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


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Book return

February 18th, 2021

One night last week, after about 20 years, I had a guy I know over for drinks and cigars and to talk about theatre and writing and books and music.

One thing about the pandemic: Suddenly we both had time. The social options normally available have telescoped down into almost nothing.

We already knew we had some things in common: We’re both playwrights and stage directors, we’ve both done work with Moving Arts (which is how we know each other), I’ve seen his plays and he’s seen mine, we both have wives and kids, and we both live in Burbank — within walking distance of each other. I learned the latter fact some time last year when he told me that whenever he’s at his kids’ school, he sees the fundraising tile my wife and I sponsored some years ago. More recently, he and his wife bought one too, so that’s something else we have in common.

Over the course of two-and-a-half hours in my back yard under a glowing patio heater and during half a bottle of bourbon, we took turns shooting references at each other that, yep, the other would actually get. When I compared the Stan Lee / Jack Kirby dynamic with the Edison / Tesla dynamic, both of them revolving around a genius largely unrecognized during his life, he was armed and ready with the tragic details of Tesla’s last years. We shared our admiration for the work of Ayad Akhtar. When we wandered into music, and the role of noise, and John Cage, and I inevitably brought up Pere Ubu, and he offered his love of their songs as songs, and then added Wire, I just about fell over. How often can one find someone equally capable of discussing Marvel comics, brilliant 19th century inventors, particular contemporary playwrights, semi-obscure postpunk bands, the practice of being a writer, Fran Lebowitz, and, especially dozens and dozens of books you’ve read?

What are the odds of this, and with regard to the books in particular? Not to put too fine a point on it, but it takes time to read a book. Most Americans read four books a year. In 2020, I read 33 books; my average is 26 books a year (I just checked; thank you, GoodReads), which I think is pathetic. Although it’s possible to read 100 books a year, distractions like eating and sleeping and other functions get in the way. So finding that you’ve both read Paul Auster and Joan Didion and Julian Barnes and Cormac McCarthy and Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth and some of the Russians and Fitzgerald and Hemingway and on and on while also having all those other interests in common is a bit… disconcerting. Wasn’t the final grandmaster chess tournament in “Queen’s Gambit” like this?

It did turn out, though, that there were two books I’d read and heartily endorsed that he hadn’t read, and two that he swore by that I hadn’t read. The next day, still thrilled and knocked off-kilter by the experience of having someone walk over to my house and have that sort of conversation with me over bourbon and cigars for almost three hours, I went on Amazon and sent him the two books I love that he hadn’t read: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.

He texted me two days later to thank me and to say that he’d already gobbled down the Barnes book, adding a few salient points about it. And then the other day, when I opened my front door to see why my annoying dogs were raising high holy hell this time, I found a package from Amazon on my own doorstep: He had sent me the two I hadn’t read, pictured above.

After I read these, we’ll have four more books we can discuss. And this time, we won’t wait 20 years. We’ve already set the date.

Today’s weather report

February 17th, 2021

A close friend back East serves as the volunteer meteorologist for our old college crowd, invariably posting on Facebook what the weather is, or will be, in his immediate neighborhood. Whether rain or snow or even clear blue skies, he provides a daily dose of dire warnings. If there’s even the barest hint of a potential calamity via hurricane or ice storm or meteor shower, he is on the digital scene first. Yes, we have access to weather.com, but traditional services such as that in no way compare. And, hey, forewarned is forearmed, especially coming from a trusted old friend.

Here in Los Angeles, we have someone else who provides a similar service. That person is David Lynch.

Here’s his weather report for today, delivered in a manner redolent of William S. Burroughs, but slightly less creepily.

Blessed intervention

February 16th, 2021

I give to you the best DVD commentary ever: that of Brian Blessed helping to remind us that “Flash Gordon” wasn’t supposed to be good — it was just supposed to be FUN.

Fixing the holidays

February 15th, 2021

Today is Presidents Day here in the United States. I no longer celebrate it. I hadn’t given it much thought before the ascendancy of George W. Bush, but once that came about I was out. It was much simpler, seeming eons ago, to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday and, until further investigation, to celebrate George Washington’s as well. Now that Presidents Day by title would seem to refer to Donald Trump as well, I’m so far out I’ve left the stadium and even the parking lot.

Meanwhile, we don’t truly celebrate Earth Day. Given the horrific implications of climate change, shouldn’t that be the day everyone should take off and commit to the environment? Even just the publicity surrounding that single day of activism would have a great impact. We could even roll in Arbor Day, in the way we rolled two good presidents into Presidents Day. As a federal holiday, the new Earth Day could effect dramatic improvement by encouraging you to plant a tree, keep your internal combustion vehicle off the roads, and stop littering the internet with cat memes and food photos.

