Thursday, April 11, 2024

Adventures in WOW Land

By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt 
Photos by Maurice Hewitt unless otherwise noted.

Bandaloop’s thrilling performers turned a tall wall into their dance floor.

My husband Maurice and I have been going to WOW festivals since the very first one in 2013. WOW  stands for WITHOUT WALLS, and La Jolla Playhouse’s idea of presenting an array of immersive artful and mostly outdoor experiences every two years became so popular that it turned into an annual event. We were at the Rady Shell in 2023 and were eager to return to the UC San Diego campus where WOW began for this year’s four-day fest April 4-7.

All performances are now free, though some required pre-registration. They were staged in three different “hubs”, circumventing on-campus construction, and the two hubs we found most inviting—Epstein Family Amphitheater (outside and inside the Design & Innovation Building) and Revelle Plaza—were a 20-minute walk apart. Happily, we love walking, and managed to avoid the rain that started as a heavy drizzle late Thursday afternoon and continued on and off Friday but ended before our planned showtimes.

What we could not avoid was the wintry temperatures. Dressing for a ski trip was helpful, though taking notes and photos with gloves on at night wasn’t easy. Here are some of the things we enjoyed, weather or not.


If you saw the recent LJ Playhouse premiere of the musical “Redwood” in which Idina Menzel not only showed off her stellar pipes but also her impressive tree-climbing skills you may know that she was trained by this Oakland-based company, who not only taught her to climb an actual redwood tree but also the wall of a rather tall building.

Here, at the top of the D&I Building, a colorful duo of Bandaloopers started out with some cool moves, which were followed by a sextet on another side of the roof, then a riveting solo down the first side and finally an all-out performance by the six dancing acrobats who seemed to fly up, down, and out toward their rapt audience. They call it “perspective-bending dance.” It certainly was. 

Inside the building, I had a chance to step into the Fish Phone Booth Playtest, a prototype of a piece by Ash Eliza Smith and Robert Twomey whose final version will ultimately be installed in the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Inside the booth, I became the “pilot” in a closed-eye descent into the depths of the ocean, where I heard and responded to the sounds of fish and whales. No visuals yet, but inner vision is encouraged, so it was a meditative experience, which left me interested in following the booth’s progress over the next year and ready to head back outdoors.


Outside, the weather had grown colder, but a crowd was assembled for more acrobatic dance at ground level: a skillful duo from Acro Physical Theatre in Taiwan portraying an evolving relationship. Some of their moves were unusual—she actually stood on his head—but like many relationships, it went on too long. If they’d cut their 45-minute performance in half, it would have been twice as brilliant.

Three views of Duo

Still watching the dancers, but trying to keep up our body heat, we stepped up to the Bird Rock Coffee Roasters stand where Aaron, the manager, made us a special half-sweet version of Spiced Mocha. It was warming enough for us to stay for a second Bandaloop performance before walking over to Revelle Plaza for Spectrum, Society of Wonder, a puppet pageant by San Diego’s master puppet-makers Bridget Rountree and Iain Gunn, aka Animal Cracker Conspiracy.

Spectrum was a gorgeous spectacle of giant and stilt puppets, accompanied by a San Diego Symphony string quartet. Viewers were invited to create star lanterns beforehand so they could be part of the show. It was seriously cold that evening but we were glad to be there.


Star-makers (Photo: Lonnie Hewitt) 

Star-makers closeup (Photo: Lonnie Hewitt) 

                                         Two Scenes from the Puppet Performance

On Saturday, we had  a long-awaited opportunity to re-visit one of our favorite Stuart Collection pieces, Fallen Star, which had been closed to visitors for some time. Created in 2012 by internationally acclaimed Korean artist Do Ho Suh, this tilted house atop seven-story Jacobs Hall offers an experience of a changed reality that you won’t soon forget. If you’ve never been inside it, now is your chance, since it’s open Wednesdays and Thursdays, and you can sign up for a time slot in advance.

                                     Two views of Fallen Star

Street Level 

Inside, looking down ( Photo: Lonnie Hewitt)

From there, we went back to the Design & Innovation Building for Folding Futures, where we were taken on a tour by crew members of a company called Origami Air. They use Virtual and Extended Reality to create adventures that encourage imaginative consideration of possible futures. Our group of ten was introduced to various characters who led us into an elevator up to a room where we were outfitted with headsets that gave us entry into a world 40 years from today. It was a fun trip, but impossible to photograph, and I look forward to seeing what else OA’s folding futures may unfold. 

We had several other VR experiences in the D&I Building, though I soon discovered that my stylish glasses did not work very well with the headsets. So I had the choice of not being able to access all the immersive visuals or taking off my glasses and settling for a blurry-eyed view.  

I chose the first option in the virtual fashion realm of Samantha Olsen and Melissa Phan whose Augmented Threads installation explores the future of fashion in the digital age. Both just received BA degrees in a new major at UCSD: ICAM (Interdisciplinary Computing in the Arts Major) and kindly emailed me some of the images I missed. Here’s one that even looks great in 2-D.      

The show room of designer Elsa Schiaparelli. 
(Courtesy of Augmented Threads design team)

I left my glasses off for Pigments of Imagination, and though I couldn’t interact with objects I didn’t see clearly, I appreciated the colorful scenery and had a good time dancing around to the music. It turns out that Pigment’s co-creator, Tim Gmeiner, who kept me from bumping into things, was a performing music artist for 20 years and is now pursuing a PhD in Computer Music at UCSD. This is his first VR piece, in collaboration with Eito Murakami, an ICAM degree recipient currently enroute to a Master’s at Stanford.

We end these Adventures in WOW Land by returning to Animal Cracker Conspiracy’s Guiding Bear. Think of him pointing the way to next year’s WOW Festival. 

(Photo: Lonnie Hewitt)

Lonnie Burstein Hewitt is an award-winning author/lyricist/playwright who has been writing about arts and lifestyles in San Diego County for over a dozen years. You can reach her at

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