TO SAY THAT Brandon McClenahan spent the pandemic smoking weed and playing games makes him sound like a slacker. But he’s actually an entrepreneur. Last year, the local actor combined two of his favorite pastimes — consuming cannabis and playing Dungeons & Dragons — and launched WeeDnD, a popular weekly Twitch stream in which a rotating band of adventurers gets high, slays monsters, and grabs treasure. He recently celebrated the one-year anniversary of WeeDnD. We caught up with him to discuss the comeback of the fantasy role-playing game D&D, how the pandemic helped his show, and more. (Disclosure: McClenahan once starred in a short film I cowrote and directed).
The idea of WeeDnD is both unique and familiar. How would you explain it to the average person?
It's a cannabis-positive, collaborative storytelling experience. It’s a completely original show every week. It stars a cast of some of the finest entertainers from around Las Vegas. It’s a party.
That’s why Dungeons & Dragons as a medium is so interesting to me. It involves the visual medium of art and character art. It’s storytelling, the most ancient tradition we have as a species, arguably the best thing we do. It’s myth and morality and it’s a Shakespearean epic in an improvised game every week.
Why has Dungeons & Dragons made such a mainstream comeback in recent years?
The main thing that stopped people from playing Dungeons & Dragons is that they didn't know how. And it's hard to learn how to play if you can't just see somebody do it. Now, because of YouTube, you can watch people do it. Once you see it, it looks fun and you want to do it with your friends. It's like, "Oh yeah. That looks fun as shit." Who doesn't want to be a dwarf and throw a bottle at a dragon? Come on.
The stigma of nerds is gone now, too. Nerds are cool. Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, it’s all mainstream. Nerds won the culture war. We won. Everybody's favorite movies right now are comic book movies. People love magic again.
It's not just that those movies were made, but how well they were made. Now think of it with D&D. When you watch a movie and you want a character to go right, they can't. They always go left. With D&D, you're in there. What do you want to do? Let's see what happens. It's full creative control in a safe setting to fail. You can try to save everybody and be wrong. You can save just the people you care about and be wrong. I really believe in failure as an ally in progress as a person or an artist.
Is each week a self-contained game or is it an ongoing campaign?
Right now, we have a persistent campaign. We’ve wrapped our 47th show around this campaign. It's all actually leading to — I've also built a world called Ganjaria, and it's this world where magic comes from this plant in the wild, ganja. It's a fully fleshed-out campaign fantasy setting with a lot of weed puns in it. And it's crazy to watch the characters grow and evolve. And as the actors start getting into their bones, it’s just such a treat.
Tell us about the original launch plans for WeeDnD.
We would play in-studio. We would have a core campaign that would be shot live in studio every week. That show of WeeDnD could then tour to stoner conventions, gaming conventions, and we were waiting for cannabis dispensaries and lounges to open up. We think we're a natural fit to be a part of this first wave of “green entertainment.” We're unapologetically cannabis users. I want people to see that you can be a passionate, motivated, sharp-witted person and use cannabis at the same time.
How did you pivot as the pandemic took over?
We rerouted the entire show as a digital production. The idea was just to give exposure to the brand. Let people meet us as creatives first. We just kind of found ways to operate in the current climate.
A lot of people are at home right now, so mediums like Twitch and YouTube are reaching a higher audience than before. It’s like, “Can we do something different in those spaces? Can we bring the love of theatrical storytelling that we've fostered through doing community theater for 15 years in this digital space?”
What is your viewership currently?
At any one time, our live viewership record on Twitch I think is 156 people. Our episodes average 400-600 views on Twitch, and 100-300 views on YouTube. We’re over 300 subscribers on Twitch. For a show our size, that’s virtually unheard of. We’re monetizing in a real way. We're able to cover the cost of running the studio with the show itself, and we're only doing four shows a month right now.
In a way, lockdown turned out to help your business.
It’s a weird reality to come to grips with, but it’s important to acknowledge. There is so much badness that came out of this last year, so pardon me for grasping at every good thing I could find. The reality is, had I tried to do all the things I thought I was capable of doing at that time with the knowledge I had then, I would have fallen on my face pretty hard.
I like the idea of being in a place where it’s safe to fail. And this last year, nobody was going to give you shit if your quality was a little weird or if you didn’t have it all together, because the fact that you were doing anything was a testament to your spirit and your willingness to go on. This format allowed me to fail in a way that we could grow faster.
