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


Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

Way annoying, pal

Friday, October 9th, 2015

Yesterday I was leaving a meeting in the city next to mine, Glendale, at 5:30. The trip to my house is only 7.8 miles, but at 5:30 on a weeknight it may as well be 70 miles as traffic floods the 134 freeway, the main thoroughfare linking the two. A quick glimpse down onto the freeway below the ramp I was approaching confirmed the worst:  cars backed up like carpenter ants in the rainforest. With that sort of automotive buildup, a trip that’s normally 15 minutes could take 45 or longer, and I really really needed to be home by 6ish so that I could take my daughter to this much-loved theatrical event.

So I turned on Waze.

Waze, as you probably already know, is a community-sourced traffic app that directs you along the best route. At times it has saved me crucial time over Siri (the default of Apple’s Maps, which I run through my phone) or over my own idea of how to go. Last year, the only reason my friend Paul was able to get me to Philadelphia airport on time was because Waze foresaw a terrible traffic jam and redirected us. At other times, Waze leads me through more treacherous swamps than the route to becoming the next Speaker of the House. Yesterday, I turned it on and it directed me to make an immediate left — “get away from the 134!” seemed to be the command — and head on down to the 5, which turned out to be great advice. I made it home with time to spare.

Unfortunately, when I was stopped at a red light en route and saw a message come up, I hit what I thought at a glance was a dismissal button for an alert. In actuality, it was an inducement to change the voice of Waze, from whatever nice lady had been directing me… to the voice of Jay Leno.

I need to switch this back pronto.

Now, I don’t mind Jay Leno (what do I care?), but I’ve never been a fan. I don’t think he’s funny. And I find I like him even worse when he’s telling me where to go and how to get there.

When he first came on, he advised me to check out other cars around me owned by people who are even bigger losers than I am. Thanks. That’s hilarious.

And then there’s this repeated bit of advice from the Jayster:  ”Make a left, pal.”

I don’t like being called “pal.” Especially by people I don’t know. I hadn’t thought of Jay Leno as snotty — I haven’t given him much thought at all — but when he’s reduced to a voice, bereft of whatever facial charm he may have, he sure sounds that way. This is not a good vocal tone when traffic in Los Angeles (or anywhere!) already has you feeling like you want to ram other people with your car.

Even worse was when he started calling me “Sparky.” “Merge right, sparky!”

But even even worse:  now, again, minus the clamor of a late-night talk show and band and drummed up audience surrounding him, I noticed that Jay Leno has a rather low voice (often represented as squeaky by impressionists, but not on Waze), and a thicker Boston accent than I knew. So I also found him to be hard to hear and hard to understand. Whomever Lady Waze is, I can hear her and understand her. Jay Leno? In addition to not understanding how people find him funny, I now just can’t understand him.

A quick online search reveals that the Jayman (how do you like that, sparky?) will be voicing this only for a month. So I could invest the time in disabling him and returning to the delightful voice that guided me without having an attitude about it. Or I could wait three weeks until, thankfully, Jay just goes away.

Just as he did with NBC.

Which means… even though we think he’s gone, he may be back.

I guess I need to disable him.


Become a patron of the arts

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015

Got a spare room?

I’ve got a middle-aged playwright friend who needs an inexpensive, temporary, new living situation somewhere in Los Angeles effective next Wednesday.

He’s a non-smoker, knows his way around a kitchen, seems to me like the tidy sort, and, as he says, is “too old to party to excess or many any noise other than typing on my laptop.”

I’ve been friends with him for 10 years, and know him to be a good person who is also extraordinarily talented.

Please let me know if you’ve got room, and I’ll make the introduction. He’s a good guy. Thank you.

A somewhat famous bit

Tuesday, August 11th, 2015

My friend Jan Munroe (that’s him second from the right), actor extraordinaire (also skilled in mime, juggling, clowning, etc.), was on one of those late-night shows the other night that you’re not watching, in a bit with Kevin Bacon.

