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


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Cogent criticism

Saturday, June 3rd, 2017

My new play, “Triptych,” opened today. It runs through June in Hollywood at the Stephanie Feury Theatre. Here’s where to learn more, and get tickets.

Here are some initial responses.

A theatrical producer I’ve known for a long time now posted this on Facebook:  “Just saw this today. A bracing mix of art, sex and violence. Made me think, feel, and think again. Lee Wochner mixes up a potent brew. I recommend it!”

The artistically minded mother of a director and playwright I’ve worked with posted this:  “My husband  & I saw today’s performance & enjoyed our afternoon. I especially liked the ending but I’ll never tell! Long stem Red Roses & Kudo’s to Lee Wochner, Michael David, Daria Balling, Ross Kramer, Laura Buckles & Dana Xedos.”

But here’s what both my director and I think is the most cogent criticism so far. When it was over, my 14-year-old son turned to me and said, “Dad, this play reeks of you.”

And it does. It reeks of me. The wordplay, the insistence on grammar, the vocabulary, some of the tensions in the relationships, the mockery of Barefoot wine, and much more. “I’ve heard you say a lot of that!” he said later.

We stopped at the supermarket later to pick up a few things, and he went on about how much he heard “me” through the play. I told him that I’ve written lots of plays, and lots of different sorts of plays, and that not all of them sound that much like me. I told him that I’ve written a lot of blue-collar characters with restricted vocabulary, and reminded him that I grew up knowing a lot of people like that and that I have great respect for them.

But he hasn’t seen those plays — and I had thought he hadn’t seen any other of my plays, until I remembered he’d seen a couple of short plays of mine the past couple of years at the annual Moving Arts holiday party.

So, for now, I’m associated with the terrible caustic people in my new play. He and his sister (18) associated my wife with it in a different way. Responding to a situation in the play, they asked her, “Do you have a lesbian lover?!?!?” Her response:  “Not that you know of.”

 

Incredible, incredible dialogue

Monday, April 24th, 2017

Here’s the transcript of the Associated Press interview with Donald Trump. I don’t expect you to read it all. I certainly don’t expect him to.

I will say that this would serve as the script for my next play, but lately I’m not writing Theatre of the Absurd.

Coming soon

Wednesday, April 5th, 2017

Without risking becoming one of those tiresome people who recounts how busy he’s been by providing a litany of tasks and appointments, let’s just confirm the assumption that there’s been a lot going on. Among other things, I’ve given a number of talks in California that I hope to be writing about here soon. (We’ll see.) And in addition to doing a lot of speaking, I’ve been doing a lot of (non-blog) writing.

Looking ahead:

I’ll be in New Jersey and New York May 4 – May 10, so I’m hoping to catch up with some friends and colleagues.

May 10 – May 12, I’ll be in Lake Tahoe on business.

May 18 – 21, I’ll be in bucolic Hays, Kansas for my good friend James Smith’s long-overdue wedding to a delightful and beautiful woman who will actually have him. James has been in more of my plays than any other actor (eight of them? 10?), and now he’ll be acting the role of a responsible grown-up. I’ve never been to Hays, Kansas or, I think Kansas itself. A good friend who is also a very good playwright, Ross Tedford Kendall, is also from Kansas, and when I told him I’d be visiting Hays, he just laughed long and hard. That caught my attention. But hey, where I’m from isn’t exactly a metropolis either.

On June 3, my new play “Triptych” will be opening in the Hollywood Fringe Festival. More to come about that. (Including a link to secure tickets.) The play went through several different working titles, including “Pyramid,” “Triangle,” “Triptych” and “How We Know You,” before my director convinced me to call it “Triptych.” I would say I’m hoping for the best, as one always does with a production, but I’m blessed with three honest-to-God great actors, all of whom I’ve worked with before, and a talented director who understands my work and my sensibility. If you’re in LA in June, I hope you’ll come see it.

Political theatre (of the absurd)

Thursday, March 2nd, 2017

Samuel Beckett wrote “Waiting for Godot” in four months. Six years later, the GOP are still trying to draft their replacement for Obamacare. All they’ve got so far is intermission.

Logline

Tuesday, February 21st, 2017

How I just described my new play to my daughter: “Psychological attack, with comedy.”

Monday, not Sunday

Monday, February 20th, 2017

While in the past I’ve been happy to celebrate Washington’s birthday, or Lincoln’s birthday, I’ve never wanted to celebrate President’s Day, for the simple reason that I don’t celebrate all of them. I didn’t like it when George W. Bush was the president, I don’t recall liking it before that, and I certainly don’t like it now.