Please contact your representatives in Congress.

Formative experiences in English!

February 14th, 2021
A bocadillo de jamón
  1. At a young age, I learned that the exclamation “Excelsior!” was intended for Stan Lee alone, and that the rest of us weren’t suited for it.
  2. I learned this after trying it out on my middle-school peers. Unfortunately.
  3. Also in middle school, we were assigned to write a book report of a biography. Mine was on L. Sprague deCamp’s biography of H.P. Lovecraft; a friend chose a book on Robert Goddard. I wound up reading that book, too. I learned two things from the Goddard book:  that Robert Goddard was the “father of the American rocketry program,” and that one could be both a genius and a terrible speller. Throughout his life, Robert Goddard spelled “failure” as “failor.” This is how I learned there is no correlation between good spelling and raw intelligence.
  4. This conclusion was supported in the 1990s when I was a literacy tutor, and I learned how to teach people to read. Reading is not primarily based on sounding out letters — if it were, we’d all get stopped in our tracks by words like “numb” ( which would be pronounced “noombuh”) and “phone” (“puh-hoooon-eee”). Reading is all about pattern recognition. If you’re a good speller, it’s because you’ve read enough to recognize the patterns, or you’re just naturally good at pattern recognition. 
  5. Further proof:  My wife is an intelligent woman, someone smart and capable who has saved people’s lives for 35 years as a healthcare provider. She’s also a prolific reader. But she still can’t keep two, too, and to straight. (Maybe she’s a genius, like Robert Goddard.)
  6. When I see a word misspelled, it’s like someone has jammed glass in my eye. It also hurts my inner ear. I probably outwardly cringe. If the misspelling is accompanied by certain flags and signs we’ve seen at, say, insurrections against the government, I admit to drawing an immediate conclusion. Barring that, I think the culprit is just not a good speller. A friend misspelled a word on Facebook earlier, in an exchange with me, and it took a force of will not to correct him on it — but why would I do that? He’s smart and accomplished, and maybe it was a typo.
  7. My children, on the other hand? I always correct them. That’s my job. They’re all adults now and I don’t care, it’s still my job.
  8. Although I steer away from correcting the spelling of non-offspring, except in professional settings where it’s important to get it right, I will correct a non-native English speaker on pronunciation. When I was studying French in college, my professor called that lovable rodent who torments your dogs a “SQUEE-rell.” Never known for shyness, I said, “It’s pronounced ‘squirrel.’” She said, “Thank you, Monsieur Wochner. No one ever corrects me, so I never get better.”
  9. She also told me, after much mutual effort to accomplish the opposite, “You will speak French with an accent.”
  10. Spanish being close enough to French that one should be able to make something of the same ingredients, I kept trying out Spanish last year when I was in Spain. While there, I came to learn that Spain is all about ham. So much so that their national flag should just be a flying pig, and so much so that, yes, there is a museum of ham. If you order coffee — and the coffee in Spain is incomparable, I have to tell you — you’re pretty much offered some form of pig with that coffee. Madrid is dotted with little sandwich shops that provide coffee and variations of little toasted sandwiches, all of them with varieties of bacon and ham, with or without cheese. On the first morning there, I left my daughter napping in our room while I hustled down to the streetscape and over to such a shop. I looked over the offerings, and read the signs, and very chestily ventured to the young man behind the counter, “Una pequeno bocadillo de jamon, y una mediano, y una  café  con leche, por favor.”  I was bursting with accomplishment — until he said, “Oh, American, yes?” And then conducted the rest of the transaction in flawless English.

Against self-expression

February 13th, 2021
Painted (on commission) by Hieronymus Bosch

Today, on a Zoom call, David Thomas of Pere Ubu was saying again that “self-expression is evil.” He said it twice — once, 30 years ago, in a television interview that a couple dozen of us were now watching with him, and again, afterward, to us.  And of course many other times over the years in other interviews.

Thus the answer to why in its 45-year history Pere Ubu has recorded almost no love songs. 

This served as a reminder that this tough-mindedness is part of why I could never cozy up to the singer-songwriter movement of the 1970s, but instantly sutured myself onto Pere Ubu 35 years ago when I first heard them.

But before I go on let me be careful not to ascribe to David, whose work I admire tremendously, opinions that are mine and not his. Whatever he means by “self-expression” may not be what I mean by “self-expression.” I generally mean that baring one’s soul through art is not in and of itself interesting; a few drinks with a friend at a pub would sort that out better. Doing it through what you think is art is actually quite boring — as evidenced by the sort of poem that used to appear in Reader’s Digest, and also by countless high-school journals, including mine, in which I endlessly pined for girls in ways that still embarrass me, 40 years later, because I can’t forget my own adolescent weakness.

