An actor. A writer. A builder. A theatre set designer. A model-maker. An artist. Wes Hanson doesn’t say no to much. He’s a man who welcomes a challenge.
Born and raised in New Orleans, Hanson grew up surrounded by the business of building houses. Construction was a part of his life. He could have easily grown up to be a builder, but Hanson is by his own admission a rebel. He wanted to pursue the arts, something foreign to the practical business world of his father.
After getting his bachelor’s degree from Louisiana State University, Hanson went to California with his wife to start his career. As it turned out, his early education in carpentry and welding worked to his advantage and took his career to some surprising places. By nature an artist and an actor, Hanson joined an improv group in Los Angeles, which led to a freelance job. He ended up using his carpentry skills to design sets and props for a variety of stage and film productions (as well as projects with casinos, museums, and amusement parks). Hanson is modest when describing his work designs, but the work is impressive.
To give a sense of Hanson’s design work, Jay Dean, the artistic director for the Mississippi Opera, described Hanson’s work on the recent production of Turandot as “powerful and impressive.” Set design is crucial to a theatre production’s success, said Dean, because while actors, musicians, lighting, and songs all change, the set design is a “visual constant,” which means that detail is important. “Wes studies detail,” Dean said. “If the set is superior, it adds so much and elevates the quality of the experience.”
Hanson has a long pedigree in design and theatre production, stemming from his time in California.
Hanson worked on James Cameron’s 1989 film, The Abyss, as Model Shop Foreman on an award-winning crew. He worked on creating flying taxis for Back to the Future II, and on another award-winning prop and costume crew, this time for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Perhaps his most interesting film work is his space models. As he put it, if you watched a space movie in the 90’s, you probably saw one of his helmets or visors. For nearly a decade, he was the go-to fiberglass maker for anything space-related. He laughed recalling this time of his life, saying, “I was a space nerd.”
He designed full-scale shuttle noses and EVA helmets for films like Apollo 13, Armageddon, and Space Cowboys. In talking about these, he casually mentioned that he worked with not one, but two moon-walking astronauts. He met both Buzz Aldrin and David Scott while working on the models (Aldrin actually rode one of the models that had a hydraulic base). And Scott was so impressed with Hanson that Scott used Hanson to do a voice-over for one of Scott’s videos that was shown to Congress. “These guys,” said Hanson of the astronauts, “were so smart, it was absolutely scary.”
The same could be said of Hanson himself. “I get bored easily,” he said. “I like to challenge myself.” His freelance work in California led to a teaching position at Pasadena ArtCenter College of Design. Much of his career seems to have happened because of his self-professed boredom. He doesn’t say no, a philosophy which has led to some unexpected twists and turns in his career. After Pasadena, his family decided to relocate to be closer to home, leading to his current position with the theatre department at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg.
His philosophy with theatre set design is complex. “We analyze plays,” he said. “See the theme, the message. The set is a character, not just design.” For example, Hanson worked on Into the Woods with the Hattiesburg Civil Light Opera, acting as the narrator and set designer. The theme was a steam-punk design, and Hanson created a rather impressive horse that barreled across the stage. The horse, among some of his other designs, gained attention, and Hanson was able to work on more projects across the area, including designing Hattiesburg’s The Jook in the old Hattiesburg American building and productions with the Mississippi Opera.
His current project with the Opera is La Bohéme. He called the set design he’s working on “a big art piece.” He carefully considered the pre-Impressionism time period in order to create something that will not only be unique, but will also be work of art—something that’s important to Hanson, who considers himself the bridge from concept to construction to installation. “I want to give the audience something of a spectacle,” Hanson said. “Cut me loose. Let me be an artist. I don’t want to be normal.”
And he’s anything but normal. “Wes has a desire to be as authentic as possible,” said Dean. “He does research to add cultural elements. It all adds to the excellent quality of the sets that he designs.”
Hanson’s attention to detail is evident in Hattiesburg’s The Jook, which is meant to be a maker’s space, a place for artists, musicians, and actors to display their work. He had to fight a leaning structure and a rotten roof, so the design had to be both structural and decorative. For The Jook, Hanson said that his core concept was “the arts are exploding in Hattiesburg.” To achieve this, he designed “breakaway walls and dynamic lines,” as he wanted to give the space a feel of movement and energy. Hanson also wanted to incorporate images that spoke to what Hattiesburg is, so he looked to found objects for inspiration, including the old windows and doors in the Hattiesburg American building. There’s also a steam-punk weathervane on the roof, a visual reminder of what the space is for.
The space will be for the community arts, which Hanson whole-heartedly supports. After all, he’s an artist at heart, but he’s also an actor and a writer. He built the space. It’s only natural that one of his own shows could be produced there in the future. That’s a challenge that Hanson is up for.