Now that people are going out again, what are the goals for the show this year?
I can’t wait to have all the performers in here (live) for WeeDnD because nobody knows just how good it is going to be yet. These entertainers are fireworks.
Watch WeeDnD episodes at https://www.twitch.tv/arthardstudios/
THE FIRST WEEK of March, U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto released her Southern Nevada Economic Development and Conservation Act, casually known as the Clark County Lands Bill. Although it’s raised sprawl concerns among some conservation groups — most recently the Sierra Club — for proposing to open a chunk of federal land larger than Washington, D.C., to development, one thing most groups support is the bill’s proposed 52,000-acre expansion of the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. That expansion includes one area, the Bird Springs Valley addition, that would essentially hem in private land holdings on Blue Diamond Hill, site of a contentious planned community. In addition, the act would define some 1,170 acres of Red Rock outside the conservation area, in the Southwest Ridge Recreation Area, as a public park, allowing Clark County, which owns it, to charge fees and install amenities for activities such as rock climbing and ziplines. Heidi Kyser
OVER THE PAST year or so, Las Vegas-based filmmaker Hisonni Mustafa’s feature Take Out Girl has played in more than 40 film festivals (both virtual and in person), racking up awards for Mustafa and the movie’s co-writer/star, Hedy Wong. Inspired in part by Wong’s life, Take Out Girl tells the story of Tera (Wong), who starts a side business delivering drugs out of her family’s Chinese restaurant and ends up in over her head with some local criminals.
Set in LA but shot almost entirely in Las Vegas, Take Out Girl is a prime example of indie film ingenuity, with Mustafa, Wong and Mustafa’s filmmaking partner Alberto Triana (also a Vegas local) taking on numerous roles in the crew, from director to visual effects supervisor. The movie is now available on VOD, and will be playing at the virtual Nevada Women’s Film Festival June 21-27. Mustafa spoke to Fifth Street about Take Out Girl and his filmmaking experience.
How did you get involved in Take Out Girl?
Hedy Wong, the film's lead actress, co-writer and executive producer, had a first draft and the concept already. I met her, and she had a great premise, but it was just her personality and who she was that struck me as interesting. From there, I wrote my draft, which was kind of bits and pieces of her draft, and then calling her on the phone to get more information about her life, and then I implemented that. Of course, because I’m writing, there’s a lot of things that came from my prism as well, little elements of my life and whatnot.
What was the collaborative process like between you and Hedy?
That process was really easy. We didn’t expect it to happen. When we thought about the goals for the film, it looked a little strange on paper having an African-American male tell the story of an Asian-American female. But when we looked it at in terms of the basic needs of every human being, things started to look a little bit more clear. As our relationship grew, I realized that she was essentially making this film to thank her mother, to show her mother she was going to make something of herself. For me, everything I do is to tell my mom she did a good job.
My mom didn’t have the same opportunities, nor did Hedy’s, because her mother is an immigrant. My mother is Black in America and grew up in systemic poverty like I did. My mother had to make some really serious choices really quickly in her life. She didn’t necessarily fulfill her potential, and I felt like it was my job to do that. We realized how much we both loved our moms. We wrote a character and a story that is essentially about a child’s love for their mother.
How do you balance all of your different crew positions on the film?
They complement one another. For example, when it comes to my contribution to cinematography, if the shot size, composition, lighting, color and clarity don’t complement the performance, then I’m doing something wrong. If the performance is inappropriate for all of those things I just named, then they’re doing something wrong, or my direction is wrong, or the lighting needs to be adjusted. I look at it as like owning a butter factory right next to a popcorn company. All of these skills make me better at what I truly want people to see.
What was your strategy for convincingly shooting a movie in Vegas that’s set in LA?
Cheating locations, that’s kind of Hollywood's dirty little secret. They’re always doing that. For me, I figure if Hollywood has to do that for budgetary reasons, then it’s a no-brainer that I have to. Cheating Las Vegas for LA was much easier than people think, because there’s a lot of different LAs. Once I realized where I could set the film, then I could just do the legwork, drive around Las Vegas, ride my bike around Las Vegas, take pictures, until I found something where I knew it approximated that area in LA that I was trying to convey.
