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


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Making up for almost-lost time

Sunday, November 27th, 2016

A dear friend of mine had surgery not that long ago that still leaves her tired. When I picked her up today to go see the matinee of a new play, she said she wasn’t sure she’d be up for an early dinner afterward because she hadn’t been able to take a nap. We agreed to play it by ear.

The play was terrible.

As is usually the case with this sort of thing, you can tell within the first few minutes just how bad it’s going to be, if not sooner (like, before it even begins). In this particular case, the acting in the first scene was what I’m going to call “neurotic New Yorker” over-the-top, with all of the intended comedy falling with a thud all over the audience. Every scene afterward seemed like it was from an entirely new and different play: a human crawls onto the stage play-acting as a kitty cat (complete with lines); cheerleaders for some reason show up and dance around; there’s a searing melodrama between a strident young woman and her overbearing and two-dimensional Trumpist father; and a young actress takes on the additional role of “Grandma” in a performance ripped straight from “The Carol Burnett Show,” minus any shred of comic ability.

At intermission, my friend turned to me and said the magic words, “Do you want to just leave?”

She was checking first to see if I thought it was as horrible as she did. Maybe she was just being courteous, but the idea that she wondered if I might be enjoying this play cast a certain pall over my conception of our friendship. Surely she knew me better than this:  Of course I wanted to leave.

For lots of reasons, I’m not somebody who’s generally eager to leave during intermission. Yes, it seems rude to the actors. Also, sometimes there’s something that bears watching — a performer, an unanswered question, a clever bit of writing that lends hope to the future. (But not in this case.) And, finally, my not wanting to be a hypocrite; I say this as someone who at one point produced just enough bad theatre that he’s aware that nobody sets out to do crummy work.

But the perk of leaving at intermission was obvious:  Now we had time for an even earlier dinner. So we went out for sushi and talked about all sorts of things, and at one point remarked that we’d been friends for more than twenty years now. She brought up her retirement planning; I floated the idea of cashing out all sorts of things in a far-flung future. When you put those sorts of things into perspective, as we did, along with her life-saving surgery and my frequently thinking back to my friend who died last year — then it becomes awfully easy to leave during an intermission so you can make better use of the time you have.

Advice for the stage director

Sunday, November 6th, 2016

I am not the best stage director I know.

I’m not even the 20th best stage director I know.

And probably not the 50th.

But after 40 years of directing for the stage, starting in my teens, I do know some things, and I thought I’d share them. These specific bits of advice — very specific — follow from a play I saw recently. In no particular order, I offer these quick takeaways for directors everywhere:

  • When a character says “pass me the hot-water pitcher,” please make sure that it’s a water pitcher. And that it appears to be filled with hot water. This will entail having the actor who has grabbed it by its side pull his hand away as though it’s been burned. Or, perhaps, he could grab it  by the handle. Either way, help us believe that it’s a pitcher, that it’s the right pitcher for the set, and that it’s filled with hot water.
  • When we are led to believe that a character is yelling down a flight of stairs for another character to enter, and then the first character steps into the scene, don’t have the second character immediately follow — because then we’ll know that he was right outside the door, next to her, all along, for God’s sake.
  • If the play is set in the 1960’s, do not have print art on the walls that all of us in attendance can recognize as being unmistakably from the 1980s.
  • And don’t mix those prints with pastoral prints popularized in the 1950s.
  • Along the same line, if you’re going to have three pairs of chairs on stage, can they at least have a glancing similarity? Like — they’re from the same period, or design type? Otherwise, you’re making us believe that the upper-middle-class couple you’re trying to make us believe lives there is, well, psychotic.
  • If the set designer says, “Hey! I’ve got an idea! When they talk about other countries, they could refer to a globe, so I’m going to pick up a children’s globe from some thrift shop and stick it on the sideboard next to what we’re supposed to believe is a fancy tea service,” you should worry about your set designer.
  • If a character is described as old and frail, and the play consistently refers to him as old and frail, may I suggest that you cast someone who can appear as old and frail? Middle-aged and well-built isn’t going to do it.
  • When someone says “Pass the teapot,” engineer the action is such a way that the teapot is not literally already touching the requesting person’s resting hand at the time.
  • If we are led to believe that the old and frail man is homeless, do not outfit him in a brand-new coat. Insight:  People who live on the street are frequently dirty.
  • If he’s going to be barefoot, perhaps dirty up his feet. (See the note just preceding.)
  • If one character says to another — who is the homeless man, and who we are told has been trying to sell matches out in the rain for days — “These matches are all wet!” then please make the matchboxes soggy. We can see them. If they look like they were just purchased from Smart n’ Final, here’s what we are going to think: “Those were just purchased from Smart n’ Final!” While Smart n’ Final is only a mile away, this reminder of its proximity is troubling for a play set in another country.
  • If you hear that one of your actors delivers almost every line in the same manner, the two of you should investigate variance. (Or replacement.)
  • If your actors are doing an accent, insist on the same accent. Both collectively and individually.
  • Try sitting in the house while directing. At least a couple of times. One of the things you may discover is that your lights are fucking blinding the audience on several occasions during the play. When you see people pick up their program to shield their eyes, that is an indicator. Heed it.
  • Dissuade the house manager or whoever she is from giving a curtain speech from the stage. If she insists on doing this, make sure she’s back off that stage before your play starts.
  • If you are directing a three-character play, cast three good actors. Or, for God’s sake, settle for two if necessary. Even just one if that’s all you can manage. But at least that one.
  • Finally, don’t ask your friends how the play is. They’re your friends, so they’ll just lie. Invite an audience in a couple of times, for rehearsals here and there, or for previews, and ask them to be brutally honest. If they say to you that they honestly can’t tell you what the play was about, or what those actors were talking about, and perhaps can’t even recount any of the events of the play, and finally they just spent the time reading the program or checking out the light plot, you should listen. Before the rest of us have to pay money for it.

