Back in 2013, Oakland/Berkeley/Alameda native Matt Werner published a series of satirical news articles about life in Oakland with friends and ex-reporters from Oakland Local in a newspaper called Oakland Unseen.
Shortly after release, publications like The Bold Italic praised it as “Oakland’s Real Issues Covered in Fake Newspaper.” However, one article from that paper went viral, being reshared on many Burning Man forums. It was a fake news report of a former war correspondent reporting from his week at Burning Man. This Onion-esque article received praise in Burning Man circles with one Burner calling it “The most accurate thing I’ve ever read about Burning Man.” The catch is there was no war correspondent. Matt had written the article as a joke, based on his oldest sister’s stories of attending Burning Man since the 1990s.
From that experience, Werner tells us “I saw there was an appetite for writing about what happens at Burning Man. For those outside Burning Man culture, we may have some stereotypes about it, but we don’t really know what’s going on out there in the desert… and there’s this fascination among non-Burners with what actually happens at Burning Man.”
Seeking to find out, Werner attended his first Burn in 2015. “I went first as an observer… almost like Norman Mailer taking notes on what I saw before me. But as I went back in 2016, and especially by 2017, the camps I stayed at welcomed me with open arms and showed me the true spirit of Burning Man. You could say I went from Mailer to Hunter S. Thompson.”
In 2015 Werner set out to make a musical number about Burning Man and teamed up with the composer Gene Back to create a 5-minute video. “We were expecting just to release the video and get on with our lives,” Werner tells us. But upon publishing the video on YouTube in August, 2015, it was picked up by 130 media outlets, including Newsweek calling it “Bizarre, possibly brilliant,” Time Magazine saying “Steve Jobs would watch this.” And the San Jose Mercury publishing the headline “Burning Man may be headed for Broadway.”
The catch is, there was no musical… all Werner and Back had was the 5-minute jingle. Seeing the excitement for the concept of a satirical musical set at Burning Man, Werner and Back launched a crowdfunding campaign and raised money to help make it happen. They held multiple readings and workshops of the piece over the past five years, most notably the December, 2019 performance at Z Space in San Francisco.
“We knew we were onto something when on a rainy December weekend, we sold out three readings and had to schedule a fourth,” Producer Danny Marin recounts. “The Burners who were in the audience really connected with the humor and got that the piece is laughing with them and not at them.”
A graduate of UC Berkeley’s English Department, Werner took Oakland author Ishmael Reed’s final creative writing class. “Reed’s brand of satire had a strong influence on my writing and his no-holds-barred takes, even for example his most recent critique of Hamilton.” At the same time, Werner credits his writing mentors Dave Eggers and Stephen Elliott from when he was a student at 826 Valencia in the Mission District for helping him find his writing voice.
“Eggers instructed us to never write a line that anyone else could have written, and I took that advice to heart when drafting the dialogue for Burning Man: The Musical,” Werner says. By bringing in elements from his life in Oakland, Werner draws parallels to the artists being priced out of Oakland to what is happening in the desert with the 1% jetting into Burning Man.
When asked about the type of comedy in the piece, Werner shares that the piece evolved from slapstick parody—”There are only so many hippie drum circle jokes you can tell”—and that to turn this into a full-length piece with a narrative arc, it required years of research and working with a script coach to develop the storyline, the conflict, and deep driving desires of the lead characters.
However, even after years of work, Werner and co-producer Danny Marin were in talks with Bay Area theaters about producing an immersive production of the musical in 2020. With the global pandemic closing theaters and canceling all in-person productions, they had to go back to the drawing board.
“What growing up in Oakland, Berkeley, and Alameda has taught me,” Werner shares, “is the notion of the ‘Oakland hustle.’ Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal have it. Too Short and E-40 have it. It is that no matter what happens, you have to keep pivoting and find creative ways to get your work out there.”
And Werner found a creative way, partnering with Streaming Musicals to film a stage version of the show in April 2021, which will be released on Broadway On Demand on August 27th.
So, how does all of this connect back to Oakland? Werner shares with us a speech late in the film that the protagonist Molly gives to rally people dressed as sheep at Burning Man. She wants them to join her in protesting her tech billionaire boss who’s trying to buy the desert where Burning Man happens. Molly speaks through a megaphone:
“We are not going to BAA! into that good night and have our dreams deferred by culture vultures stealing what we create.
They have already gentrified my hometown of Oakland, but I gotta draw the line somewhere. And for me today, that line is here.”
Burning Man: The Musical is available on Broadway On Demand and other streaming sites starting August 27th, 2021. Get your tickets at http://burningmanthemusical.com/.