A little over 10 years ago I met Stephen Fife when I was cast in a production of a play that he had adapted. He was at the theatre every night, he was passionate about every detail, and he was as intensely involved at closing night as he was on opening night.
In a word, he was inspiring.
Soon after, our paths crossed at the Actors Studio, where he was a Playwright of the Actors Studio West Playwrights/Directors Unit, and I remember it as an interesting time when actors and writers had an opportunity to collaborate.
And most recently I was shooting a production at the Odyssey Theatre when I bumped into Steve again, who shared with me his passion about arts and culture in LA. He started writing for Better Lemons soon after. I looked forward to his opinion pieces, his recommendations, and his writings in general.
I now am completely thrilled that he is taking on the responsibilities as the Editor in Chief for Better Lemons.
Please send Steven a warm welcome and let him know if you have any passion for the Los Angeles arts that you would like to share with us.
Publisher, Better Lemons
Ten years ago I was an intern at LA Stage Alliance. One day Lee Melville, who was the Editor of LA Stage Magazine (like an actual magazine made of paper), came to us interns and asked us if we'd like to write an interview for the publication. I immediately said yes, whilst simultaneously having a flashback to my senior year of high school.
Lying in the center of my room in the fetal position, my mother comes in, “Oh my god honey what's wrong!”
“Essay,” is all I can muster. I used to love writing but something twisted senior year and now anytime I had to write something I'd have an anxiety attack.
“You are a beautiful writer,” my mother exclaims. “You are a beautiful writer.”
I took me a long time to believe her - the first step towards that was saying “Yes” to Lee Melville. I was so nervous conducting that first interview, even more nervous writing it, but Lee guided me along the way and kept asking for more articles. He was a wonderful mentor and I was deeply saddened by his death nearly four years ago - his love for the LA theatre community is what has inspired me the most.
With writing for LA Stage, I discovered a passion for interviewing artists - I love hearing about what inspires them, what drives them, the challenges they face, the magic they make. I also have a deep, deep love for Los Angeles - I firmly believe this city needs more coverage of the arts. We need the rest of the world to know that we are a culturally rich and diverse city, “Hollywood” is only one aspect of our identity - this city is brimming with artists who are passionate, creative and imaginative. They deserve to be recognised and celebrated.
When offered the Editor in Chief position of Better Lemons, I immediately said yes. Again, that same flashback of my mother came rushing to my mind, this time with a different resonance. For me, the hesitation of saying yes wasn't from insecurity, it was because my mother was dying - I didn't know if I'd have the time or headspace to dedicate to the site. Yet, I could hear my mother's never ending encouragement in the back of my mind, so I took the leap.
When my mother died, I wrote about continuing on with creating despite living with immeasurable grief. It's been four months since she's passed and I've been blessed to have gone from production to production to production. I'm still grappling with the grief, but I'm thankful to have the work to keep me busy. Making theatre is my passion and what a joy it is to be able to do what I love.
It is for this reason that I'm not continuing as Editor for Better Lemons. My priority will always be making theatre. I will continue to do interviews and write about theatre when I can, but Better Lemons deserves a leader who can dedicate more time moving it forward. Which is why I'm delighted Stephen Fife is taking over the helm. He's an incredible writer with a wide range of experience in writing for and about the arts. I have no doubt that he will do great work for arts and culture coverage in Los Angeles.
My deepest gratitude to Better Lemons in allowing me to help it transition into this new chapter of the site, and I look forward to watching it grow.
Love it, hate it or feel indifferent about it, Damien Chazelle's film La La Land is more than just a movie for those of us in the arts living in the Hollywood area. Dealing as it does with the unexpected and yet somehow inevitable love affair between two aspiring artists, a jazz pianist (Sebastion) and an actress (Mia), La La Land uses the landscape and the reality of the world in which we live here to spin elaborate romantic fantasies about the vagaries of fate. That is, as we pursue the fulfillment of our professional hopes and dreams, is there indeed a destiny that can be achieved by persistence and hard work, or it all simply the luck of the draw, with very little regard for talent or deserving?
After having watched the movie twice and read the published screenplay - which is significantly different in some crucial respects from the film -- I do feel a lot of admiration for what the 31 year old Mr. Chazelle was able to accomplish. He has a great sense of rhythm, pace and visual imagination - qualities he also displayed in his earlier film, Whiplash. He's a sharp observer of nuance between characters - take a close look at that scene between Sebastian and his older sister (Laura), where we learn everything we need to know about Seb in a scene that never stops moving forward -- as well as the nuance of the entertainment industry itself, veering between documentary-like depictions (those heartless casting sessions) and tongue-in-cheek lampooning (the "hot" screenwriter, Carlo, who is starting a franchise based on the Goldilocks story written as a home-invasion thriller.) More than that, this guy can write some multi-faceted dialogue, even when it comes to diehard romantic conventions. It's harder to appreciate out of context, but take a look at this exchange early on when Seb helps Mia try to track down where her car is parked:
MIA: Strange that we keep running into each other.
SEB: It is strange. Maybe it means something.
