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



January 22nd, 2018


It was the best of (theatre) times, it was the worst of (theatre) times.

I was going to write a long post about professionalism, and actually had most of it written in my head, but I can boil it down to this:  Professionalism is like what Justice Potter said about pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

Just over a week ago, we had our tech rehearsal for The Car Plays, which is running now at Segerstrom Center in Orange County. (It’s sold out. Don’t even try.) I directed a play called “The Night Gwen Stacy Died”; here are a few words about my cast. We rehearsed over the holidays; for this 10-minute play, one of the actors would spend five hours on LA’s notoriously convenient buses (two-and-a-half getting to rehearsal; two-and-a-half getting back home), and another one of the actors would drive about an hour each way; the third actor changed her work schedule whenever needed; one of the guys rehearsed a few days after painful, extensive abdominal surgery (!); and our artistic producer drove two hours out of his way to check on our show when we decided we needed to rehearse all the way across town and down south in order to accommodate the guy who had surgery. Meanwhile, three people coordinated and scoured the area for the necessary costume bits and props. Oh, and the tech? The tech involved about four dozen people and 15 plays, and top-to-bottom was probably the most well-produced, well-run, efficient tech rehearsal I’ve ever seen in the 40 years I’ve been doing theatre.

Meanwhile, in the past two weeks I saw an improv show billed as featuring “the top improv teams in LA” where people had no idea how to do improv — low energy; no projection; no familiarity with the announced-in-advance script prompts, and I assure you, these were very well-known script prompts; and where the second team, given its prompt (“It’s a play”) rejected it (“Actually, we’re doing a documentary”), which is a complete no-no in  improv. Rarely have 40 minutes seemed so long. Dying painfully of a gut shot would’ve seemed quicker. During the third of these internal skits, I leaned in to my wife and whispered harshly, “We’re leaving” and grabbed her and ran for the exit, past the audience, who consisted almost entirely of the other people waiting to do “improv” and a scattering of friends-of-the-performers who kept shilling for the performers in a recognizably false way.

The photo above is from a show I saw this weekend. You’re seeing the stage action from my seat. Some members of the audience dragged their chairs left and right in an effort to see something; I just gave up and decided I was attending a radio play. Before the play, the playwright introduced me to “the greatest director in the world”; judging just from that photo, I’m still waiting to meet him. I couldn’t quite figure out why this playing space had the absolute worst sightlines I’ve ever seen, until I turned around and saw that 20 feet behind us was an elevated stage! For some reason, the greatest director in the world decided to stage the play in a slightly elevated room across from the stage. This meant that, as you can see, we couldn’t see; it also meant that the actors’ words were lost to the depth of the room, and, given that there’s no light plot above a room (as opposed to, say, a stage), the actors were frequently in dim. It’s a real shame, too, because the play is better than that. But, the director and his cast found ways to bury the laugh lines too.

My best advice:  Surround yourself with people who know what they’re doing. Whether it’s doing live performance or changing the oil in your car.

By the way, the young woman in front of me, in the center above, had beautiful ash-blonde hair, as well as an attractively smooth back, both of which I got to admire closely for an hour and a half.

The physics of physique

January 17th, 2018




Sports Illustrated shows what 239 pounds look like. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t look like Donald Trump.


Good news for 2018 – #7

December 31st, 2017

7. The availability of the arts will increase.

Incredibly, everything is available, and in 2018, the end of net neutrality notwithstanding, there will be more of everything, and it will all be available.

It used to be (he said, tugging on his white beard), that the available of culture, even pop culture, was limited. Television programs were on at specific times, books went out of print, movies were in theaters only briefly and then gone, newspapers had a one-day life, and all the live performance events such as concerts, and opera, and dance, and poetry readings, and standup evaporated immediately afterward. Let me take you back to why so many of us went to science fiction and comic-book conventions in the 1970s in particular:  Because it was in those screening rooms, which ran 24 hours throughout the convention, that you might actually get to see the Bruce Dern environmentally conscious science-fiction movie “Silent Running” or horror films like “Suspiria” or “Dawn of the Dead,” and because it was on the dealers’ floor that you could pick up the key issues you needed to understand the ongoing, intertwined, novelistic, Marvel comics series. Just how did the Hulk get out of the Leader’s all-encompassing jelly-like mold that turned the behemoth’s blows back against him? No idea if you couldn’t locate that missing issue.

But now everything is retained. And collected. And archived. And shared.

