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


Blog

Sound medical decisions

April 17th, 2018

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

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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.

A collaborative Low

March 6th, 2018

A behind-the-scenes reimagining of how David Bowie and Brian Eno (and even Tony Visconti) put together “Warszawa” on Bowie’s Low album. Surprising!

Today’s political prediction

March 5th, 2018

There will be no steel tariff.

It’s purely a political ploy to swing unemployed Pennsylvania steelworkers back to voting Republican in the March 13th special Congressional election.

Once that’s over, the issue will magically go away.

Supporting evidence:  Zero reaction in the stock market today. Traders know this isn’t for real.

ANOTHER reason people shouldn’t watch the Oscars

March 5th, 2018

 

Watching the show could kill you.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Oscars Grouch

March 4th, 2018

Oscars

I don’t care about the Oscars.

And I can’t understand why anyone would — unless you were working on it, or had worked on a movie that got nominated.

I feel the same about watching pro sports, by the way: Why people would sit around and watch it is a real head-scratcher.

I’m not opposed to these things; I just really can’t understand. I guess I have a better understanding of watching pro sports — hey, somebody might do something spectacular while you’re watching! and I did watch some of the Olympics for that reason, but that was at the gym while I was doing my own spectacular feat, namely not dying on the elliptical machine — but, after the inevitable opening comedy monologue, aren’t celebrity awards shows just two or three tedious hours of watching famous rich people get up to receive even more fame and riches? Why is that entertaining? To me, it seems too close to the English class system, where haughty imperials “do their part for the local economy” by swilling down champagne while commoners get rations. The other day I came across a clip online from Jimmy Fallon’s show where he got some black people to talk to what they thought was a video chat with Chadwick Boseman, the actor who plays Black Panther; one after another, these people profusely thanked Boseman for making the movie and representing them on film. Y’know, I get it. I do. Really. As much as I can, as a white man. But my immediate thought was: He’s playing a wealthy monarch superhero, which doesn’t represent them, and he didn’t do it for them, he did it for millions of dollars. (Listen, I will gladly represent arty middle-aged German-American suburbanites onscreen for just hundreds of thousands of dollars.) Then — surprise! — it turned out that it wasn’t a video chat, that Chadwick Boseman was actually there behind the curtain! When he came out, the fan-worshipers were thrilled and at least one said “My king!” and crossed his or her arms in what I take to be a subject’s salute and genuflection re-enacted from the movie. This was even worse than mere celebrity worship — this was worshiping celebrity plus monarchy. I thought grumpily, “Our forefathers did fight a war against this sort of thing!”

Last week I noticed that a band I really like was playing locally tonight. I floated the idea of going, even though I wasn’t sure I truly wanted to go, given my dislike of the venue, only to have my friend recoil in horror. “Oh, no!” he said. “That’s the Oscars! There’s a party I always go to!” The last Oscars party I went to was about 20 years ago, and I can’t remember anything about it, except everyone else’s ginned-up excitement when some movie or other won or lost. Generally, when people tell me the Oscars are coming up, I’ll say, honestly, “When?” Not because I’m putting on airs, but because I don’t follow it and don’t know. The fact that I can live and work in the city that houses both Disney and Warner Bros., as well as a quintillion independent production companies, and that I’m in Hollywood two or three days a week, and I never know when the Oscars are, tells you about how difficult it can be for facts to break through. (Which may partly explain many evangelicals’ support of Trump.) If I cared about the Oscars, I’d know when they are. Supporting evidence:  I know when Comic-Con is. If you like the Oscars, that’s fine, I just can’t understand. But if you don’t care about Comic-Con, well, that’s inexplicable.

Luckily for me, my wife feels the same way about the Oscars. I say luckily because that means that I have never had to gamely play along while we host an Oscars party. Tonight, she’ll be at work saving people’s lives at our local hospital. Our 15-year-old will be playing Fortnite or reading Lost City Radio by Daniel Alarcon (which he’d better finish in time for that book report!). I’ll either be at the gym or back here writing, and I admit to being interested in seeing how Rick does on “The Walking Dead” without his son “Coral.” During all of that, some people will win a little gold statuette saying they’re the best at acting like they are someone else, and others won’t win it, and some person will win a little gold statuette saying that he or she is the best at directing those people exactly how to act like someone else in the best possible way, and where to stand, and the day after that everyone will go back to doing everything else.

Bad / crazy marketing ideas

March 1st, 2018

#1. Take America’s greatest band — that would be Pere Ubu — and have them play in the corner of a Borders bookstore, to the tremendous indifference of the children present.

 

 

The David Bowie Listening Party, part one

February 28th, 2018

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For Christmas, my longtime friend, playwright Trey Nichols, bought himself the recently released boxed set of David Bowie discs from 1977-1982, “A New Career in a New Town.” Last night we were finally able to coordinate our schedules so he could bring it over for us to listen to it together.

Listening to three Bowie albums in a row reminded me that no matter how much I love and appreciate an artist in theory, there’s nobody I love in toto. I admire a lot of Kurt Vonnegut’s work, and Philip K. Dick’s work, but I will never again read “Slapstick,” and I’d like back the hours spent trying to read Dick’s execrable mainstream novel “Voices from the Street.” Much as I like the Beatles (at times), I never need to hear, say, “Octopus’s Garden” again.

I had the great pleasure of seeing David Bowie on tour twice — on the “Serious Moonlight” tour in support of the “Let’s Dance” album, in 1983, in Philadelphia; and on his final tour, at Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim in 2004. Both times, with very different shows and very different set lists, he and his band sounded great. On “Stage,” though, an early live album reissued in this new boxed set, I don’t hear any of the sort of magic I heard onstage. Instead, these are almost rudimentary live versions of songs that are far more magical on their original recordings, as performed here by what sounds like an above-average local cover band. Ouch.

