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The Builders Association remakes The Wizard of Oz on your smartphone

By Helen Shaw
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There is a rich irony in having a conversation with tip-top media-art innovators on a crummy FaceTime hookup. “Can you see it? Can you see anything?” someone (maybe artistic director Marianne Weems?) yells, as the image tilts drunkenly. But even dimly, through a small screen, one could see what was happening at the Kasser Theater at Montclair: The Builders Association was once again nudging the theatrical-technical boundary into a new shape. In Alladeen, the Builders blurred the line between Indian call-center worker and “performer;” in Sontag/Reborn they elided archival footage with present action; inthe beautiful House/Divided, they live-mixed their own movie of The Grapes of Wrath.

Now, in Elements of Oz, they hack the audience's devices, so that an effects-laden version of the classic film appears on one's own screen, while onstage, performers act it out effects-free. In tandem with video designer Austin Switser, John Cleater has designed an Augmented Reality environment, accessible to watchers through their own tablets and phones. Thus a Dorothy in homemade pigtails can stand on an empty stage while a virtual tornado chases her—and only those of us peeping at her through our own iPads will see the black-and-white threat approaching. The Builders make work collectively, so the interview was a (typically) chaotic conversation, involving director Marianne Weems, dramaturg-writer James Gibbs and actor-writer Moe Angelos.

What is that interests you about The Wizard of Oz?

Marianne Weems:
We're using the film because it's iconic, a phenomenon—the most watched movie globally. Our good friend Moe has just a hugely encyclopedic knowledge of the film, so we are coming from her interest in bringing up little-known facts. Moe's the thread that runs through the show; it's her relationship to the film that brought us into Oz in the first place.

Moe Angelos: When I was a teenager, it was the '70s, and the movie was still on TV twice a year. I watched it with that sticky brain that kids have; I could retain so much! And there's undeniable magic about that movie. In the 70s, I was watching 40 years after it was made, and the magic, the Technicolor, the sense of MGM at the height of its power—you could still feel it. And then the story around became part of the fascination—it was a troubled production, way over budget, way over schedule. They burned through five directors.

But this is such a heavily mediated show. Is it about Oz? Or is it about what we all think about Oz?

Marianne Weems: The movie is a container for a certain kind of American crackpot. There are literally tens of  thousands of interpretations on YouTube—people keep trying to explain it as a code. We use and look at those…

James Gibbs: Further, think of the “friends of Dorothy” idea, that connection to what we used to call the "gay community." There are so many different attempts to possess the story; some are nuts, and some are touching.

Moe Angelos: And it's relevant! We're touching on the crackpot theories about the gold standard in part because we're echoing the Gilded Age when L. Frank Baum was writing the original story. Today, we seem to be in another Gilded Age. There's so much resonance here with that time—the wealth disparity and then the opulence of the film, which, in the '40s, was offered as a kind of cupcake for the masses.

So, in Oz, there are famously four major characters and you have threeactors (Angelos, Sean Donovan and Hannah Heller) remaking it. How does that work?

Moe Angelos: Oh! I get to be Glinda, the Lion, I get to be Dorothy—it's the challenge.

Marianne Weems: There's a lot of quick changes; it's not a full costume event—we creatively employ a funnel or a lion's tail…

Moe Angelos: You've heard it's bad to indicate in the theater? Yeah. We're indicating.

How does the technology affect the fabric of the show?

James Gibbs: There's the scenography inside people's phones—and then there are places in the show we send out YouTube clips, and different people get different clips, different text. We just keep adding to the information.

Marianne Weems: At one point, Sean Donovan does a very touching version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and there are 30 different versions in the house. It's a choric experience.

James Gibbs: The way people engage now with movies is with a phone and iPad on at the same time: there's something interesting about the contemporary consumption of story in that. To bring that experience into the theater is a provocation and an experiment. How much can we throw out at somebody?

It sounds like you're deliberately making it difficult for yourselves?

Marianne Weems: Yep. And the technical challenges that we've decided to face are kind of crazy. We're trying to make the film with three people and limited resources. Our video designer [Austin Switser] is battling tremendous odds. The augmented reality is also a huge challenge: it's brand-new in the theater. It was created by a small bunch of committed nerds led by our oldest collaborator John Cleater [who designed the company's first show, Master/Builder]. We're trying to make the metaphor that “Oz is in your phone” into something—real. That leaves us literally choreographing the audience's attention so they're not getting sucked into one screen or the other. And I have no doubt that a third of them will be pissed off! But the medium is the message.

James Gibbs: And you know, throughout The Wizard of Oz's history, technology has been at its forefront. Even before the movie, in 1908, author L. Frank Baum toured his own, crazy version called The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays that used early color slides and back projection—and he bankrupted himself. We're retelling this story that lends itself to this kind of technological platform; it really calls forth technology. The relationship of technology and nostalgia is weird—we desire new tech and then have nostalgia about what it was like before. The Wizard of Oz is the perfect vessel for that thought because it's both looking back at childhood and an opportunity to look forward.

How does this connect with your other work?

Marianne Weems: Oh, it connects. The first, bleak paragraph of Wizard of Oz is like the last paragraph of the Steinbeck—people scraping by on the dirt farm [referring to House/Divided, which was based on The Grapes of Wrath]. But then it becomes escapist fantasy—the American story of leaving home and going elsewhere and finding a place with dancing men and ladies in gowns. It's an old American story: a transformation that is fate.

James Gibbs: And to add to the idea of bleak Kansas and fantastical Oz: every time we start a show, we say "This is going to be funny and fun!" and then… it's Grapes of Wrath. This is the show that we finally get to laugh. It's the biggest, campiest version of the American Dream! We're bored with Jack Kerouac!

Marianne Weems: The headline is "The Builders do comedy!"

How else is Elements unusual for you guys?

James Gibbs: You know the myth of Pink Floyd? That Dark Side of the Moon matches up to the movie? That gave us permission to use some crazier music for us—

Marianne Weems: Heavy metal! The Builders and metal! [Laughs]

Wait, the Pink Floyd thing is a myth? Does it not sync up?

Marianne Weems: Okay, we watched it really stoned one night outside while having barbecue, and in that environment, it totally works. Let us say, the level of inebriation helps.

James Gibbs: It's only 45 minutes! And then the music runs out!

Moe Angelos: There's a recording asking the drummer, “Is it true?” and he says, “Of course not. You could do that with Ben Hur—really any movie.” Pink Floyd doesn't believe it.

So you're saying it's a conspiracy of silence?

[Silence]

Elements of Oz is at the Kasser Theater at Montclair State University Sat 26 through Oct 4. For tickets and details, click here.

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