Candy Dreams of Psychedelic Froth: K.K. Barrett's Stop the Virgens

<p>The Creators Project sits down with legendary production designer K.K. Barrett to discuss his work on <i>Stop the Virgens.</i></p>

Model set for the song “Get Em On The Run.”

As a production designer, K.K. Barrett has traversed the line where unconventionality crosses genius. He has helped conceive the visual feel for films by Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and Sofia Coppola, directors who take on filmic challenges and turn them into masterpieces like Being John Malkovich, Human Nature, and Lost In Translation. Barrett left his mark on the visual aspects of all those films and more.

For his latest project, Barrett shifted his talents from the screen to the stage, designing the intense and cinematic live show for Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeah’ concept work Stop The Virgens. Interpreting the themes, characters, and story lines of this epic work, Barrett constructed a world filled with intrigue and daring imagery.

In attempting to comprehend the creative process of bringing Stop The Virgens to life, we spoke with Barrett over email about the experience, the challenges and the victories, of his design for the show.

The Creators Project: Can you describe for us the visual world we enter into when we view Stop the Virgens? Who are the people and creatures that inhabit it? What kind of architecture or scenery might we find there?
K.K. Barrett: We wanted a moment to erase expectations and open the senses before the performance. Darkness: The bodies are shadows behind thin sheer walls of fabric, almost touching you, separating from each other. In a trance, you can feel their heartbeats, hear random utterances, words let loose from Karen’s lyrics, then a dark space. Very loud tones keep you from talking to one another, just waiting. A Sentinel passes out pages torn from a book. Images of past Virgen exploits, other lives, other Virgens.

There is a focus to these Sentinels and a mystery towards the front of the space with a ghost-like projection, but a setting definition is evasive; a forest or a mirage? Solid or reflection? Is it ceremony or a window to another world? Kept off balance, yet invited in.

Model set for the song “Canada.”

How much of that world was composed of things you found in the music? How did you build out the rest of it?
Karen and I wanted to stay with the voice. The voices. The Virgens. Everything to do with the world was devised so that the characters were in a void. To appear and disappear. There is a portal to a world beyond that reflects their mood. Coldness, negative trees swaying like lithe young bodies, a machine eye to watch over and burden them, candy dreams of psychedelic froth, tempting waters to submerge in and forget, clouded memories lost and found.

All these things are felt in the songs, but there were no “literal” descriptive words to pull from, just a tone set for each song and visual and audio transitions to bind them.

Model set for the song “Thursday.”

You originally set out to write a script for Stop The Virgens but eventually discovered that the music “didn’t want a narrative structure.” And yet there does seem to be a story line that kind of pulls you through the piece. How did you create the illusion of narrative without using standard narrative devices?
It wasn’t that the music didn’t want a narrative structure, it had a very strong one. The script exercise was very helpful. The Sentinels of female authority and wisdom, the rebellious twins, their gang, the arc of birth and playing with youthful power, tousled mind overloads, sacrifice, atonement… All these elements came from the exercise of writing a script and then Karen and I sitting down and stripping it back to the same poetic license that lyrics have. The story, like the best lyrics, wanted to live in a place where everyone could interpret for themselves and make it their own. To me, the music in sequence has a beautiful arc that was set down by Karen and the musicians when they first wrote the songs.

Model set for the song “Last Lullabye.”

It seems much of the plot, to the extent that there is one, is communicated through visual cues—costumes, visual interludes, etc. How did you conceive of these? What served as your source of inspiration?
I wanted to make a set that focused on the characters. I knew Christian [Joy] would provide colorful and elegant distortions for Karen’s character and it was best to make a simple framework to let them shine. I wanted the band constantly present but in the shadows on the edge of gold light. They provide the energy to transform and invigorate the Virgens. They are a manifest of Karen’s power. Her gang. Her henchmen.

The Virgens themselves and the choir became live set pieces, conjoining and splitting apart. Writhing and causing mayhem. I didn’t want to get in the way of that!

The background projections are variations of still images I assigned for each song; the negative forest, cold skies, acidic butterflies and flowers, an underwater dream, snow retreating upward and red. First, I collected images, then I made models and photographed them. When we had the chance to do the production at St. Ann’s, I refocused the elements for that space. We were able to take the early ideas and, with Keith [Parham] providing hard dramatic lights, and Darrel [Maloney] bringing the still images to life in the projections, each of them added huge personal creative compliments to the vision that the Virgens could spring from.

In the early models there were no boundaries, no framework, no proscenium. I imagined [the Virgens] in the actual environments, in a forest, a blizzard, the aurora borealis, etc. But for the performance, I decided to make a black mirror wall with portal and floor that would continue the projections reflected beneath their feet, and their bodies up onto the walls. Black, so that only what was in strong light was reflected, otherwise it would be a void. An invisible set in a way.

Model stage Version #1, 2009.

Model stage Version #2, 2011. Depicting the set design for the song “Calm.”

What was the biggest risk you took on this project? Did it pay off?
I think Karen was the one taking the risk. She was on stage in constant focus. She was performing. She trusted us all. From my side, stripping everything away (literal exposition, characters speaking with a single voice, a set that disappeared into darkness), everything could be seen as risky. But we made all the choices collectively and with each other’s support. There was no other path really, just our own creative instincts. And the trance of Karen performing.

For many of the people involved, STV was a project that took the creators outside their comfort zones—this was true for Karen, Adam, etc. Did it push you outside your comfort zone? And if so, what will you be taking away from this experience?
Challenges are more comforting than repeating what you have already done. This was a challenge in that it worked on all levels at once or not. Everyone brought their “A” creative game.

I think everything all of us do is with a good bit of unknown at the start. I had shared experiences with Karen and Christian and Nick [Zinner] and Sam [Spiegel], the theater creatives were a welcome addition to all of us. Such teamwork and caring from everyone, similar to a film set but with only heart instead of box office as the objective. Everyone took away what they put into it, times the number of people involved. I have many new friends and stories. This is only the beginning for this group; it seems like the beginning for the piece as well. It’s just born like the Virgens. It would be fun if every thread of the Virgen’s could be blown up to it’s most excessive rite. This was the birth version. Look out for the full on unbridled youth version.

What are you working on now? What can we expect to see in the coming months?
I am creating another world for a film with Spike Jonze. [It’s] for a very funny touching script he wrote that I can tell you nothing about. Comfortably again into the unknown. Hopefully not repeating myself.

Model set for the song “Duet”