Although I think about this frequently, about the easy availability of, say, Wallace Shawn’s essays, which in an earlier time may have gone out of print or been impossible to locate, lurking on some dusty shelf in a bookstore in Cleveland, I was reminded again this morning because of this:  The Los Angeles Times devoted an entire glorious page of its Sunday Arts & Books section to a review of two new collections of Jack Kirby’s work, specifically his Fourth World omnibus (collecting all 1500+ pages of his early 70s Fourth World series), and archive collections of his Newsboy Legion series from the 1940s. (Here’s the review; it’s joyous, and well worth reading.) There are 59 individual issues that make up the Fourth World series; tracking each down and then paying for them all would certainly eclipse the cost of a mortgage payment — but now they’re available, all collected, in lovely hardback editions.

In addition to the joy that the easy availability of such treasures delivers, there is also another impact:  the ready availability of the arts increases the potential for thought and rootedness. We have not been mistaken, these thousands of years, in cherishing the arts and noting their impact on humanity. As Charles McNulty states (also in today’s LA Times), the arts provide a corrective, and especially to our current times, in forcing us to confront our lack of thought:

The humanities in higher education have been forced to defend their usefulness, as though college were merely a form of career training. But artists should liberate themselves from the worry of utility. The service they provide is so intrinsic to the flourishing of humanity that creativity shouldn’t ever have to justify itself.

McNulty is writing largely about the role of theatre — a generally unifying force which, new research claims, synchronizes the heartbeats of audiences. But his idea that coming together, and escaping the rigors of daily reality for the passions of creative unreality, forces us to think and to experience anew, applies across the board. There’s also a political component to this, as McNulty notes. The frisson of the arts — the slapping-awake that it provides — makes us harder to subdue. The Czech government pestered, surveilled, harassed, banned, and jailed playwright and essayist Vaclav Havel for 20 years of his life with no success; the struggle was resolved only by Havel becoming president of Czechoslovakia.

All of Havel’s works, by the way, are now readily available.


Friday evening

December 29th, 2017
  1. I’ve been posting here about all the things that will be better in 2018. Michael Grunwald tried to outdo me by saying “Everything is Awesome!” — except, well, not quite. (Capsule version:  The economy is awesome — but Trump isn’t.)
  2. After more tax discussions and end-of-year tax maneuverings — which at one point had me paying my California taxes early, until a recalculation and revised advise from my CPA had me not doing that — I’m not the only one left confused and in a state of pandemonium as confirmed by these reports from various states giving conflicting advice, and people waiting in line for hours to pay taxes they may or may not owe. I received an email today from the County Assessor advising me how to pay property taxes now, before January 1st, if I wanted:

    “Changes in the federal tax code have prompted some property owners to inquire about pre-paying property taxes prior to January 1, 2018, at which time a cap on deducting state and local taxes will take effect. Property owners who wish to pay the second installment of the 2017-18 tax bill may do so at this time. Payment options are as follows.”  And then a list of locations and payment methods.

    And then this addendum:”Property owners may not pre-pay 2018-2019 taxes at this time; these tax bills will not be generated until September/October 2018. Also, the Assessor does not accept payments; this is solely a function of the Tax Collector.”

    Uhh… If we think old folks in Florida are repeatedly confused about how to actually vote (and they are; witness the 2000 “butterfly” ballot), how well do we think this is going to work out?

  3. One thing that’s been really great about 2017 is that Donald Trump hasn’t visited California. Not even once! That’s one of the best Christmas gifts this year.

Tax change

December 27th, 2017

After filing my taxes next year, I’m wondering if change is all I’ve have left.

I say that because I met with my CPA today, and it seems that whatever tax maneuvers I was able to do before no longer apply. The good news (for me):  Because I own a business, I should qualify for a deduction on pass-through income. This is the thing that was added in the compromise legislation — so now I guess I owe Senator Bob Corker, who held out for this, a thank-you (even though I’d prefer to see him in prison for self-dealing). The bad news (for me):  My state and local taxes, and my mortgage interest, are no longer deductible. (And surely it’s coincidental that these provisions mostly affect such states as California, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, for example, which reliably vote Democratic. But I digress.) Minimum, my federal taxes are estimated to go up $1200 just because of losing that interest deduction.

So much for the tax “cut.”

Other elements of this are head-scratchers:

  • For some reason, the pass-through income deduction applies to product-oriented businesses, but not services. So if you’re an accountant, lawyer, doctor, or Indian Chief, no deduction for you. But if you’re manufacturing mousetraps, sure, you get the deduction. What exactly could be the rationale behind this? Except punishing service providers? And if so — why?
  • In 2018, entertainment deductions are no longer allowed. I’m shocked this made it through. Really? All those K Street lobbyists won’t be able to deduct their pricey lunches and dinners and travel and concerts and so forth? How did they miss this? Had they known, they never would have let it happen.
  • Also, medical and dental expenses aren’t deductible the way they were. Two years ago, I could have bought a good used car for what I spent on the interior of my mouth — and that’s not even with counting the agony that came with it. I got two kinds of relief:  When the pain finally subsided, and when I got a deduction for it. So:  Let’s strip out the Affordable Care Act as best we can, piece by piece — and let’s also limit or remove people’s deductions for medical expenses. One or the other change might make sense, but doing both just seems punitive.

