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Alumni-founded production company Highball Media offers members artistic freedom

The cast and crew of “Cassiopeia8000” pose for a photo. The film was produced by Highball Media, a production company co-founded by alumni Lucy Urbano and Charlie Stuip. (Courtesy of Santana Aguirre)

By Paria Honardoust

Oct. 22, 2023 12:41 p.m.

This post was updated Oct. 26 at 7:43 p.m.

Limits are surpassing the stratosphere in Highball Media’s productions.

Highball Media, a production company co-founded by alumni Lucy Urbano and Charlie Stuip, is composed of artists seeking to express themselves authentically and unapologetically. Urbano said her motivation to co-found Highball was the prospect of fewer constraints when pursuing artistic inclinations, regardless of how absurd and eccentric the company may appear. Highball nurtures an inclusive and supportive space where artists can boldly fulfill their imaginative endeavors, free from the impeding pressures that often burden creative spaces, Urbano said.

“We wanted to let the absurdity and the freedom run wild,” Urbano said. “We wanted to completely explode all of the systems of power that made us feel like we were too small to say what we wanted to say. … The only way that you can guarantee you’re artistically fulfilled is if you make it happen yourself.”

[Related: Film and Photography Society provides experience, community for aspiring creators]

Even at a young age, Urbano said mainstream media had a seemingly underwhelming impact on her, failing to kindle her spirit for the arts. However, the opportunity to be at UCLA, an institution with readily available resources and support systems, encouraged her to create with the intent of setting that passion alight, she said. As a result, Highball Media produces a diverse collection of novel works such as Urbano’s original play, “Cassiopeia8000,” in which dead celebrities unfreeze in a post-apocalyptic space age and perform for wealthy survivors of the world. The film, directed by Stuip and choreographed by fourth-year film student Roan Uong-Pearl, made for an explorative venture while fostering a collaborative environment, Urbano said – and it’s the production of works such as “Cassiopeia8000” that makes her time spent at Highball especially salient.

“These are the types of things that we were thinking about and wanting to make,” Urbano said. “We just didn’t see another space at UCLA where that was happening.”

Highball human resources manager and second-year theater student Ichtaca Lira said he could employ explorative lenses when embarking on Highball productions. Specifically, they had the opportunity to explore conceptions of femininity within self-image through the production of their short film “Francisco,” they said. Leveraging his experiences and personal upbringing, Lira said he had been developing the script since 2021 and sensed that Highball was a fitting space for his vision to materialize.

“Francisco” follows the story of a queer second-generation Chicano boy who grapples with his identity as a teenager alongside his boyfriend, Lira said. The story takes place in the heart of the San Francisco Bay Area, Lira said, where the character is surrounded by others with shared experiences. Ultimately, they said “Francisco” navigates what it means to have an intersectional identity and not conform to society’s habit of compartmentalization. Lira said he hopes the film demonstrates that contesting emotions of joy and confusion are not mutually exclusive, and there is room for them to be shared simultaneously.

“I honestly feel like me being nonbinary and me being trans is very much aligned with how progressive they (my parents) raised me,” Lira said. “’Francisco’ is a love letter to the teachings of my parents, a love letter to the progressive culture in the Bay Area and to youth of color who are feeling lost in or afraid of being something that their society is telling them that they should be.”

Uong-Pearl, a fellow Highball executive, said she is excited about her senior thesis short film, titled “Maple Bacon Bar.” The film follows the daughter of a Cambodian refugee family who struggles to support both her family’s donut shop and her artistic aspirations. She said the beauty of the Highball space is the ability to explore several artistic facets without being confined to one. Uong-Pearl has directed, written and produced in the past, but she said she has taken on a more supportive role in the past year, having helped develop “Francisco” and choreograph “Cassiopeia8000.”

Championed by fellow Highball members in preparation for the December shoot of “Maple Bacon Bar,” Uong-Pearl said she has had the pleasure of receiving feedback from her peers throughout the process. The art world often preaches to fend for oneself, she said, but Highball’s liberated approach to the artistic process facilitates experimentation and collaboration, transcending typical standards of creation. Ultimately, the team is like a unit that amalgamates into a pool of knowledge for the collective, she said.

“It’s very special to me, honestly, because (the) art world can be very, ‘My connections and my resources are mine because I worked to learn about them and get them,’” Uong-Pearl said. “Then art-making becomes very transactional. And Highball, I think we’ve always been … open to share these things.”

[Related: ‘Riley’: A UCLA alumnus’ love letter to community and queer youth]

Now that Urbano has graduated, she said she wants to leave Highball as a launching pad for artists who reach out, and she additionally hopes the production company can equip people with resources, like-minded peers and an allocated budget to get the green light on ideas. As Highball undertakes a new era of production, the team is working to dissipate any prior hierarchical structures so creating can become even more equitable to members and nonmembers alike, Urbano said. Reminiscing on memories of past productions, Urbano said she is grateful the company has been so instrumental to her experience at UCLA.

“The real moments of community and the real magical moments of wanting so badly to make something that means something to you can lead to the most absurd, fun situations,” Urbano said. “That is something that I will never forget. So much of my college experience … I spent having these ridiculous and wonderful artistic moments.”

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