Theater, that seemingly-traditional artform, gets a modern twist with the introduction of augmented reality technology, which turns the passive audience experience into an interactive one. Elements of Oz, a tech-driven celebration of the classic escapist film The Wizard of Oz, uses smartphones to deconstruct and revel in the enduring popularity of the iconic story. Created by New York-based intermedia ensemble The Builders Association, Elements of Oz reenacts Dorothy’s journey through a mixture of IRL and digital tools, like live performance, a custom-designed app enabling engaging visual overlays, and a virtual YouTube chorus that sings Wizard of Oz classics. Directed by Builders Association Artistic Director Marianne Weems and co-created and written by James Gibbs and Moe Angelos, Elements of Oz dazzled audiences at 3LD Art & Technology Center, a hub for tech-driven live performance.
AR enables theater artists to create an elevated viewing experience, enhancing what is normally technically possible in live performance, and Elements of Oz is one of the first productions of its kind. “There have been some small site-specific performance events, but as far as we know this is the first application [of AR] in a real, theatrical context,” Weems tells The Creators Project.
Audience reactions to new-found interactivity in theater has been positive. “People seem to love it,” Gibbs says. “People who find Oz sacrosanct and people who don't have much of a history with Oz both enjoy it, which is gratifying of course.” Experimenting with new technology, such as AR, empowers theater makers to keep up with trends and compete with emerging digital entertainment, like virtual reality.
The Elements of Oz online experience begins the moment audience members decide to attend. “We asked ticket buyers to download [the Elements of Oz app] when they first purchased a ticket, and then they got a follow-up reminder closer to the date of the performance,” Weems says. The show app is available on iPhone and Android.
If attendees arrive sans tablet or smartphone, it’s still possible to experience the show without feeling like they are missing out. “Part of the fun is looking over people’s shoulders and sharing with your neighbor,” Weems explains. “The audience becomes very lively and communicative during the AR moments, and it’s a very communal experience. We chose to work with the ‘high points’ of the story, which have the most visual impact. So we have cyclones whirling around the theater, we have poppies growing, snow falling, and flying monkeys.”
Producing Elements of Oz involved in-depth investigation of how the story works, how the film was made in the 1930s, and what it has meant to various groups throughout history. The team toes the line between retelling the story and also entertaining, with a technological upgrade. “The challenge was pulling it all together,” Gibbs says. “To really believe in something, love it, and trust in its power at the same time that you're taking it apart and revealing all of its seams.”