In addition to not-celebrating the holiday, another reason I had a hard time just a minute ago remembering that it’s Monday and not Sunday is that I spent the morning eating a leisurely breakfast with strong coffee, horsing around on my iPhone playing far too many rounds of Drop7, and making mental lists of things I should do today but probably won’t. In other words: Sunday activities. I was especially confused when the newspaper was even slimmer than usual — pretty slim for a Sunday! … Oh.

Yesterday, on what felt like Saturday but was actually Sunday, I took my daughter to LACMA to see the exhibit of German art of the Renaissance. My forebears were torn between two factions (in this case, the Catholics and the Protestants), an awful conflict that gave rise to some great art and some very snotty illustrations that reminded me of the underground comix o the 1960s. (Good thing nothing like this is happening these days.) The work was deeply beautiful and generally disturbing — very warlike, with representations of the chosen arbiters (Martin Luther or the Pope) swinging between deific and demonic, and with much heraldry, spilled blood, and tortured Christs. The portraiture of the one-percenters (who, of course, could afford portraits of themselves), was necessarily flattering. Hats off, then, to Albrecht Durer, who had the audacity to depict one such Burgermeister as a thin-lipped, cold-eyed coot. I can only wonder what this person thought of his portrait.

While we were there, we paid extra to see the exhibit showcasing the work of Diego Rivera and Pablo Picasso. I’d never thought of the two together, associating the former with a sort of socialist-peasant art and the latter with modernism, and I wasn’t aware of their friendship, but now I’ve been educated. I was especially interested to see how informed Rivera’s work was by Mayan art, with its simple uninflected portrayals of people, and also to see Picasso’s elementary illustrations of a translation of Ovid; it’s astounding how much he could convey with just a simple fluid line.

My friend and former playwriting workshop member Tira Palmquist is having quite a year or two or three. She’s been racking up productions all over the place, and just broke through the LORT curtain with her play “Two Degrees,” which is currently running at Denver Center for the Performing Arts. She says a number of smart and useful things in this interview, and is even so kind as to give me a shoutout. In with all the other wise things she says here, I particularly recommend this advice: “Write as much as possible. Set difficult goals.”

Go to the gym. Do the grocery shopping. Write as much as possible. That’s my to-do list for today.

Intermission

Sunday, February 19th, 2017

Posting on this blog may pick up again now that I’ve actually completed a first draft of my new full-length play, “How We Know You.” While I’m surprised that it took about eight months — especially since I was able to write 26 pages in the first week — but there’s nothing like a deadline to get something finished, and I’ve been seriously cranking away at it again the past two weeks. I think I got it in just under the wire for a first reading that was already announced and already scheduled for Sunday the 5th at 5:30 at Moving Arts. Assuming, that is, that my preferred director doesn’t hate it and he’s able to get it cast in time.

So now I’m celebrating. Although I write a play or two (or more) a year, I think this is my first completed full-length in… three years? Four years? Celebration means: I went to the gym to burn off all that excess energy after typing “END OF PLAY,” then stopped on my way home to pick up a bottle of Grey Goose, which I’m now drinking with some cranberry juice while munching homemade popcorn and writing this.

While I was at the gym, and, again, celebrating finishing this play, I started to think about the plays that I haven’t finished. Now, in general, I’m someone who finishes what he starts. I believe in that, and also, when I was in a writing program in grad school, one of our teachers counseled us on that. “You have to finish what you start,” he said — and then we never saw him again, because he quit to go take on another writing job. Despite that, I have done my best to heed his advice, even if just because the perversity of his hypocrisy strikes me as funny. But there are some plays that I haven’t finished — yet. Eventually, I will get around to finishing all or most of them, assuming I don’t die first.

(Side note: Whenever I think of a writer knowing he’s going to die, I’m reminded of Louis L’Amour, whose writing room had stacks of manuscript and letters and papers in every direction all across the room. When he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, L’Amour came home and started going through all those papers, to sort them out and clean them up. But his wife kindly said to him that he needn’t worry, because she’d take care of it — and so, he was able to go back to writing. Every writer should be so lucky as to have a spouse like that.)
Anyway, I have about 35 finished plays, and almost two dozen that are either almost finished, somewhat finished, more fragmentary than the Dead Sea Scrolls, or pretty much just a title and a few lines. Here are some of the unfinished plays I hope to finish writing.

