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


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Little things

Monday, 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

Sunday, 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

Sunday, 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)

Sunday, 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

Saturday, 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.

Sunday

Sunday, February 9th, 2020

I didn’t work on my play and I didn’t go to the gym and I didn’t do any real reading or writing and I didn’t continue the Civilization 6 game against my 17-year-old where I’m actually winning. So… what did I do today? At just after 10 p.m., near the end of the day, it’s a bit of a head-scratcher.

I started off the morning by prepping for an interview. The (highly recommended!) Pere Ubu podcast — accessible here and elsewhere — is doing an episode about “super fans,” with an interview scheduled with me at 10 a.m. This necessitated my getting up early, quickly sampling from the two dozen Pere Ubu albums I’ve got, and, impossibly, selecting my “favorite” track. The interview lasted 20 minutes, and will no doubt be boiled down to two minutes, and was completely unenjoyable, dealing with one of my favorite subjects.

Then I did the Mega Sudoku. Every Sunday that it’s possible, I do the Mega Sudoku. Here’s where to access it. Some Sundays it takes 20 minutes or so; sometimes it’ll take an hour or more. Today I had to redo it four times (and there went a chunk of the day to be sure) because I’ve got a new MacBook Pro with a menu bar that I kept accidentally hitting with stray finger strokes and, somehow, wiping out entries. I finally finished the puzzle by switching to the old laptop. (Note to self:  Learn how to turn off the accidental entry-clearing function.)

Listening to the torrential downpour outside made me wonder:  Now that it frequently POURS in Southern California, does that mean I’ll never have to hear “It Never Rains in Southern California” again? (God willing.)

I read part of the LA Times.

I talked to the wife.

I spent too much time on Facebook and Twitter.

I kept thinking about things I was going to write but didn’t. And things I was going to read but didn’t.

I fixed some lunch and read more of the LA Times.

I took a nap.

I woke up and found that my wife had left for work and my son was over at a friend’s. I made a salad for dinner and read more of the LA Times. I texted the son to see when he’d be home, given that it was a school night, and he texted back to tell me that it wasn’t a school night, and I checked the school calendar and learned that, indeed, there is no school tomorrow, that even with the invention of “presidents’ day” they still get two days off, one this week, and one next week, and I grew mad about this as just the latest example of our kids getting under-educated while some other nations are clobbering us with their early education.

Then I had more flavored seltzer water and popcorn.

I was never going to watch the Academy Awards because I have a hard time understanding why anyone would. I feel the same way about the Super Bowl. If I were up for an award, I wouldn’t just watch the ceremony — I’d attend. Barring that, I have zero interest. I’m also of the opinion that most awards are undeserved (unless they’re to me). So I was surprised an hour ago to learn that the actual best picture I saw last year, “Parasite,” won for Best Picture. To quote the great arts programmer David Sefton on Facebook:  “Bloody hell. They just gave best picture to the year’s actual best film! Has that ever actually happened before??” Not to my knowledge. I view this as a partial make-good for “Crash.”

Now I’m going to dig into the stack of “Doctor Strange” comics I’ve been stockpiling. Maybe even make some progress in Kafka’s first novel, which I’m making my way through.

Tomorrow will be more action-packed.

Election results

Wednesday, February 5th, 2020

OK, the Iowa Caucus vote count is now 96% complete — and I got just as many delegates as billionaire Tom Steyer and without spending one penny of my own money. Sweet!

Action over despair

Friday, January 31st, 2020

I try my best to be a Stoic.

No one is a true Stoic, at least not as outlined in the Enchiridion of Epictetus. Being a true, complete, Stoic would be to renounce joy and happiness (in addition to the more negative emotions), which would also mean rejecting everything, outside work, that makes life meaningful and enjoyable. Even when I first read the Enchiridion, decades ago, I realized this… and realized that Stoicism is best employed as a practice, and not as a goal.

That practice, which has brought me great relief throughout my life, is summed up best as this:  “There are things within your control, and things outside your control. Things within your control, you may exert your power over. Things outside your control, you should let go.” Applied well, this can be awfully soothing. Plus, productive. It counsels correct action, and relieves frustration.