But I’m not sure that Jan, who was in a very big movie with Mr. Bacon, enjoyed being called a “bit player.”

Here’s the story.

Blessing in the theatre

Sunday, August 9th, 2015

A few weeks ago, I got an email from my friend Larry Eisenberg that Group Rep, the theatre near my house where he’s artistic director, was staging “The Winning Streak” by Lee Blessing, a play I’d never seen.

I emailed Larry, whom I’ve known and worked off and on with for just over 25 years:


I know Lee Blessing.

And he now lives here in Los Angeles.

Has he come to see this, or been involved in the rehearsals?

If not, perhaps I can get him to come see it.


Now, mind you, Lee Blessing is one of the perhaps 40 American playwrights who make their living writing plays. (The rest are independently well-off or are primarily writing television or they’re in academia or they own marketing companies. Seriously.) His plays, including “A Walk in the Woods,” “Cobb,” “Going to St. Ives,” “Two Rooms” and about 30 others are constantly produced all over the world. He is one of our great, and widely known, playwrights.

So, when Larry and I had a little email back-and-forth where in a very gentlemanly way he hinted that perhaps it was inconceivable that I knew Lee Blessing, I understood. Because how could he know that I’ve been acquainted with Lee for about five years now because of our mutual affiliation with the Great Plains Theatre Conference in Omaha?

Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of seeing “The Winning Streak” at Larry’s theatre, in what I thought was a terrific production, with the playwright seated to my right, and to introduce Lee Blessing on stage while sharing with the audience the story of Larry’s friendly skepticism and then turning to Larry, pointing to Lee off to my left on-stage, and saying, “So Larry, I win.” Larry and everyone else in the packed house laughed.

Like all of Lee’s plays that I’ve seen, “The Winning Streak” proved to be moving, funny, and incredibly well-written, so well-written as to appear effortless. But it couldn’t have been. For one thing, it’s a two-character play — probably the single hardest sort of play to write well. A badly written two-character play is like a ping-pong match, with two opposing forces lobbing the ball back and forth; this is why so many of us write, instead, three-character plays, where the conflict can constantly shift. I said this to Lee (who, it should be noted, has written no fewer than five full-length two-handers), who didn’t know why he kept returning to this form — he just does.

To the theatre company’s great delight, Lee had agreed to do a talkback. He was generous with his time, putting in about an hour, thoughtful and funny in response to good questions, kind to bad questions, and not unduly harsh to the one guy in the front who kept asking moronic questions. (“Did you ever think of giving the old man’s ailments to the young guy in the play?” “Would you ever consider writing a play with someone?” — Meaning, no doubt, himself.)

Lee of course got the “How do you face the blank page?” question. He quipped, “Luckily, I have a computer” — but then answered seriously about playwriting. He started as a poet, then found that he had a facility for writing plays, and gradually the poetry fell away (I had a similar experience with writing fiction); playwriting is a form he knows how to express himself in. In addition to grasp of the form, he said he enjoys writing the first draft, but really enjoys writing the second draft — and that’s essential, because all plays are rewritten, and you’d better enjoy rewriting.

Afterward, Lee left to go grade papers for a course he’s teaching online. I chatted briefly with a friend who’s in my playwriting workshop, which was where we both had been just before the start of the play. The day was like having three playwriting practicums in a row — first, in my workshop, as we got to hear and talk about five plays-in-progress; then seeing Lee’s play; then hearing Lee talk about writing plays. It was a fun, thrilling, heady day spent with writers and experiencing their work.

The next day, today, I spent fixing sinks in my house.

Personal census

Sunday, July 26th, 2015

On Friday night, I went to see the revival of “Bent” at the Mark Taper Forum with a friend, and was inspired on the way home to send out more of my plays, particularly the older ones. So today I spent a couple of hours reviewing all the plays I’ve written.