If you’re lucky, people will be interested in your art.  If they were primarily interested in you, you’d be a reality TV star.

And that’s the way it should be for artists. Art first. Confession and “self-expression” never.

I’ve worked with hundreds (and hundreds) of playwrights over the past 30 years. And, of course, actors and directors and scenic designers and musicians and visual artists and choreographers and so forth. I take it for granted that they’ve all had hurtful childhoods — some of them actually hurtful, some of them a hurt of their imagination (which doesn’t make it any less real). Even after all these years, while I like almost all these people and am glad to know them, I find it hard to get worked up about their personal pain. By its nature it’s so self-involving that it just can’t be interesting. How interesting can childhood trauma be, if everyone’s had some version of it? Childhood trauma isn’t unique — it’s universal.

Art, on the other hand can be profoundly interesting when people put their hurt into it in service of the work. I’m not sad to say that I can’t get moved by the early death of John Lennon’s mother — but him screaming about it on Plastic Ono Band certainly gets my attention and approval. That isn’t self-expression, that’s art that includes self-expression. (And, anyway, was Julia’s death bad luck for him — or was it what he needed to become a Beatle? We should note that Paul McCartney also lost his mother in his childhood.) We know almost nothing about Hieronymus Bosch’s life, but I know all I need to know from his paintings, and I can assume that some of him is in there, even though they were painted on commission.

That’s how it should be.

If the art is interesting, the self that comes through that art is interesting. Art that serves as self-expression is best kept with your middle-school participation trophies, forgotten in a closet filled with such clutter.

In the other practice, self-expression is presented on a platter, a la those mawkish TV romances made for dowagers. Most of the explicit self-expression I see in would-be art is handed to us as confession. Confession and sharing are antithetical to conflict, and it’s conflict that makes art powerful. What are those classic three storylines? Man versus man; man versus nature; man versus himself. Note that each of those has a “versus.” On the other hand, when a character sits down and earnestly tells another character how sad she feels, you can feel the play sink like the House of Usher. This is why for years in my writing workshop, I’ve railed against plays whose central story is this:  “Grandma’s dying, and I feel sad.” Well, that’s you. How do we in the audience feel about it?

Pere Ubu, meanwhile, has achieved 45 years of powerfully moving work that is utterly devoid of sentimentality. Is it filled with feeling? Absolutely. Does it elicit feelings in the audience? Of course. The staying power of the music, and the thrill it engenders in its adherents, provide testimony to that. So too is attending a live show and seeing the impact of the music on all those assembled; there is a charge in the air, every time. But none of it is saccharine, none of it is handed to you, and none of it asks you to crank up emotions you don’t have. Like all great art, Pere Ubu respects the work too much for that. It would be degrading to stoop to mawkishness.

Werner Herzog on skateboarding (and success)

