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


Blog

Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

Not eye

Tuesday, April 5th, 2016

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing a good documentary about great artists who did a bad film.

Or, more precisely, “Film.”

Yes, “Film,” by Samuel Beckett. I first saw it in college, 30 years ago. What I liked then I still like: many of the visuals (once one gets past Buster Keaton’s eyeball). Here’s the opening:

The other thing I like, of course, is that it brings together Samuel Beckett, Buster Keaton, at the stage director Alan Schneider, who did many Beckett and Pinter and Albee premieres, under the producing aegis of Grove Press publisher Barney Rosset, to whom we’re indebted for publishing D.H. Lawrence, Hubert Selby Jr., and Henry Miller, censors be damned. For some of us, “Film,” released in 1965, would have been like an All-Star Game.

Unfortunately, it’s not very good. Even at 22 minutes, it makes its point too soon. Worst of all, it completely misuses the talents of the primary creators:  Schneider was a stage director with no idea how to shoot a film (he blew most of the budget on the first day, shooting one scene that was later cut); Beckett’s ideas for the film are almost entirely intellectualized and impossible to translate effectively; and Keaton — a master of comedy and a justly legendary film director  — is kept away from any input and in particular ignored when trying to introduce funny bits. Each is stripped of his actual gifts, his real talents. The end result is like what you’d have if you’d asked Michelangelo to sculpt with his nose.

What really brought this into focus for me was seeing the documentary “Notfilm” last night at a screening in North Hollywood, accompanied by a talk with the director. You can learn more about “Notfilm” here. “Notfilm” is concerned with the making of “Film” — the preproduction, the artistic antecedents, the production itself, its reception and its legacy. It’s a smart and fascinating film, and also a personal one, as director Ross Lipman gives us his thoughts about the film, its underlying meaning, and the confusions that arose among its creators. In one example of a smart decision, Lipman narrates it, which places the film squarely within the realm of his personal perception (which is the theme of “Film”).

“Notfilm” gives us two further satisfactions: For the first time ever, anywhere that I know of, we get to hear the notoriously reclusive and reticent Samuel Beckett’s recorded voice. And we get to see just how one can make a two-hour documentary about a 22-minute short. There’s something ironically anti-Beckettian about that.

Bawk!

Tuesday, March 29th, 2016

roscoes-logo-SOURCE

 

One of my favorite eateries, the artery-hardening Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles, has filed for bankruptcy!

This is bad news for those of us who need a lot of fat, sugar and salt after going to the theatre.

Now I’ve seen everything

Friday, March 11th, 2016

We’ve got a socialist who has emerged as a leading choice for president.

We’ve got a reality TV star as one of the front runners. The other “front runner” is a woman most people can’t stand.

We’ve got presidential candidates calling each other “liar” and measuring dick sizes during nationally televised debates.

And we’ve got a major party holding secret meetings to try to figure out how to defeat their own probable nominee.

But, in a year in which I thought I’d seen everything, I have to admit, this is surprising. Now we’ve got a presidential candidate urging — URGING — people to vote for one of the other guys.

The three reasons

Thursday, March 10th, 2016

There are only three good reasons to write plays. They are:

  1. Because you have to.
  2. Because of the audience.
  3. Because of the actors.

For much of my life, reason #1 was it. I had to. And I still have that feeling. But it’s sometimes mitigated by other sorts of writing — essays, or reviews, or fiction, or (help me God) poetry. After four decades of writing, playwriting is still the default, but those others call to me too.

As I started to get produced, the lure of #2 was inescapable. Especially in the 1990s, I was getting produced frequently while getting published a lot, especially in literary journals, magazines and newspapers. (Y’know, those paper things of a bygone time.) What I found:  when you’re published, there’s no audience response. You’re not there when someone laughs or gasps. But with the theatre, when you’re the writer, frequently you are there. There when someone audibly *gasps* at the final revelation (as someone once did — and I still remember it); there when someone stands up and howls in protest, “Where do you find people like this? I don’t know where you find people like this!!” (as someone once did in 1989 — and I still remember it, his distraught infuriated Irish brogue and all); there when the lady literally falls out of her seat laughing at your comedy (as someone did, rest her soul). There when Fred Willard, whom you grew up watching on TV, comes to see your play.