I found several that I’d completely forgotten about, including “Second Ice Age,” an unfinished full-length that, in retrospect, I now remember writing. I read it and found that it was not only pretty good (so far), it should be easy to finish, because in addition to the pages written, I’ve got a scene breakdown. So why didn’t I finish it? And would I be able to finish it now? I’m not the same person I was in January of 2008 — but have I changed so much that I won’t be able to recapture the rhythm and style and concerns of this particular play?

I found other unfinished plays in various stages of completion. Some of them have titles that make me want to finish them: “I, Teratoma” (a full-length that’s about two-thirds complete); “Ripped-Up Dog-Face Guy” (with a helpful note that it was inspired by a book my then-eight-year-old son was reading); and “Crotch Rot,” to name just a few.

I also found plays that have been staged that I’d forgotten about. And it was a pleasant surprise to come across my very first plays — “Guest for Dinner” and “Uncle Hem,” both written when I was an undergraduate.

All tolled, I’ve got 54 plays. Twenty-eight of them have been fully produced or workshopped in Los Angeles, New York, Boston, London, Arkansas, Ohio, and other places. I wish I’d kept better records; at this point, I have no idea where “Cloned Cat” was produced (I think it was northern New Jersey; maybe Hoboken), let alone “Man and Woman Set Their Sights” (I’m pretty sure Boston).

Of these 54, I’ve got no fewer than 23 marked for completion or revision. As I said, some of them seem like they’d be quick to finish or fix. Maybe I should start doing that.

Fringe fever

Saturday, June 27th, 2015

The Hollywood Fringe Festival of short-run alternative theatre has been running the past two weeks, and last night and tonight I’ve finally had a chance to see some shows.

Last night, my wife and I and two of our friends went to see “Stupid Songs” at the Lounge. The show, a revue of original, funny, filthy songs with choreography, was conceived by my friend Keri Safran (who was in my play “About the Deep Woods Killer” five or six or seven years ago here in L.A.). The thing was howlingly funny — and will be back later this summer. I’m highly recommending it. Watch their website for dates and times.

And then tonight, I saw “Out my Window,” written by and starring Ernest Kearney. I’ve been following Ernest’s work for 20 years  (producing his play “Meat Market” at Moving Arts in 1996, and seeing several of his shows since then). “Out my Window” concerns Ernest’s adventures in the late 1980′s as a manager of a street-level storage facility in Hollywood. Confronted with a desk facing a large plate-glass window looking out on Hollywood Boulevard, as well as eight hours of tedium per day, he decided to photograph the happenings and passersby in front of that window, resulting in 9,038 photos of the bizarre, the funny and the tragic. That his one-man show is outfitted with Ernest’s endearing oddball delivery and trenchant wit was not a surprise. The depth of his observations about individuals suffering the human condition reminded me of what a remarkable observer he is. No, the welcome surprise was in how deeply humane and touching the show is, as Ernest weaves a tale about drifters and street people, many of whom he got to know personally as his daily photograph-taking sparked relationships. A kind-hearted psychotic winds up dead, a brilliant and educated hooker’s murder goes uninvestigated by the police, a hobo borrows five bucks and then resurfaces, a lady with a moviegoing sombrero-wearing dog becomes a friend, and Ernest meets the love of his life, with the flotsam and jetsam of Hollywood Boulevard serving as witnesses at his wedding. It’s a remarkable show that reminds us that beneath the media machine of marketing fear — for and of the people we don’t know — lies a web of human connection and kinship. I was very glad to be there, seeing this show.

Afterward, Ernest let me know that he’d seen 54 (54!) of the shows in the Fringe. (And of those 54, he said only four weren’t good.) I’m glad I got to see these two — but I wish I’d seen a lot more. The Fringe ends tomorrow. Let’s hope the better shows get extended, so I can still catch some more of them. And let’s hope that Ernest’s is one of them.

(To see some of Ernest’s photos from the show, click here.)


My last week in theatre

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015

American Theatre covers some of what about 70 of us were up to last week at the Great Plains Theatre Conference in Omaha, NE, with a mention of the short play I wrote for the Fringe night at the conference. (Thanks for the namecheck, Beaufield Berry.)

