Photo by Eliesa Johnson
Wise Blood's set designer Chris Larson
Wise Blood’s set designer Chris Larson
An opera based on a Southern Gothic novel about a veteran embarking on a preaching tour against religion is, to say the least, rare. Add to that a cast comprising Hüsker Dü’s Grant Hart, Zoo Animal’s Holly Hansen, and a Juilliard-trained tenor, plus a multi-set stage that meanders through Minneapolis multimedia art space The Soap Factory, and you have Wise Blood, an immersive original production based on Flannery O’Connor’s 1952 debut novel, co-presented and co-commissioned by The Soap Factory and Walker Art Center. The collaboration between Brooklyn-based composer Anthony Gatto and St. Paul-based artist and set designer Chris Larson has audiences following the five-person cast through sets mirroring the varied perspectives from the novel—an apartment as viewed from the ceiling, a dizzying sideways stairway, even a train moving through the galleries—as Minneapolis’s Adam Meckler Orchestra performs an ominous score. We'd say it's a can't-miss.
UPDATE: Grant Hart is no longer involved in the project. His role will be filled by Philadelphia-based blues singer Brian Major.
Below, excerpts from an interview with set designer Chris Larson.
Mpls.St.Paul Magazine: What is it about Flannery O'Connor's work that captivates you?
Chris Larson: I think both Anthony [Gatto] and I loved Flannery's work for years. In terms of my work, she's had a huge impact on the way I think about light and space and the grotesque. Many of her short stories are not ending in a place of making sense; they're ending in a place of many bizarre questions.
Mspmag: I've heard that about your work as well. You don't direct your audience; you leave some things up to speculation.
CL: Definitely. I think I'm always looking for a left door. And Flannery definitely—it's a left door and then a trap door you don't see and then you drop through.
Mspmag: Does Anthony's work share something of that?
CL: I would think so. There's an intensity to both of our works. There's maybe a darkness. We think very similarly. I think that's why working on something on the words of Flannery was so attractive.
Mspmag: This is an intense project. How long have you been working on it?
CL: Probably five years. We did an opera together at the Walker in 2008. It was based on The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein, her writings. That was a great experience, but I think we wanted to build something from the ground up, just the two of us.
Mspmag: So what is the collaboration process when you're starting from zero?
CL: It starts very abstract in talking about ideas and objects and sounds and voices. He's based in New York, I'm in St. Paul. Just many many conversations, both on the telephone and I'm in New York quite a bit. So we would talk then too.
Mspmag: So then you're both free to execute that vision how you see it in your own medium?
CL: Definitely. But with Anthony, with the music—I can't read music. I'm a musician, but I don't think that way. I think more spatially. I think his work, why it works so well with my work and his work, I think we both think spatially, and I think he, in terms of music, and I see it as many different rooms that you enter in, when you're listening to Anthony's music. I try to do the same thing within my work. We bounce ideas constantly back and forth. He sends me music and I send him images and it collides in the middle.
Mspmag: Can you walk me through how these sets are built?
CL: They're made out of wood, some cardboard, some plywood. The thing that I started with was Hazel Moates', the main character's, childhood home. It's a two-story home and it's made out of rough, rough-cut pine milled from Wisconsin. It feels like this could have been a real house. The others feel a little bit—I wouldn't say "set", you know, like a prop, but definitely have an inside and an outside, the inside is pretty finished, the outside is raw. And you see the artifice of the building.
Nothing's drawn out. I didn't have a storyboard from start to finish. I sort of responded to the last thing that was built. And even those, I play with string on the floor. I lay string on the floor and walk into that space to see how my body feels within that space. It's an intuitive process of building these spaces and modifying as I go. I never work from plans. I don't draw. It's always board by board. Wall by wall.
Mspmag: How do you imagine people interacting with the sets?
CL: If Hazel's childhood home is something you walk through and are immersed in, I think the other spaces are tricks of perceptions. Where you look into some of these spaces—Hazel's apartment is on its side and its a forced perspective space. So you're looking at the floor as you're looking across, and it looks like you could be, like a bug on the ceiling looking down onto a small, simple apartment space. So it's those sort of experiences, where you're experiencing it standing, but there's a convex or a loss of equilibrium, or you get vertigo looking down a staircase that's sideways.