When Kevin Moriarty says he wants the audience to have a moving experience at the Dallas Theater Center, he means it.
At each performance of The Wiz, a co-production with the Dallas Black Dance Theatre that runs through Aug. 7, 180 audience members will quite literally be moved by stagehands. In the production, there are 12 "audience pods" of 15 seats each (three rows of five) that are rolled around throughout the production, beginning with the tornado scene that puts Dorothy in Oz.
"The essential notion being that Dorothy is going to go on a journey through the land of Oz," Moriarty says, "and the audience is going to ease on down the road with her."
The Wiz is the 1974 "super soul" version of L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It is the final production of DTC's 2010-11 season, and the group's second in the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre.
This is not the first time DTC has played with the audience's relationship to the stage. In fact, the Wyly was designed for such experimentation. The audience chamber is reconfigurable, so that you could see one production in a thrust format, the next one proscenium style, and the next in the round.
With The Wiz, if you're sitting in the movable pods, you'll be able to experience it in all of those ways.
"[Wyly architect] Rem Koolhaas said from the beginning that it would take five years for us to really continue to push against the limits of the building, to find the creative possibilities," Moriarty says. "I am determined that that will continue."
In the first season at the Wyly, Moriarty, his staff and the acting company were getting used to the space, so the staging configurations weren't played with so much. However, in the first production, A Midsummer Night's Dream, the audience got to join the cast onstage at the end. As the characters were celebrating the final wedding, everyone in the room was also celebrating the opening of a new, innovative theater space.
This year, two productions -- DTC's Horton Foote Festival entry Dividing the Estate and the musical Cabaret, both directed by former Casa Mañana artistic director Joel Ferrell -- have used the space better than anything before. In Cabaret, part of the audience got to sit, cabaret-style, around the thrust of the stage, as if in the Kit Kat Club. And in several of Moriarty's productions, notably his Shakespeare shows, actors interacted with the audience.
"Luckily by now, two years into what I call a five-year experiment of the space at the Wyly, people who have been to the Wyly before will expect that the seats will be in a different place, or the atmosphere will be different from what they've seen before," Moriarty says.
Of course, having the idea to move the seats is a lot different from making it happen, which was an extreme logistical challenge for the designers and crew. To meet codes with the city and the Americans With Disabilities Act, not to mention the needs of director Moriarty and choreographer Christopher Huggins of DBDT, there were lots of considerations.
The crew had to think about weight, railings, the speed at which the pods could move (they go slowly, so there's no need to be buckled in) and where they can be located so that the actors and dancers can tell the story.
"We have what we call the Wiz board game," says assistant stage manager Chris "Waffles" Wathen, "a magnetic version of the ground plan with these cutout pods that we move around on the board so we can figure out what is physically possible in the space."
The moving seats are more expensive tickets, but that's because they're the closest ones to the stage. Purchasers are asked if they want moving or nonmoving seats when they make a reservation (and the subscribers have all been contacted to be made aware, and allowed to change seats if they don't want to be moved around).
Moriarty adds that the crew makes it all work, with safety first in mind.
"For 52 years, our stage crew has built very heavy three-dimensional objects that are put on casters and moved by a minimum number of people with the maximum amount of repetitive success," he says. "When you're pushing scenery around onstage, they have to always hit their mark at the exact moment, and they can't be too heavy. For us, it's just like a piece of three-dimensional scenery. It just happens to have a bunch of people sitting in that scenery."