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


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Thoughts on Sunday

Sunday, November 23rd, 2014
  1. I woke up yesterday without the taste of blood in my mouth. Yes, the green-tea bag seems to have worked. Either that, or my system rallied:  ”C’mon, we’re not going to let us bleed to death. We’ve got decades of debilitation ahead of us first.”
  2. It’s difficult to imagine that as a teenager I would have been so excited to attend the out-of-town seminar I went to yesterday — on tax strategy. In fact, I think the 14-year-old me would have bludgeoned my elder self to death in disappointment. But it was nevertheless thrilling yesterday to spend seven hours learning all the advantages of setting up multiple LLCs and S-Corps and Trusts and then linking them in byzantine ways so that ultimately one pays little or no tax. (Romney 2016, anyone?) Big takeaway:  How does one murder one’s wife and her suitor, leave incriminating footprints, attempt to flee via slow white Bronco, confess to the killing at the police station, get acquitted but lose a civil trial and therefore a multi-million-dollar judgment, get arrested in Las Vegas for menacing people with guns… and still have enough money to hire more attorneys and live the lifestyle in Key West? Shelter it all in your retirement plan. Evidently it’s completely untouchable. Good to know!
  3. Yesterday I spent 8 dollars for 10 wing pieces at Wing Stop, but only 4 dollars for 4 books at a bookstore next door. There’s something wrong here. It’s clear the value we place on literature, versus fresh-cooked chicken.
  4. My city is participating in the “Go Dirty for the Drought” campaign. Perfect — my car is unwashed-ready!

I could have saved the money

Thursday, September 25th, 2014

I worked my way through college (which, I know, now qualifies me as Old Economy Steve), earning a BA in Literature and Language.

But now this makes me think I could have saved the money. It sums up so much of my studies so quickly! Luckily, I’ve still got all my Chaucer-studying (in Middle English, no less!), which is not addressed here.

What we remember

Monday, August 11th, 2014

What we will remember foremost about Robin Williams now will be his suicide.

At least, that’s what I remember most about people I’ve known who’ve committed suicide. Unfortunately.

Almost 15 years ago, a friend of mine took too many of his prescribed pills one night and downed a bottle of whiskey with them. He knew exactly what he was doing, especially given that he wasn’t a drinker. (Didn’t drink at all.) Here’s how I found out about it: a mutual friend called me and said, “Well, he finally did it.” This, after years of therapy and medication and other treatments.

I prefer to think of this friend another way — as being gifted with a sharp, dry wit (when my then-roommate asked how to get to Richard Nixon’s funeral in Yorba Linda, my friend said, “Follow your nose.”), with the ability to perform all sorts of odd voices and to replicate a vast array of animal sounds live on stage with that voice, and as a writer and performer who always made me laugh.

But, foremost, I think of him as someone who killed himself. As in, “He was so good that I wish he hadn’t killed himself….” The two sentiments are inextricably linked.

And that’s how we’ll remember Robin Williams: as the incredibly successful funnyman and actor who killed himself. It’s not a legacy I wish on anyone.

A man goes to the doctor

Monday, August 4th, 2014

That’s the start of many a joke. But you’ll have to tell me how funny you find this after reading it. This is a true story from a close friend of mine who is fighting cancer. My friend is doing well — he’s certainly in good spirits, and the scans he shared with me show great progress in treating the cancer.

My friend compares this situation to something out of Ionesco, and it certainly conjures up theatre of the absurd. But I think it would be funny if it weren’t depressing, or, maybe, depressing if it weren’t funny, so that makes it a bit more like Beckett. (Which I prefer on the stage, and not in medicine.)

Here goes:

OK, so even though I feel fine my Red Blood Cells and White Blood Cells and other things are completely out of whack.

 

One more transfusion (three units this time).  Hopefully I’ll be good for this coming Thursday.