I’ve been a guest artist to this conference since 2008. Sure hope they keep booking me.

Today’s (amazing / odd) video

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015

Wish I’d seen this! Further proof that sometimes the best theatre is done outside of a theatre.




Sunday, May 31st, 2015

I got home today from my fourth trip with air travel in seven weeks. Between April and today, I’ve been to Nashville, Napa, San Francisco, and Omaha, NE. There are people who fly every single week. I don’t envy them. I was supposed to have continued on to Philadelphia and then southern New Jersey today, which would have added another seven days to what was already a nine-day trip, but a week ago I rerouted all that to come back here to Los Angeles. I just needed to be back here for a while.

Today I have to note again that every TSA system in the U.S. seems to operate by rules of its own making. This morning at 5 a.m. (Omaha time) when I was sitting on my overstuffed carry-on suitcase to zip it shut and wait downstairs for the cab, I had a psychic forecast that TSA would make me open said suitcase up for no good reason. How did I know? Because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get it closed again. (One returns from the Great Plains Theatre Conference with more than one takes. Including three pounds around my waistline, courtesy of nine days of culinary-school catering.) When they ran my bag through the scanner twice, I knew I was in for it. They pointed at an x-ray revealing what they were calling a series of little spikes (or, in our world, brass collar stays). So I said, “Those are brass collar stays.” Dumbfounded looks back from the woman heading the investigation. “You know,” I went on, “the things you put into men’s shirt collars. To hold them firm.” Not good enough. So they opened the suitcase and asked me to speculate on precisely where in the suitcase they were (even though we were actively looking at them in the x-ray), while they prowled around in my bag because I wasn’t allowed to touch anything inside it. Finally, with two of them digging everything out, they lifted them out almost with a cry of eureka. Holding them aloft, the TSA woman said, “Oh! These are the things my husband puts into his collar!” “Yes,” I said, “they are… brass… collar… stays.” Her response, delivered reproachfully:  “His are plastic.”

So now I’m back, and can fully unpack. I’m not going anywhere (so far!) until July 8th for Comic-Con in San Diego. I ran to the supermarket a few hours ago and stocked up. The culinary academy in Omaha does a great job, but I’m looking forward to eating at home for a while.

A birthday celebration

Saturday, May 16th, 2015


Today is my friend Tom Boyle’s birthday. He would have been 59.

Tom died on April 12th after a hard-fought year-long battle with cancer. He was a tough guy, stubborn and strong, and I know how much he wanted to be here. I’m sorry he isn’t. But today I’m celebrating that he ever was here, and that I got to know him. I’m grateful.

Tom and I were friends for about 25 years. I can’t quite remember whether I met him before or during the buildout of Moving Arts’ first theatre space, in 1992, but I think before. I was sure that if we just rented out this tiny space and spread the word that we were building a theatre, people would come help, and Tom alone proved that to be true. Good thing, too, because while I had some carpentry skills inherited from my family, I had zero knowledge of electrical. But Tom brought his writing partner, Rodger Gibson, who knew about wiring, and soon we were pulling wire and hand-building a lighting panel for clamp-lamp stage instruments and installing ceiling fans and flourescent lighting fixtures, along with everything else necessary to build what was (and is) probably the smallest theatre in town, still proudly functioning 23 years later. Without Tom, and Rodger, and Marcy our head carpenter, and everyone else who came to build out the space, we would have been nowhere. At some point, Tom told me that if you’re ever going to be stuck on an island, you want theatre people with you, because they can do anything: as resourceful people used to no budget, they’re trained to make a lot from very little. He lived that example. Where Tom learned to do half the things he could do, I don’t know, but over the years, I grew to assume that he could do anything.

