‘The Arboretum Experience’ Review: Augmented Reality, IRL | Arts
If there was a way to capture the rejuvenating power of the Arnold Arboretum, a 281-acre wonderland just miles from campus, the American Repertory Theater has. Throughout the fall, the ART’s “Arboretum Experience” will offer visitors free audio games, meditation moves, and pop-up concerts to spruce up the average walk in the park. It seems counterintuitive – bringing an audience outside to interact with nature, while asking them to put on headphones. However, whether it is an immersion in nature or an augmented reality, “The Arboretum Experience” creates a captivating event worth revisiting.
When the public walks through one of the doors of the Arboretum this fall, they will be greeted with a QR code connecting them to a multitude of interactive media. Set in the present and acknowledging the realities of Covid-19, the stories focus on the Arboretum itself. Whether visitors spend their time by the Rose Garden or climb Bussey Hill, audio games create an interactive experience with a personalized ‘scene’ as visitors choose where to walk on their journey. While the concept is laudable and the dubbing convincing, the writing sometimes detracts from the magic. A particularly impressive line in “Ramona the Fearless Goes for a Ride”, an audio piece about a lilac-seeking girl’s adventure, is: “Xavier is the name, spread smiles my game!” Nudge hello now that we’ve met? Maybe the hindsight comes from the global rejection of elbow bumps since Biden and Pence hit the weenuses in 2020; maybe this stems from the obvious ploy to show the precautionary position against ART viruses. Either way, the line is one of many that fail to land.
Despite unnecessary leaps in writing, the plays were intriguing and impressive – especially considering that only seven actors voiced the characters in all four plays, learning and performing their roles over the course of two weeks. A door slams, horns sound, birds sing and music is inserted between the transitions. Sound effects immerse visitors in the world of plays, and layered dialogue and broken lines capture the hustle and bustle of real conversation, creating a satisfying, textured listening experience.
But if the aim is to “experience” the Arboretum, what would otherwise be advantages sometimes becomes disadvantages. If a visitor is walking through the trees, surrounded by singing birds, rustling leaves and chirping insects, does putting on headphones to listen to an audio room full of man-made noise replace a more authentic experience?
Movement meditations help solve this theoretical conundrum. These brief audio files serve as a guide for the conscious interactions between the mind, tree, and ego. Whether visitors choose to hug a tree, follow breathing techniques, or meditate on plants, moving meditations remind them to slow down and take the time to align with the natural world. This critical aspect of “Experience” legitimizes the concept of the piece as a whole, helping visitors to refocus on the depths of this particular collection of trees.
To top it off, ART has invited music and dance artists to perform among the trees every Saturday at 2 p.m. Opening artists Kaovanny and Evelyn Bush kicked off the weekly performances on September 4 with their R&B fusion style, playing a setlist of covers and original tracks. The entrance arch to the Bradley Rosaceous Collection carefully framed the singers. There are few times more rare than sitting under a tree to listen to a guitar rendition of 50 Cent’s “21 Questions”, but these are the kinds of times visitors can expect at the Arboretum throughout the fall. So step out of the hustle and bustle of the city for an “Arboretum Experience” and discover your own magical moments.
– Editor Jacob R. Jimenez can be contacted at [email protected]