MIA: I doubt it.
SEB: Yeah, I don't think so either.
These lines give Gosling and Stone so much to work with as they navigate the perilous tightrope of attraction. Such a nice sense of spontaneity without ever forcing the characters to talk about how difficult it is to trust each other. Add to this the visual excitement he stirs up in La La Lands's first and last 10 minutes - each as pleasurable a piece of pure filmmaking as any American film in recent memory -- and there is no overstating it. This guy's got game.
There are, however, two things in this admirable film that I have to take issue with -- one of which goes back directly to the La La Land that we live in, and something that I don't think Mr. Chazelle accurately captured.
Okay, and this is where I guess should say that warning, something of a hallmark of our times: SPOILER ALERT! As if you who have followed me this far wouldn't have figured out by now that I'm going to be discussing this film in some depth. But the last thing I want is even one reader lying awake at night, quaking with anger at having some surprise spoiled. The essence of life is surprise - find it wherever you can, keep it close to your heart.
One of the hardest things about writing that ventures into the world of romance -- especially hetero romance -- is being equally fair to both characters. The terrain of love/relationships is so littered with emotional, political and neurotic minefields -- well, I think we all get the perils, especially when a man is doing the writing. In my (admittedly male) opinion, I think the young Mr. Chazelle acquits himself pretty well. Sebastian and Mia both seem like recognizable inhabitants of SoCal, the kind of folks who slave away at demanding and often demeaning jobs while waiting for their lives to take off.
What I have trouble with, though - and where I think that La La Land goes slightly off the rails - is in Mia's decision to write a one-woman show for herself. In fact, it's not even Mia's idea to do it - she takes her cue from Sebastian telling her that's what she should be doing, based on Mia's having told him that she used to make up stories and act them out when she was a kid. Huh? Say what?
Hey, take it from this Twisted Hipster - a veteran of 25 years in New York theater and 20 years in Los Angeles theater -- it's HARD to write a good play, much less a good full-length one person show. HARD. Just because you made up little skits when you were a kid doesn't mean you have what it takes to command a stage for 70 minutes. And there's nothing in Mia's personality or life experience to make us believe she can do it. (She's not an introvert, not a word person, not a great storyteller.) It kind of makes sense that Sebastian suggests it -- he wants her to be special and believes she can do anything! And it kind of makes sense that Mia would take a shot at it, wanting to please him, to live up to this crazy idea he has of her. But there's no way she would go through with it. No way. She's too smart to court such certain disaster. And her friends would head her off at the pass, they would sit her down and tell her: girl, what are you thinking? You don't have the chops to write a good monologue, much less a good show. And the risk of money and reputation just isn't worth it.
It's telling that -- while we see several examples of jazz and Sebastian's obsession with it - we don't see a single moment of Mia's show. We see her scribbling down ideas, we see her pre-show, and we see the lights come up on the skeletal crew of an audience when the show is over, but Chazelle cannot even imagine a highlight for us. We hear afterwards that she cannot even afford to pay the rent on the theater -- something that is highly unlikely, since every theater owner I'm aware of demands full payment in advance, especially for a one night rental. Then again, just getting the show up at all takes the cooperation of friends and fellow artists, none of whom seem to be involved in helping Mia make this happen.
No, as a screenwriter myself, I understand what young Chazelle had in mind. Mia has to crash and burn doing this crazy idea that Sebastian had for her - which is then redeemed when it turns out that a casting person was in her skeletal audience (wow!) and this casting person will become the agent in making all her dreams come true (double wow!) Because ultimately it's all about the power of love to transform the ordinary into the magical, and it's about belief - believing in the power of that love - that makes the transformation possible.
(But really - a major casting person goes to a small theater in North Hollywood to see an unknown actress in the one performance of her one woman show? Love may make miracles happen, but this is truly one for the ages.)
It's a credit to Damien Chazelle's skill as a filmmaker, I suppose, that his romantic fable succeeds in seducing us to the degree that it does. He knows the world of jazz and the industry town that is Hollywood to a remarkable degree. But the reality of making theater here and what it takes to put on a play?
Not so much, amigo. No, not so much.
ps - Here's a fun read about why no one went to Mia's solo show.
"Everything is political."
That was the word on the street in the late '60s and '70s, when the Twisted Hipster came of age.
The age came by it honestly: From the assassination of JFK to the anti-Vietnam War movement to the killings of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King and the riots at the 1968 Democratic convention, to Watergate and the Iran Hostage Crisis - it was truly a turbulent age and one the contributing factors to twisting up the inner life and expectations of any hipster, including this one.
Many years have passed since then, and our national focus has been more on that twisted inner life and the emotional fallout from those turbulent times. But now we have Trump - an atrocity with a bad hair weave. A cult leader who hides behind any shred of decency until he doesn't have to and reveals himself for the predatory freak that he is - witness his recent rescinding of transgender protections, after earnestly promising to be their champion.