But the thing you never expect — at least I didn’t — was that you’d love to write plays because of the actors. There is no feeling that compares with having a great actor fully embrace your role and bring it to life, adding that special stuff that permeates his or her core, that something that he has that no other has, that perfectly matches with your writing and the role you wrote, that adds surprising insight and depth, that explores every laugh you hoped for and pulls up others you had suspected but hadn’t dared count on, and finds wholly new ones that belong like an essential organ. That sort of actor it is a thrill to write for. That person becomes an odd extension of you — an extra set of talent that you’re connected to through an invisible web.

I just now found out that one of those actors, one of those actors for me, is going to be in town in May. I haven’t seen him in a few years, and he hasn’t been in a play of mine for too long (!), but just knowing he’s going to be here and that we can plot future productions together and maybe read my new pages — that seems like enough for right now.

Until I write a new role with him in mind.

And figure out how to fit all the pieces of our schedules and our lives into place so we can actually do the damn thing together next year or after.

Because life is short, but art is long.

A surprise performance

Tuesday, March 8th, 2016

MovingArtsCrash

No, that’s not an environmental staging for our latest production (or a remount of our production of “Cockroach Nation”) — that’s an actual car crash into the Moving Arts building. While our theatre was damaged, as you can see, the clothing boutique next to us in the same building was demolished.

Here’s one story about it,  and here’s some local news coverage:

 

Just the previous night, about 20 of us were sitting in there discussing the rest of this season, including a plan for a potential bonus show some of we playwrights might put together. Right there where the building got hit? That would’ve been the back of my friend and director Ross’s head.

Glad we weren’t there for this. But we’ll be back.

The arts that bind

Monday, February 15th, 2016

My friend Jodie Schell — a fine actress and rock and roll singer  — shared this on Facebook three years ago. I meant to post it then, but forgot, but I recently found it and it still speaks to me.

“The guy hired to fix the floors in our building has been here all week but doesn’t speak English. He never talks to anyone but when he thought he was alone he would sing these gorgeous ballads. I wish I could speak Spanish, but I can’t so I spoke up today and said, ‘Beautiful voice. Beautiful voice.’

“He tried to talk music but I couldn’t understand. So he said: ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water?’ …’Yes,’ and I laughingly started to sing it. He said ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone?’ …’Yes’ and I started singing that too. Then he slowly and painstakingly tried to explain that in Guatemala he was a professor of language and ‘tiaretra? tietra? what?…oh literature! oh wow.’ – but moved to the states because his son wants to live closer to his mother. I brought up Pedro Calderon de la Barca. He brought up Walt Whitman. And we laughed about how little and how much we understood from each other. He snagged my post-it pad and wrote Alejandra Guzman and Joan Manuel Sarret (I guess that’s my homework).

“Before he left, he explained in a lot more broken English, ‘I [studied] poems to get closer to woman. But …in the end it made me …human.’ “

This gets my vote

Friday, February 12th, 2016

Candidate_Cabaret

Yesterday at a luncheon, a woman with a mic was asking rhetorically, “What do we call that thing where you do something again and again, expecting a different response?” I leaned over to the woman next to me and said, “Voting.”

One thing I would vote for again and again is “Candidate Confessions — a 2016 Cabaret,” a show about all the “major” 2016 presidential candidates (it’s tough to call them “major” when they’ve even included Jim Gilmore) that the folks at Second City in Hollywood were nice enough to invite me to. If you think it would be hard to make  Donald Trump and Ted Cruz look even more absurd, this show will change your mind. As a cabaret, the show is built around original songs, almost all of them funny and unexpected. I especially enjoyed Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz competing for who could be more “Latino” (with Bush trotting out his Mexican wife), Chris Christie finally getting to sing his version of “Born to Run,” and Carly Fiorina whipping up a new spell for us. Big, big highlights:  a spot-on Ben Carson (courtesy of Choni Francis) so funny it was hard for me to recover from; a closing number (also by Francis) that alone makes the entire show worth seeing; and anything that prominently featured Sarah Oliver (especially that Fiorina bit).

If you’ve got an hour or so and prefer your laughable politics to be on stage, go see this.

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).

Not-thinking

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.

Wisdom

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.