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


Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

Young playwrights get early break

Thursday, March 5th, 2015

Three years ago, my then-13-year-old daughter had her first play read by professional actors. (Here’s that story again.)

Recently on The Tonight Show, three even younger kids got the same experience. These plays are hilarious, and prove yet again that playwriting can’t really be all that hard. What I said three years ago holds true: Oh, for a world so lacking in subtext.

The price of theatre

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015

On Friday, a friend and I went to see the Arthur Miller play “The Price” downtown at the Taper. I am not by nature an Arthur Miller fan; I’d rather be burned at the stake than ever again sit through the screaming girls in “The Crucible,” and to me the dramatic problems presented in “Death of a Salesman” would be easily solved if only Willy Loman would get a job he’s better suited for. But “The Price” turned out to be a completely engaging, unexpected and well-written evaluation of the price paid for certain life decisions by two brothers fighting (or not) over what’s left behind after their father’s death. Moreover, it’s anchored by four very fine performances, especially that of 87-year-old Alan Mandell, stealing the show as a comically sly appraiser wheedling a storehouse of old furniture out of Sam Robards’ grasp in exchange for peanuts. Mandell delivers every laugh possible while bringing to life a performance that’s completely plausible and true. That he can do this at age 87 is argument itself against term limits for stage actors.

Afterward, my friend and I went for a drink and shared another sort of price: While it’s often reported how expensive it is to attend the theatre, there’s the even greater very real financial cost paid by those devoted to making theatre. The backdrop for this discussion was our own experiences (I have no doubt I’m out hundreds of thousands of dollars) as well as the ugly rumblings from Actors Equity that it may end the 99-seat plan that allows union actors to perform on LA’s small stages. Moving actors in sub-100-seat houses from token payments of $10 or $20 a performance into minimum wage won’t help them make a living; instead, it’ll shutter our small theatres and sideline thousands of actors. (But then, if you’re the union and you subsist on dues and shares of revenues, and your revenue resulting from these theatres is almost nil, why should you care?) The actors have been subsidizing small theatre, for sure — but so have been the playwrights and the directors and the board ops and everyone else involved. And God knows the producers — and I’ve been one — have spent both opportunity costs and actual hard cash on keeping small theatre alive, because it means so much to us.

Scheduling and life circumstances had cost my friend and me more than a year and a half since we’d last seen each other. I just confirmed this in my calendar. The last time we’d gone out together had been in August of 2013 to see a Woody Allen movie. Judging by the terrific time we had together on Friday night, that’s far too long. I also note that in 2011 we saw a movie called “The Debt.” I couldn’t remember anything about this movie, so I just looked it up. Now it comes back to me. It’s a thriller about old friends who shared an adventure in the past, but who question the choices they made, much as the characters in “The Price” do. And much as we all do.

Critical praise

Saturday, February 21st, 2015

My weekly playwriting workshop, Words That Speak, now in its 22nd year, resumed this morning after a one-month hiatus when the last round ended. Usually, I accept eight playwrights; this time, I took nine, based on the quality of their work, including three new people. (And could have taken more, but eight or nine is really all that can work for a weekly writing workshop where everyone’s work will be heard every time.)

Some of these playwrights have been in the workshop for five, eight, or 10 years.

During the break, I heard one of the new enrollees asking one of the veterans about his experience in the workshop. He talked about the plays he’s written and the productions he’s gotten since starting with me.

“So the workshop helps?” she asked.

“Well,” he replied, “I haven’t gotten worse.”

It’s inspiration like this that has carried me all these years.

Farewell to a classy dame

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

The year ends tonight. But there’s lots of look forward to in 2015 — most especially including Dame Edna Everage coming back through the U.S. I’m sad that it’s her farewell tour, but given that she (he) is 80, it’s understandable. (Although being around 80 and saying farewell certainly hasn’t stopped Cher, has it?) I’ve got very good seats for her show on Friday, January 30th.

In the meantime, I’ll console myself with this very funny interview, and may I suggest that you do the same?

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.