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


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How to start writing a new play, the easy way

Saturday, April 5th, 2014

1. Go see a really good play that winds up inspiring you.
2. Come home and in a matter of minutes write five pages of a new play.

At least, that’s what I just did. Congrats to Trey Nichols for Fathers at a Game, now running at Moving Arts. Thanks for the five pages (so far) that that has led to.

When good writers write bad plays

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

I’m just back from a 110-mile roundtrip drive to see a play that isn’t any good. I didn’t know in advance that it wasn’t going to be any good — and how could one know that? — but I discovered it almost as soon as it began. Almost nothing in it was believable; the dialogue was uninspired; two of the characters seemed dropped in from another play, largely for easy comic relief; and it isn’t clear whose story this play is, or what’s at stake.

I’ve seen bad plays before. In fact, after seeing hundreds, or perhaps thousands by this point, of plays before, I’ve seen plays far worse than this. I just wish this weren’t a bad play by a gifted playwright whose last play I so thoroughly enjoyed. I wish I weren’t writing about Rest by Samuel D. Hunter.

His last play at South Coast Repertory, The Whale (which I wrote about briefly here), left an indelible impression on me. Its portrayal of a morbidly obese man endlessly apologizing for his existence while trying to leave a legacy for his daughter was shocking in its depth of feeling and its piercing insights into that situation. Moreover, the play was filled with conflict and also with genuine humor that arose from the inner workings of the play. After seeing the play, which has stuck to me like a second skin, I decided that I wanted to see anything and everything by Samuel D. Hunter. Hence the 110-mile drive, through pouring rain and backed up freeways and construction: a three-hour commitment just to get there and back.

Do I wish the play had been better? Absolutely. Did I almost leave during intermission? You bet — I even texted two trusted theatre friends to say I was thinking about it. Instead, I stayed for act two — and thought it was even worse than the lifeless and meandering first act. Everything now seemed so arbitrary: characters in a nursing home that’s going out of business now eat in the main room ostensibly because the dining table suddenly has been packed up. Real reason? Because there’s a single unit set (i.e., one location, so we need to keep everything set in this main room). When the power goes out during a bitter snow storm, the remaining residents sleep in that same room — which is the entry way, with large glass doors and windows, and which would therefore be the coldest room. Why are they all sleeping individually there, with thin blankets, rather than in their rooms with full bedding? Again, it’s an excuse to keep them in that sole location. At another point, two people are theoretically captivated watching some reality TV, while another couple have an earnest heart-to-heart not five feet away. These are just three examples. When the underlying mechanics of a scene don’t work, it’s hard to invest in anything going on with the characters. Judging from both of his plays that I’ve seen, I would speculate that Mr. Hunter is kind-hearted. Based on just this new play, it might be good if he were more tough-minded.

And yet, despite all this, I’m glad this play got produced and I’m glad I went to see it. Why? Because good playwrights need productions. And because we need to support our artists — the playwrights and the actors and the directors, and all the rest of them. I don’t expect every work by anyone — playwright or novelist or musician or painter — to be great. Or even good. As much of an admirer as I am of Harold Pinter’s work, I can’t stand The Lover or No Man’s Land (I saw the latter years ago with Christopher Plummer and Jason Robards in it and even they couldn’t save it). I don’t expect all of Julian Barnes’ novels to be on the level of, say, “The Sense of an Ending,” but I’ll read whatever he writes. In supporting all of the work by an artist I admire, even the bad work, I’m supporting the factory that produces the good work too.

And playwrights need productions. Not just readings and workshops — productions. Plays are a performance vehicle. Until a playscript is produced, it’s just a script, not a play. I don’t begrudge a playwright for a misfire, and I don’t think less of him or her. I’m not even surprised any more. My theory is this: Sometimes you write a good play, and sometimes you don’t. It’s probably the same way with pro athletes — sometimes they’re at the top of their game, and sometimes they aren’t. I didn’t like Paul Auster’s last novel at all, but I’m still looking forward to the next one. Just as I’m looking forward to the next play by Samuel D. Hunter.

hot and young vs. cool and old

Friday, March 14th, 2014

South Coast Rep just mailed me a postcard for the world premiere of Five Mile Lake by Rachel Bonds. Here’s the description:

“Jamie enjoys a quiet life in his small Pennsylvania town, fixing up his grandfather’s old lake house and pining after Mary, his troubled coworker. But when his brother comes back to town with a new girlfriend, Jamie’s peaceful world is turned upside down. A tender story about those who stay and those who go away — by one of the country’s hottest young writers.”

It’s a long drive down to Costa Mesa, although I’ve done it often enough when it was a play or playwright that interested me. This doesn’t sound like one of those times. But here’s what I find annoying: when they bill someone as “one of the country’s hottest young writers” — I’ve seen this before — as though young is an advantage of some sort. It’ll be better somehow because the playwright is young. (Which makes me wonder just why Shakespeare and Beckett are done so frequently, because they’re not only old, they’re also dead.) Now I’d like to see someone do the new play by, say, Sam Shepard and bill it as “by one of the country’s coolest old writers.”

