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


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Conceding victory

March 31st, 2020

Sometime in the 1970s, my sister vowed never to play Monopoly with me again.

That’s because, as the hour stretched to 1:30 a.m. and she had every single color-group set and houses or hotels on all of them and I had just one utility left but somehow inexplicably kept missing her and stockpiling cash as I went around go, I refused to concede. She was dead tired – could barely keep her eyes open – but I refused to concede. Told her that if she went to bed while I was still on the board, she would have forfeited – she, in effect, would have conceded.

That’s the way competitions work.

She went to bed.

And so, I won.

Our family took (takes) games-playing seriously. My father, certainly history’s foremost champ at Pinochle, over a series of encounters so thoroughly intimidated his playing partner Ed, who was one of his closest friends, that Ed’s wife was afraid Ed would have a heart attack, and so they switched partners. My mother is also formidable at this game (still, at age 94.5), and at 500 Rummy, but while my father’s approach was combustible, hers is steely and Teutonic. As I grew up, we played a lot of Risk, and Monopoly, and cards, and shot pool in the basement, as a family and with extended groups of friends, and I always played to win.

Throughout my childhood, and into my young adulthood, my mother would say, “Lee doesn’t like to lose.” Well, that was true – but what of it? I couldn’t figure out what the meaning was behind this. Because, after all, who would like to lose? Finally, after literally decades of hearing this, I said, “You know who likes to lose? Losers.” No one I know likes to lose. And no one I would want to know. We all win or lose at things throughout our lives – but people who chase loss? I’d rather keep my distance.

Last night, my son and I started a fresh game of Civilization 6. It’s now been… months? a year? … since I’ve been able to beat him. In one game I was close (playing the Dutch, and trying to win a cultural victory) but then we didn’t finish that one for reasons I can’t remember. In the last game we finished, I was well ahead – but he not only succeeded at the last minute in converting all the other civilizations to his religion, he also converted the seat of my church, meaning I had no way to re-convert people to the one true way (Leeism, a religion I founded in the game), and so I lost again.

I have to admit that I’m conflicted in my feelings about his many, many (many) victories. While as his father I appreciate his shrewdness, and part of me thrills at the success of my offspring, I’m not enjoying losing. (See above.) I also have insidious thoughts rolling around in my head like this one: “Well, sure – he’s got lots of time to play all the time; I’m busy working/writing/paying bills/etc. etc. etc.” I hope you’ll consider it a mark of strength that I’m freely admitting that right here for all to see.

Last night, losing yet again, this time while playing Chandragupta and getting bogged down in a war against Pedro II of Brazil that I had started with visions of easy conquest, I floated the idea of conceding. A two-player (plus AI) game of Civilization 6 can take 10 hours, and we were in hour 4, and I was watching my shot at victory slip down the drain. Scoring at that point put me at 219 points; Dietrich was at 539. He already had twice as many cities as I did and we weren’t even out of the Ancient Era, and he hadn’t started wars of conquest yet, which I knew he’d do soon. But if I conceded, we could start again tonight, with different leaders and a different map, and I’d have yet another chance at my Sisyphean goal of beating him.

Or, I said, I could stay in… and maybe learn something.

“What?” he said. “You wouldn’t try to… WIN? I’m so disappointed in you!”

My three children know that I’ve never thrown a game, not even when they were toddlers. If they wanted to win, they had to learn to win. That kiddie stacking-ring game? I beat every one of them at that. Checkers, Chutes and Ladders, Hungry Hungry Hippos, Connect 4, I won them all. After years of this, they got better. I’ll never forget how ecstatic my eldest was when he beat me at chess in a shopping mall that had one of those sets with pieces the size of school children that you had to embrace to lug across the board. Being in the center of the mall, with bystanders surrounding, it was a very visible win for him, and he was beside himself with glee – because he knew he’d actually won.