Just seven years later, Tom and I were building another, additional, theatre, when we took over an abandoned space on the fifth floor of the Los Angeles Theatre Center and turned it into a black-box theatre. I had trouble getting some actual company members to come down and pitch in, as was a requirement of their membership in the acting company, but Tom, who wasn’t a regular in the acting company? He came. Of course. In recent years, here’s part of what I was planning on for retirement: I thought Tom and I would build a third theatre, and do more shows together. With our more-lucrative work safely behind us, we would be free to return to the fun.

In the same timeframe as he was helping to build our first theatre, Tom was also in rehearsal for our first production, a play of mine called “Then What?” that was produced as half of two one-acts of mine put together, “Now This…Then What?” So, imagine: Working a day job, building a theatre some nights, and rehearsing or learning your lines the other night. That level of effort alone tells you a lot about Tom. In “Then What?” Tom played a ranting pedantic out on a ledge protesting all the injustices of modern civilization, including our overbearing celebrity culture, to great comic effect. A seeming suicide, he really wanted to be heard. Tom found every laugh in the script and brought more on his own. The show played to packed houses (all 36 seats) and got extended, then got extended again. It was just a terrifically fun play, with Tom being a huge part of that.

So Tom was in our first show. He was also in our second show, a co-production with a troupe he had just formed. Tom was also a writer. And a director. The troupe he put together, Smugly Absurd, did live “non-radio radio shows,” in which they performed multiple roles in original comedies in the fashion of old-time radio comedy, complete with live sound-effects creation, right there on the Moving Arts stage, starting at 10 or 10:30 at night. They’d wheel in what looked like enough sound equipment for The Who, roll out a carpet, and set up all manner of speakers and cables and percussion pieces and sound instruments in record time. Sometimes we’d have a full house; sometimes we’d have six or 10 people. Tom wrote the scripts with two of the other performers, Roberta (who later became his wife) and Gene, and then directed the action. Sometimes the troupe was doing its own version of classic fairy tales; sometimes they were following the “real-life” adventures of the entity known as Death; sometimes they were spoofing classic Hollywood melodrama. Every show was a treat. You just had to admire the craftsmanship — writing, directing, playing multiple roles, generating live sound effects — and the care.

Over the years, Tom was in many, many more Moving Arts shows and also staged readings and workshop productions. Whenever I needed someone reliable, professional, easy to work with, and funny — in other words, almost all the time — I would see if Tom was available. When I directed a workshop production of a play called “Big Bear and the Other” and I knew it had to be funnier, I called in Tom. It worked: He was funny, and the show got funnier with him. I also directed Tom in his last stage performance, a remount of our friend Trey Nichols’ stage adaptation, “Murphy’s Xmas.” Tom was, of course, great to work with, and I now cherish the memory of his playing an old, ill, dying man giving a younger man advice.

If he wasn’t shackled to comedy, it was still what he was known for in our circle. Tom had a Wallace-Shawn-in-”The-Princess-Bride” quality — a comic exasperation that always worked to his benefit. In fact, I saw Tom mistaken many times for Wallace Shawn — in his earlier years he looked somewhat like him, and he sounded very much like him. He’d protest that no, he wasn’t that “Inconceivable!” guy, and other person would insist, and Tom would deny and deny and deny, and then finally say, “o-KAY” and give up.

As longtime friends, we spent a lot of time socializing together. Of course we went out for drinks after our shows. We also played a lot of games. Poker, naturally, but also the board game Civilization, or Oxford Dilemma, or, more recently, Cards Against Humanity or something else. He would come for our Halloween parties, our New Year’s Eve parties, our backyard cookouts, and every other occasion when we’d have people over. We had a cookout last week and I have to say, part of me kept looking around for Tom; it just felt like he should have been there.

