Right Place, Right Time: NERDS Selects Raleigh for a Pre-Broadway Run
The Digital Revolution as a Satirical Musical? Yeah, We Get That.
BY JOE PROCOPIO
Filed Under: NEWS: Startups
Having lived in the Raleigh/Durham area for the better part of two decades and counting myself as a player in the tech and startup scene for that entire time, I can unequivocally state that it's been extremely rare that we get something cool to call our own. Yeah, we got quality of life, if your definition includes affordable suburban housing, biking trails, plenty of parking, and Krispy Kreme.
But where's the quality of life?
The last few years here have been a renaissance of the QoL. As the startup movement has unfolded across the Triangle, it's brought with it a new type of migration -- younger, more independent, more willing to take a risk. And that migration has attracted better companies, better services, and more and better options for restaurants, nightlife, and the arts.
Worlds are colliding. And it's about time.
NERDS is a satirical musical that follows Steve Jobs and Bill Gates through the digital revolution starting at about 1975 through close-to-present-day. It's from the writers of Robot Chicken, and it's making a pre-Broadway run (Raleigh/Durham's first) over the month of January before it goes back to New York in hopes of getting to Broadway. The engagement here culminates in a special "Startup Night" on January 31, in which a deal with local startup Offline Media gets the startup/techie crowd up to 40% off for the 7:30 performance.
At Internet Summit back in November, angel investor and Silicon Valley expatriate Mark Easley, who's been very involved with the local startup scene (and very interested in seeing ExitEvent succeed), brought NERDS to my attention. A few days later, Heather Millen, a writer for one of my media startups who just came back to Raleigh from New York and returned to the North Carolina Theatre with NERDS as her first project, gave me a call.
Broadway was about to slam head-on into geek culture, and it was happening here. How could I not love this?
NERDS has a decent pedigree. Carl Levin, the producer, used to be a Morgan Stanley investment banker, then realized he wanted to do something creative. That became the Rock of Ages musical, later turned into the 2012 film with Tom Cruise. Jordan Allen-Dutton, a co-writer, is three-time Emmy nominated, two for Robot Chicken. The play itself has already scooped up two Barrymore awards during a 2007 run in Philadelphia.
Yes, 2007. NERDS has actually been in the works for "six or seven years" for Allen-Dutton with co-writer Erik Weiner and composer Hal Goldberg. It was spawned at a time well before the iPhone re-vaulted Apple back into the stratosphere of iconic companies, and in fact before the iPod really took off the way it did (think pre-Vertigo commercial). It was when Jobs died in 2010 that Levin got involved.
"I could see the huge outpouring of grief over his death," Levin said.
The similarities of creating a show from scratch in hopes to land on Broadway to building a high-tech/high-growth startup are not lost on Allen-Dutton. He is an entrepreneur himself, having started Mogopop back in 2006 and, according to Allen-Dutton, turned down VC to go and do Robot Chicken.
With those similarities in mind, this pre-Broadway run is a very expensive, very public beta. They'll be looking for feedback, then they'll go back to New York with lessons learned from Raleigh, and implement changes in hopes for a theater run in the fall.
Last week, Allen-Dutton, Levin, Goldberg, and two of the actors from the show (including a spot-on looking Woz), held a meet-and-greet session in the American Underground with some of the local startup and tech community in an attempt to figure out how to reach this audience, which is crucial to the success of the show. Their understanding of said community is another reason they chose Raleigh/Durham as the beta group.
"Raleigh is really tech savvy, so lines about Moore's law get a laugh," Allen-Dutton said.
While the satire angle requires sophistication, Raleigh and Durham aren't as cynical about the startup scene as Silicon Valley, and so the NERDS team thinks, rightfully so I'll add, that there's an open-mindedness here that will allow them to try certain things and get honest feedback. We get it. We see the satire for what it is, and we won't freak out if they're not being 100% reverent of Jobs, Apple, the startup-scene history, or the startup-scene culture.
This is also very important, as unlike the pre-iPhone era, there is no such thing as a private, closed beta in the world of entertainment. You get a permanent record from the very first performance, and that record, as we all know, follows you.
In the meet-and-greet last week, there was a lot of talk about how to use technology to promote the show and to make it better -- concepts like hashtagging and live-tweeting came up, and it became clear that this is a different kind of show for a different kind of crowd.
"We're at a point in tech saturation where were all completely converted," Allen-Dutton said.
In other words, second-screen tech hasn't made its way from television to live theater yet, but it will. And soon.
As for the show itself, it starts in 1975 and goes to the recent present, with Gates as the underdog and Jobs as the revolutionary. It's got a Monty Python and Robot Chicken feel to it, with satire weaving laughs into the history of Silicon Valley.
Were just now starting to celebrate nerd culture, but attempts like the awful-looking TBS pseudo-reality vehicle King of the Nerds and the just plain awful closer-to-reality Bravo disaster Start-Ups: Silicon Valley have been off the mark and, thankfully for one, short-lived.
As Levin put it: "There's so much out there that celebrates the American idiot. This is celebrating the American genius. There's a positive message attached to it."
The NC Theatre production of NERDS opened Friday and runs to February 3rd at the A.J. Fletcher Theater in Raleigh. Startup night is Jan 31, with Offline Media making tickets available at a substantial discount.
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