What I tried to explain to my other son last night is that while I’ve already lost this game (I’m sure), I could learn something in losing – something that might make me a better player next time, just as each of my kids learned in losing, and as I hope I’ve learned in the many (relatively small) losses and setbacks I’ve had in my life. One thing I’ve already learned in this case, for example, is that, yes, you might assemble six powerful war elephants early in the game and use them to attack, say, Pedro II, who is technologically backward, but if Pedro II has fortified his city with ancient walls, he’ll likely stand you off for so long that the cost in bloodshed and coins will be high, and meanwhile another competitor (like: my son) will pull ahead. I’ve also learned that building the Terracotta Army, which gives each of your land units a promotion, costs more in resources than it benefits in results — like so many things in life.

I also said to him: “My values have changed since I was 14.” Yes, I still like to win. And fully intend to do so. But my foremost goal, at age 57, is to enjoy every moment with my family and with my friends. Continuing a game where I’ve already lost doesn’t seem enjoyable.

Beating him in the next one will, though.

Catchy!

March 28th, 2020

Catchy. (Just like coronavirus!)

 

 

Safe-at-home stories, #1 in a series

March 26th, 2020

There’s a little virus going around, as you may have heard, resulting in our state of California being under a near-total lockdown. Everyone is supposed to stay at home, unless they need to venture out for “essential services.” One example of a non-essential service:  barber shops. (Which is why Kai Ryssdal of Marketplace was tweeting the other day that he’d ordered clippers online.)

“Stay at home” has led to a resurgence in game-playing in our house. My wife and son and I have been playing 500 Rummy, Sushi Go, Risk, and, tonight, Monopoly (the version modeled after the “Fallout” video game).

While we were playing, my wife looked over at our son’s hair and wondered aloud if I had my barber’s cellphone number (I do) and if he’d be willing to risk 30 days in the pokey or whatever to break the law by coming over and cutting hair in our back yard. I took a minute and “patiently” shared yet again what self-isolation means right now. After that, she took another look at our son’s lengthening tresses, now curling in every direction, and said to no one in particular, “You know, I did offer to cut his hair. I could cut it myself!”

The boy looked alarmed.  “Mom!” he said. “You know why I won’t let you cut my hair! You remember?!?!?”

She didn’t.

“Because the last time you cut my hair, you were cutting it, and halfway into it you stopped suddenly! And then you said, ‘Oh! … I should get my glasses!‘ “

 

Good timing

March 25th, 2020

Three recent examples of good timing:

 

  1. I went to Spain in January. Talk about perfect timing! But then, I went to see Pere Ubu – and they’ve always had perfect timing.  My daughter and I got into the country, sucked every bit of fun possible out of it for eight days, and left pretty much right before the Coronavirus panic started to hit Europe. What the people of that country are suffering now is almost unimaginable, and I’m thinking about them every day.
  2. On a whim, went to San Diego Comics Fest two weeks ago – i.e., immediately before all such gatherings got canceled. I bought some delicious old funny books at bargain rates, caught a presentation by one of the producers of the David Lynch version of “Dune” filled with fun backstory, and saw something I’d never before seen in 45 years of going to comics conventions:  someone named Ditko. (Yes, it was the nephew of the late, great, mysterious and unphotographed co-creator of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. Who said that they all just knew him as “Uncle Steve,” and were impressed with his drawing ability… but didn’t know what he did for a living.)
  3. And, finally, on the very night before first Los Angeles Mayor Garcetti and then Governor Gavin Newsom shut down the city and then whole state, I had some friends over for drinks and cigars in my back yard. What was supposed to be a gathering of an hour or so stretched to almost five hours as we swapped stories about our friends and families, the economic and political situation and, of course, given that this universe’s foremost expert on it was in attendance, “Star Trek.” Everybody was grateful for the fellowship.

 

I have the memory of those three recent social activities to sustain me. But I also have new memories forged from staying home and being immersed in writing and reading and beating my kid at 500 Rummy, and also in a first-ever achievement last Saturday:  running my “Words That Speak” playwriting workshop as a videoconference, with seven other playwrights joining me for three-and-a-half hours and a lot of laughs and virtual social sharing. The workshop has been running since February, 1993 – but never via video. So:  That’s definitely something new.