 

Fucking red letter day

Saturday, October 8th, 2016


fucktimes

 

Today, on its front page, the New York Times printed the word “fuck.” And the word “pussy,” of course.

Prediction: Before this election is over, we’ll be seeing the word “cumshot” on the front pages of newspapers, and the only debate will be people like me arguing over its spelling.

The past two years has shown that all of this is certainly a good way to pick the leader of the free world. Just judge by the result so far.

Paper of record

Monday, October 3rd, 2016

Here’s something I have been monitoring throughout the day.

Of the top 17 stories on the home page of the Los Angeles Times website, not one of them is about the passing of Gordon Davidson, the founding artistic director and producer of the Mark Taper Forum, and, for a bit, the Doolittle Theatre, and ultimately the Ahmanson Theatre and the Kirk Douglas Theatre, all while in the same job with Center Theatre Group.

Yes, the story is on the LA Times site, but it’s way way way down the bottom, and small.

This is a real head-scratcher to me.

Say what you will about the perceived importance of theatre in Los Angeles — but Gordon Davidson was a leader in remaking the entire cultural landscape of Los Angeles. Yes, there was some small theatre, or touring theatre, before Gordon Davidson. But after Gordon Davidson, it was at least arguable that Los Angeles was a theatre town.

He was hired expressly to try to bring culture to downtown — and because, at the time, in 1969, no one of any significance would take the job of helming (and founding) the Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles being perceived as a backwater.

It’s because of Gordon Davidson that the theatre and television worlds got hold of playwright and screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz, Gordon being instrumental in his career. It’s because of Gordon that Luis Alfaro was introduced to theatre, and emerged with the career he has. Without Gordon, would we have gotten these plays (all developed or premiered at the Taper):  “In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine,” “The Shadow Box,” “Children of a Lesser God” and, especially, Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.” All of these transferred to Broadway, and all of them went on to great acclaim.

I’m glad to have known Gordon Davidson, somewhat and slightly, for years, and I’m sorry to know that he’s left the room. He enabled me to see many great plays that have informed my thinking and my life, including “The Persians,” directed by Peter Sellars; “Slavs! Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness” by Tony Kushner; “Angels in America,” also by Kushner (in its workshop presentation! before Broadway); many, many great plays by Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett and Edward Albee and other “absurdists”; “Fences” by August Wilson, in a production starring James Earl Jones; an utterly wonderful production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” starring  Glenda Jackson, John Lithgow, Cynthia Nixon and Brian Kerwin; and so so so much more. I can’t even begin to remember it all.

Somehow, to the paper of record here in Los Angeles, his demise is just passing news.

To the rest of us, it represents a shooting star crossing above the firmament.

Here’s the obit from the NEW YORK Times.

