For her master’s thesis at Columbia film school, Brett Levner wrote and directed a short film about her father. Its title, The Lucky One, referred to his affectionate term for the last cigarette in a pack.
“My father wanted to continue smoking even as he was dying from cancer,” Levner says. “Sometimes you have to let go and let a person live how they want to.”
Twenty years later, she’s still looking difficult subjects right in the eye. While teaching film at a Marin County community college several years ago, she saw a teenager working a street corner in Berkeley. Levner and some students made a short film about sex trafficking called The Track.
When she got a teaching position at UNLV in 2011, she expanded the idea into a full-length feature. It traces the unlikely encounter between Barbie, who’s trapped by a pimp, and Caren, a middle-aged teacher struggling to recover from the loss of her daughter. Caren finds in Barbie a reason to get her life together, but learns there are complications inherent in rescuing a troubled stranger.
The final cut was finished this year. “We pulled in students and former students and people they knew, and they were supportive in a way I hadn’t encountered before in New York or L.A. I really came to love Vegas, and that’s why I wanted to highlight the parts, like Downtown and Boulder City, that people don’t always see.”
Audiences are responding to the inspirational story. The Track won best local feature at the Las Vegas Film Festival in June, and Levner is waiting to hear from other festivals while seeking distribution.
Meanwhile, she’s at work on her next feature, Super Bully. A teen girl befriends a neighbor who’s ostracized from the superhero community when his fellow vigilantes find out he’s transgender. A complicated story — just the way Levner likes them. Heidi Kyser
As with Monet and his lilies, so too with artist Christopher Jones and the inspiration in his backyard. “I love the effect the sun has in this city,” he says. “It ruins things. I love it.” Artists are products of their place, is what he’s saying, and Jones has morphed the brute fact of Vegas sun damage into an aesthetic of deterioration and exposure that you can see in the faded, sagging and crumbling elements of his art.
For his piece in the county Government Center (hurry, it comes down September 8), Jones reemphasized the vitality of place. To a 14-foot rotating tower he affixed bits of sun-blanched paper flotsam he picked up near his Downtown home. He cut, edited and layered these handbills, posters, pamphlets, handwritten signs and trash into a resonating meta-voice representing his community, a tower of local babble. He’s drawn to scraps of character revelation — the meanings inherent in the way someone scrawled a lost-pet poster, or the font chosen for a flier: What audience did the creator have in mind? What purpose? For Jones, it’s a textured, cumulative expression of the humanity in the place he lives. One that evolves as Jones continually adds to it — good news, no doubt, for the county workers who have to look at it daily. An artist who thinks like that is one to watch.
“There’s this idea that people used to find these items really personal,” he says. “I try to understand, who are these people?” Then he converts their castoffs into art and gives it back. Scott Dickensheets
Eighteen-year-old Lila Brissette will write poems on whatever’s at hand — scraps of paper, notebook pages, an open Google Docs window, receipts. They’re roving, open-eyed poems about faith, love, and wonder.
“I try to describe these feelings that I just want to hold on to for a second longer,” says the recent Las Vegas Academy graduate. “With poetry, I guess you could say I’m trying to tag experiences with words.”
And yet, as captured in her poetry, those feelings and experiences are touched with subtle irony. From one of her love poems titled, “on the back of a roberto’s taco shop receipt”: “we look up and face the/ same questions,/ we look down and sight/ the same precarious fall./ we look to our future./ maybe, it’ll turn out the/ same/ as if i had just looked/ a little to the left.” Other poems ambitiously weave together religious imagery, mythological figures and everyday life in Las Vegas.
That ambition is what caught the attention of Clark County Poet Laureate Bruce Isaacson, who awarded Brissette the Poetry Promise Award earlier this year. “She does this thing in many of her longer prose poems of mixing religious and personal feeling, and it all mixes together in an interesting way. At any given reading, you’ll hear a whole range of styles.”
Brissette plans to enroll at UNLV as a science major. She wants to be a research physicist — specifically, an orbital dynamatrician, a scientist who helps plot the paths of spacecraft and satellites in their journey outward. But whatever her course, she says poetry will remain an integral part of her life. “There’s no way I’m going to stop writing.” One suspects a boundless poetic trajectory. Andrew Kiraly
When Darren “Daz” Weller left his native Australia for Las Vegas in 2010, he gave up more than free health care and the unironic use of “barbie.” He also left behind a career as a successful actor in Sydney’s bustling theater community. It was worth it, Weller says, to join his then-boyfriend, Toby Allen, whose Human Nature show was doing well here.
“I managed to find a way to stay on a visa that would not allow me to work, which was hard for me,” Weller says. “Around that time, we decided to have kids.”
In March 2013, Harvey and Roxane were born. Weller wasn’t exactly a stay-at-home dad — the Supreme Court’s reversal of DOMA had made it possible for him and Allen to get married, so Weller got a work visa. In addition to acting in Las Vegas Little Theatre productions, he was resident director of Vegas Nocturne, which had a short run at Rose. Rabbit. Lie. But it wasn’t until last season that he felt he was really back in the game.
“The kids started going to preschool, and I had a few hours in the day to do something for myself,” he says. “I auditioned for The Hound of the Baskervilles at Nevada Conservatory Theatre and got the role of Sherlock Holmes. That kind of opened the door, and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m back!’”
A seasoned thespian who long ago swore off working for free, Weller was encouraged by the growth of professional theater locally. A few artistic directors have led a movement to pay actors, increasing performance quality and audience loyalty. This season, Weller says, he’ll even get paid to direct Rebecca Gilman’s Spinning into Butter at Cockroach Theatre. He’s also directing Macbeth for NCT and acting in The Beauty Queen of Leenane for A Public Fit.
“I’ve always wanted to play the older brother in that one,” Weller says. “And I’m old enough now.” Heidi Kyser