INTRO TO BETTER-LEMONS NEW EDITOR, STEVE FIFE

Well, here we are - on the verge of a new chapter for Better-Lemons.com, and certainly something different for me.   I've been writing since I was 15 - that's a while ago, folks - and I've been a journalist in many venues - New York Times, Village Voice, New Republic, so many others - but mostly I've just been a writer, and even then, mostly a freelancer.  That's been by choice.  I have liked the freedom of not being tied down to a staff job with regular meetings and office politics and all that.  I've done a lot of editing, but even then it's been as much on a freelance basis as possible.  Then again, I do a lot of other kinds of writing too - plays, movies, poems, novels, memoirs, sketch comedy, photography - art is long and life is short, and there's never enough time to do everything.  Most of my journalism was written when I lived in New York City, where I grew up, but when I ran into Enci a few months ago at the Odyssey, I asked if there's was a place for me at the revamped website, and she said yes and introduced me to Ashley Steed, and the "Twisted Hipster" was born.  I've really enjoyed getting back to that.  And then when she approached me a week ago about taking on this editorial job, I tried my best to say no.  I've had a great experience with Ashley, and I really didn't see myself as a good choice.  Time may prove my first instinct right, who knows, but when Enci mentioned that she wanted to expand Better-Lemons into a website that could cover all the arts - or provide as much coverage as possible - then I did see a role I could play in making that happen.  While the majority of my writing has been about theater, I've also written quite a bit about film, painting and literature.  I've also written about politics, and - on the hard news side - I was the only journalist to meet with boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter in maximum security prison (when I was 24) between the time of his re-conviction for double murder and his release by a Federal Judge.  So I thought that this could be a good opportunity to make use of my varied background and very unusual skill-set, to connect with other writers and provide whatever guidance and insight my experience has given me.  And perspective - yes, perhaps the only great thing about getting older - other than the fact that I'm still here - is that I have a hell of a lot more perspective about what is possible and what is important than I used to.  And I hope that this can be of some help to the other writers at Better-Lemons.  I do know what draws me into a story and what repels me as well, and I will be quick to let you know when I think you're on to something, or when you've strayed off the path - a path that was probably your idea in the first place.

The other thing is, I really believe in the importance of Better-Lemons and the service that it provides, both to the arts community and to readers.  Having been a playwright and book writer, working almost exclusively on the indie level of little if any publicity and very small budgets, I know how hard it is to get coverage, even when I've done something that is well-reviewed.  I also know that feeling of having shouted at the top of my voice and having still not been heard.  The variety of artistic activity in the Los Angeles area is overwhelming, and the majority of it is not taking place at large institutions like Center Theatre Group or Disney Hall or LACMA.  (Not that those places don't deserve our attention as well, especially when they make bold choices and take risks.)  In many cases, we are the only media outlet that will shine a light on outstanding work that otherwise would go unnoticed.  It's also up to us to provide alternative points of view for looking at artists and artistic activity that will expand the reader's perspective and get a dialogue going.  And that kind of dialogue - which is so essential to the purpose of art, and to the ongoing life of a functioning democracy - has never been more necessary than at the present moment, when Trump and his minions are trying so hard to demonize the Other - whoever that happens to be at any particular time - and to shut down dialogue and debate.

As I've written in my columns, the current social climate is not business as usual for this so-called democracy.  As bad as things have gotten under other presidents, I've never felt so threatened and so outside the mainstream as I do now.  It was the primary reason that I asked Enci if there was a place for me at Better-Lemons, because it didn't feel right anymore to sit at home working on screenplays that will not be seen for two or three years, if indeed they're ever made.  As much as I need to make money - never more than now, when I have a daughter entering USC Film School next fall  - I really felt the need to get my voice out there and make an impact.  Not allow myself to be silenced, not allow other writers with something to say and the ability to say it to be denied that basic right to have your point of view heard.  And you have my word that I will do everything I can to support your voice, whether I agree with your opinion or not, as long as it's sincere and makes a positive contribution to the social dialogue.  There are limitations on what I can do, of course - time, energy, all those things - but I will certainly be there as much as I can to support whatever you have it in mind to do.  (My technical limitations are another thing - I'm doing my best to get up to speed on the workings of the website, and I'm not Luddite, but please have patience with me at the outset.)  I believe that there is something sacred in what we're doing, in the service we're providing, in a time of such hate-filled rhetoric and intolerance.  So much of that hate and anger is voiced by people in the shadows, and we are there to shine a light and bring attention to works of artistic merit that provide a counterpoint to an implicit or explicit censorship.

Finally, I just want to thank Ashley Steed again for all her hard work and for her encouragement along the way, which will be missed, no doubt, but which I will do my best to emulate.  And I want to thank Enci Box for continuing the mission of Better-Lemons to provide a grassroots view of art and artists and artistic activity in the Los Angeles area.  I have known Enci for 12 years now, ever since she was cast in a production of a play I adapted, and I've always known her heart to be in the right place.  I am humbled by your belief in me, and I will do my best to make you feel good about your choice.

