Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


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A birthday celebration

May 16th, 2015

 

Today is my friend Tom Boyle’s birthday. He would have been 59.

Tom died on April 12th after a hard-fought year-long battle with cancer. He was a tough guy, stubborn and strong, and I know how much he wanted to be here. I’m sorry he isn’t. But today I’m celebrating that he ever was here, and that I got to know him. I’m grateful.

Tom and I were friends for about 25 years. I can’t quite remember whether I met him before or during the buildout of Moving Arts’ first theatre space, in 1992, but I think before. I was sure that if we just rented out this tiny space and spread the word that we were building a theatre, people would come help, and Tom alone proved that to be true. Good thing, too, because while I had some carpentry skills inherited from my family, I had zero knowledge of electrical. But Tom brought his writing partner, Rodger Gibson, who knew about wiring, and soon we were pulling wire and hand-building a lighting panel for clamp-lamp stage instruments and installing ceiling fans and flourescent lighting fixtures, along with everything else necessary to build what was (and is) probably the smallest theatre in town, still proudly functioning 23 years later. Without Tom, and Rodger, and Marcy our head carpenter, and everyone else who came to build out the space, we would have been nowhere. At some point, Tom told me that if you’re ever going to be stuck on an island, you want theatre people with you, because they can do anything: as resourceful people used to no budget, they’re trained to make a lot from very little. He lived that example. Where Tom learned to do half the things he could do, I don’t know, but over the years, I grew to assume that he could do anything.

Just seven years later, Tom and I were building another, additional, theatre, when we took over an abandoned space on the fifth floor of the Los Angeles Theatre Center and turned it into a black-box theatre. I had trouble getting some actual company members to come down and pitch in, as was a requirement of their membership in the acting company, but Tom, who wasn’t a regular in the acting company? He came. Of course. In recent years, here’s part of what I was planning on for retirement: I thought Tom and I would build a third theatre, and do more shows together. With our more-lucrative work safely behind us, we would be free to return to the fun.

In the same timeframe as he was helping to build our first theatre, Tom was also in rehearsal for our first production, a play of mine called “Then What?” that was produced as half of two one-acts of mine put together, “Now This…Then What?” So, imagine: Working a day job, building a theatre some nights, and rehearsing or learning your lines the other night. That level of effort alone tells you a lot about Tom. In “Then What?” Tom played a ranting pedantic out on a ledge protesting all the injustices of modern civilization, including our overbearing celebrity culture, to great comic effect. A seeming suicide, he really wanted to be heard. Tom found every laugh in the script and brought more on his own. The show played to packed houses (all 36 seats) and got extended, then got extended again. It was just a terrifically fun play, with Tom being a huge part of that.

So Tom was in our first show. He was also in our second show, a co-production with a troupe he had just formed. Tom was also a writer. And a director. The troupe he put together, Smugly Absurd, did live “non-radio radio shows,” in which they performed multiple roles in original comedies in the fashion of old-time radio comedy, complete with live sound-effects creation, right there on the Moving Arts stage, starting at 10 or 10:30 at night. They’d wheel in what looked like enough sound equipment for The Who, roll out a carpet, and set up all manner of speakers and cables and percussion pieces and sound instruments in record time. Sometimes we’d have a full house; sometimes we’d have six or 10 people. Tom wrote the scripts with two of the other performers, Roberta (who later became his wife) and Gene, and then directed the action. Sometimes the troupe was doing its own version of classic fairy tales; sometimes they were following the “real-life” adventures of the entity known as Death; sometimes they were spoofing classic Hollywood melodrama. Every show was a treat. You just had to admire the craftsmanship — writing, directing, playing multiple roles, generating live sound effects — and the care.

Over the years, Tom was in many, many more Moving Arts shows and also staged readings and workshop productions. Whenever I needed someone reliable, professional, easy to work with, and funny — in other words, almost all the time — I would see if Tom was available. When I directed a workshop production of a play called “Big Bear and the Other” and I knew it had to be funnier, I called in Tom. It worked: He was funny, and the show got funnier with him. I also directed Tom in his last stage performance, a remount of our friend Trey Nichols’ stage adaptation, “Murphy’s Xmas.” Tom was, of course, great to work with, and I now cherish the memory of his playing an old, ill, dying man giving a younger man advice.