 

We’ll all get back to everything soon. In the meantime, let’s do our best to make the best of this time, too.

I don’t know (and neither do you)

March 15th, 2020

“I Don’t Know” was the name of my band in college.

Originally, I had proposed “The Don’t Know.” When I floated that past our guitarist, he said, “I don’t know….” – and I said, “Even better!”

I’m thinking of that today because it’s pretty clear that there’s a lot I don’t know – that none of us knows – about what’s going to happen in the short term.


Who among us will get infected with Coronavirus?

What will be the impact on our lives?

What will this do to the larger economy and to our personal economy?

How long will this go on?

 

I don’t know.

Neither does anyone else.

Given that we don’t know, the best we can do is to focus on what we can control — our own personal actions. That means:

  1. Taking care of ourselves and others
  2. Doing our best not to further the spread of the virus
  3. Not contributing to panic
  4. Making, and following, contingencies
  • So, make sure you’re safe and well, and that your people are safe and well.
  • Ask yourself if you know someone who needs help. An elderly friend? Someone who was already home sick? Someone you think might be low on supplies? A buddy who just needs cheering up? Reach out.
  • Observe the CDC guidelines.
  • Don’t get caught up in the gossip. Yes, it’s human nature – but when it’s not helpful, it’s hurtful. Right now, it’s just going to contribute to people’s stress. No one needs it.

If there’s some way for you to work from home, set it up now. Immediately. Make a list of what might happen if you have to be home for a month — and set about ensuring you could do that.

And bear in mind that while you have no control over what you can’t control, you can have control over yourself and your own actions. Peace of mind comes from taking personal productive action, and from letting everything else go. Fretting over things you can’t control slides right into endless, needless worry (and, frequently, over things that never happen).

When it comes to what’s going to happen, we can know only one thing with certainty:  that this, too, shall pass.

Little things

February 17th, 2020

Yes, little things make a big difference.

Yesterday I saw a flat-out terrific play, about the benighted state of journalism and what that portends for us. The play was harrowing, somehow funny as well, very well-played and brilliantly directed. Seriously — brilliantly directed. Especially given that the director’s task involved choreographing the entrances and exits of six actors onto a stage the size of most vestibules, and that those actors had to change clothes repeatedly because five of them were playing more than one character.

(Oh, heck, the play was “Red Ink,” by Steven Leigh Morris, in a production by Playwrights Arena. Here’s a link. It’s running one more week — so go see it now.)

I saw it with a friend (another good director) and we both loved the production and the direction and talked briefly about the theme of the play. But what did we wind up texting about?

The shoes.

The shoes on one of the actors. A really great actor, one I’ve seen before, who played two diametrically opposed characters (one a financially successful if scurrilous businessman, the other a mental patient with kleptomania) and who brought life and energy with him in every scene… but who wore scuffed-up, box-toed cowboy boots missing several lifetimes’ worth of polish.

In scene after scene, I found myself staring at the shoes. It was hard to look away. Even during a production that good. Because the shoes are just wrong. They might be right for the mental patient, but they’re sorely wrong for the elderly disreputable publisher who spends all his time on the beach in Orlando. People are doing costume changes throughout the play, so get the man two pairs of slip-ons. Or, at the very least, polish the boots.

I know. It seems picayune. Pedantic. Other “p” words of low value. But when it takes you out of the play, it’s a big thing. And it’s especially distracting when everything else in the show is so good.

Go see it. If  you care about the news — real news — and about journalists who really care about such things, and if you want to see a hard-hitting and completely entertaining play that delves into that subject, you should see this. Just try not to notice the boots.

Calm down (but don’t relax), Part 2

February 16th, 2020

Josh Marshall on why President Molotov can indeed be beaten:  He’s historically unpopular because he’s consistently unpopular.

So: Be wary of the curve in the road — but it’s no reason to stop driving.

Etiqan’t

February 16th, 2020

Last night at the theatre party, I guy I didn’t know buttonholed me so that he could talk up his own history and bemoan some sort of professional defeat.