The wait list

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

Today I politely told four more people that my eight-week playwriting workshop, Words That Speak, is sold out. I take only 10 playwrights at a time, and then only five times a year (for a total of 40 weeks); the only time someone new gets in is when someone doesn’t renew. In the course of a year, five slots might open up.

I don’t enjoy turning people down. I really don’t. But I haven’t had extra room in this workshop for quite some time now, and I’m not going to add another workshop because that will cut into my own writing time. If someone doesn’t get in, I offer to put him or her onto the wait list; after which, if there is an opening at some point, I read sample pages and do a phone interview.

But in all the years (21 of them) that I’ve been leading this workshop, I’ve never gotten an entreaty like this one, which I got tonight in an email from someone I don’t know:

Dear Lee,
I want to get information on your play writing workshops. I am working on my first play and it means a lot to me since it has to do with my daughter’s suicide. I really have to make it happen.
Thank You so much.

My heart sank when I saw this; I can’t imagine the despair behind it. As politely as possible, I emailed back, and offered a slot on the wait list.

Sid Caesar, R.I.P.

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

Sad to learn of Sid Caesar’s passing. Well, somewhat sad. Sad in that an era is passing — if it hasn’t already left us entirely; that would be the era of gifted comedians and actors who came up through stage comedy such as vaudeville. That generation had incredible chops. Not said in that Mr. Caesar was in very poor shape in recent years, and this is probably a blessing.

I’m glad that, about 15 years ago (maybe more, at this point), I got to see him with Imogene Coca doing a “Your Show of Shows” revival live on-stage here in L.A. My wife and I were the youngest attendees by centuries. (She said to me, “We’re seeing WHO?”) Actually, as I recall, Mr. Caesar was 68 at the time, so, given that he died at 91, that was… an incredible 23 years ago. Could it be? Here’s how I know that: During one sketch, he took off his shirt and my wife exclaimed loudly, “WOW — he’s built!” All of the bodybuilding paid off, at least then. (And partly offset the drinking, I guess.) He and Ms. Coca were fantastic — endlessly funny and entertaining — and, well, I’m glad I got to see it. That turned out to be Imogene Coca’s last live performance, and now we won’t be seeing Sid Caesar anymore either.

I’m glad to say I saw Rodney Dangerfield. And I’ve seen Bob Newhart. If you have a chance to see classic comedian while they’re still here, you should do it. They’re not going to be here much longer, and the new people are funny — but they aren’t classics.

Some Birthday Party

Saturday, February 1st, 2014

The Geffen Theatre has either canceled or put on hiatus or rescheduled its announced production of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party. Now the director, William Friedkin, and Steven Berkoff, the actor whose role needs to be recast, are squabbling over whether the latter resigned, or was allowed to resign before getting fired. In this piece, Friedkin is quoted as saying  that Berkoff “was allowed to resign to preserve his dignity. Had he not resigned, he would have been fired.”

If you’re going to be allowed to resign rather than face the indignation of getting fired, but then the person who would have fired you tells the world that you were allowed to resign before the indignation of getting fired, then I think you’ve suffered the indignation anyway. Which, I take it, is the point here.

I doubt these two will be working together again.

But, being Hollywood and the arts in general, one can never say.

Plus, as you grow older, it almost becomes a sport to do again things you said you’d never do again. I recall Sean Connery returning after a 15-year lapse to the role of James Bond. I’m just glad someone had the self-awareness to name that film Never Say Never Again.

 

Sunday

Monday, January 27th, 2014

On Sunday, I awoke to find two blog-related emails. The first I addressed in the preceding post.  The second was from the star of The Whale, thanking me for my “kind words” here, which had just been forwarded to him. I told him they weren’t kind words, they were earned praise — that his portrayal was astonishing, reminding me all too well of a dear longtime friend who struggled all too mightily with morbid obesity.

After handling those emails and a lengthy breakfast consumed with reading two thick Sunday newspapers, I took my two younger children to play miniature golf.  There is something wrong with the miniature golf course these days, because one of these children finished with a better score than mine. I’m not sure how that happened, but I’m looking into it.

After that, we went to the Bat Cade in Burbank, which is a batting cage with arcade with pizza parlor — a sort of mashup of activities geared toward my internal age (about 15). Just add comic books and it’d be paradise. There’s something wrong with the air hockey table at the Bat Cade because my son beat me and my daughter also beat me. This is not how this thing is supposed to work. Luckily, the classic arcade game Arkanoid II: Revenge of Doh was functioning perfectly well and I was unbeaten. We ate pizza to celebrate my victory, then took turns in the batting cage, where I successfully defended my head from 30 baseballs flung mercilessly at top speed.