If he wasn’t shackled to comedy, it was still what he was known for in our circle. Tom had a Wallace-Shawn-in-”The-Princess-Bride” quality — a comic exasperation that always worked to his benefit. In fact, I saw Tom mistaken many times for Wallace Shawn — in his earlier years he looked somewhat like him, and he sounded very much like him. He’d protest that no, he wasn’t that “Inconceivable!” guy, and other person would insist, and Tom would deny and deny and deny, and then finally say, “o-KAY” and give up.

As longtime friends, we spent a lot of time socializing together. Of course we went out for drinks after our shows. We also played a lot of games. Poker, naturally, but also the board game Civilization, or Oxford Dilemma, or, more recently, Cards Against Humanity or something else. He would come for our Halloween parties, our New Year’s Eve parties, our backyard cookouts, and every other occasion when we’d have people over. We had a cookout last week and I have to say, part of me kept looking around for Tom; it just felt like he should have been there.

In March of last year, I was just back from a business trip to San Francisco and was lying on my downstairs couch when my cellphone rang. It was Tom. He was calling to tell me he had cancer. As he talked to me about it, I felt myself sinking into the couch. Finally, I struggled off the couch and moved my end of the conversation outside. He sounded strong and determined to fight — of course! This was a man who, about 20 years ago, got mugged in Silver Lake by three guys and so furiously fought back that they ran away. Again: strong, and determined. For the next year, he fought his fight, against increasing odds. I spent as much time as I could with him because I was already aware how much I’d miss him. I would shuttle him from the hospital back to his home after a treatment or a blood transfusion. I took him out to dinner at Taylor’s Steakhouse in downtown, during which he disappeared into the men’s room for a long, long time. Getting sick, I believe, although he returned determined to appear well and making an effort to eat a little more from his plate. And I put together a group of us and we went out to the movies every month or so and saw a lot of great films, “Locke” and “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” among them.

As he grew weaker and weaker, there were more incidents. After seeing “Chef” at the Arclight in Hollywood, he collapsed, pulling the standing table over with him and smacking his balding skull full-force with a sickening sound on the polished cement. My first thought was, “Well, now Tom’s dead. When we pick him up, there will be a pool of blood there.” But there wasn’t, and he insisted that he was fine. Then he did it again, so we called an ambulance. While waiting for the ambulance, he kept saying he was fine, and to his credit, he did seem better, but we were insistent, and the EMTs arrived and strapped him to a gurney and trundled him off to the hospital, where tests revealed that he’d been dehydrated, due to his treatments. He was back out the next morning.

The last time he came to my house, two months before he died, Tom’s hair was gone, his skin was the wrong color, and his voice was a whisper. Our 89-year-old friend Ken said to me in an aside, “Tom doesn’t look so good.” Anyone could see that. But he and Roberta stayed for hours and we played a lot of games, with a lot of laughs. (Nothing beats hearing a mild-mannered 89-year-old former CIA agent read filthy, filthy “Cards Against Humanity” responses aloud in his thick Boston accent, while your dying friend laughs uproariously.)

Two weeks before he died, Tom was back in the hospital. Somewhat reluctantly, I went to visit him. Reluctantly not because I didn’t want to see him — I did! — but, as I wrote about here, because I had never before visited a friend in the hospital. But once we started sharing stories, the time sailed by. When his dinner arrived, it sat there like a hubcap, cold and untouched by the side of the road, but as Tom started recounting various theatre stories (performing, one last time, his impression of a sled dog from his role in the stage adaptation of “Call of the Wild”; sharing the story of the director who told us, “Okay, okay, that’s good. Now all we have to do is make it funny.” And on and on), and I started laughing, he came alive. His voice gained strength, his color returned, and he popped the lid off his dinner and started picking at it, before finally taking a knife and fork and digging into it. He was back on stage, and I was the grateful audience. At one point, I looked up and I was startled to see that visiting hours were over. Time to ring down the curtain. So I bid farewell. My parting words to him were these: “I’ve got to tell you, Tom, you seem good. So if you want to fight, you should fight.” I knew he would fight — I had never known him not to — but I thought he needed to hear it. I knew he wanted to be here. He did fight. But he was going to anyway.

I was certain at the time that it would be the last time I’d see him, and I was right. It seemed a good way to end. I saw the closing performance.

