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Thursday, June 3, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A Man With Big Designs -- Undaunted Innovator On Theater Sets, Dan Corson Now Makes The Whole World His Stage

Seattle Times Theater Critic

Long ago, Dan Corson decided paint and canvas were not his favorite media.

Instead, the imaginative Seattle-based artist and theatrical designer became a wizard at creating primordial habitats fashioned from fire and water, neon and smoke, quirky interiors and vast outdoor landscapes.

"A lot of visual artists who do set designs for theater productions, like David Hockney, basically just paint the backdrops," says Corson. "I think it's all about creating environments that resonate with some larger meaning and magic."

That meaning can be cryptic and elusive, yet totally enveloping.

For the 1997 performance piece "Djinn," Corson conjured a shadowy film noir world for an audience roving around a vacant airplane hangar at the former Sand Point Naval Air Station.

For the allegorical chamber opera "Goblin Market," which begins previews tomorrow at A Contemporary Theatre, Corson has devised a giant horned beetle, an onstage stream with four tons of water, a miniature Victorian house, and a stand of luminous reeds that grow to 5 feet.

The 35-year-old artist does not confine himself to stage visions, however. As the first artist-in-residence for the Seattle City Light utility, Corson is dreaming up projects that will link city dwellers to the wonders of the ecosphere.

And after years working as an aide to people with cerebral palsy, Corson is snagging enough local gigs, grants, and commissions for installation pieces in galleries from Prague to Sydney,

Australia, to focus exclusively on art.

An open-faced, amiable California native with an infectious enthusiasm for his offbeat work, Corson says, "It feeds my soul to have a sense of purpose as an artist, and to finally get financial as well as critical recognition for what I'm doing."

One of his biggest fans is "Goblin Market" director Nikki Appino, who also teamed up with Corson on "Djinn," the sci-fi parody "Beyond the Invasion of the Bee Girls," and the eye-popping experimental cabaret "Sub Rosa."

"I'm less interested in someone making sets than making worlds, and Dan does that brilliantly," notes Appino. "He's also taught me so much about how to look at space and architecture. Where an audience sits, the essence of the room itself, are really crucial to Dan, and the core of our work together." Avant-garde interests

His Zen-like habit of "sitting with the space" for a period to get the inspiration flowing was not a major part of Corson's early training.

After learning the rudiments of conventional theater design at San Diego State University, he went to London to become "one of the army of assistants" for lighting designer David Hersey, who lighted "Les Miserables" and "Miss Saigon."

Two years later, Corson returned home with the realization that "I was really most interested in avant-garde theater." On staff at the San Diego experimental space Sushi, "I began to understand the difference between performance art and theater. I think it's the difference between `acting' and `being.' "

Drawn also to the possibilities of melding "technology, nature and spirituality" in larger installation art projects, Corson did graduate work in sculpture at University of Washington, and studied glass-blowing and neon fabrication at the Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood.

Meanwhile, his art projects grew in physical scale and mythic scope.

One summer at Maine's Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Corson created a ring of fire erupting from a lake. ("We're using the same technology to ignite fire underwater for `Goblin Market.' ")

In Prague, a spooky catacombs was the site for a piece "about a mythological religion I invented that revered snakes. I loved being able to make these neon reptiles."

Drawing on his research of real religions, Corson crafted an "Electric Zen Garden" in Sydney.

But at the studio in the Wallingford house he shares with his partner, Corson's major obsessions right now are his proposed projects for the Seattle City Light residency, which officially starts in September.

Creative results

According to Laurie Geissinger, senior planning and development specialist at Seattle City Light, Corson won the job because "he obviously has great experience as a lighting designer and sculptor. But we also liked that he works well with lots of different people and media to achieve creative results to problems."

Having an artist on staff at the utility, suggests Geissinger, "will generate visual works that can connect our basic service mission of providing lights and electricity, with our other role as environmental stewards. I think an artist can help bridge those things, and bring them alive for the community."

Corson has had no dearth of ideas on how to do that. For instance, he's proposing a sculptural series of dangling, brightly colored fluorescent tubes above the Skagit River, as warning beacons to eagles who fly near high-voltage power lines.

He's also jazzed about a scheme to plant video mini-cameras along the salmon spawning grounds of the Skagit River. Images of salmon, birds and other wildlife going about their daily business would then be transmitted live via fiber-optic link to a large downtown Seattle billboard.

"It's biofeedback - it lets the public see how the ecosystem is affected when Ross Dam is raised and lowered," Corson says. "It puts the city in touch with what's happening in the natural world supplying our electricity. Biologists are really excited about it as a research tool."

More immediately, though, Corson is putting the finishing touches on the eerie lighting and special scenic effects for "Goblin Market."

A musical treatment of an enigmatic poem by Victorian poet Christina Rossetti, this is a fanciful work that conjures up an enchanted forest glen rife with goblins.

"I only have time to do one theater show a year now," Corson says. "This is right up my alley."

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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