Looking forward to getting to know all the writers and to hearing more from the readers and to publishing great columns and articles and interviews - and to making a difference in the way people view the arts and the role it plays in their lives.  And here we go.

 


Creativity in a Time of Grief

Although I've officially been the Editor in Chief of the new and improved Better Lemons since November, this is my first article. I've sat down a few times to write something - about how we need to be taking risks and creating magic on our stages, about bringing the theatre community together, about my passion for the performing arts and my deep deep love and appreciation for LA theatre. However, every time I sat down to write, nothing came out. I've had a terrible case of writer's block, which is really a pain for any form of writer. The past few months, I've had trouble focusing - I couldn't think about risks, or community, or even theatre magic because I was busy thinking, or rather worrying, about my mother.
Although my mother encouraged me to study architecture as a backup plan, she never discouraged me from pursuing a career in the performing arts. In fact, after a mental breakdown from too many sleepless nights in the architecture studio, I told my mother that I was officially switching to theatre. Her first words were, “I'm so sorry I ever convinced you to study architecture. The stage is always where you've belonged.”  I, however, wasn't sorry. She knew just how difficult life was and she made sure to prepare me for anything and everything. I loved my time in architecture, but it's not where my heart was. She was right, for me it was always the stage.
At the end of 2015 my mother saw me act for the first time since high school. I was in Love and Information at Son of Semele. She walked in and I could hear her laughing from backstage, proudly telling everyone that she was my mother, her joy overflowing. I was so happy for her to see me on stage again. Yet, there was also deep deep concern. My mother had cirrhosis of the liver and it was taking its toll on her. She had been very unsteady her trip to LA to see the show and by this point there had been countless falls throughout the year and even more hospital visits. There was now a shroud of anxiety around my mother - as if she would spontaneously combust or crack into a million little pieces.
This past year, I decided to lead a devised show for a festival (opening soon). I started the project just after I put my mother into hospice, knowing that she probably wouldn't make it to Christmas. The producer asked me if I wanted to hold off, maybe produce my show later. When my mother was still “with it” she told me she didn't want me to stop living my life because of her illness. Thus, I told the producer, “The best way to honor my mother, is to do the work.”  And that's exactly what I did.
Throughout this intense creation process I've had to deal with calls nearly every other day about my mother's decline. Over Thanksgiving I emptied out her apartment, but made sure no one told her - she still thought there was a chance she could go home. Though a trained actor, I've never been good at lying. Pretending that she could one day leave was one of the hardest roles of my life. However, this was the stage I was standing on - the role of caretaker. After emptying out her apartment and selling all her belongings, she asked me, “when do I get to go home?” I simply replied, “well, mama, let's see what the doctors say, ok?”
It always took me at least a couple of days to recover from visiting my mother. I'd cry while trying to be brave for her. I'd try even harder to be patient with her. However, I've never had time to wallow or rest because, just like my mother, I am a workaholic. There were points during rehearsals for the devised piece where I wondered if I should have waited to do the show. At the same time, I was also grateful to have the distraction.
We took two weeks off of rehearsal for the holidays. I was going to spend the break doing some work for the show to ensure it would be ready for tech mid-January. Of course, no work got done. My mother made it to Christmas but by that point was already in a long process of dying.
I watched a lot of doctor shows growing up (my mom's favorite), they don't depict just how awful and traumatic dying can be. There was no peaceful “I love you” or her simply closing her eyes and being gently taken away by angels. No. She kicked, and bit, and screamed and fought. She was weak but kept trying to get up and walk around, so the staff had to put her on a matress on the floor with some floor pads down on each side. This way she could drag herself around her room without the risk of falling. The final day she was mostly still and slowly, laboriously breathing. Why isn't any of this something shown on tv or film or stage? Maybe it's too hard to watch. Maybe it's too hard to believe. I couldn't believe it myself and I was living it.
My mother died just after midnight on Friday, December 30th at 59 years old. The first thing I felt was mainly relief - as it had been a long and tumultuous road. Nothing was ever easy for my mother, other than her love for me - which poured out freely. It certainly wasn't easy to watch this magnificent warrior woman who forged me from the ashes of all her trauma and pain to make something beautiful, slowly dwindle and waste away.
Just four days after my mother's death I had rehearsal. I didn't want to go. I felt overwhelmingly underprepared and I simply wasn't in a place to deal with people. It felt strange continuing on when I had this large chunk missing from my chest, where phantom pain had been making it difficult to breathe but easy to cry. As we say, however, the show must go on.
Slowly in that first rehearsal the fog had started to lift. I could think clearer and went nearly 6 hours without crying. I was (and am) thankful to have this creative outlet, to have my ensemble all relying on me to lead the way. They've been lifting me up everyday. What a gift. It's true, the greatest way to honor my mother is to do the work.
And so, that's just what I'll do. I'll continue to do the work. With the opening of each new show, if I sit in the theatre, close my eyes and listen, maybe, just maybe, I'll hear her amazing laugh as she proudly declares “I'm Ashley's mom.”
Thank you mama. For everything.