After a glorious 18 days off — from any kind of work, from even thinking about anything troubling, as I went to Spain to see the world’s actual greatest rock band and also to New Jersey (twice) to visit my birth family, and even from writing anything in any form — this week I found myself clenching my jaw and my shoulder muscles as I bore witness to the presidential impeachment “trial” unfolding. So far, the result isn’t any different from what I thought it’d be, but its lack of suspense doesn’t drain me of my dread and outrage; a country in which, evidently, anything a sitting president might do to ensure his own re-election is permissible surely isn’t the country the Founders conceived, nor is it the one I thought I lived in. Tonight, after the Senate voted 51-49 not to hear from witnesses (and after more than one of the GOP Senators voting against witnesses said they believed that the Democratic House managers had proved their case — but they still didn’t care), I decided to come home, grill a big steak, drink an entire bottle of red wine, and watch something distracting on Netflix. Because what they had done was infuriating, but it was outside my control.

That’s what Stoicism does for you — it helps you question what you can affect, and what you can’t, and constantly raises for you the question of what, if anything, you could do.

I grilled my ginormous tomahawk steak (freshly purchased from Ralph’s on a WooHoo! deal) outside, cracked open a bottle of Spanish red wine, and sat out there enjoying both, while occasionally throwing a piece of the steak to my two dogs and petting them to our mutual satisfaction. It was pretty good.

Except — I was still seething.

So I went on ActBlue and donated a shit ton of money against those GOP assholes in the Senate running for re-election, and against Mitch McConnell in particular, because y’know what? It may not seem very Stoic, but  THAT was within my control.

So now I’m thinking: Just watch what the 58% of us who hate all this are going to get up to in the next 10 months. There are millions of us. And that action is within our control, too.

I.T. Came From Beyond!

Tuesday, January 7th, 2020

Last week, just before New Year’s Eve, I got a new MacBook Pro. It arrived here at my company, our friendly trusty I.T. company came to set it all up — and then discovered that Apple has yet again forged ahead with new hardware that leaves mere mortals behind. The last time I got a new laptop (four years ago), we discovered that there was no longer any way to play or burn a CD or DVD. (In fact, I now have no way to play a CD anywhere, because my car won’t play one either.) And of course the powerpack attachment is different every time — sometimes the new version inserts straight in; sometimes it’s a different attachment; sometimes it’s magnetic. In this particular case, we found that Apple has removed both the Cat 6 cable (which I need to connect to something here in my office) as well as all the USB ports. Instead, I’ve got these nifty little slots that, well, nothing plugs into except the new Apple powerpack.

Now, as a longtime Apple user (happily using Apple since 1982), I have to admit that I appreciate these cutting-edge advancements. I just wish they didn’t always cut me at the last minute. For context:  I’m leaving for Spain on Saturday and I need all my stuff to work.

So, we ordered a thingamajig that slots into a couple of those nifty little slots and now provides a couple of USB ports and a Cat 6 port. So now I can do things like, well, attach my iPhone and iPad that are clearly also from Apple. No, I don’t like to think that Apple removed those ports in order to force me to buy a new iPhone and a new iPad. I would never think that. Instead, I think that the new MacBook Pro has a hidden cost of an additional $79, because that’s what the cigarette-lighter attachment that we had to buy and that I think everyone will need costs.

With that safely overcome, last night I set out restoring my iPad. I say “restoring,” because when I went to update its operating system two months ago, the screen froze and no manner of ministrations would thaw it out. Instead, I just didn’t use the iPad for two months. But now my plan is to take it, and not a laptop, overseas, thereby cleverly keeping me from doing any corporate work while I’m there, because I haven’t loaded the corporate-work email on it. Instead, I’ll go to see Pere Ubu (!) play, and check out Hieronymus Bosch and Picasso, and nibble on boquerones and sample tapas and down glasses of tempranillo without ever once wondering what’s going on with my email. I devoted almost two hours last night to restoring my iPad, synching it to the new laptop, confirming that everything on the old laptop was now running and working on the new laptop, and went to bed feeling happy and satisfied, delighted with my accomplishment and proud that I hadn’t needed the I.T. people or even my friendly and helpful colleague at the company to rescue me on any of it.

The next morning, ensconced at my desk and well aware that my task list was lengthy but ready to get absolutely everything under the sun done so that I’m fully prepared to leave for my trip, I opened up the new laptop and logged in — but it wouldn’t take my password.

Wha…?

So I did what anyone would do:  I typed the password in again.

And again.

And again.

Because why would we assume that it wouldn’t magically be different on the third try?

But it still wouldn’t work.

Which was puzzling — because my password hadn’t changed. Or… had it? Because, it suddenly occurred to me, I’d synched it with the iPad, and that has a different password, one all its own, so I tried that one. And when it didn’t work, I tried it again. And again.

