Asheville filmmaker celebrates local debut in symphony collaboration

MIXED MEDIA: Asheville filmmaker Adam Larsen, right, puts his talents to work to illustrate the Asheville Symphony Orchestra's upcoming ALT concert at The Mule. Also pictured, from left, Daniel Crupi, executive director of the Asheville Symphony Orchestra and Darko Butorak, conductor of ASO. Photo by Aaron Dahlstrom

Asheville cinematographer Adam Larsen has carved out an unusual role for himself in the filmmaking world. No big-screen Hollywood epics or art house indie films for him. No run-of-the-mill television series. 

Instead, in the last 25 years, the 47-year-old Larsen has become one of the nation’s go-to guys for what is known as projection design. He stitches together elaborate visual scores of moving images — film, video, motion capture, immersive projection screens and other emerging technologies — to accompany live theater, dance, opera, symphony and popular music.

His projects have taken him many places, including Broadway, Lincoln Center, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and festivals in Greece, Italy and Scotland. One of his most prominent collaborations has been 15 projects with the celebrated San Francisco Symphony conductor Michael Tilson Thomas.

When he’s not traveling, Larsen lives in a 100-year-old bungalow in the Blue Ridge Mountains. 

Now the longtime Asheville resident is having an artistic homecoming. He will make his local debut with the Asheville Symphony in an informal performance called ALT ASO at The Mule, the tasting room of the Devil’s Foot Beverage Co. in Biltmore Village.

Performances are at 7 p.m., Tuesday, May 21, and Wednesday, May 22. 

From traditional to experimental

Larsen talked with Xpress about his early forays into traditional filmmaking and his turn to projection design. 

He moved to Asheville in the second grade when his father, Ron Larsen, took a position as an autism education specialist. His mother, Linda Larsen, is an artist. He attended Jones School, Asheville Middle School and graduated from Asheville High in 1994.

For a man who became a filmmaker, Larsen notes, “I grew up in a house without television. I wasn’t exactly cinematically illiterate, but movies weren’t my thing. I was more into swimming and skateboarding and anything outdoors.” Still, he adds, “I was as visually strong as a 17-year-old can be with my mother being an artist.”

Movies first caught his interest, he says, “when I took a film class my senior year in high school and really loved it.” He was set to go to UNC Chapel Hill, without a clear career path, when a fellow film classmate suggested he apply to the film program at UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem.

“The idea of film being a career was just totally outside my realm of possibility,” Larsen says. ”I didn’t even know the School of the Arts existed.” He applied by the last deadline, got the last interview and was accepted as the youngest person in the class.

After graduation in 1998, he returned to Asheville to start jobbing in the local video/film scene. He worked for noted Asheville filmmaker Paul Bonesteel for several years and began to expand his technical skills on his own.

“I’m a very DIY sort of person by nature,” Larsen says. “I taught myself editing, I taught myself compositing using Adobe After Effects. I taught myself how to do location sound and how to work with projections. I thrive on problem-solving.”

Swerve to projection design

As with his almost accidental application to the School of the Arts, Larsen has taken other serendipitous swerves. 

In the early 2000s, he had a cold call from Eric Johnson, a UNC Greensboro theater grad living in Asheville. Johnson was developing a docudrama with the playwright John Crutchfield called The Fatherhood Project and was interested in using video projections. Johnson and Larsen began experimenting.

“We created a projection screen with slits in it so three actors could step into the world of projections and back out,” Larsen recalls. “It was my first projection show, incredibly ambitious, but I love a challenge and ended up getting hooked by the whole experience.”

As Johnson’s work began attracting national attention, he started getting hired by bigger theaters. “Eric invited me along,” Larsen says. “I was often the first person who was designing projections for many of these theaters and just had tons and tons of work from there on out.”

Visual symphonies

Serendipitous swerve No. 2 came in 2007 when Larsen was invited to design projections for a new stage production of the Oprah Winfrey miniseries The Women of Brewster Place at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. The setting was by Brooklyn-based multidisciplinary artist Anne Patterson.