We had wound up standing next to each other and when he heard my name, he said, “Oh. You’re the founder of the theatre company.” Having a rarely used name like Lee results in situations like this. I agreed that I was indeed the name mentioned in the program, and told him I was surprised he’d read it, because I had just told a fellow board member that the print was so teeny I didn’t think anyone would read it or could read it.

“How long you been in LA?” he asked. “You been here longer than five years?”

“Thirty-two years,” I said.

“Ah. Great. So you know Kate Mantilini? How many deals did you do at Kate Mantilini?”

The wording of this sounded odd. I didn’t know what to make of it. How does one “do deals” at a person? I responded, “No. No Kate Mantilini.”

“You’ve been here 32 years and you don’t know Kate Mantilini? Where do you live?”

“Burbank.”

“Oh. Burbank.” I thought he was going to be dismissive, but he added, “I was born there.” Which may indeed have been dismissive, Burbank, with a hospital, being a place to be born, but perhaps not a place to live. I didn’t know.

It turned out that Kate Mantilini was a restaurant — which now sounded somewhat familiar, and it had been in Beverly Hills, and it had been a major hangout for film and TV dealmakers and celebrities. All of which compounded my disinterest. Film and television don’t animate me, and the last time I drove through Beverly Hills might have been 10 years ago, except for the time in 2018 I went to see Laurie Anderson over there in her very disappointing show. Driving to Beverly Hills is like driving to another state, one that is far away and that has a culture you don’t take to.

It also happened that his family had owned Kate Mantilini, that it had closed about five years ago, and that he was an architect.

“Oh, you’re an architect?” I said. As practical artists, architects interest me.

“Well, the recession happened to a lot of people,” he said. I don’t know how the recession, now 12 years in the rearview mirror, forced anyone to stop being an architect, but I imagine that’s what he was leading up to. I say leading up to, because right then, an older woman swam into view and he immediately turned his attention to her.

They started chatting, her about something and him about something, and how nice it was that they were both there, so I did what I always do when someone else interrupts a conversation and the person I was at least theoretically conversing with swivels toward them:  I left. There’s etiquette, and there’s etiqan’t. There’s also average male lifespan, and with a life expectancy of 76.4 years for males, I’m picky about standing in lines, waiting in general, and finding myself left on the burner to warm.  As I walked away, I heard the woman murmur some sort of apology, and the man called out, “I’m gonna finish that conversation, Lee!”

In the adjoining room, I spent some time with one friend after another I’d done shows with, stretching back to the 90s. I saw the former architect gradually inching closer, working his way through conversation with one person after another like a Walmart greeter. But he didn’t get to finish whatever there was to finish with me, because I fell into discussion with a friend and colleague of 26 years about our theatre company and our plans for the rest of the year. We had that conversation outside on the sidewalk, just the two of us.

Calm down (but don’t relax)

February 16th, 2020

Robin Abcarian, as they say, speaks my mind when she says, “Stop pulling our your hair. You CAN beat Trump.” And offers examples from recent history.

Or, as I’m constantly chiding friends on Facebook, “Stop being pre-defeated! Predefeatism leads to defeat.”

Short form, long form, and old form

February 15th, 2020

Plays come in all sorts and sizes. For three weeks in a row, one of the playwrights in my workshop, a guy who normally writes plays of about 120 pages, has brought in a new 10-minute play. Each of them has been good, immediately produceable, and would be fun to see. Back in the 1990s, I produced a lot of one-acts and one-act festivals, and Moving Arts kept doing that right up until about six years ago. Current management doesn’t produce one-acts — which is completely their prerogative. I liked them because it gave lots of playwrights a chance, and lots of directors, and lots of actors, and because generally the plays were fun. And, as my producing partner of the time used to say, “If you don’t like one of them, just wait, because there’s another one coming right up.”