The next disc we listened to was “Re:Call 3,” made up of rarities of a sort:  non-album singles, somewhat-different versions of album singles, b-sides, and ephemera. This was more like it, with different versions of some of my favorite Bowie songs:  “Heroes,” “Breaking Glass,” “Fashion,” “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)” and more. It also includes the soundtrack version of “Cat People,” which I hadn’t heard in years, a 1979 folkie version of “Space Oddity” that I’m fine without, and, most interestingly, Bowie’s songs for Bertolt Brecht’s “Baal,” which I’d always heard about but never actually heard.  Now that I’ve heard them, I can say unequivocally that I prefer Bowie the rock star over Bowie the musical-theatre singer; in the former, his femme operatic voice is balanced out by the hard punches of rock-and-roll, while on the latter all his fluty indulgences flit around unanchored in a way that would have me running for the exit.

Finally, we listened to Tony Visconti’s recent remix of “Lodger.” Visconti, who was Bowie’s longtime producer, has stated that he didn’t feel the album had gotten the credit he deserved, and now he’s taken a swing at producing a better mix in hopes of better serving the music. As an enormous fan of this album, Trey was able to point out all the subtle differences; being less familiar, I didn’t hear them. Listening to it — and enjoying it — did give me occasion to look up this very positive review from Pitchfork, which left me howling with laughter. Here’s just one wonderful excerpt:

The music is punky and dramatic and a little odd, with detours into reggae and near-Eastern tonalities (“Yassassin”) and nebulously exotic “world” sounds (“African Night Flight”), all filtered through the ears of a British guy with plenty of money and the imperial leeway to appropriate whatever he felt like. To this day, no musician has better mastered the hermetic intensity of cocaine, a drug that makes you want to have long conversations with everyone you’ve ever met without leaving your room.

Whether you care about David Bowie’s music or not, I strongly recommend reading the entirety of that review for the pungent wit alone.

Given that it was approaching midnight, we didn’t get to the other albums in the boxed set last night, and unfortunately we didn’t get to sit outside and have cigars while doing this because Los Angeles was uncharacteristically approaching freezing, so we’re looking to set another play date, in March. That’ll give us a chance to listen to what may well be the best three albums of Bowie’s career:  “Heroes,” “Low,” and “Scary Monsters.”

The life and death of Barbara Ann Weaver

February 12th, 2018

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I did not know Mrs. Weaver, who died January 18th, at all.

Until now.

I think it was her photos that caught my eye in the obituary section of the Los Angeles Times, a section I generally skip, as does everyone else probably unless they’re looking for the writeup of someone they knew. In both photos, one of her young, one of her old, she’s beautiful and radiant. In the younger one she looks filled with promise; in the older one she is filled with joy. Judging from her obit, she fulfilled a lot of that promise.

According to this piece, she loved to sing, was a skier and a horseback rider, a dancer, a valedictorian, earned a degree in English and a Phi Beta Kappa key and then, 30 years post-graduation, got a Master’s in reading instruction from Loyola Marymount.

She played golf and other games, indoors and out.

She married, and had children, lived a very full life, then died.

We should all be so lucky.

Again, I did not know Barbara Ann Weaver. But I would also say she was lucky in death. Because I don’t know anyone else who has ever gotten an obituary so beautifully written.

Here’s the opening:

“Barbara Ann Weaver, December 4, 1922 – January 18, 2018, rode her sorrel pony Skookum bareback over the wheat fields her daddy farmed in the foothills of the Blue Mountains, skied those hills on pine planks with her beloved siblings Fritz and Margaret, learned to read and write in a one-room schoolhouse on Coppei Creek, learned to dance as her aunt and uncles played at the community hall by the homestead on Jasper Mountain, graduated valedictorian of Waitsburg High School’s class of 1940, went to Washington State University on a scholarship and earned a degree in English and a Phi Beta Kappa key and made her professors cry when she couldn’t stay in 1945 to help teach all the returning GIs.”

Whoever wrote this has a thing or two to teach Cormac McCarthy, and I say that as a fan of Cormac McCarthy. Listen to the rhythm of “rode her sorrel pony Skookum bareback” and “learned to dance as her aunt and uncles played at the community hall by the homestead.” The whole thing is positively stuffed with active verbs. “To be,” with its variants of “is” and “are” and “were,” is the weakest verb in the English language; you won’t find one iteration of it in that entire long, plainspoken but poetic sentence.

Here’s another evocative example. Note how the line lengths and cadences vary:

“Raised eight children with boundless love, infinite patience, sly humor, and humble wisdom. Weathered many a storm through her steadfast faith in God. Read voraciously,  watched ‘Days of our Lives’ loyally, completed the Times crossword diligently, played Scrabble and Bridge formidably, and generally enjoyed golf except when she was four-putted.”

Again:  not one “to be” verb; instead, we get a clever anaphoric use of adverbs that pulls us right along from the divine to the commonplace. I like how it lands on the joke, and how that tiny flaw humanizes Mrs. Weaver and spares her from hagiography and our disbelief. This was written by a writer. Among all her other accomplishments, we can add this one:  She merited the time and effort and tremendous skill someone applied to writing this record of her life.

Here is how the biographical section ends, before the list of those left behind: “Was, in short, a goddess who surprised us all by not being immortal. We feel so blessed to have known her.”

This is the most effective piece of writing I’ve come across in quite a while. Because it leaves me wishing that I, too, had known her.

Honest answers (the latest in a series)

January 31st, 2018

A website form just asked me, “Is there anything else you’d like us to know?” So I answered: “Trump is terrible through and through.”