On the morning of his death, after the phone call I had with his brother-in-law Vic, who is also my friend, I took my family to the Renaissance Faire. It seemed fitting; Tom loved the Renaissance Faire. He loved the swordplay and the costumes and the customs. I thought about him all day, of course, but it didn’t feel like he was gone. It still doesn’t. When I took him out for that steak dinner, I kept a pledge I’d made long ago, when my father was dying, to ask people when the time seemed right what they thought about death, and what happened after. Here’s what I can share happily among those of us who loved Tom: No, Tom didn’t have religion — but he had science. He told me that he believed in quantum physics, which has it that time is constant and ever-branching, and that therefore each of us is always splintering off into new versions of ourselves created by different paths taken, and that each of those is always here because time is flat. If this is true, then Tom is still here, and perhaps many Toms, and among those many Toms, one of them right now is building that third theatre with me.

I wonder what we’re rehearsing.

Old lunches

May 11th, 2015

This link will take you to a list of the “oldest surviving Los Angeles restaurants.” This being Los Angeles, “old” is a relative term (many of the restaurants listed are from the 1960s through 1980s).

At first, I was surprised to see that I’ve eaten at 45 of these restaurants, many of them more than once. Then when I realized there are 250 restaurants on the list, I decided that one out of five isn’t so large a number. More surprising is that I have other friends who say they’ve dined in about 45 of these — but I’ve never run into them at any of these places.

This list also reminds me that I should revisit some of these places. (Especially when guests from out of town like my friend Paul can pick up the check.)

The weekend of dance

May 4th, 2015

I didn’t know anything about dance, until 10 years ago. And then I learned just enough to love it.

I have Michelle Mierz and Kate Hutter to thank for that.

Michelle and Kate were my students in a business-of-theatre class I taught at USC for a few years. Michelle was a business major and dancer, and Kate was a dance major and choreographer. In 2003, the third year I taught that class, they decided to team up for the assignment to create a theatre organization or production on paper. They came up with the L.A. Contemporary Dance Company — and then decided to launch it in real life. Just doing it for the grade wasn’t good enough. (For the best students, it never is.)

On Saturday night, I attended the 10th anniversary of their launch, in an event at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. (You can see a sample of their earlier work above.)

It was an incredibly rewarding and inspiring evening, with hundreds of wildly supportive people in attendance. Kate was kind enough to recognize me from the stage (as though I had anything to do with their success, apart from, well, making the classroom assignment).

Kate’s choreography was smart, evocative, mysterious, and very physical, as always. She’s obviously good at moving people around the stage in exciting ways. She’s also good at pairing movement and music. In 2004 (I think), I was directing a play called “Big Bear and the Other,” at the same Los Angeles Theatre Center where Kate and Michelle had their event the other night. The play, a dark comedy of sorts, concerned a group of previously forlorn men who had now formed a cult of bear worship; at one point, I wanted a dream fantasia where they would be swept up into cosmic connectedness. Kate whipped that up for me, teaching a group of middle-aged men how to roll and dance and look, well, beautiful and graceful while doing so, all in one night. Her work in that evening far surpassed anything I brought to that production. I remember being incredibly proud of her, grateful for my access to her, and somewhat envious of that much talent.

(An aside: my friend Tom Boyle, whom I wrote about here and here was in the cast of that production. He was effortlessly funny and filled with good ideas. My foremost talent as a director is just to get other talented people together.)

Before and after the performance on Saturday night, I got to speak with Michelle, who now lives in Seattle and works for Amazon. Michelle was the first hire at my nascent consulting company, CounterIntuity, in 2004. (The company was later re-launched as the marketing company Counterintuity, LLC, with no capital “I” in the middle.) Again, what you see here is my talent for identifying talented people: Michelle is whip-smart, something I spotted in about the first four seconds when she was my student. I was damn lucky she came to work for me; in some ways her early imprint on the company is still there. (As are some of the clients.) She was also directly responsible for landing one of our first clients, Dance Camera West, and thereby leading us into what I’ve called “The Year of Dance,” when we did no fewer than six dance projects with six different dance-related businesses: a dance company; a touring program (which we toured with a little); a dance agency; an online dance resource; a dance film festival; and a sixth one I can’t recall offhand.

