NYC: AR Comes To The Theatre In 'Elements Of Oz'

NYC: AR Comes To The Theatre In 'Elements Of Oz'
December 8, 2016

Augmented reality is 2016’s hot trend in tech after this summer’s Pokémon Go brought video game creatures into our world. What better use could it have than bringing “The Wizard of Oz” to life?


The Builders Association’s “Elements of Oz,” now playing at 3LD Theater, was actually ahead of the trend when it opened in New Jersey last year. “All the big, iconic moments from the story have this augmented layer,” explains director Marianne Weems, who got the idea to bring to life the more spectacular aspects of the story — flying monkeys, poppy fields — from one of her collaborators with experience in architecture. “I’d say we’re at the cutting edge of it.”


While the majority of the show unfold live onstage (it’s still theater, after all), the audience is prompted to pick up their phones through the show’s app at key points, whether it’s to watch a video, use the augmented reality feature or other digital surprises. “It’s about that dialogue between live performance and media and how we as 21st-century citizens negotiate that,” she says.


There’s a grain of irony to the whole thing, as Weems points out: Using our smartphones is really like escaping our own reality and into a more interesting one, after all.


Though the production follows the familiar story of Dorothy’s journey from colorless Kansas to Oz’s Yellow Brick Road, it’s more like a framework for exploring all the ways the movie has influenced our popular culture.


From “Friend of Dorothy” as gay slang in the ’40s to the alternative musical “The Wiz,” speculation about economic allegories from Ayn Rand to the Tin Man representing dormant American factories, Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of Moon” synching up with it,  “it is such a compelling story that people just feel they own a part of it,” Weems says. “It’s really about these zeitgeist moments and the kind of social and political and psychological resonances of the story.”


Don’t expect the production to get too bogged down even in the serious parts. The tone overall is light, dipping into comedic, especially when the cast of just three rapidly change costumes and switch roles — all of them take a turn as Dorothy.


The show, just as the film, is also very much of its time. “The story was written during the Depression, and of course the movie is a Depression-era icon of the 1930s,” says Weems.


"We’re in our own tumultuous time, so it really is something that in hard times, people turn to."

Project description: ELEMENTS OF OZ draws on one of the richest examples of escapist American entertainment, The Wizard of Oz. We revel in the multiplicity of interpretations of this iconic example of popular culture, and examine how tens of thousands of people across the country (and across the globe) have made Oz their own. Through the use of YouTube tributes, a re-contextualization of the film, and the incorporation of new technologies, ELEMENTS OF OZ celebrates and deconstructs this incredibly rich cultural artifact.


In much the same way the classic MGM movie transported us from the stark black and white of Kansas to a vibrant Technicolor Oz, this piece introduces new technology, which also enlivens and deepens the audience’s experience. For this show, you leave your cell phone on - the stage action is enhanced by interactivity with viewers' smart phones through a unique app that we developed, delivering the Technicolor Land of Oz of our imaginations. This ground-breaking way of bringing personal technology into the theater uses augmented reality to show a transparent layer of the poppy fields and flying monkeys, as well as sending video and sound cues to each phone.


The New York Times described one moment like this:

“One of the most charming uses of smartphone technology: when the song [Somewhere Over the Rainbow] strikes up, myriad self-made videos posted to YouTube of all and sundry singing that classic tune suddenly appear on phones and tablets all over the theater, so that a whole chorus sings along from cyberspace. It’s an ineffably sweet moment that illustrates the pervasive cultural reach of the movie”


ELEMENTS OF OZ is a mash-up of texts including excerpts from the original book, and testimonials from YouTube Oz fans on their various interpretations of the film, which range from the “Friends of Dorothy” to the debates over the gold standard in the 1880s, to the Pink Floyd album Dark Side of the Moon as the movie soundtrack. We also include interviews with some characters not obviously linked to Oz such as Salman Rushdie and Ayn Rand. Throughout it all, we follow a narrator who provides us with juicy background details about the making of the film as famous moments are re-created live on stage.


Using a simple stage set and three powerful performers, this production presents a double-edged sword by staging a robust dialog between the analog and the virtual. Theater has traditionally celebrated live performance and is born from the idea that people come together to witness a live event onstage. But what happens if the performance, while live, cannot truly be ‘seen’ without Oz’s fantastical devices? We aim to provoke an awareness of our dependence on these devices - necessary to enter the "Land of Oz."


Elements of Oz
Through Dec. 18
3LD Art and Technology Center, 80 Greenwich St.

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