Of the 64 plays I’ve written, many many of them are short plays. One of them, which got produced in Hoboken, NJ but which I’ve never seen staged or even heard read,  is all of three page long. Here’s why:  That’s all it needed. That’s all the story there was. More importantly, that’s all the theme there was:  Once you’ve made your point, you’re done. I was reminded of this when I had a brief discussion today with another playwright in my workshop about the HBO limited series “Mrs. Fletcher.” Ordinarily, “Mrs. Fletcher” wouldn’t be the sort of thing I’d watch, but for one reason:  I’d read the book and it was starring Kathryn Hahn. (Yes, that is one reason. I usually stay away from watching adaptations of things I’ve read because I don’t want the filmed version interfering with the prose version I already enjoyed; but in this case, knowing what the book was about and knowing that the lovely, talented, committed, and brave Kathryn Hahn would be starring in it, I watched it.)  I was pleasantly surprised to learn that each episode was only 30 minutes. Oh. It was serialized more like a comedy than a drama. I was also pleasantly surprised to see that the series ends about two-thirds of the way through the book — right at the climactic event in the novel that resolves the theme. In other words, right where it should. The book, on the other hand, goes on… and everyone’s life is neatly resolved… and quickly what had been a book about adventure and the freedom to be who you wanted to be becomes a book that resolves everyone’s story to the expectation of the society around them. What a disappointment. The series, by the way, was executive-produced by the novelist, who also wrote some of the episodes, so this seems like a rare instance of a novelist getting a second chance at his material… and improving it.

From Méliès's most famous film, 1902.

From Méliès’s most famous film, 1902.

After my workshop this morning, I headed over to the Egyptian Theatre for a screening from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s festival of preservation. They had promised a recently discovered Laurel & Hardy short (I’m a fan) and a fully restored Chaplin short (less of a fan) and never-before-seen films by Georges Méliès (film’s first special-effects master, starting to produce and direct sensationally surprising films in 1896) and by the Lumière brothers, who patented their own version of the cinematograph in 1895. I’m not a film fan per se, but I’m interested in the silent era, and I know that because Méliès burned the negatives to all 520 of his films in a dispute over rights, they’re difficult to see in any good form. The intricacies of the preservation and restoration process on all the films shown, as detailed in introductions by a representative, are too involved to go into detail here; for the Chaplin short, an introductory clip showed all four source-material films (three of them prints and one of them a negative) used to cobble together a complete print that could be restored. The Lumière clips were astounding, showing elegantly dressed and coiffed people, in top hats and waistcoats, or in dresses with majestic headwear, strolling along with the Eiffel Tower in the background, looking every bit as fresh as though it were shot with an iPhone today — but clearly being from 1900 or thereabouts. In another one, people are traveling via moving walkway, such as you find in an airport, and I realized:  That’s right! We had moving walkways in some places in 1900, and then we seemed to forget about the technology, because I don’t think moving walkways returned (and then, again, mostly in airports) until the 1980s or so. The Méliès films were very short; his early pieces were only one minute long, and rightly so, because they present the sort of tricks preferred by Méliès, as a stage magician, over things like plot and conflict. (One of his longer pieces, probably 20 minutes, was screened as well, but it required narration by our host and I’ll admit I fell asleep for probably five minutes of it.) Spectacle works in brief bits, but spectacle without the pursuit of objective — i.e., people in conflict — loses its fascination. This is precisely the problem with some of Terry Gilliam’s films, most especially “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” which is a great bore. When nothing matters, nobody cares.

After the screening, and after a late lunch at the Pig n’ Whistle, an English pub originated in Hollywood in 1927, where I had bangers and mash and a Guinness, and where a busser cleared away my copy of The New Yorker when I went to the restroom (I wouldn’t pay my tab until they returned it — which they did), I went to the Moving Arts one-night event “Tainted Love.” This was an evening of — wait for it — short plays, staged in and around a large multi-level house high in the Hollywood Hills. It was terrific fun to be surrounded by so many friends of the theatre, including actors I’ve worked with since the 90’s, and to get reacquainted with a woman who has, off-and-on, been coming to see our shows for 25 years. I also got to see two longtime acting buddies play marshmallows — there they were in their respectably representative marshmallow costumes, playing it for all it’s worth as they feared getting roasted alive, and making me howl with laughter. Georges Méliès would’ve been proud.