All of that dance activity in one year left me with a deep appreciation for an art form I’d known nothing about. I’ve been a writer my entire life, and a bit of a musician here and there, and added stage directing (and then video directing) later on. But dance? The deep appreciation I’ve gained is due to Michelle. I thank her for that.

In the spirit of all things circling around, let me also say that the night before, Friday night, was an evening of shorts presented by that dance film festival, Dance Camera West. Dance Camera West is a “dance media festival” that screens the best in dance films from around the globe; these are astonishingly creative films. Here’s the trailer for this year’s festival.

Dance Camera West Film Festival 2015 (Trailer) from Parker Laramie on Vimeo.

This was the eleventh year in a row that my company has been associated with the festival, a connection I’m proud of. Three of us from Counterintuity, plus guests, attended the evening in a beautiful old movie palace in downtown Los Angeles — and today, one of my staff came in to my office to share just how much joy and passion those films had reawakened in him. Precisely right. For me, a person who works mostly with words, to enter a world created by the movement of the body, is to thrill to the excitement of an exotic environment.

I was Michelle and Kate’s professor. But whatever I taught them, I know I learned more.

Important holidays, #1 in a series

May 1st, 2015

In honor of May Day, I thought I’d note another important, but little-known, holiday.

Yes, today is World Naked Gardening Day. Here’s where you can learn more.

And yes, my bulbs are ready.

Today’s music video, a.k.a., judge for yourself

April 30th, 2015

Here’s Scott Weiland, formerly of Stone Temple Pilots, wandering his way through their biggest hit with his own solo-act backing band.

Why is he no longer fronting Stone Temple Pilots? They got tired of some of his habits.

We may be seeing the effect of one of those habits right here and now, in what may be the most painful music video I’ve ever seen.

“April is the cruellest month”

April 30th, 2015

“I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

On Sunday the 12th I awoke to a text from a friend asking me to call him. It was time-stamped 3:30 a.m., which to me was indication enough of what it was about: My friend Tom Boyle, whom I wrote about in the previous post, had died that morning. A quick phone call confirmed this.

After that, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, because I didn’t in truth feel like doing anything. His death wasn’t unexpected, but the overly solicitous way my wife and children hovered around me showed that they could see I was a little dazed. When I audibly wished we had some orange juice, my wife ordered our youngest outside immediately to pick some oranges so she could make some. That’s how it was going. I decided to do just what we had said we’d do: go to the Renaissance Faire. And so, all day long, I thought about Tom, because among other things, Tom loved the Renaissance Faire.

And also, all day long, I wrote in my head what I’d write in this space. But when I got home, I didn’t want to do it.

And then I didn’t want to do it the next day.

Or the next day.

And this went on for two-and-a-half weeks.

Almost all procrastination derives from not knowing how to proceed. Usually the assignment is complicated, and so people become stymied. In this case, the task was simple — write something about my friend of 25 years. And I even knew what I wanted to say. Even made notes to that effect.

But I didn’t do it.

Because, I think, that meant truly saying goodbye.

There’s nothing I can say here that will sum up for you my long-term friendship with him. I also don’t think there’s any benefit in being maudlin. Death is the universal constant, so there’s nothing particularly special about this one — except in the way it’s special to me. You can’t just run out and replace a long-term friend. There’s only one in each box of crackerjacks.

This past Saturday, my wife and I went to a memorial gathering of Tom’s family and friends. It was good seeing so many other people who cared about Tom. I thought — expected! — there would be an opportunity to share reminiscences about Tom (I was ready!), but there wasn’t. So now, if I can, I think I’ll do that here, because I do have a memory or two about my friend that I’d like to post. Not right now, and maybe not ever (we’ll see), but maybe. Probably.

For now, I’ll leave it with this: I had future plans with this guy. I didn’t expect we wouldn’t do them.

Hospitality

March 28th, 2015

Last night, I went to visit a friend in the hospital. I didn’t know what to expect, not just about my friend’s condition, but also about visiting a friend in the hospital, because I’d never done that before. Never before have I had a friend in the hospital.

Realizing this on the way over also made me realize how right my wife was when she said recently that I’ve been sheltered from death. Absolutely right, is how right she’s been. As a medical professional, she’s been working alongside it for 30 years. Me? No. My father died, but that was 23 years ago. And a couple of friends have died recently, but I had lost touch with them years earlier. I’ve known a few suicides, but here’s how those have worked: you find out later that they’ve killed themselves. Sometimes, yes, only just shortly after you’ve seen them, but you’re not there for it. At least, I haven’t been. So in the overall tally of death and disease, I and my immediate circle have been extraordinarily lucky.