“7 Horns” (full-length)
This play I actually had a developmental process on, and a reading at some college. (Was it Occidental College, alma mater of Barack Obama? I think so.) It’s about a small town facing impending real-estate development. Interestingly — well, I think it’s interesting — the play had a mother and adult daughter talk about the death of their son/brother; when we were working on the play, there was a mother-daughter duo in our acting company at Moving Arts and they were extremely effective and moving in this scene. Later, I found out that they had indeed lost their son/brother, and they wondered if I had written this scene expressly for them. Nope — just happenstance.

Odds of getting finished: After the reading, a playwright friend said to me, “You know, developers aren’t evil.” Many years later, I have come around to his way of thinking. So… I’ll need to see if it’s still relevant. To me.

“The Bar Plays” (full-length)
About 20 years ago, I saw a couple of Canadian playwright George F. Walker’s “Suburban Motel Plays,” a cycle of one-acts connected only by virtue of taking place at the same motel. My thought then: I could do this, but with a bar.

Odds of getting finished: To my practical/pragmatic side, It still seems like a very producible side, and I did write one or two of these. The problem is that I don’t go to bars much any more. (In the larger scope of things, maybe that’s not such a problem.) I would have to do research, and I’m not sure this is the sort of research I’d enjoy doing.

The Cratchet Family Christmas” (one-act)
Every July or so I dig this up, and what I’ve got of it still makes at least me laugh. It’s vile and funny and completely unsentimental.

Odds of getting finished: High, dammit! This must happen!

“Creator” (full-length)
A dying literature professor has decided that because he is dying, the universe is dying: It is a projection of his subconscious. His daughter is a professor of modernist literature; they have disagreements over meaning: what is important, what is real.

Odds of getting finished: I’ve written scene one, scene three, some sort of interlude, and I have notes for some other parts. The problem? In my mind, the literature professor had a compelling argument for why he was the Creator — and in the 14 years since I started this play, I’ve forgotten what it was.

“Crotch Rot” (full-length)
I couldn’t remember anything — anything — about this play, so I just looked at it again. It seems to concern three stinking 20-something members of a grunge band.

Odds of getting finished: Slim. But I’ll probably pirate the characters or dialogue for something else.

“The Epiphany Party” (one-act)
Four female friends mock the celebration of Epiphany by holding a party in which each of them is supposed to have an Epiphany.

Odds of getting finished: Actually, this is finished. I just don’t like it.

“Fear, Inc.” (full-length)
In which the government is orchestrating terror attacks in order to keep the public under control. I should point out that I started this long before the Trump administration came into being.

Odds of getting finished: This should happen. I mean: relevance!

“I, Teratoma” (full-length)
I’m sure that every playwright has a play in which a blood-sucking tumor named Terry eats its way through family and friends. For laughs. (It’s a comedy. Of sorts.)

Odds of getting finished: Very high! You’ve got to love a play where the playwright has written himself a note that reads, “MAYBE TERRY HAS A MOUTH. OR A SLIT FOR A MOUTH. OR A VAGINAL OPENING ON ITS ‘FACE.’ ” Just writing that here again inspires me to go finish it!

“Inspecting Fitzgerald” (one-act? full-length?)
This is comprised of several short scenes featuring Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, including the (in)famous true story of the time Hemingway inspected Fitzgerald’s manhood in a restaurant bathroom.

Odds of getting finished: I had a reading of the existing pages once and everyone present wanted the rest of the play. But it’s been so long that those people may be dead now. Hemingway and Fitzgerald live on, though, so I should finish this.

“Ripped-Up Dog-Face Guy” (one-act? full-length?)
This was inspired by a book my then-8-year-old son was reading, called “The Gardener.” Evidently, I envisioned Ripped-Up Dog-Face Guy to be a character name.

Odds of getting finished: I still love the musicality of that name; that’s really what I was hung up on. But that’s about all I’ve got. I also seem to recall that I was turning this into a song at some point.

“Secrets of the Wonder Thing” (full-length)
This is the only sequel I’ve ever attempted. It depicts a dystopian alternate version of our own Earth — one in danger of becoming all too real, under Donald J. Trump — but is actually hopeful in that mass change results from individual action. Even when the individual action is taken by strange people with seemingly useless superpowers.

Odds of getting finished: Well, the first part, “Anapest,” was produced in London and New York, and had workshop in Los Angeles, New York, and Arkansas. And, again, the topic seems awfully relevant….

“Sex in the Year Zero Zero” (full-length)
Like those motel plays, this was going to be a series of somewhat-connected one-acts about sex. Guess in what year I started this.

Odds of getting finished: Probably. The parts that I’ve already written have gotten readings, and play well. I just need another fifteen years so that I can write knowledgeably about elderly sex, and then I’m all set.