I’m not opposed to change, but, in general, I like change for the better. This was supposed to be a simpler tax code that jump-started the economy. Just about nobody believed that, including the people who said it. For one thing, the economy is doing fine. For another, if you suck $1500-$5000 extra out of my finances, and then you multiply by the number of people like me in those blue states where we actually financially support the federal government (unlike, say, Alabama, Mississippi,Oklahoma and all the other red states that cost the feds more money than they send), what you’re actually doing is depressing our spending ability — which shrinks the economy.

I do wonder just how much informed thought went into this by our selected officials and the corporate overlords who own them. To wit:  Have they asked, if we all die sooner without health care, who’s going to support the 1%?

Good news for 2018 – #6

December 26th, 2017

6. There are lots of good people in the world. In fact, most people are good people.

Don’t believe otherwise. No matter what anyone tells you.

I’ve known people who’ve left high-paying jobs — in business, or as corporate attorneys, or what have you — to scrape by working at small non-profits because they believed in the work of helping other people and the world.

I also know people like Mark, my friend of almost 25 years. Here’s what he posted on Christmas Eve:

A Christmas / Holiday story. Yesterday, I had to do my laundry, but couldn’t at the apartment complex. So, off to the laundromat I went. Decided to go to a different location than usual. But alas, every washer was being used. Not pleased, I headed back to my car to go elsewhere (my usual spot), and that’s when a woman approached me, asking for a meal. Her husband was sitting nearby. I asked, “Only one meal?” To her surprise she replied, “You’ll buy two meals for us?” I nodded, and tears formed in her eyes. We walked up to the counter and placed their order, then chatted for a bit. …

Then Mark went back to his car and got two “blessing bags” — these are bags that they prepare at his church for handing out to people in need; they include things like toothpaste and a toothbrush, socks, maybe a little snack food, water, deodorant and such — and handed them to the couple. Mark keeps blessing bags in his trunk for things just like this.

There’s also the story from three weeks ago of the guy who ran into the fire to save the panicked rabbit. A passing motorist captured it on video, and spoke with the man, but the man didn’t want any credit for it — his sole purpose was in saving the rabbit. Whether or not you think people should rush into fires to save rabbits (opinions vary), you have to credit the man’s selflessness. As CNN headlined it, “Man rescues rabbit from fires, instantly restores our faith in humanity.”

We have all seen incidents like this — of the man who pays for the woman’s groceries at the supermarket; of the person who sends money anonymously to help a family in need; of all those people who volunteer for Habitat for Humanity on weekends to build houses for the homeless; of those volunteers who go out and clean the beach, or the park; of the doctors and nurses who go to poverty-stricken areas once or twice a year to dispense free medical care; and on and on.

The human brain is wired to store bad experiences up front, for quick and easy retrieval; that’s an evolutionary feature, and overall a good one. But we shouldn’t let it blind us to the obvious truth:  that on a one-on-one basis, person-to-person, almost everyone is good, and does good. We’ve been so beset by widely reported bad news in 2017 that 2018 will become the year that we remind each other of all the good.

Good news for 2018 – #5

December 24th, 2017


In 2018, The Ocean Cleanup launches.

Floating plastic, which never decomposes, poses a threat to all levels of the food chain and sea life , including sea turtles and birds that mistake it for food; the undigestible plastic clogs up their digestive tracts and ultimately kills them. Scientists have estimated that there are 7.25 million tons of extractable plastic in the oceans. The Ocean Cleanup seeks to dramatically reduce the levels of plastic in the ocean.

The Ocean Cleanup is the result of a then-16-year-old’s high-school science project to figure out how to strip plastic flotsam and jetsam from the world’s oceans. The answer:  Use the motion of the sea to sweep plastic into large floating nets that skim the surface without trapping plankton or other sea life. His resulting non-profit organization estimates that a full-scale deployment of their systems will clean up 50 % of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 5 years.

The system has been field-tested, and it works. Learn more here.

Human ingenuity created many (most) of the world’s problems. Certainly, most of them are solvable or, at least, highly improvable.


Cord-cutting made easy

December 24th, 2017

I’ve decided to cancel my cable TV service next month.

My AT&T U-verse bill is up to $278 a month — and nobody in my house watches TV. I might watch one show, and my wife just watches reruns of “Big Bang Theory” that are probably available (free?) everywhere else in the universe.

