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Big Data and Jazz Hands: How One Company Aims to Bring Silicon Valley to Broadway

Apples and Oranges Studios, the firm that has been on the producing team of Broadway shows including “An American in Paris” and “Memphis,” has launched a nonprofit arm that aims to develop new stage work and introduce theatermakers to the entrepreneurial thinking of Silicon Valley.

Called Apples and Oranges Arts, the nonprofit will unveil the early fruits of its first development initiatives in a presentation at Irvine’s Barclay Theater. The presentation, “Accelerate! The Magic of Making Musicals,” will showcase the projects that have been developed by the early iterations of the organization’s Theatre Accelerator (styled as THEatre ACCELERATOR by the company).

The pitch is: We’ve mashed up Silicon Valley and Broadway,” said Tim Kashani, who’s been the head of tech company IT Mentors for 20 years and co-founded Apples and Oranges with his wife Pamela in 2008. “We choose to accelerate the middle part of the Broadway development process.”

That middle part he’s talking about is the gap between a 29-hour development workshop and a full production, where projects can often stall. The Accelerator program aims to speed things along with insights from the tech world, including “growth-hacking” an audience base and using data points to help guide creative revisions.

It’s a potentially eyebrow-raising strategy, especially for the theater purists who believe that creative work should remain unsullied by commercial concerns. Brian Adam Davis, whose show “The Next Fairy Tale” went through two development phases with A&O and will be among the projects showcased Aug. 26, admitted to some initial trepidation.

“It did raise my hackles at first, the idea of making choices for your story based on data,” Davis said. “I thought of data as boring scientific survey stuff, but data can be answers to questions like: Whose story is this? What moved you the most? It can be creative information.”

“The Next Fairy Tale” — about a prince out to rescue his true love, who is another prince — went through both phases of the Accelerator. In the first phase, creatives participate in two weeks of online educational sessions that include virtual meetings with mentors drawn from the theater world (such as Van Kaplan, Tara Smith, Michael Price) and the tech community (Jim Scheinman, Julia Popowitz, Randi Zuckerberg). At the end of those weeks, participants pitch their projects, “Shark Tank” style, to tech and theater vets and get feedback.

Projects that move on to the 12-week second phase get a $15,000 stipend and the resources to get the show ready for some sort of production, from a regional theater staging to a webisode. In some instances, creatives are brought down to Orlando — where one of the Accelerator’s partner organizations, the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, is located — for development with local actors.

The Accelerator has also partnered with University of California, Irvine in Orange County, where the Irvine Barclay Center is located. Along with “The Next Fairy Tale,” shows to be excerpted at the Aug. 26 performance include 80s-set aerobics tale “Spandex,” an adaptation of “The Count of Monte Cristo,” “Freaky Friday”-style high school comedy “Changing Minds” and “Gold Mountain,” a love story set during the construction of the first transcontinental railroad.

Kashani said Apples and Oranges is currently planning for the Accelerator’s next edition of Phase One, running Sept. 18-29, and is working towards an industry showcase of Phase 2 projects, along the lines of the annual festival presented in New York by the National Alliance for Musical Theatre. Meanwhile, Apples and Oranges are collaborating with Davis on a full production of “The Next Fairy Tale” in 2018.

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