February 3rd, 2021

How it’s going

January 31st, 2021
Everything’s fine.
  1. Back in this post, I noted that I even though I’m a committed reader of books, I make little headway on the number of books in my reading queue, because I’m buying more than I read. Yes, I’m guilty of tsundoku (an excellent word I learned only recently), or owning a growing pile of books I may never read. So when Taschen targeted me on Facebook with their goddamn ad highlighting a big sale they were having of their beautiful art books, of which I’d like to own all, I did not buy any. I did send the link to a friend who I knew would appreciate it, but I didn’t even glance at their offering of what’s on sale, and I didn’t buy any of it.
  2. When I was on Facebook the next day, the ad came back and I bought two books from it. But they were big beautiful books and I needed them! Baby steps, okay?
  3. I was also targeted on Facebook by some product that promised to remove the bags under my eyes. (The fact that they knew I had them screams out for further regulation by Facebook.) I bought this stuff too. Usually, I’m a bit of a tightwad — I really don’t want all this stuff in my house! — but I do have the eye bags, even if only in the morning (I tell myself). The product promptly arrived, and I put it in my bathroom, but so far there’s been no improvement. Next step: Tomorrow morning, I’m going to take it out of the box.
  4. On Saturday after my playwriting workshop, I came across a tweet from a business guru I follow who shared how the pandemic was affecting him. One idea he floated: Rewatching The Walking Dead, but this time taking notes. The Walking Dead being about, essentially, a pandemic, I thought that funny. So in a welcome interlude from attacking all these books with a pickaxe, I wound up rewatching Season 1 (six episodes, requiring only about five hours) and then this morning, while putzing around and putting off other things I should be doing, I watched a couple more. Season 1 is a masterpiece, and I say this seriously. It’s an emotionally devastating, grinding, unforgiving look at the apocalypse (or, as I like to refer to it, Trump’s Second Term). No one gets off easy, and no one is miraculously saved. Every moment is earned, and the acting, writing, and production values are superb. Seeing it again for the first time in 10 years and now watching it straight through helped me see how terrific it is — and especially how much money was lavished on what was essentially a six-episode miniseries. There is no one set location, so every scene is a new location shoot; locations include a hospital that gets trashed, the Center for Disease Control (which gets blown up), a roadway with a huge car collision and shootout; a skyscraper; sewer tunnels; downtown Atlanta with hundreds of extras and a freaking tank and God knows what else… the list is endless. It’s jaw-dropping.
  5. In Season 2, our hardy band of survivors mostly hangs around a farmhouse and discusses their feelings for 13 interminable episodes. Looks like: All the budget got blown in Season 1.
  6. Back here, I said that theatre on Zoom is not theatre. Since then, we’ve done another reading of a new play from my workshop, and done it on Zoom. The script, by a talented playwright, is strong, and the actors were real pros: working actors you’d recognize, who brought their all. But, still, it was on Zoom. Something about a live “theatre” performance on Zoom just screams, “Hey, check your email.” That’s because the delivery vehicle — Zoom, on your computer — is the same delivery vehicle for your email and your Facebook and your Twitter, etc. The actual theatre demands that you sit there in a darkened room without your smartphone and pay attention. When you’re watching “theatre” on your laptop, though, all those other options lurk in the same dimension as the performance and, if you haven’t turned off texting or email or Facebook or notifications, you’ll be getting those interruptions throughout. The playwright asked me afterward if I thought the play ran a little long and maybe should be trimmed — this, by the way, is #1 on the frequently asked list from a playwright after a reading — and I said there’s no way to know, because it was on Zoom.
  7. By the way — of course! — I’m writing a play that takes place over Zoom. It’s seven scenes long, is intended to run 70 minutes, and I’ve finished the first draft. I’m in rewrites. I would have already finished the rewrites — except I’m writing it on a machine that also has email, and Facebook, and texting, and notifications….

The best Cloris Leachman story I’ve heard

January 27th, 2021

Cloris Leachman, who died yesterday, was wonderful in everything she appeared in. Including, it seems, real life. Here’s a story that my friend Shanti Reinhardt, an actor and playwright here in Los Angeles, put on Facebook earlier today, posted here with permission.

1984. I was walking to class during Summer Congress at The American Conservatory Theatre. Being from Hawaii, I didn’t quite understand that even if it was “summer” it was freezing in San Francisco. I remained in denial of the weather as I strolled happily along, wearing tiny shorts and a tight T-shirt with my wild curly hair blowing in the wind when suddenly a woman catches up to me from behind and says, “Hi!”

I turn to look and it’s CLORIS LEACHMAN!

How could this be? She was one of my all time favorites. A genius comedienne.

I acted cool. “Hi.”

She walked with me. Cloris: “Where are you going?”

Me: “To class at A.C.T.”

Cloris: “Oh, you’re an actress?”

Me: “Yes.”

Cloris: “I’m an actress too. I’m currently starring in Sister Mary Ignacious Explains it all for You.”

Me: “Oh, my god! I’m working on a monologue from that play!”

Cloris: “Wonderful! Would you like to go out on a date with my son?”

Me: “Huh?”

Cloris: “I saw you from behind with all this positive energy surrounding you — the sunlight bouncing off your hair — and I thought, ‘That’s the kind of gal I want dating my son. He’ll be visiting next week.’ “

Me: “Oh! I’d love to but I’m going to London next week to visit my grandmother who I’ve never met before.”

Cloris: “Oh, how exciting. Well, give me your number and I’ll call you when you return.”

So, I gave her my number and she disappeared.

A few weeks later, I came home to a message on my answering machine. “Hi, it’s Cloris. Be at the ready at 10pm.”

I didn’t know what the term, “Be at the ready” meant. I thought it might have been a restaurant or a club. I call information but they say there is no listing under that name. I usually was asleep by 10pm anyway so I got into PJ’s and crawled into bed.

Sure enough a horn starts beeping outside of my apartment window at 10pm. I open the window to see Cloris standing in front of a stretch limousine yelling up to me, “Hi Shanti! Are you ready? We’re going to have a night on the town!”