 

Eugene Ionesco (the absurdist) comes to oncology

 

Arriving at Dr. M–’s office on Thursday I went to the receptionist’s desk and signed in as per usual.

 

Receptionist – Last name, please.

 

Me – [name]

 

Receptionist – Oh, you’re here for an infusion.  Just go right in to the center.

 

Me – No, I have to have blood drawn and see Dr. M– first.

 

Receptionist – I don’t see you on his schedule.  You’re just here for an infusion.  Go right into the infusion center.  Through that door there.

 

Me – No, I have a card that says I have an appointment with Dr. M–.  I have to have blood work done before the infusion and I have to see the doctor.

 

Receptionist – Well you’re not on the schedule.  Go on into the infusion center and they’ll draw your blood and take your vitals, and I’ll check with Dr. M– about seeing you.

 

Me – OK, but no one is supposed to stick a needle in me except George.

 

Receptionist – What?

 

Me – George told me that no one should put  a needle in me except him.  I am telling you what he told me.  Maybe you should check with him.

 

Receptionist – OK, just go into the infusion center and I’ll check with George.

 

Me – OK, thank you.

 

R– and I go into the infusion center and see the head nurse.

 

Me – I’m here for an infusion but I’m supposed to have blood drawn and then see Dr. M– before that.

 

Nurse – Uh, OK.  Have a seat and we’ll take your vitals and draw some blood and then we’ll see if Dr. M– is available to see you in here.

 

Me – OK.  George told me that no one is supposed to stick a needle in me except him.

 

Nurse – What?

 

Me – George told me that he is the only person who’s allowed to stick me with a needle.  I’m telling you what he told me.  Maybe you can check with him.

 

Nurse – OK, well take a seat and we’ll get your vitals.

 

We sit.  Nurse comes over with a tray to draw blood.

 

Nurse – It’s OK, I can do it.

 

Me – Uh, OK.

 

The nurse looks at my arms, chooses a vein in the left one, swabs me down and inserts the needle.

 

Nurse – There, that looks good.  Oh, the vein collapsed.

 

Me – George said he’s the only one who’s supposed to do this to me.

 

Nurse – OK, I’ll be right back.

 

She removes the needle, puts on some cotton and tapes it in place.  She leaves.

 

Ten minutes later . . .

 

Nurse – [name], go down the hall and see George.

 

Me – OK.

 

We get up and troupe down the hall, nurse in tow (I don’t know why) where George is waiting.  He sees the bandage on my arm.

 

George – What are you doing?  No one is supposed to stick you except me.

 

Me – I told them three times.

 

George – Never let them poke you.  Just come and see me.

 

Me – I told them.

 

George – If they tell you something else just get up and come down here and yell my name.

 

Me – They also said I had no appointment.

 

George – well you do now.

 

Nurse – he was only scheduled for an infusion.

 

George – He can’t be infused without seeing Dr. M– and doing his blood work.  That’s crazy.

 

No response.

 

We go into an examination room and I sit on the table.  The nurse sits down right beside me, looking at George as if to say, “OK, show me what you got.”

 

George pulls out a new needle and swabs, looks at the nurse and says,

 

George – You can go now.  I don’t need an audience.

 

Nurse – But, . . .

 

George – You can go.  You don’t need to be poking him anymore.

 

She leaves.

 

George – Don’t ever let them do this to you again.

 

Me – OK . . .

 

George picks his vein, inserts the needle, gets a good location and draws the blood.  No muss, no fuss.

 

The rest of the appointment went as usual.  Dr. M– came in.  We talked about Scotland, and movies and then he told me my blood work was in sad shape, and I wasn’t infused (as previously stated).  If I had let them do what they wanted to do I might be in very bad place right now.

 

George also told me to come and see him to put a needle in the next time I have a CT or PET scan done in the radiology center down stairs.  “Just come up here and I’ll put it in.  Don’t let them do it.”

 

Apparently George owns me now.

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.