When, on Facebook earlier today, I bemoaned the bad placement of this story on the LA Times site, a friend who works for the LA Times commented, “But — but — Kim [Kardashian] got robbed today!” And, indeed, that was highly placed news.

Gee, I don’t know why Los Angeles is frequently depicted as a shallow province.

 

About Edward Albee

Saturday, September 17th, 2016

To most of the playwrights of my generation, Edward Albee was not just a great writer, but also a heroic figure.

Heroic because he famously didn’t care what critics thought. Perhaps this was the blessing of receiving mixed reviews from the start.

Heroic because he didn’t cater to audiences. As someone raised without love, he never expected it. That freed his writing.

Heroic because he was a relentless defender of civil liberties, for artists and others, going so far in his late 70’s as to appear outside in a blizzard to protest an injustice.

Heroic because he spent so much of his own money and his precious time supporting emerging playwrights, with his foundation and writers’ retreat, and in personally supporting playwriting conferences such as the Great Plains Theatre Conference with his time and his presence.

Heroic because he never knuckled under, never softened his beliefs, never caviled, and, as Jon Robin Baitz said, was more than willing to write a play wherein a man falls in love with a goat, and to do that as an old man: “A young man’s play written by an old lion,” Baitz said. This, to be sure, is unusual.

To say that Albee was an inspiration to many, many hundreds or thousands of us, is a vast understatement. Even if you never got to meet him, as many (most?) of us did, he still touched you through his work as a writer, or his work as a supporter of writers.

When I say he was a “supporter,” that doesn’t mean he was easy. Quite the opposite: He was notoriously prickly. He was prickly the one time I met him, and he was notoriously prickly to reporters, interpreters of his work, critics, audiences, close friends, and probably everyone else at some time or other.

In an odd way, I benefited 10 years ago from his prickliness. Albee had had a falling out with the Great Plains Theatre Conference; evidently, they’d asked him if he could please possibly be a little nicer in his feedback to the young playwrights, and he took umbrage, and quit the conference just a few weeks prior to its start. People close to the conference were asked for suggestions about teachers of playwriting, playwrights, or workshop leaders, who might be able to fill in for Albee for the week and give feedback, but be a little more, um, upbeat. The actor-director girlfriend of someone in my playwriting workshop who was and is an extremely talented playwright and who had been at the conference and who had visited my workshop suggested me — and I got booked. So, oddly, I got to fill Edward Albee’s role for a week.

As if.

But, subbing for Edward Albee, I got to hobnob with Marshall Mason and Doug Wright. (High honors. Marshall and directed the first play I ever bought a ticket for, when I was a teenager: Christopher Reeve appearing in Lanford Wilson’s “Fifth of July” in New York.) I also got treated to steak dinners courtesy of Omaha Steaks (one of the sponsors of the conference; including a private reception where Marshall took pains to ensure that I wasn’t going to skewer playwrights as Albee had done), got to appear on local television, and was generally treated the way one would hope always to be treated. And, deliciously, I got to render input on some terrific new plays, including the thrilling play “Devil Sedan” by Kenley Smith, who has since become a friend, and to do it in the manner I practice to this day: to be helpful, and constructive, and goal-oriented for the play, rather than to be the guy who drops an anvil on someone’s head from the sixth story. I saw that other approach in graduate school, and since then, but I’ve yet to see anyone benefit from it.

If Albee wasn’t always kind or thoughtful in some situations, he nevertheless remains a lodestone. Very occasionally, when I might ask myself if I’m “really” going to do “that” or say “that” or set up “that” situation in a play, I think of Albee, the man who wrote the play about someone compelled to throw over his entire life for the love of a goat. And then I say, “Fuck it” and do it. And, always always always, that’s the right choice.

Thank you, sir. For the plays and for the example.

No news is bad news

Sunday, September 4th, 2016

The New York Times is ending its coverage of regional theatre, and restaurants and culture in its suburban delivery areas. (Here’s more on that story.) If you’re a theatre in New Jersey, Westchester, Long Island or Connecticut, that’s pretty bad news.

On one of the theatre groups I belong to on Facebook, people were predictably outraged. Sample comments:

“This is shortsighted and totally lacking in regard for the need of the wider community for access to its own cultural scene!!!!!!”

They seem to be denying their motto’All the news that’s fit to print.’ “

“As long as I get my Justin Bieber updates. That’s all that matters.”
 “They’ve seen their future. So I hear they’re starting a Justin Bieber SECTION.”