“The Never Was” (full-length)
The action cuts between the two surviving members of a rock band and their younger selves, as they reunite in a bar to hash out grievances and, maybe, finally get some recognition because a car company wants to license one of their songs.

Odds of getting finished: I’ve got forty-one pages written on this play. Including the ending, which I promise you is killer. I know exactly how this play goes. So — I should just finish it. (Clearly, this is a note to myself.)

“Troubled Men” (full-length)
This is the full-length version of my one-act “About the Deep Woods Killer,” which concerns the son of a convicted serial killer, who is trying to keep himself together and stay away from alcohol and suicide. “About the Deep Woods Killer” was produced some years ago in Los Angeles and got very strong reviews and, more importantly, made several women in the audience cry. It’s a sensitive play coming from someone not known for his sensitivity. (That would be me.)

Odds of getting finished: Similar to “The Never Was,” I’ve got almost forty pages, including the ending — and it’s a strong one — and I’ve got notes on the rest. So — I should just finish it. I did get a little gun shy when I caught myself doing something I counsel others against — I was writing one character as, clearly, the villain of the piece. Ouch. I’m still embarrassed. So I’d need to fix that, plus, well, just finish it.

Other unfinished plays: “Friends for Life,” “God the Communicator,” “House Arrest,” “Second Ice Age,” “Imperium,” “Ozma of Oz” (my only attempt at a full-length musical), “Play Idea,” “Reactor,” and “Speedy.”

I have no doubt I’ll be doing rewrites on “How We Know You.” That’s how the process of playwriting works. But I’d also like to wrap up one of these other ones this year. Which one should it be?

That’s entertainment

Sunday, February 12th, 2017

One night last week, after another full day of Trump, I decided to take my wife to see the touring production of “Motown the Musical” at the Pantages in Hollywood. I’m not generally much for musicals, but I love Motown (who doesn’t?), and I thought it’d be a fun evening out, and a welcome distraction from everything going on in the news:  protests, police actions, presidents breaking the law, and more.

The show was everything I was hoping for:  great songs well-sung, interspersed with some storytelling as we moved chronologically through the history of Motown. If a glance at the program left me wondering just how on Earth the show was going to get through more than sixty hits from the Motown catalog, the show soon clarified it:  while occasionally you’d get the full song, or most of it, for the most part you’d get about three bars, which is the musical equivalent of a nod in the direction of a song you know. Which was frustrating. You’d get keyed up to hear a song you love, and just when you recognized it, it was over. Imagine hearing, say, a “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” — but then having it cut off at “Ain’t No–.” It was kinda like that; like ain’t no song finishin’ no how.

That said, the performers were terrific, especially a little boy who completely channeled the pre-adolescent Michael Jackson, and a beautiful honey-voiced young woman who, in an extended sequence that replicated Diana Ross’s solo debut in Las Vegas, reminded everyone present just why Ross was a huge star.

The show also reminded everyone about something else.

As the history moved further and further into the 1960s and later, the backdrop turned to Vietnam and Watergate… and protests, police actions, and presidents breaking the law.

My wife turned to me and said, “Wow. Nothing ever changes, does it?”

Making up for almost-lost time

Sunday, November 27th, 2016

A dear friend of mine had surgery not that long ago that still leaves her tired. When I picked her up today to go see the matinee of a new play, she said she wasn’t sure she’d be up for an early dinner afterward because she hadn’t been able to take a nap. We agreed to play it by ear.

The play was terrible.

As is usually the case with this sort of thing, you can tell within the first few minutes just how bad it’s going to be, if not sooner (like, before it even begins). In this particular case, the acting in the first scene was what I’m going to call “neurotic New Yorker” over-the-top, with all of the intended comedy falling with a thud all over the audience. Every scene afterward seemed like it was from an entirely new and different play: a human crawls onto the stage play-acting as a kitty cat (complete with lines); cheerleaders for some reason show up and dance around; there’s a searing melodrama between a strident young woman and her overbearing and two-dimensional Trumpist father; and a young actress takes on the additional role of “Grandma” in a performance ripped straight from “The Carol Burnett Show,” minus any shred of comic ability.

At intermission, my friend turned to me and said the magic words, “Do you want to just leave?”

She was checking first to see if I thought it was as horrible as she did. Maybe she was just being courteous, but the idea that she wondered if I might be enjoying this play cast a certain pall over my conception of our friendship. Surely she knew me better than this:  Of course I wanted to leave.

