South Pacific cast members have so many extracurricular talents that I would not be surprised to learn that one of the Seabees, say, had won a junior-high competition in lasso-ing back in Boise. The gift of Laura Marie Duncan is not quite so rustic. When not gracing the Beaumont stage as Ensign Dinah Murphy, Duncan is a professional photographer.
This side profession isn't of long-standing; the actress wasn't handed an Instamatic in third grade, where she proceeded to wow the class with snaps of birds and butterflies. The stirrings were more romantic: Paris. Or, rather, at least initially, as Duncan recounted the other evening in her dressing room, un-romantic.
"It was 2006, and I was doing Dirty Rotten Scoundrels on Broadway. I was separating from my husband, and I needed a break. I had always wanted to go to Paris." The French capital had meaning for Duncan. "I was conceived there. My father is a philosophy professor, my mother a lawyer. They swear it happened on the Ile St. Louis."
Duncan, whose grew up in Western Massachusetts and whose theatrical training occurred at the Boston Conservatory, bought a camera, a Canon. "I spent a week in Paris," she says. "I went alone, which was wonderful. I took pictures all over the place. When I came back, I showed them to Mike Brunner." (Brunner is South Pacific's production stage manager, and he stage managed Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.) "He said, 'You should be a photographer.' 'Really?' I replied. I still wasn't completely convinced, but I kept at it."
Subsequently cast in the national tour of Scoundrels, Duncan decided that she was going to photograph her way across America. "Monday through Friday, I would take pictures during the day," Duncan relates. "I learned Photoshop, and started posting photos to a Mac-based website. At some point on the tour, someone said they needed new headshots. I said, 'No, that's really important. You need to get someone else.'"
By the time the tour reached, Charlotte, North Carolina, however, Duncan relented. "I took the headshots, and I haven't stopped since." She is too modest to play up the fact that she has an innately acute "eye"; she credits a three-year stint in the casting department of Manhattan Theatre Club, where she daily pored over headshots, for unconsciously schooling her. "Something must have sunk in," Duncan says.
Although she does headshots, Duncan is more accurately understood as a first-class portraitist. She does all kind of portraiture - kids, couples, actors, musicians - mostly out of her studio in TriBeCa. "It has lots of big windows, which is great for me, since I work exclusively with natural light. It's the most honest, and people don't feel so much like models when I'm working with them."
Duncan, who sees her photo career as a welcome counterpoint to the precarious nature of the acting game, does not advertise. Word-of-mouth keeps her occupied. And she's plenty busy just doing the headshots of South Pacific cast members. (Wendi Bergamini, with whom Duncan shares a dressing room, has booked a session for July 6.)
"Becca Ayers was the first South Pacific person I did," Duncan says. "She's a musician, and I would take pictures at her gigs." True to her generous nature, Duncan has been the visual documentarian for most of the events where SPactors show up either to play or to support each other's off-Beaumont activities. "I enjoy being the recorder," Duncan admits. "I just love taking pictures."
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Timesand the editor of lemonwade.com.