach to the Festival of Arts grounds. There they posed behind oversized frames, re-creating well-known works of art. Impresarios Roy and Marie Ropp refined that display two years later and officially renamed the production the Pageant of the Masters.

Today, the pageant, which plays to more than 200,000 visitors each summer in the Irvine Bowl, transforms volunteer models and props into oversized recreations of works of art, from ancient to modern to contemporary, accompanied by original music played by a live orchestra.

Pageant of the Masters, Irvine Bowl, Festival of Arts, 650 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach; nightly at 8:30 p.m., through Aug. 31. (800) 487-3378, pageanttickets.com.