Here’s an imponderable: I asked my 15-year-old son if he wanted to watch a show with me. He said, “Is it on Netflix?” “No,” I said. “Oh. Then no,” he said.” My question:  What difference does it make if it’s on Netflix or “live” TV? I can’t wrap my mind around this. What if I asked before reading a magazine (yes, I’m old-school in some ways!) if it was printed on matte or glossy paper? “OH! It’s on matte? I couldn’t possibly read that!”

In any event, the TV portion of my bill, which pays for that TV stuff that nobody is watching, is $151/month. (Ouch!) I could easily buy more than 10 cigars a month for that, or something else, if pressed. So I’m going to cancel that. But what if I — or you — wanted to retain the ability to view some of those fine, fine TV programs, while still saving most of that $151 a month? The program offerings are so diverse, and so widely dispersed, that it’s almost impossible to know where to choose, let alone what to choose.

Until, as they say in marketing, until now!

Here, for your reference — and for mine, so I can find it later! — is a helpful online guide to which streaming services offer which channels.

Merry Christmas. Now I need to go to back to whatever I was doing on the Internet, where all the action is.

Good news for 2018 – #4

December 23rd, 2017

#4. Real climate change correction is becoming feasible.

No, I’m not Pollyanna, and yes, we should remain alarmed about global warming. But there is cause for careful optimism. This is based on a number of factors:

  1. Carbon-cleaning technology already exists. The best future outcome for preventing the environmental apocalypse forecast in the “Blade Runner” movies is probably a combination of reducing carbon output, and offsetting (via trees, etc.) or cleaning the carbon we do generate. We already know how to do this, and many countries have written carbon-cleaning technology into their infrastructure plans.
  2. Almost every nation on Earth recognizes the problem and has pledged to do at least something about it. (No need to guess which is the only country that has not made — okay, revoked — that pledge. It’s us. As in U.S.)
  3. There’s money to be made in dealing with this problem. As recent history will tell you, once there’s money to be made, action happens. If carbon emissions fuel global warming (which they do), and global warming increases costs for nations and their constituent industries (insurance; agriculture; healthcare — and plus pretty much everyone else, in increased sickness and decrease productivity), then clearly there’s a market for fixing the problem. If you invest in the stock market, you might want to take a look at stocks related to carbon-cleaning technology.
  4. China is the world’s largest polluter, putting out about twice the level of carbon dioxide emissions as the U.S.  China is now facing the very real impacts of pollution and climate change — and is now emerging as a leader in the fight against global warming. They’re committed to this, because they know it’s real. We shouldn’t waste any time drawing comparisons with the actions of our own federal “government,” now populated by the sort of anti-science religious fundamentalists we used to more commonly associate with radicals in the Middle East; instead, we should vote them out, and be glad that least polluter #1 (China) and polluter #3 (the European Union) are on the case.

Environmental collapse is our greatest threat, and undoubtedly we’re in for a rough time of it. But given awareness of the situation, market incentives, and growing technology, we may be able to work our way out of it or reduce the impacts. That’s good news for next year, and for beyond.

Good news for 2018 — #3

December 22nd, 2017


There is a school of thought that everything really turned to shit only after David Bowie died. While I can’t lay all of the blame on Mr. Bowie, and would never do so, I do have to say it seems like a large contributing factor. Without Bowie in our universe, things got undeniably worse, and that suggests a cause-and-effect relationship.

So here’s the good news:  There will be new music from David Bowie.

We may not get Mr. Bowie himself back — although with the Thin White Duke, one can never be sure what form he might manifest — we will get more of his music.

Oh, it may not come out in 2018 — it might be 2019, or 2020, or, in an homage to his song “Five Years,” it might come out in 2021, five years after his death — but it will come out.

Here’s how I know this:  The Beach Boys recorded most of their truly great music 50 years ago, and it’s still coming out. (Witness the recent boxed collections — that’s a plural, collections — of Beach Boys music recorded in 1967 that came out this year.)

Also, how many new Michael Jackson albums have come out since MJ himself moonwalked off this plane of existence? How many posthumous Johnny Cash albums (some of them pretty good)?

Three-quarters of The Monkees are still with us, and they released a pretty terrific new album last year. I listen to it constantly. It’s so great that it has convinced me that their old music was better than I ever thought. Now, after all these years, yes, I’m a believer! Well, the other day I was listening to it yet again, and had a question about a particular song, and went to Mr. Google, and here’s what I found out:  There were other great songs recorded in those sessions that didn’t make it onto the album. Of course! And they are available for your listening pleasure if you buy various packagings of that album — if you buy it on vinyl, or from the Japanese, or in a deluxe version, and so forth. This reminds me that it’s almost certain that additional songs were recorded for Blackstar that just didn’t make it on the album.

Our Major Tom may have sung “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust,” but I must point out that dust is everywhere — and David Bowie will live on. Knowing that there will be new music should make us eager for at least those elements of our immediate future.