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‘Amherst Live’ aims to ‘wake you up,’ tunnel path from ivory tower to pop culture

The two men behind "Amherst Live," Oliver Broudy and Baer Tierkel sit outside Rao's cafe in Amherst where they hatched their plan.

The two men behind "Amherst Live," Oliver Broudy and Baer Tierkel sit outside Rao's cafe in Amherst where they hatched their plan. CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

Two big-city guys come to small-town New England, fall in love with its ways and want to spread the word.

So they gather their friends and put on a show.

Kind of like what Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland did in those chestnut 1930s musicals, says Baer Tierkel, one of the players.

Only it’s not in an old barn. It’s on stage at the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst. And it’s not song and dance, though there will be a musical performance. It will be interviews and energetic talks about politics and nature and poetry, and socializing before and after. “Amherst Live” aims to showcase what’s great about the town in stories told by people who live here.

The plan is to do four a year, with the first one on Thursday already sold out. That means 160 tickets in a small theater, but Tierkel and Oliver Broudy say they are in discussions with public television station WGBY in Springfield and area radio stations about broadcasting the event.

“I am happily surprised in people’s interest,” Tierkel said.

Tierkel, an Internet entrepreneur who moved to Amherst 10 years ago from San Francisco, and Broudy, a magazine writer who came from New York City in 2011, are the two promoting Amherst’s charms. They met with me downtown, at Rao’s Cafe, the place where they worked out their plans for “Amherst Live.”

“I started three companies here,” Tierkel said of Rao’s. Both are big fans of the Amherst cafe circuit, which also includes Amherst Coffee, Black Sheep and High Horse. Those gathering spots, they say, are where everyone knows everyone. But still, Tierkel said, he meets people who are doing things that surprise him.

The town, added Broudy, is filled with academics and artists and farmers and tech geeks and a variety of ethnic groups: All the kinds of people the pair wants to coax on stage to tell their stories. Stories, they say, that will underscore what a gem of a place Amherst is, not only for those who live here, but for disillusioned city dwellers as well, once they expand their reach beyond the Carle auditorium.

“Neighbors getting together and sharing stories among each other. It’s a very powerful thing,” said Tierkel.

Seeds of an idea

The Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland “let’s put on a show” image is one he likes to use. But truth be told, this is very much 2013, not 1933. The show, say Tierkel and Broudy, will be modeled on live events and broadcasts like TED (Technology, Design, Entertainment) talks, and the storytelling of “The Moth” and “This American Life” which have gained in popularity on public radio, podcasts and in auditoriums over the years. In fact “Amherst Live” grew out of Tierkel’s “Ignite Amherst,” a once-a-year event, also at the Carle auditorium, held to share business ideas. It presents 10 entrepreneurs who each give a quick talk while 20 slides flick by on a screen behind them. It’s based on a concept that originated in Japan.

Broudy was at one of those and was impressed.

“I went up to Baer and said ‘this is awesome.’ ” Why not do it more often with fewer people? he asked.

Tinkering with the format and going beyond the entrepreneurial angle meant ditching the Ignite brand and creating their own.

Broudy handles the content and Tierkel the business end, though right now everyone works for free and sponsors are covering costs, since tickets are just $5.

“Amherst Live,” they said, focuses on three themes, politics, nature and poetry — being the birth place of Emily Dickinson and all — and will start off with Broudy giving a folksy monologue. There will be three short interviews, conducted by Broudy, and three 15-minute talks. The first show features an Amherst College law professor discussing the recent trial of a lesbian accused of murdering her wife, a Hampshire College professor describing composting toilets and an author/poet talking about finding a dead moose in the woods. A musical guest will wrap up with a mini-set.

Tierkel and Broudy describe their content as edgy, and though the first lineup may not sound so, they insist it is. “It’s going to challenge you, wake you up,” said Tierkel. “This will not be a sleepy time,” added Broudy. He’s seen to that by working with the speakers to shape their presentations. Academics particularly need guidance to deliver their material in an engaging way, he said. The nature of their jobs doesn’t leave them time to figure out how to reach the average person, according to Broudy. He’s eager to help them. “We are creating a highway directly from the ivory tower to the popular culture,” he said. “All they have to do it step on.”

Seeing beyond Amherst they envision “Amherst Live” spreading a way of life, much the way “Prairie Home Companion” promotes Midwest values. “I hope this isn’t too egotistical, but we think there is potential demand in the rest of the nation for what the spirit of New England has to offer,” said Broudy. That spirit, after all, bit both of them.

Tierkel, 53, who runs Otalo, an Internet vacation search engine, has been involved in various other companies including Crosscut Media, event software, and Localocracy, a website that was sold to AOL’s Huffington Post three years ago. A decade ago, he and his wife, Alison Curphey, had been living in San Francisco for 15 years, after already dwelling in Boston and cities in Europe. He grew up in small-town Georgia and she in New Hampshire and they yearned to get back to a tight-knit community. So, he did a computer analysis building a database with demographics from all the small towns in America, seeking the best of the lot. “I sorted it eight million ways and Amherst kept coming up to the top,” he said.

The couple, who have two children, a son in high school and a daughter in college, dove into community life here, Curphey as a volunteer with the Unitarian Society and the schools, he as a Town Meeting member (he had never heard of Town Meeting before Amherst), schools’ fundraiser and co-author of a political newspaper column.

Broudy, 43, who is married to a psychologist, Carolyn Broudy, with children ages 2 and 3½, also got tired of city life after 10 years as a magazine writer in Manhattan. “I’d always been sold on the idea that the promise of the city was the way it could bring a whole bunch of interesting, motivated people together and some kind of frisson happens,” he said. “I bought that hook line and sinker.” Until he decided it wasn’t true.

“There’s just so much status anxiety in the city,” he said. “Everyone is too freaked out to talk to one another about working on new stuff. I rolled into Amherst and like a year and half later I walked up to Baer with an idea and he was like ‘Sure, dude, let’s do it.’ ”

That was in February. And now, that idea is about to launch. “I think towns like Amherst, towns like Northampton are becoming the new migrational destinations for people who are sensing that the city is failing them,” said Broudy.

Tierkel sees it, too, in the large percentage of city transplants he says he’s meeting in Amherst’s cafes. Others will follow if Tierkel and Broudy have their way. But Amherst, they say, is in competition with other local desirable destinations, like Northampton. “That makes it all the more important that Amherst puts it best foot forward,” said Broudy. They are focused now on burnishing the production. They have professionals serving as theatrical director, video director and sound engineer. They have a poetry editor, a music editor, a nature editor. Jason DeCaprio of High Horse Brewing and the Moan and Dove is providing beer and snacks for the schmoozing time. He’s already roaming around town, though, taking notes on a paper bag filled with fliers for this show, about ideas for the next, planned for January.

The men’s confidence is high. Tierkel brought up the old Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland movies again before we parted ways. “That’s the spirit we’re bringing to this from a passion perspective,” he said. “Mix that in with some professional production values and a lot of great people in the Valley and we think we’ve got a magical concept.”

Debra Scherban can be reached at dscherban@gazettenet.com.

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