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


Paper boy

May 26th, 2018

Being a writer in my era has meant a life of dealing with paper.

I’ve got two file cabinets filled with papers — many play scripts and developmental notes and drafts from various productions and readings and workshops, plus comic-book scripts and comic-strip scripts and essays and a well-into-it book about playwriting and many short stories and some poems and files of ideas and correspondence and copies of my reviews and God knows what else. That’s not even all of it. I have crates of papers from much earlier — I’ve been at this since I was a boy — in the former home office and in the attic.

I can safely say it’s been a weighty endeavor, because today I moved all of that paper, as well as those two file cabinets, from my corporate office to my writing office at home. Some of my papers have moved from Galloway Township, NJ (my parents’ house) to Ocean City, NJ (where I lived in the mid-80’s) to my first apartment in Burbank, CA, then my first house in Burbank, then to my second house in Burbank, then to my first corporate office, then to my second corporate office, then to my third corporate office (the company has kept growing), then, finally today, back home.

They seem to be getting heavier. Or something else is going on (I can’t imagine what), because moving them around is growing more taxing.

How can I have all this, when I’ve been writing on computers since my 20s? Well, you do printouts. And you edit by hand on those printouts. And then you keep various drafts to compare. And then you have correspondence. (Or, at least, you used to.) And here’s the big thing: You find out the hard way that digital records are never safe, so you always print out a copy.

Let me say it again: Digital files are never safe.

I know this, because I just lost some audio files I’d had for years. Why? Because they were done via AOL, and are no longer playable. (Although my good friend Joe Stafford, who owns some ancient tech, made a valiant effort to retrieve them for me.) One of them is my then 3-year-old son sending an audio file to Joe wherein he extols the virtues of the Flintstones movie.

Okay, you say, I couldn’t have saved those on paper anyway. Well, I have a whole bunch of plays and short stories from the 1980s and early 1990s that now read as .exe files. Why? Because, it turns out, they are on an old version of Appleworks, and now nothing will read them. Lucky for me — I have printed-out versions in my files.

Almost 20 years ago, Nicholson Baker wrote a book about libraries’ assault on paper as they switched to digital, and what was being lost in the process. His warning that some digital formats wouldn’t be playable in the future, and that the seemingly flimsiest format, paper, would prove to be the most durable wasn’t lost on me.

Digital has its place (he says, as he writes a blog post). But I still love paper, and not just my own. I own hundreds and hundreds of books, and I add more by the week. I love the feel of them and the weight. I love the snapping sound of closing a hardback book, and of running my hand across creamy illustrated paper. I love the smell of books and papers.

I’ll always be a paper boy.

A change in the weather

May 23rd, 2018

Everything really is topsy-turvy. Last night, I left London, where it was sunny and 71 degrees, to return to Los Angeles, where it’s cold and rainy. What gives?


May 19th, 2018

For the record, as an anti-monarchist, I dutifully boycotted that royal wedding today. We Americans did fight a war over this sort of thing, you know. My feelings about it haven’t changed.

The big event in London

May 15th, 2018

This Saturday night, there’s a big event in London that you may have heard about. It’s been getting a lot of international attention, and rightly so:  It’s always heart-warming to see notable people who really belong together become united in a ceremony.

This is the sort of once-in-a-lifetime event that I would regret missing, so I’m getting on a flight in a few hours and heading over to England so that I’m there for the big day on Saturday.

Yes, I feel truly blessed to have gotten into the only Pere Ubu tour stop featuring all nine band members on stage (!!!).

The last time I was in London, in 1999, it was to see a play of mine that was running in King’s Cross, and to have dinner with David Thomas, the lead singer of Pere Ubu, who proved to be kind, thoughtful, and able to drink me under the table. (I had a pint and a half, next to his four at dinner and two during my play.) I’ve seen him many times since then, but only at the band’s shows.

There’s always something big going on in London. While I’m there, I plan to go to the British Museum again (to my knowledge, the only museum that houses one of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World), and perhaps the British Library, the Dunhill cigar lounge, and more than one pub and theatre.  I’m also given to understand that there’s some other big event in London happening on the same day as the Pere Ubu concert, involving other notable people being brought together, but I don’t plan to attend.

As for the concert, I’m wishing the band the very best, and I’m looking forward to all the beautiful music they’ll make together.

Art in unusual places

May 8th, 2018

More about David Byrne:  His online journal holds wonderful surprises. Today, he’s shared a story about a law office in Dallas that serves double duty as an art museum. You can check that out here.

Another artistic surprise:  When you visit his journal, note the popup at the lower left of your screen. It’s a music player. Every month, Byrne curates some musical choices that appeal to him, and every month I find something new and delightful to enjoy.

What Everybody’s Listening To At My House

May 7th, 2018

We can’t get enough of David Byrne’s new album, “American Utopia.” It’s on constant replay on the home stereo (such as it is), in my car, and in my head. (Fitting, for a former Talking Head.) It’s a terrific album, filled with fun weirdness.

It’s also provided a backdrop against which to note the evolution of what I’ll call David Byrne’s positioning. The David Byrne of the 1970s and 1980s, who evoked the jittery discontent of modern life through abstruse words and a highly neurotic sound, is long gone. The more recent David Byrne, heard here and on his collaboration with Brian Eno of 10 years ago, “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today,” is very direct in his concerns and somewhat homiletic. “Is this meant ironically? Is it a joke?” he asks in the liner notes re the title of the new album. “… These songs don’t describe an imaginary or possibly impossible place but rather attempt to depict the world we live in now. Many of us, I suspect, are not satisfied with that world — the world we have made for ourselves. We look around and ask ourselves — well, does it have to be like this? Is there another way?” Byrne was similarly earnest on that surprisingly upbeat disc with Eno, and has gone so far as to launch the blog “Reasons to be Cheerful,” which promulgates the good news from around the world about Economics, Education, Health, Culture and more. If you fear that, say, Climate Change is hopeless, you’ll want to turn here. I don’t think it’s just because he figures we can’t handle any more bad news. Somehow, David Byrne, who always seemed emotionally remote, has become a warm-hearted social activist.

