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


Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

Not funny about money

Sunday, January 10th, 2016

Eric Idle being straightforward about how much money he’s made — from Monty Python and everything else. Until very recently, it’s been surprisingly little.

When you read this, bear in mind what he leaves out:  the cuts taken by managers, agents, and the lot.

I know a well-known and highly regarded, somewhat legendary, star of Broadway, dance and choreography, a person who is a two-time Tony winner and who was a key element in major premieres (including by Sondheim). I used to visit him in his very nice home that had once been Gloria Swanson’s. One thing he clarified for me:  All of his money actually came from real estate — flipping houses, including to Jack Nicholson, who simply wanted to knock down the adjacent house (my friend’s) and paid dearly for it.

So part of me isn’t surprised that Eric Idle didn’t make bank until he was 61. At age 72, and having been famous for about 50 years, Idle is reportedly worth $15 million, and most of that is recent. Given his profile, that’s not a lot of money in Los Angeles, and it’s not a lot when  you consider he’s paying tax in three countries (the U.S., England and France).


Thursday, December 31st, 2015

On some New Year’s Eves, I’ve gone to parties. But mostly, I’ve stayed home to write.

For several years, I’ve been trying to finish a full-length play. I’ve got about 60-70 pages, but haven’t been able to finish it. Mostly, I knew it was missing something — a certain scene that would raise tension and increase dread — but I couldn’t figure out what it was. And thinking about it — actively thinking about the play you’re writing — is never the solution. The better way is to not-think it; to feel it; to act on impulse.

Today while washing my hands at the sink after eating some raspberries, it came to me. The whole scene. Who was in it, what would happen, and how it would be played. It was like magic:  one moment, nothing, then presto! a whole new scene appearing out of nowhere.

This sort of thing has happened to me my entire life. It happens to every writer I know. Sometimes not-working and not-thinking is better than working and thinking.

Now I’m off to write it!

Happy New Year’s.


Saturday, November 28th, 2015

This morning in my playwriting workshop, when, in one of the plays being read, a character said he’d have to take another one to Las Vegas, I asked, “How far away is that?” I wanted to know because facts provide context, and propel motivation and therefore story. And I didn’t know how far that drive would be, or what the ramifications would be, because I didn’t know where this scene was set.

“It’s set in Area 51,” someone volunteered. (Not the playwright — I ask playwrights to remain silent, listening while their scenes are discussed.)

“Was it established where Area 51 is?” I asked, “because not everyone knows.”

There was a general murmur that of course everyone knows where Area 51 is. “It’s in Nevada!” a few people offered.

I turned to a young woman in the workshop and asked her, “Do you know where it is?”

“I have no idea,” she said.

“It’s in Arizona,” I said confidently.

“Oh, okay,” she said.

The guy next to her — a very smart person, like everyone in this workshop of eight very smart and talented writers — said, “Is it? Really? I thought it was in Nevada.”

“Nope,” I said, “Arizona.”

“Hmph,” he said, reconsidering.

By now there was pure outrage from the people who definitely knew that Area 51 is in Nevada. “See how easy that is?” I said, scanning the looks of puzzlement. “I’ve already got almost half the room convinced. Just by making shit up — but sounding convincing.” It’s a playwriting trick, making people sound confident, but it’s also handy in real life. The sound of conviction carries far, even when there’s nothing beneath it.

Remember that the next time you watch one of these presidential debates.

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.