Then I wondered, Hm, if maybe it hadn’t somehow defaulted to one of my other passwords that I use for the other electronics and the other accounts. After all, they’re all synched. So I put in the password for my phone. But that wouldn’t open the laptop either. Then I put in my master password (well, one of my master password — yes, my passwords live in a house with two masters, and also 10 mistress passwords). That didn’t work. Then I wondered if I’d used the right case, because for some of them I’d gone from upper case to lower case, about 12 years ago, when I was in a business meeting and my wife texted me to ask for one simple password of mine and had somehow unknowingly changed every password I had anywhere and completely discombobulated my synched systems when she changed that one password.

(Isn’t life so much simpler with modern technology?)

So, now I got out some very old tech — what we call a pad and pen — and I wrote down every password I use. Yes, I have them memorized. There are 12 base passwords in all, as well as a variation system that, no, sorry, I can’t disclose here. Then after typing each of the 12 passwords in, and it not working, and then typing it in again, and it not working, and then typing it in a third time, and it not working, I scratched it out. When all 12 got scratched out and I still had no access to my new laptop, I started to feel the creeping dread of a man lost in a labyrinth in a horror movie:  What if it takes all day to get this resolved? What if I never get “that” document back? What if this never gets resolved? I’m leaving on Saturday!!!!

Finally, we put in an electronic support ticket with the friendly, trusting I.T. company and they called.

I love these guys, and told them so yet again, but did ask, “Um, how long do you think this will take? I’m always glad to see you, and to talk to you — but I’m really jammed at the moment.”

They said maybe very little time, maybe longer. (This is a response I will be adopting myself in the future.)  They told me to manually shut down the laptop, which would bring up an admin screen upon reboot, and they could help me reset a password from there.

“Great!” I said. These guys have always solved every problem, and I was feeling confident I’d be back on my way quickly. But I didn’t know how to manually shut down the laptop; Apple seems to have removed that button.

“You know where the digital fingerprint button is? It’s that one. Just hold it down.”

So I looked at my keyboard — really closely looked at it, to find the digital fingerprint button — and noticed something else.

A green light.

Signifying that…

My Caps Lock button was on.

I pressed that off, entered my password…

… and my laptop lit up faster than you can say “Open Sesame.”

I guess I left the Caps Lock button on somehow from before…?

This is why I have an I.T.  company on retainer.

And why I should just stick to what I do better.

Goodbye and good riddance!

Wednesday, January 1st, 2020

This morning I did what many people do on the first day of a new year:  I slept until two in the afternoon.

Well, technically, no. I slept until 8:30 a.m., which was ruinous, given that I’d gone to sleep just four hours or so earlier and then on a bellyful of vodka gimlets after a six-hour party with two dozen guests. At 8:30, finding myself ruefully fully awake, I fixed myself a cup of coffee and an English muffin, watched an episode of the new “Lost in Space” on my laptop, then went back to sleep. Then I woke up at two in the afternoon.

This is the third year in a row that we’ve hosted a New Year’s Eve party mostly built around drinking and then playing charades. This is not charades for the faint of heart. The only way this could be made harder would be to write the prompts in hieroglyphics. It’s a cut-throat game designed to prepare you emotionally for just how difficult and challenging the new year might be.  The guest list gets split into two teams and then each team makes up their own prompts for the opposing team to act out and guess, with a focus on making the prompts just about impossible to act or guess. Obscure books are a favorite; so are “famous people” that no one has heard of, and little-known Yugoslavian action movies that are available in the backwoods of Netflix. One example:  “The Enchiridion,” which I submitted last year to the immense fury of my wife’s team. Hey, it’s not my fault that none of them ever read it.

While I like being alive, and so do my best to enjoy every bit of the experience of living, I can’t say I’ll miss 2019. Goodbye to bad rubbish, I say! Three members of my family had serious health issues (and one nearly died), more than one friend died, I had a truly delightful professional calamity that still has me fighting with my insurance company for a settlement eight months later, my credit cards and ATM cards got stolen and used, I set aside a full-length play I was writing that I suddenly lost faith in, and somehow or other my subscription to “Fantastic Four” has stopped appearing in my mailbox.  Finding out in concert that Roger Daltrey can still sing astonishingly well did not provide enough counterbalance.

So, I’m approaching 2020 with optimism. I’m going to Spain in two weeks to see Pere Ubu in concert, and while I’m there for that I think I’ll take in some of Spain as well. I have to think at some point there will be an insurance resolution (and at that point, perhaps I’ll share actual details here). And I’m almost 90 pages into a play that’s working far better than the other one. I’m ready to twist the throttle of 2020 all the way.