Concocting OscarRiot

Uniting a notorious mayor and a feminist rock band

Starting to set a stage program is like writing the first sentence of a book. You have some idea what the book is about, but you’re not sure where it’s going to take you until you write it.

Curating for Life is Beautiful is both exciting and frightening.

It feels good that I’m not “limited” to the subjects of health and medicine. Although, I didn’t take that limit all that seriously at TEDMED. I made it my signature to push those boundaries by including talks from people outside of health and medicine. In addition to serious talks about medicine, the most successful talks I curated were often the “surprise” fits for a medical conference. These included Andrew Solomon’s talk on love and identity, the world’s most revered ant researcher E.O. Wilson, Diane Kelly’s talk about mysteries of male anatomy, and my personal favorite category: remarkable artists with something to teach medical experts about movement, grace, and discovery.

In examining the brand, “Life is Beautiful,” I felt almost too much freedom. Calling the talk series the “Learning Pillar” complicated the choice. It was a Goldilocks problem. The 40 talks couldn’t all be motivational talks. It’s too repetitive. They couldn’t all be informative talks either. It’s too academic. This series had to be ju-u-u-u-st right.

Dipping into my own advice, I knew the best place to start is right where you are and I…well, I was right in Downtown Las Vegas. If Life is Beautiful’s brand was about finding people and stories that are moving through challenging times – I thought cities have a story of resilience too. In fact, the festival was taking place in the heart of the largest redevelopment effort, the Downtown Project.

Asking founder Tony Hsieh was a little too obvious, at least by himself. And he wasn’t the start of the effort anyway. That had been Jennifer and Michael Cornthwaite, who followed a small but determined group of small business owners lured to the area by permits offered by Mayor Oscar Goodman.

Hmmm…Oscar Goodman? The mafia defense lawyer turned 3-time mayor of Las Vegas. I’d seen his book “Being Oscar” at the Mob Museum. The cover art showed him in customary style, holding his signature martini in one hand, while escorting an extravagantly feathered showgirl on either arm.

Pairing the flamboyant elder statesman who’d made his money with his words…with Tony Hsieh? Tony appeared to be the opposite, a Silicon Valley e-commerce whiz kid who hates uttering a single syllable more than is needed. In true connect-the-dots-backwards fashion, both were unlikely candidates for driving the economic growth of a city.

Now I was getting somewhere.

This is what Learning is Beautiful speaker, TEDMED speaker, and MOTH storyteller Peter Aguero and I like to call, the “shitty first draft.” It’s an idea you can rationalize and make sound good. This idea got me started, but bored me to tears. It was too obvious.

The second thing I hated about the idea was that Tony and the Mayor already knew each other. They were comfortable with each other. I wasn’t adding to their experience. And that isn’t the point of Learning.

Learning is uncomfortable, and I think there’s something charming about that. I wanted the speakers to model that for the audience.

So I read Oscar’s book on how he became the controversial defender of the justice system and eventually the controversial champion of Las Vegas. And his book basically came down to one key theme: the so-called “bad guys” had rights too. And, if you didn’t know what you stood for, much like the justice system, life was going to eat you up.

If there was one message I hope the millennial audience of Life is Beautiful Festival-goers would understand while absorbing this curated program, it is this:
What you stand for is who you are.

Oscar wasn’t necessarily the most likely person to share this direct message with the millennials in the crowd, though. I loved that challenge. I knew I needed a bridge to people this audience would identify with more closely.

Strangely enough, that’s when I realized, that the perfect counterpart to Oscar wasn’t Tony. It was the jailed Russian punk feminist protest band of the arts collective…Pussy Riot.

Now all I had to do was get them both to come to a Festival that was heavily advertising performances by Kanye West, Outkast, and the Foo Fighters. Hmmm…maybe they both like Lionel Richie?

And, by uniting a mayor and a punk band, I’d ignited the program.

Music? Check. Art? Check. Learning. Double check.