In March of last year, I was just back from a business trip to San Francisco and was lying on my downstairs couch when my cellphone rang. It was Tom. He was calling to tell me he had cancer. As he talked to me about it, I felt myself sinking into the couch. Finally, I struggled off the couch and moved my end of the conversation outside. He sounded strong and determined to fight — of course! This was a man who, about 20 years ago, got mugged in Silver Lake by three guys and so furiously fought back that they ran away. Again: strong, and determined. For the next year, he fought his fight, against increasing odds. I spent as much time as I could with him because I was already aware how much I’d miss him. I would shuttle him from the hospital back to his home after a treatment or a blood transfusion. I took him out to dinner at Taylor’s Steakhouse in downtown, during which he disappeared into the men’s room for a long, long time. Getting sick, I believe, although he returned determined to appear well and making an effort to eat a little more from his plate. And I put together a group of us and we went out to the movies every month or so and saw a lot of great films, “Locke” and “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” among them.

As he grew weaker and weaker, there were more incidents. After seeing “Chef” at the Arclight in Hollywood, he collapsed, pulling the standing table over with him and smacking his balding skull full-force with a sickening sound on the polished cement. My first thought was, “Well, now Tom’s dead. When we pick him up, there will be a pool of blood there.” But there wasn’t, and he insisted that he was fine. Then he did it again, so we called an ambulance. While waiting for the ambulance, he kept saying he was fine, and to his credit, he did seem better, but we were insistent, and the EMTs arrived and strapped him to a gurney and trundled him off to the hospital, where tests revealed that he’d been dehydrated, due to his treatments. He was back out the next morning.

The last time he came to my house, two months before he died, Tom’s hair was gone, his skin was the wrong color, and his voice was a whisper. Our 89-year-old friend Ken said to me in an aside, “Tom doesn’t look so good.” Anyone could see that. But he and Roberta stayed for hours and we played a lot of games, with a lot of laughs. (Nothing beats hearing a mild-mannered 89-year-old former CIA agent read filthy, filthy “Cards Against Humanity” responses aloud in his thick Boston accent, while your dying friend laughs uproariously.)

Two weeks before he died, Tom was back in the hospital. Somewhat reluctantly, I went to visit him. Reluctantly not because I didn’t want to see him — I did! — but, as I wrote about here, because I had never before visited a friend in the hospital. But once we started sharing stories, the time sailed by. When his dinner arrived, it sat there like a hubcap, cold and untouched by the side of the road, but as Tom started recounting various theatre stories (performing, one last time, his impression of a sled dog from his role in the stage adaptation of “Call of the Wild”; sharing the story of the director who told us, “Okay, okay, that’s good. Now all we have to do is make it funny.” And on and on), and I started laughing, he came alive. His voice gained strength, his color returned, and he popped the lid off his dinner and started picking at it, before finally taking a knife and fork and digging into it. He was back on stage, and I was the grateful audience. At one point, I looked up and I was startled to see that visiting hours were over. Time to ring down the curtain. So I bid farewell. My parting words to him were these: “I’ve got to tell you, Tom, you seem good. So if you want to fight, you should fight.” I knew he would fight — I had never known him not to — but I thought he needed to hear it. I knew he wanted to be here. He did fight. But he was going to anyway.

I was certain at the time that it would be the last time I’d see him, and I was right. It seemed a good way to end. I saw the closing performance.

On the morning of his death, after the phone call I had with his brother-in-law Vic, who is also my friend, I took my family to the Renaissance Faire. It seemed fitting; Tom loved the Renaissance Faire. He loved the swordplay and the costumes and the customs. I thought about him all day, of course, but it didn’t feel like he was gone. It still doesn’t. When I took him out for that steak dinner, I kept a pledge I’d made long ago, when my father was dying, to ask people when the time seemed right what they thought about death, and what happened after. Here’s what I can share happily among those of us who loved Tom: No, Tom didn’t have religion — but he had science. He told me that he believed in quantum physics, which has it that time is constant and ever-branching, and that therefore each of us is always splintering off into new versions of ourselves created by different paths taken, and that each of those is always here because time is flat. If this is true, then Tom is still here, and perhaps many Toms, and among those many Toms, one of them right now is building that third theatre with me.

I wonder what we’re rehearsing.