For lots of reasons, I’m not somebody who’s generally eager to leave during intermission. Yes, it seems rude to the actors. Also, sometimes there’s something that bears watching — a performer, an unanswered question, a clever bit of writing that lends hope to the future. (But not in this case.) And, finally, my not wanting to be a hypocrite; I say this as someone who at one point produced just enough bad theatre that he’s aware that nobody sets out to do crummy work.

But the perk of leaving at intermission was obvious:  Now we had time for an even earlier dinner. So we went out for sushi and talked about all sorts of things, and at one point remarked that we’d been friends for more than twenty years now. She brought up her retirement planning; I floated the idea of cashing out all sorts of things in a far-flung future. When you put those sorts of things into perspective, as we did, along with her life-saving surgery and my frequently thinking back to my friend who died last year — then it becomes awfully easy to leave during an intermission so you can make better use of the time you have.

Advice for the stage director

Sunday, November 6th, 2016

I am not the best stage director I know.

I’m not even the 20th best stage director I know.

And probably not the 50th.

But after 40 years of directing for the stage, starting in my teens, I do know some things, and I thought I’d share them. These specific bits of advice — very specific — follow from a play I saw recently. In no particular order, I offer these quick takeaways for directors everywhere:

  • When a character says “pass me the hot-water pitcher,” please make sure that it’s a water pitcher. And that it appears to be filled with hot water. This will entail having the actor who has grabbed it by its side pull his hand away as though it’s been burned. Or, perhaps, he could grab it  by the handle. Either way, help us believe that it’s a pitcher, that it’s the right pitcher for the set, and that it’s filled with hot water.
  • When we are led to believe that a character is yelling down a flight of stairs for another character to enter, and then the first character steps into the scene, don’t have the second character immediately follow — because then we’ll know that he was right outside the door, next to her, all along, for God’s sake.
  • If the play is set in the 1960’s, do not have print art on the walls that all of us in attendance can recognize as being unmistakably from the 1980s.
  • And don’t mix those prints with pastoral prints popularized in the 1950s.
  • Along the same line, if you’re going to have three pairs of chairs on stage, can they at least have a glancing similarity? Like — they’re from the same period, or design type? Otherwise, you’re making us believe that the upper-middle-class couple you’re trying to make us believe lives there is, well, psychotic.
  • If the set designer says, “Hey! I’ve got an idea! When they talk about other countries, they could refer to a globe, so I’m going to pick up a children’s globe from some thrift shop and stick it on the sideboard next to what we’re supposed to believe is a fancy tea service,” you should worry about your set designer.
  • If a character is described as old and frail, and the play consistently refers to him as old and frail, may I suggest that you cast someone who can appear as old and frail? Middle-aged and well-built isn’t going to do it.
  • When someone says “Pass the teapot,” engineer the action is such a way that the teapot is not literally already touching the requesting person’s resting hand at the time.
  • If we are led to believe that the old and frail man is homeless, do not outfit him in a brand-new coat. Insight:  People who live on the street are frequently dirty.
  • If he’s going to be barefoot, perhaps dirty up his feet. (See the note just preceding.)
  • If one character says to another — who is the homeless man, and who we are told has been trying to sell matches out in the rain for days — “These matches are all wet!” then please make the matchboxes soggy. We can see them. If they look like they were just purchased from Smart n’ Final, here’s what we are going to think: “Those were just purchased from Smart n’ Final!” While Smart n’ Final is only a mile away, this reminder of its proximity is troubling for a play set in another country.
  • If you hear that one of your actors delivers almost every line in the same manner, the two of you should investigate variance. (Or replacement.)
  • If your actors are doing an accent, insist on the same accent. Both collectively and individually.
  • Try sitting in the house while directing. At least a couple of times. One of the things you may discover is that your lights are fucking blinding the audience on several occasions during the play. When you see people pick up their program to shield their eyes, that is an indicator. Heed it.
  • Dissuade the house manager or whoever she is from giving a curtain speech from the stage. If she insists on doing this, make sure she’s back off that stage before your play starts.
  • If you are directing a three-character play, cast three good actors. Or, for God’s sake, settle for two if necessary. Even just one if that’s all you can manage. But at least that one.
  • Finally, don’t ask your friends how the play is. They’re your friends, so they’ll just lie. Invite an audience in a couple of times, for rehearsals here and there, or for previews, and ask them to be brutally honest. If they say to you that they honestly can’t tell you what the play was about, or what those actors were talking about, and perhaps can’t even recount any of the events of the play, and finally they just spent the time reading the program or checking out the light plot, you should listen. Before the rest of us have to pay money for it.