So far.

This is all by way of saying that, honestly, I was dreading the visit. I didn’t want to go. Oh, I was going, there was no doubt about it; when your good friend of almost 25 years is in the hospital, of course you’re going to go. No, you don’t want to — but you also don’t want to live with regret if you don’t. We had had dinner plans set for Sunday, but he texted me on Friday morning, asking me to call him. When I did, he told me he’d been hospitalized the night before. He was doing much better, he said, and fully expected to be discharged on Sunday night, but dinner was off.

I told him I’d visit.

Hours later when I meekly stuck my head around his hospital room door, I wasn’t surprised by how he looked. He’d been to my house just a few weeks before. So I’d seen the weight loss, and the hair loss, and the other signs of his epic struggle this past year. I sat in the visitor’s chair, a leatherette chair oddly immobilized despite castors that should have enabled it to be rolled into line of site, where my friend wouldn’t have to crane his neck to see me. No matter how I pushed or tugged or swung it, it wouldn’t arc into viewing position, so finally I just shoved it across the floor, scraping the tile. I didn’t care about the floor; I just didn’t want my hospitalized but valiant friend to have to crane his neck. In this way, at 6:30, we started our visit, the visit I needed to make, but didn’t know how to conduct.

No, the big surprise was not his illness, or the depredations it visited upon him, or any of the accoutrements of a hospital room. The big surprise, the thing I was utterly unprepared for, was what a great time we had. Ninety minutes sailed by, and before I saw it coming, visiting time was over.

What did we talk about? We talked a lot about theatre. We’ve built two theaters together, and I hope to do a third some day with him. We talked about our theatre experiences, and what incredible and practical training for life that a life in the theatre can provide. Because the basic tenet is that the show will go on, and go on at the time scheduled, theatre people are prepared for anything. We know that something will go wrong — it always does, whether it’s a missed cue or a missing prop or a missing actor — and so, we’re always prepared to adapt. That mindset of preparation and adaptability makes one powerful. We also talked about our childhoods, with each of us always the smartest one in class and all the difficulties that come with that. He said he was always trying to pull them up this level; I laughed hard at that. He also, from his sickbed, re-enacted his response hunching back to his room after one of the more painful admission treatments he’d received: “Ow-ow-ow-ow-ow-ow-ow.” That was uproariously funny. Shortly after I arrived, so did his dinner, but he left it there on his tray, untouched. But as he shared one hilarious story after another, and I kept laughing, bit by bit his color returned, his voice grew stronger, and then he started eating.

Like every true performer, he came alive for the audience.

I was sorry to see 8 o’clock arrive. But ninety minutes is typical for a one-man show, so it seemed a good time to leave. I didn’t want to wear him out.

“About Sunday, you’ll let me know if things change?” I asked.

He didn’t understand. He thought I was wondering if maybe we could still do dinner that day, which I knew was off.

“No,” I said. I wanted a return engagement. “If they wind up keeping you, I’ll come back. I’d like to come back.”

Post-punk comics

March 20th, 2015

Two of the things I most love, together at last: post-punk music, and comic books. Mark Mothersbaugh as Iron Man? Perfect. Enjoy the rest here.

Young playwrights get early break

March 5th, 2015

Three years ago, my then-13-year-old daughter had her first play read by professional actors. (Here’s that story again.)

Recently on The Tonight Show, three even younger kids got the same experience. These plays are hilarious, and prove yet again that playwriting can’t really be all that hard. What I said three years ago holds true: Oh, for a world so lacking in subtext.

Disfigurative art

March 3rd, 2015

On the one hand, I admire Brian Dettmer’s art. It’s beautiful and striking.

But on the other hand, it involves maiming books.

When I was made aware of Dettmer’s work by my friend Doug Hackney, I responded, “Destroying books? Who is this guy, ISIS?” Because that’s the way I feel about it. (And them.) Doug responded that it was a tough call for him as well.

But — because art lovers are almost assuredly book lovers too, and what book lover can delight in seeing a book get cut up? — perhaps that visceral reaction is precisely the point.

Here. Judge for yourself.