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Arts & Entertainment - September 3, 2021

Torch songs

Life in a Peninsula hacker house helped inspire a scorching tale of techies versus hippies in "Burning Man: The Musical"

by By Heather Zimmerman

Inside a spacious, well-appointed tent somewhere on the desert playa at Burning Man, there's singing, dancing, sparkly costumes, and moments of both crushing doubt and soaring personal enlightenment. Outside, the weather is harsh; swirling in the wind, it's not powdery playa dust, but snow.

This deluxe campsite has been built on a soundstage in upstate New York, where in the spring of 2021, a small cast and crew is filming "Burning Man: The Musical."

The scene is a couple of thousand miles from the Nevada desert where Burning Man takes place every Labor Day weekend, but the camp and its cast of characters have origins much closer to home: places like a hacker house in Mountain View.

Matt Werner, creator of "Burning Man: The Musical" lived in that house for a time, with housemates who worked at various tech companies, both startups and established names — Werner himself at Google, where he still works as a senior technical writer. An Oakland native, Werner developed the musical over a number of years. The show is as much about the valley as it is the festival itself and how the two are intertwined for better and sometimes worse.

Werner intended "Burning Man the Musical" for the stage, in a form that seems to truly reflect a festival where it's said "there are no spectators."

"Our goal was to bring it to the Bay Area as a theater piece, specifically, an immersive, site-specific theater piece where you would be surrounded by the actors and you would be part of the show," Werner said.

The pandemic brought about the show's adaptation into a film, which premiered on Aug. 27 via the online platforms Broadway on Demand and Streaming Musicals. Werner wrote the script and lyrics, with music by Gene Back, and the film is directed by Tyler Milliron, with choreography by Ari Grooves. The cast features many Broadway- and New York-based artists.

"Burning Man: The Musical" follows the story of Molly (Morgan Siobhan Green), a brilliant new hire at Safeword Venture Capital, a Silicon Valley firm run by Bill the Billionaire (Tally Sessions).

Bill takes Molly with him to Burning Man to help strike a deal with a self-driving car startup, but soon demands that she track down a large quantity of mind-altering pharmaceuticals for him after his stash gets confiscated. Molly's quest, with guileless startup founder Joe (Troy Iwata) in tow, leads her to various camps that reveal different sides of Burning Man, such as the tent of a kindly longtime Burner called Hazel the Hippie (Michelle Duffy).

Life in the hacker house inspired some aspects of the musical: One housemate's deep admiration for Steve Jobs was the basis for a number, Werner said, and everyday life in the valley helped inform the show. He also drew from his own festival experiences and those of his older sister, Kelly, who had been attending Burning Man off and on since the '90s and saw the festival's growth firsthand.

In roughly the past decade, the once firmly countercultural Burning Man has become known for attracting wealthy visitors with a seamy ulterior motive: tech dealmaking. The musical lampoons how tech CEOs and other moneyed visitors eschew the grassroots, maker ethos on which the festival was founded, hopping on jets or helicopters to the desert and setting up restricted luxury camps, where they forgo the festival's unique gifting economy and exclude fellow festival-goers.

"It's about the people who come in on private jets and stay in their camps — they actually hire 'sherpas.' They hire models to serve drinks and they have wristbands and bouncers outside, and they're in these overly opulent, decorated camps," Werner said.

But he also points out that of the 70,000 people that typically turn out for the festival (in a non-pandemic year), such gated "glamping" experiences are far from the norm.

"It's in no way reflective of (the other) 65,000 people, camping in Walmart tents, or a dozen people crashing in an old camper, or a yurt."

The show evolved partly from faux dispatches from the festival that Werner wrote around 2013 for his satirical news site, Oakland Unseen, based on his sister Kelly's stories. One such dispatch finds the writer marveling that the festival turned out to be more than just a huge playground for the rich, as he had expected. The posts got a lot of love online, capturing much praise on Reddit.

Werner was drawn to make the show a musical in part by the sound of the festival itself. Though he notes that Burning Man expressly does not bill itself as a musical event — not like the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, for example — life on the playa means experiencing a varied soundscape, with music of many types blasting from different camps.

And as a playwright, Werner of course also took cues from musical theater.

"When I was thinking of a story set out in the desert, I was kind of inspired by 'Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat,' with wild pageantry and costumes, sound, light and color. It just seems like something so epic as Burning Man needed to be captured in an epic musical stage play," Werner said.

He promises plenty of Easter eggs for musical theater fans, who are likely to appreciate lyrics like the wistful "I dreamed a dream of burns gone by ... ."

Despite the show's literally dividing techies and hippies into separate camps, Burning Man, which was founded in 1986 in San Francisco, doesn't just have close ties to tech and Silicon Valley, Werner noted: the festival's ethos, with its 10 principles including radical self-expression, radical self-reliance and civic responsibility, has plenty in common with the roots of Silicon Valley.

"The original techies were actually counterculture people back in the '70s. ... They were kind of renegades back then and we forget about that," he said.

People building their own home computers or experimenting with robotics as a hobby used to be pretty unusual, Werner pointed out, and that same curiosity and technical skill has helped foster the art cars, robots and fiery sculptures that have been populating the playa over Burning Man's 35 years.

But musicals aren't known for nuance, so for storytelling purposes, Werner said he unblurred these lines, though he did purposely create a character with a foot in both worlds, representing the valley's early renegades.

"The dichotomy that I've created in the musical is a false dichotomy, techie vs. hippie, because there was at one point a tremendous crossover," he said.

As the show began to come together, it had several staged readings pre-pandemic in New York and San Francisco and it was well-received, particularly among the audiences who might have been most critical: the regular, dedicated festival-goers sometimes called Burners.

"As I've been developing this piece, I wanted to make sure that the tone of it is 'laughing with us' and not 'laughing at us,'" Werner said. Some early test performances of the show in December 2019 invited the feedback of several hundred Burners, and Werner said the show was well-received.

"Overall, they just loved it. So they totally got the humor, they got the satire," he said.

"Burning Man: The Musical" is not affiliated with the Burning Man organization that hosts the festival, but the company did give its blessing to the production for the use of the Burning Man name. The organization will feature the film as part of the official festivities, which due to the pandemic will take place virtually over this Labor Day weekend.

"Burning Man: The Musical" will be screened online as part of the celebrations on Burn Night, the festival's culmination, when the iconic towering man sculpture is set aflame, shown via webcast on Saturday, Sept. 4.

Werner said that he still hopes to someday bring the musical to in-person theater as more of an experiential event, perhaps with heat lamps simulating the desert sun and fans mimicking dust storms — and of course, there would have to be a significant budget for pyrotechnics.

For more information, visit burningmanthemusical.com.

Email Arts & Entertainment Editor Heather Zimmerman at [email protected]

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