Well, the story goes on. The original son she wanted me to go out with was no longer in San Francisco but this was another son she wanted me to meet. He and I had no chemistry but the night was one I’ll never forget as Cloris made an entrance wherever we went.

Years later, I was in a Groundlings class with my teacher Cynthia Szigeti and the assignment was to bring in a character that was a relative. A guy went up before me and started doing his character.

I yelled out, “Wait a minute– are you doing Cloris Leachman?”

The guy was stunned and said, “Yes.” Cynthia was surprised as well, “How did you know that?”

The guy and I looked at each other and then we both realized at the same time, “Oh my god– you’re her son that I had no chemistry with!”

Flight of comedy angels, Cloris! You were the best.

Year-end update

December 31st, 2020

No, no, I won’t be doing a look back on 2020, because as I recently noted here, Who’d want to? But it’s not a bad day for housekeeping, even blog-housekeeping, so here goes:

In this post, I related that my reading pile continues to grow. When I’d had the conversation with my friend about my stack of books-in-waiting, there were 78 books on the list; after reading 32 books over the course of 2020, the number of books had somehow risen to 103. Since then, two things have happened. First, I finished reading another book. (No cause for applause; it just happens.) Secondly, my family and I went to pick up sushi on Tuesday night, but we arrived early and the order wasn’t ready. So, looking around, my wife suggested we drop into Barnes & Noble. “Um, I said, it’s a book store….” Because we knew what would happen. So, yes, while in there for all of 10 minutes, I wound up buying two books. So now my number rests at 104. If book publishers had one ounce of moral fiber, they’d stop publishing books until I could catch up.

In this post, I exposed the true nature of one of our dogs. Unfortunately for him, it seems that every member of my immediate family also read that blog post and is now onto him as well. Instead of seeing him as “goofy” (their term), he’s now viewed, and treated, as cunning. Sorry, pal.

Back here, I was bemoaning all the theatre that didn’t happen in 2020 and that, therefore I didn’t get to see. I also said that “theatre” on Zoom is not theatre. (I don’t know what it is, because it isn’t TV either, but it isn’t theatre. Theatrical, sure, potentially. But not theatre itself.) On Tuesday night, before the unfortunate bookstore visit that further extended my reading pile, I took my wife and two sons to see “Stranger Things – The Drive-Into Experience.” If watching a play on Zoom isn’t theatre, neither is sitting in your car for an hour and wending your way through a dimly lit parking structure while young actors jump around outside your car, pantomiming actions to prerecorded dialogue being played over your radio while video screens run loops behind them. I’ve enjoyed watching “Stranger Things” on Netflix (mostly because it captures the teen experience of the 80s so well), and wish I’d enjoyed this. But if you’re sitting in your car watching video screens of excerpts of the TV show, why not just stay home and watch the TV show? Right off the top of my head, three very creative and inventive stage collaborators I’ve had the good fortune to work with — Paul S., Matt A., and Ross K. — came to mind as people who would’ve made this actually theatrical. At one point, my wife looked over at me from the passenger’s seat. “Why are you on your phone?” she asked. Well, I couldn’t see the screen in front of me, being completely blocked by a large SUV, and didn’t much care. I checked the reviews online and they were effusive, which just made me realize that these other attendees had no idea what they could’ve had in the alternate-universe production in my mind. Best line goes to my older son: “This is the perfect show for Los Angeles: Everybody gets to stay in their car and drive around inside a parking structure.”

Finally, it behooves me to say, as I’ve been saying for so long, that “years” and “decades” don’t really exist. We’ve manufactured these concepts. Our need to create these organizing principles is a direct output of the way our brains are wired; we need to collect time into buckets of meaning that we can make sense of, and that we can remember events by. Why do most of us associate a specific year with, for instance, a certain album or movie coming out, or a presidential election, or a life event? We do so to provide a hook for related memories to hang on.

I can prove to you that decades don’t exist: Think of, say, the 60’s. Okay, got it? Well, that period that we associate it with was actually more like 1958 through 1974. See? Not contemporaneous with “the sixties.” The 1970s, which I remember vividly, and which were exceedingly weird and somewhat terrifying, ran from late 1974 through 1980. Which made it, thankfully, a short decade. Meanwhile, the 1300’s lasted for about two hundred years. When you think about 2020, aren’t you really thinking about mid-March through now? Or maybe somewhat into 2021? 2020 was not actually 2020.

I share this by way of noting that tonight is New Year’s Eve, and we treat it as a way to intend a better year for the next year, and to plan our better selves. So perhaps it is useful. But I would remind us that every year, every day, every minute, is what we make of it. Don’t let a single moment slip down the drain hole unappreciated.