Even though satiated with top-quality local pizza, we stopped at the nearby Ralphs (that’s the name of a supermarket — make your own joke) to stock up on comestibles. I spotted bottles of $15 chardonnay mysteriously priced down to $3.99 and snagged two; I will let you know if they were bottled in a Chinese lead factory. (If I never post here again, you’ll know what happened.) On a whim, I also picked up an 8-piece container of fried chicken because at this point I had no vision of cooking anything for dinner. Later, I discovered that the 8-piece container of chicken held only six pieces — there were no drumsticks. Which left me wondering:  had it not been properly filled by the people behind the deli counter, or had someone surreptitiously slid two fingers inside and stolen the drumsticks out of the case before I bought it? Either way, I figured I’d just eat it.

Later, I watched Downton Abbey, enjoying the latest episodic effort to ennoble a landed lord with grace and human dignity, when I know he’s a pirate sucking off the desperate largesse of the lower class; the show is simultaneously entertaining and deeply infuriating (the way I imagine the new video biography of Mitt Romney will prove to be). I also watched the Grammy Awards. On DVR. So that the entire nearly four-hour enterprise, stripped down to actual content, consumed only about 22 minutes. Takeaways:  How does one sing when swinging upside down from a rope? (Answer:  one doesn’t — it’s lip synching.) Also, now that I’ve gleaned that Ringo’s touring show largely involves him singing, I’m glad I’ve saved my money. As a singer, he’s a passable drummer.

I also wondered how much regret the guys from Daft Punk were living in, wearing those hot robot heads for more than four hours straight, and leaving the man in the Dudley Do-Right hat to inarticulately accept every award for them.

Finally, I went to bed and dove further into a late Philip Roth novel, Indignation,  that I had somehow missed when it came out. (I’ve been reading all of Roth’s new releases for years; same deal with Paul Auster and Julian Barnes — they publish it; I read it.)

Then, finally, sleep.

 

My hunch may have been wrong

Monday, January 27th, 2014

 

In this post, I was poking fun at bad publicity shots for bad theatre. I ended that post by writing,  ”I’m also struck by the hunchback on the left.” Note the relevant photo, which I’ve helpfully replicated above.

Yesterday morning I got a sincere email from a faithful reader of this blog. In a very kind way, he took me to task for calling the person on the left a “hunchback,” because he believes she has untreated scoliosis. And, I gather, whether or not she does, it’s wrong to call a person with a hump a “hunchback.”

I have to say, I’m not big on calling people out by being types. So if I’m guilty of that, I apologize. It wasn’t my intent.

The point I was trying to make was this:  Given the awful acting and over-the-top costuming and cartoonish nature of the photo, right up to that woman’s image, I had assumed she was acting impaired. Hence the offhand nature of my comment — I was criticizing the production and the photo, not her physical nature, and using a derogatory term to indict the intent. Looking at the photo again, I have to admit, I can’t say definitively what’s going on. (Though my suspicion remains that we’re look at bad character acting.)

In any event, I apologize for any unintended slight. And for the bad pun in the title. (Just couldn’t help myself.)

 

Feeling a little excluded here….

Friday, January 24th, 2014

Surely, after 30 years of being involved in PR shoots for plays, I must have been involved in at least one of the terrible PR pictures from the theatre of the United States.

The guy in the photo above, by the way, strongly reminds me of my first boss, when I was 14 and he was theoretically running the nighttime classified ad department. He later got fired for sleeping on the job. Next time I ran into him? Nine years later, in college — turns out he was, you guessed it, one our flamboyant community theatre actors. I’m sure that in someone’s files there are photos of him in “acting mode” all too similar to what is seen above.

I’m also struck by the hunchback on the left.

The chemical state of writing

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

At some point or other, almost every playwright finds himself in a development process. His (or her) play is being workshopped for a short run, possibly for consideration of future production; or he’s at a retreat working with actors and directors that will result in a reading of sorts; or he’s at a new play development conference for a public reading with feedback; or he’s working out some areas by having some actor friends get together and read scenes now and then.

I’ve been involved in many of these experiences myself, as a playwright or director or producer or respondent.

So, occasionally, I’m asked by a playwright for my advice on whether or not to bring an unfinished play into such a situation. Not a play that has a first draft and needs a rewrite, and not a play that is stuck and that the playwright needs to hear — a play that is being written but which is currently unfinished.

Here’s what I say:

I can’t say what you should do, but  I can tell you what I would not do:  I would not take an uncompleted play into a development situation, especially not a play-in-process that is working well.

I think plays are written under certain conditions. If your play is working well, you should continue the condition in which you’re writing it. Changing that condition will change the play, and not necessarily for the better. I wouldn’t want new people talking to me about it while I was still writing it.
That’s why when I’m writing a play and it’s working, I’ll reconvene the circumstances of that writing every time I’m working on it. I’ll play the same music. Drink the same drink. Smoke the same sort of cigar, if I was smoking a cigar. Sit outside again, if that’s where I was writing it. Everything going in your brain is a chemical combination; that certain set of chemicals was part of what you were experiencing when your writing was working. Best to stick with them.