“We had a great time collaborating,” Larsen says, “so Anne invited me to work with her at the Atlanta Symphony in 2008.” 

Patterson had been creating what she called “installations” for symphonies since 2001. 

“Basically, this meant she designed something visual, usually an abstract sculptural object, added theatrical lights to change the way the hall looked and directed the placement of singers if the piece had them,” Larsen says.

Symphonies have always emphasized the sonic experience, Larsen notes, “but audiences are changing, and we live in an increasingly visual world. So adding these visual elements is a way to engage with newer, younger audiences.” Since then, Larsen has designed projections for over 70 symphonies and operas.

Eclectic locations, eclectic music

Asheville Symphony Executive Director Daniel Crupi explains how the ALT ASO series was born and how Adam Larsen came to play his part: “Symphony conductor Darko Butorac and I collaboratively pioneered ALT ASO shortly after I arrived in Asheville in the summer of 2021,” Crupi says. “I have always been keenly interested in presenting orchestral and chamber music experiences in nontraditional venues, from Ghost Ranch and Meow Wolf during my time in New Mexico to breweries and more in North Carolina.”

Over the next few seasons, the two men presented sold-out concerts attended by upward of 300 people at such decidedly nontraditional venues as the Asheville Art Museum, Hi-Wire Brewing RAD Beer Garden, Highland Brewing Co., the Masonic Temple, The Orange Peel and Salvage Station. 

And the programming for each concert was as eclectic as the locations: Broadway show tunes; music of Cher, Whitney Houston, Adele, Led Zeppelin and Prince; classical Spanish guitar; Vivaldi; klezmer; bluegrass.

“Our goal,” Crupi says, “is to make orchestral music fun and accessible for the next generation of concertgoers who may not have discovered the Asheville Symphony or realize what amazing work our orchestra is able to produce. An alternative orchestral experience seemed like a no-brainer for both Darko and me.” 

Putting it all together at The Mule

Larsen’s route home to ALT ASO ran through San Francisco. Larry Williams, the creative director for the San Francisco Symphony, told Crupi about Larsen’s work with Michael Tilson Thomas. “Since Adam is [a local],” Crupi says, “Larry thought we should meet. We grabbed a beer at Wedge [Brewing Co.], and the magic evolved from there.”

Butorac developed a three-act structure for the evening. The first act will be music and images inspired by nature. The second act is inspired by art. “I paired composers with their ‘soulmates’ from the art world,” Butorac says. “For example, Mozart and Raphael.”

The third set, he says, will be “a touch more irreverent and playful, works that are inspired by drinks since we’re presenting this concert in a tasting room.”

“The repertoire will be quite varied,” Crupi says, “ranging from Mozart, Beethoven and Stravinsky to Frank Sinatra and the Champs. Genre fusion will be the name of the game.”

To make the experience immersive. Larsen’s projections will surround the audience. “Devil’s Foot is a pretty big open space,” he says. “In many ways, it’s a warehouse with white walls, 14-foot ceilings and a bar at one side. We situated the orchestra in a central area, with seats all around.” 

Keeping it informal

Besides being immersive, the keynote of ALT ASO is informality. Alex Hill, the symphony’s director of marketing and public relations, notes casual clothing is totally appropriate. “People will wear everything from their Sunday best to 1980s jazzercise costumes and everything in between,” she says. Food and drinks are available for purchase.

ALT ASO performances are much more casual than a typical symphony experience, Hill says. “Applause is always welcome, and you’ll see people dancing and even singing along to the music.” 


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About Arnold Wengrow
Arnold Wengrow was the founding artistic director of the Theatre of the University of North Carolina at Asheville in 1970 and retired as professor emeritus of drama in 1998. He is the author of "The Designs of Santo Loquasto," published by the United States Institute for Theatre Technology.

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