You’ve seen “The Wizard of Oz” in Technicolor. But now you can see it in augmented reality.
“Elements of Oz,” a multimedia work based on the famous story — created by the New York-based experimental theater company The Builders Association, and premiering as part of the Peak Performances series at Montclair State University on Sept. 26 — adds the augmented reality through attendees’ cellphones or iPads. The actors are filmed live, and via a special app, the onstage action can be viewed with added visual and sound effects.
It’s a daring new technique for a theatrical production and could be the wave of the future — at least judging by how eager my 13-year-old daughter’s generation seems to be to stay connected to their cellphones 24/7.
Performances take place Sept. 26 and Oct. 3 at 8 p.m., Sept. 27 and Oct. 4 at 3 p.m., and Oct. 1-2 at 7:30 p.m. at the university’s Alexander Kasser Theater. Visit peakperfs.org.
I talked to the play’s director, Marianne Weems (who is also artistic director of The Builders Association) and co-creator/co-writer, James Gibbs, at the Kasser Theater, during a recent rehearsal break.
Q: I imagine that the multimedia elements make this a lot more challenging, from a technical point of view, than most theater productions. There’s a lot more moving parts.
Gibbs: Marianne’s used to it.
Weems: This company has been working together for 20-plus years. It’s a very specific kind of pleasure, having an ensemble that you’ve worked with for so long, and you kind of have developed a language with your collaborators that’s very unique, just because you’ve been working together for that amount of time. You develop kind of a shorthand for how to communicate, and to create these pretty complex worlds.
Gibbs: And to integrate design into the production.
Weems: The designers are clearly as important as the performers. And working on the whole stage picture is as important as the play. The text is really secondary to the whole world onstage.
Q: Are there things in this production you haven’t done before?
Weems: Well, there’s the augmented reality stuff. That’s brand new. I think that’s new to the theater, and it’s certainly new to us. Everything else is kind of the tools we’ve developed, like making the live film, and Moe (co-creator/co-writer/actor Moe Angelos) as this kind of central narrator who carries us through many different aspects of the piece. Those are all things that have been done in other productions, but not in this configuration, obviously.
Q: The augmented reality … has anything like that been done before, anywhere?
Weems: Not in theater. No. Brand new.
Q: By “not in theater” do you mean it was done somewhere else?
Weems: There’s more in the art world. There’s augmented reality galleries in some museums. They’ve done installation projects. But certainly not in performance.
Q: How confident are you that everything is going to be working perfectly by opening night?
Weems: (laughs) 150 percent!
Q: I mean, I imagine it’s possible that all the kinks might not be worked out, but you’ll still go ahead and do the show.
Weems: Sure. It’s an experimental theater company. It’s not NASA. There’s a lot of very fine minds in there that have done a lot of work in a very maverick kind of way, and we’re going to launch it and see what happens.
Q: So, was it your idea to adapt “The Wizard of Oz”?
Weems: Yes. (To Gibbs) Do you want to talk about “House/Divided”?
Gibbs: Sure. The last show that we did was called “House/Divided,” which was basically a mashup of Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” and the mortgage and foreclosure crisis, from 2008 and on. So we had been thinking about the artistic responses to hard times. And one of them is social realism, which is (“The Grapes of Wrath”). And we thought, “Okay, let’s try the other.” Which is escapism. And “The Wizard of Oz” was written and became popular, originally, during the depression of the late 19th century. And then again, the (version) most of us know is the film, which was (during) the Great Depression. So that was kind of the impetus behind doing that. And the tech — its relationship to the tech. The movie is like the first Technicolor movie. L. Frank Baum went bankrupt, at least once, putting on a big technical spectacle of “The Wizard of Oz” himself.
Q: You mean live?
Gibbs: Yeah, live. With, like, colored lantern slides.
Weems: It was a multimedia performance. It toured a lot all over the States, and bankrupted him.
Gibbs: So there’s the social realism and the escapism. There’s the tech. And there’s the fact that it’s kind of light, and that was something we wanted to do, too: Something that’s fun and light and even a little goofy.
Q: Also, it’s a story that everyone knows …
Weems: … so you don’t have to tell the whole thing. Yeah, I think for this kind of theater … it’s highly visual. It’s very much about this contemporary form of distraction, which is like many things happening at once. And so having a really solid base like “Oz,” where you can just drop in anywhere, and people know exactly where you are, in the story, is very important. It’s not a very delicate tale.
Q: Might you do this somewhere else, after this run?
Weems: Sure, yeah. Our pieces tour a lot, sometimes all over the world. This is all our designers, our equipment. This is the way that we build shows. And it’s built to tour.
ELEMENTS OF OZ - Teaser from The Builders Association on Vimeo.