Now comes his exclusion of The New York Times, CNN, Politico and several other media outlets from his most recent press conference - just think if President Obama had tried anything like that. Richard Nixon was bad, but he was never this bad. This is boldly undemocratic. UNDEMOCRATIC. Please consider that word. Trump claims to represent "The People," even though he lost the election by 3 million votes. (Oh, and what happened to all those claims of "illegal voters"? Just another bright shiny object used to distract our attention from the bigger crimes that he is surely committing.)
The fact is, Trump received the fewest electoral votes since Jimmy Carter - the last one term president, something that the Twisted Hipster also sees in Trump's future. He keeps touting what an "incredible" victory he had, how "huge" it was. And when a reporter corrects this misinformation, he merely brushes it aside - oh my God.
The Twisted Hipster has lived through Nixon, Reagan and Bush W. Trump is Nixon on acid. Trump is Nixon without the statesmanship. Trump is Reagan without the personal likeability. The Twisted Hipster yelled at the TV screen for Reagan's 8 years, as he deregulated business restrictions. The Twisted Hipster yelled at the TV screen for another 8 years as W nearly destroyed our economy. But this Orange-Haired Menace is so much worse than them all - not even close. He got elected by Trumpeting his not being a politician, and somehow that worked just enough. Now he wants to be King Donald, and he has declared war on the press - ignoring the fact that this is the First Amendment for a good reason. There is no democracy without it.
The Twisted Hipster is an artist who has also proudly worked as a journalist. He was hired by The Village Voice right out of college to write theater feature articles and wrote several during his 18 month tenure there (before his job was phased out for financial reasons). But this was The Village Voice at the end of its heyday, and the young TH was privileged to share a newsroom with the likes of Jack Newfield, Nat Hentoff, Andrew Sarris, James Woolcott, Karen Durbin, Bob Christgau, Richard Goldstein, Alexander Cockburn, Erika Munk and so many others, all under the leadership of Maryanne Partridge - perhaps the first female editor at a major news outlet. (Not counting Katherine Graham, who owned the Washington Post.) TH's editor was Ross Wetzsteon, a legendary name in Off-Off-Broadway theater circles for helping to put together the Obie Awards for years. Ross was not warm and fuzzy, he wasn't a friend, but he was a very serious journalist who has mentored many current journalists, including Charles McNulty at the Los Angeles Times. Ross had studied writing with Vladimir Nabokov at Princeton, and he was ruthless in terms of applying those stylistic lessons to those he edited. Thank you, Ross, for the indelible lessons.
The TH went on to write for many publications, including In These Times, American Theatre, The Sunday New York Times "Arts & Leisure" section and The New Republic. He also delved into hard news, being the only journalist to meet with boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter in maximum security prison after Carter's reconviction. The TH sounded the alarm that justice still hadn't been served, but nobody listened. It took six more years for Carter to get his case heard in Federal Court, where he finally gained his freedom for the very reasons that the TH had written about. While jubilant that Carter was finally free, the TH felt nothing but a deep sadness for the five years that Carter spent in prison after the article had been written. (The New York Times actually bought it for their Sunday Magazine, but then cancelled its publication after complaints from Selwynn Raab, who had broken the original story of Carter's frame-up; the TH knows this is how it went down because Mr. Raab called at 10:37 pm one night to boast about it.)
The TH had issues with journalism - namely, its Trendiness. Hard to believe, but the word "demographic" was rarely used outside of academic circles before the early 1980s, Similarly, it was still possible to have a genuine conversation with artists about their art until around that same time, when everything started becoming publicity. That is, it was no longer about the art or the artist's authentic voice, it was only about getting your face out there, reaching your demographic. Which made the TH not a journalist but a grossly-underpaid publicist. And if the TH had wanted to be a publicist or advertising copywriter, then he would have done so.
One thing the Twisted Hipster can say absolutely: the journalists he observed and worked with were deathly serious about sources and verification. The instances of writers making up "FAKE NEWS" and getting away are very rare - most recently, the "Rape on Campus" article in Rolling Stone in 2015. But the fact-checkers at most publication are the most relentless and driven of all employees. They will call you five or six times a day if there is even a shadow of a question about the veracity of anything you have written. They will chase you down and disturb your dinner with friends until you have answered their questions to their satisfaction. To call these people purveyors of "FAKE NEWS" is obscene and an insult to journalists and seekers of truth everywhere.
But the insult is not personal, it's political - as is everything else now.
Yes, "everything is political" once again.
And the Twisted Hipster is honored to join the ranks of such "enemies of the people" once again at such a critical moment.
While BETTER LEMONS is an arts website devoted largely to the Los Angeles theater community, it is also an instrument for delivering the truth to its readers. The TH would like to thank Ashley Steed and Enci Box (who 10 years ago was acting in one of the Twisted Hipster's plays) for this opportunity.
The Twisted Hipster pledges to keep it real in a time when our gaslighter-in-chief is doing the opposite. (See what all that emphasis on Trendiness leads to? The sad imitation of a president that we have today.) The TH pledges to give you the artist's point of view, and to keep telling the truth - as he did in the case of "Hurricane" Carter.
Here's hoping you will keep listening.