Three weeks ago, I took my wife to Las Vegas to see Byrne’s show, at the gorgeous Smith Center, where the acoustics proved to be remarkable and the performance even moreso. In addition to reinventing his music, Byrne has set out to reinvent the stage show that accompanies it. Note, below, the absence of an onstage set or, even, the normal components of a live concert: no drum kit, no cables, no amps, no keyboard stand, no guitar rack, no foot pedals, indeed, no nuthin’ except the musicians and whatever they can carry. This is very much a marching band.






Rock concert? This didn’t seem like one. My wife said it was more like a combination of performance piece with music. Above, they set a mood for “Burning Down the House.” Below, note how the band, including the 65-year-old lead singer, plays dead while just the keyboardist carries on.


And, here, how he opens the show, simply sitting alone onstage and singing about the workings of the human brain.


That photo alone shows that Byrne is an interdisciplinary artist, not a rock musician. (As did this sensational and odd installation he put in the Pace Gallery in Menlo Park, which I went to see last year.) He’s a musician, yes, but also a visual artist, a film director, and a writer of non-fiction books, including “How Music Works.” His show is also tightly choreographed, and filled with joy — the joy of the music, and also the joy radiating from the performers who are delighted to present it.  In that same week, my wife and I saw another interdisciplinary artist, Laurie Anderson. (Byrne on Wednesday night; Anderson on Friday night at the Wallis in Los Angeles.) Byrne has said he won’t be reuniting with Talking Heads because that would be an exercise in nostalgia and he’s not interested in that. Laurie Anderson, meanwhile, is on what’s clearly a nostalgia tour:  a clip show of her greatest hits, of sorts — video bits; some spoken word; talk about past events; very occasional electric violin. It was disappointing to see such a provocative artist reduced to just showing up and pulling bits out of a hat, and even more dispiriting to learn that, when unscripted, she can’t tell a good story.

Byrne’s show featured eight songs from the (highly recommended) new album, eight Talking Heads songs, and six songs from his many collaborations over the years. If there are tickets left somewhere near you, you might want to get them. Maybe watching this recent appearance on “Colbert” will help convince you.

And now, an op ed from the most naive man in America

April 30th, 2018

This Republican pundit is shocked to learn that his side’s media outlets no longer want any content that isn’t 100% supportive of Trump.

“If, among those who supposedly cherish freedom of expression, certain widespread viewpoints become taboo, where does that leave us? In a dishonest media atmosphere.”

Gee, I hope this movement doesn’t leak over to Fox News, which always has news we can trust. Thank God we have a press secretary we can count on to share the truth with us.

p.s. Please note that this guy’s outrage manifested itself on the day he realized he’d lost his paycheck.

I need to adopt this kid

April 28th, 2018

She’s adorable, but more importantly she’s smart and funny.



Sound medical decisions

April 17th, 2018

Here are the top two stories on Newsweak right now. I agree with the treatment plan.


Writing, pre-writing, and impulsiveness

March 31st, 2018

There’s a difference between the writing feeling and the pre-writing feeling. With the writing feeling, you’re actively writing, and by writing I generally mean transmitting feelings onto the page without thinking about them. (Thinking about them is not part of the writing process; it’s part of the editing process.) With the pre-writing feeling, you’re feeling like you should be writing something, and that you’re about to, but you don’t quite know how to do it.

Unfortunately, I’m in the pre-writing feeling right now.

I’m hoping to make it into the writing feeling either later tonight, or early tomorrow.

During today’s playwriting workshop, I realized that I’m interested in what characters will do despite themselves. What must they do despite knowing that doing so is going to have terrible repercussions for them? I must have known this before, after 40 years in the theatre and all those Shakespeare plays to name just one example (surely Macbeth has an inkling that this isn’t going to go well), but I don’t remember ever before landing on it as its own isolated thought. One of the playwrights (a good writer) brought in pages where the older woman, with her husband offstage, didn’t respond to the young man’s advances; I felt that we were being teased, and that we wanted more. Turned out that the writer originally had the woman turn around and seize the young man, acting upon her impulse, but then sanded that moment down. This led me to realize how interested I am in characters doing the wrong thing while knowing so in the moment. As we all probably are.

In general, I think impulsiveness is good in playwriting. In the hands of a good writer, anyway. Talent is always a necessity. David Mamet writes in one of his mistakenly confident how-to books, this one on acting, that all an actor has to do is be brave. Be brave, you actors, be brave! Which makes me remember 25 years ago when someone truly terrible auditioned for me and thrust his foot up on a chair at the end of his audition like he was Roald Amundsen planting a flag into the South Pole. He was brave — terrible, but brave. If you have talent, you should be brave. If you don’t have talent, but at least have the self-knowledge to know that you don’t have talent, maybe you’re better off lying low, working on craft, and learning a few things before you boldly plant a flag.

On my way to the workshop, I was stopped at a light when it came to me in a flash what a play I set aside three years is about at its core. No, it’s not about lingering resentment. It’s about regret. The lead now regrets his lost youth and the chances he didn’t take, when he wasn’t impulsive or brave and when he should have been. With that character, it isn’t about what he should do despite himself, because in the present-day scenes he is fully committed to doing whatever he needs to do to get what he wants; this play is about the exact opposite: That he should have done things, in the past, despite himself — and then he wouldn’t have these regrets.