Do you feel like the movie is especially timely with everything happening in the world right now?
I think not only is it coming at the right time now, but in general. The entire process of making this film and immersing myself in the culture of another race and the nuances of the family dynamics of another race has just made me not only respect Chinese culture a lot more and Chinese-Americans a lot more, but it also made me realize how alike we are. And that’s what this film is going to do.
1. TUESDAY WILL MARK one year since the murder of George Floyd, and the think-piece industrial complex will dutifully blurt out terabytes of reflection, analysis, situation reports, calls for change, and gummy piety. Few of these pieces will be must-reads. Here’s one that is: essayist Tobi Haslett’s “Magic Actions,” brought to us by the large foreheads at intellectual journal n + 1. No mere recap of last summer’s events and their various aftermaths, “Magic Actions” is urgent, deeply diagnostic, and has no patience at all with wishy-washy platitudes about post-Chauvin progress or smug tsk-tsking over property damage during the demonstrations. “(T)he whole drama of the Derek Chauvin trial — its obscenity and thin catharsis — would not have taken place at all were it not for last year’s riots.” That rebuke to the riots-don’t-solve-anything bromides occurs in the second sentence, and Haslett doesn’t let up. Toggling between on-the-ground recollections and big-picture history, sociology, and politics, his fierce intelligence spares few but always makes compelling arguments and connections. Block out a bit of time; it’s not a short work. But it’s a necessary one.
2. When I heard that The New Yorker had published a longread about UFOs, I immediately pictured the magazine’s jaunty mascot, Eustace Tilley, examining a flying saucer through his monocle. That turned out to be pretty close. Although its main stem is about the military’s evolving relationship to UFOs, “How the Pentagon Started Taking UFOs Seriously” is less a hardcore investigation of the phenomenon — though author Gideon Lewis-Kraus clearly did his legwork — than a charming amble through the subcultures, contested histories, Cold War politics, freaky claims, grainy video, and elusive truth that together map out this territory. Case histories abound, skeptics and believers get their hearing, and even a few local notables — Harry Reid, George Knapp, and Robert Bigelow — dart in and out of the storyline. Fun and illuminating, even if it won’t change your opinion about alien visitation.
3. A truism of the pandemic is that it laid bare just how broken many of our systems are — healthcare, access to food, front-line employment, the social safety net. Add to that list our arts infrastructure. As William Deresiewicz’s cover story in the June Harper’s argues, the devastations of the lockdown era (shuttered venues, canceled performances and exhibits, vanished incomes) compounded the culture industry’s already ill health. Whether it’s audiences conditioned by the internet to expect free content, or Big Tech’s monopolistic platforms redirecting dollars away from independent creators, the arts were already in trouble before they got pancaked by COVID. Efforts to organize artists, and small spurts of government funding have provided flickers of optimism. “Unfortunately,” Deresiewicz writes, “those steps, while valuable, are nowhere near enough.” What we need, he says, is “an art movement like the one we have for food, a movement for responsible consumption.” And nothing says “American” like “responsible consumption.”
4. Here’s a link to the “Gradient Identities” episode of Black Mountain Radio, and, yes, that’s me nasally honking through my duties as co-host — sorry, my sinuses were breaded in pollen that day. But it’s a good episode, with eye-opening pieces on Black cowboys and the synergies between acting and stripping, and I bring it up for a reason: As the miasma of scandal thickens around Black Mountain Institute, we shouldn’t lose sight of the actual work the organization’s staff does. (Earlier this month, The Believer was nominated for two National Magazine Awards, including General Excellence.) You’ll recall that the inglorious departure of BMI’s director, Joshua Wolf Shenk — precipitated by an accidental exposure on Zoom — was quickly followed by an anonymous open letter, posted by a number of BMI staffers, alleging broader patterns of abuse. Those accusations were rather vague, as the staffers feared too much detail would open them to reprisals from UNLV, where Black Mountain is based. Now, more detailed and compelling allegations about his behaviors have been made, here and here and here, none of them anonymously. They range from preposterous levels of micromanaging to actions that made female staff and students profoundly uncomfortable. And, taken together, they portray UNLV as deeply dysfunctional: shielding Shenk, reinforcing asymmetrical power relations, underpaying his staff, obfuscating efforts to seek accountability, and silencing his internal critics. Not a good look for a university. Scott Dickensheets
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