It was these last two that got my goat. So I posted this:

“This is the point at which I ask, ‘How many of us who are shocked and upset have been PAYING to read the New York Times?’ Some, sure — but the numbers are way down. I remember when the LA Times had 1,000,000+ readers in print; now it’s… 250,000? The advertisers started leaving these papers after the subscribers started leaving. I’m now the ONLY LA Times subscriber on my block. On a similar note: How many people here are willing (and PROUD) to write for The Huffington Post, for free, while its founder made millions from it and while its unpaid parasitic repurposing of newspaper content was helping to eat those newspapers alive? Newspapers have had to PAY to cover those stories (unlike the HuffPo). Without our support, they’ve been forced to make tragic cuts.”

So, yes, I was once again on a familiar tear about The Huffington Post, which enriches a select handful of early investors, including Arianna herself, while asking all the writers to contribute for free, and while taking paid newspaper content, aggregating it, and turning it into clickbait.

Today, though, I realized how even more apt my comparison of that organ to a parasite was. Unchecked, parasites kill the host — and then they themselves die. Newspapers in their present form won’t — can’t — survive. But the need for actually reliable news, the sort that comes from having paid news gatherers go out and develop connections and do research and develop and report stories, will continue. It may even become more valuable, as it becomes more scarce, and that means it will cost more. Maybe that will mean that the HuffPo, with a business model built on unpaid writing and filched reporting, would have to pay for its content. Wouldn’t that be a shame?

A few weeks ago, John Oliver delivered a hilarious but tragic takedown of what’s happening to newspapers. This, I promise you, is well worth your 19 minutes.

 

Shooting for hope

Monday, June 13th, 2016

shootings

Yesterday morning I awoke to the news that someone had stormed into a gay club in Orlando, FL and killed about 50 people and wounded about another 50 and was holding some people hostage until finally the police were able to kill him.

You’ve already heard that story. I know.

You’ve heard it many times by now, with little variations.

Sometimes involving government workers as the victims, or people in an office, or shoppers, or people out for a movie, or even children.

I don’t have anything to say about this that you haven’t already heard elsewhere. I will just add that over the past day I’ve vacillated between being very sad about it and being very angry. Because it is never true that “nothing can be done,” I’m leaning heavily toward being angry.

But.

Because this particular mass murderer had gays in his crosshairs, I thought I’d share this.

Yesterday, by coincidence, mere hours after I awoke to find that a man incensed about gay people had targeted and killed dozens of them, spraying them with bullets in a place they’d gone to drink and dance and meet each other, I went to see probably the foremost musical of our lives that celebrates diversity and difference, “La Cage Aux Folles.” I didn’t particularly feel like fighting traffic downtown to see it when what I really wanted to do was be angry on the internet and in my personal writing, but a female friend and I had set this date about six weeks ago, so I went. It turned out to be exactly what I needed.

Not just because “La Cage,” which focuses on a gay couple and their farcical adventures at their drag-queen nightclub, celebrates the basic human empathy that I believe dwells in most of us.

Not just because this particular production, courtesy of East West Players, one of the nation’s premier Asian theatre companies, is glorious. (Just the sheer professionalism of it all — the singing, dancing, acting, choreography, costumes, everything — was remarkable.)

Not just because I laughed large and loud.

But also because:  The makeup of the audience told me that the haters have already lost.

It wasn’t a “gay” audience. And it wasn’t an “Asian” audience. It was just an audience, an audience made up of white, black, yellow and brown, gay and straight, male and female, old and young. A mixed-race couple in front of me (Caucasian and Asian) had brought their son, who I figure is 10. Behind me sat a Chinese man with his elderly mother. A few seats to my left and a row ahead were a white hetero couple in their 70s. I saw a young black woman in the back, and also a girl strapped into an upright wheelchair. And on and on.

All of us were there, together, for a celebratory expression of tolerance, understanding, and joy. Big, pure joy.

Do I want things done about our epidemic of mass shootings? Yes. In the meantime, whatever happens, do I think it likely that anyone can turn back the tide of history —  especially now that sentiment travels instantaneously around the world —  that ultimately will draw us all closer together? No.

So I’m going to hold onto my rage — truly nurture it — so that the deaths of the people in Florida, and Colorado, and Connecticut, and Texas, and California, and practically everywhere else in the U.S., for whatever “reasons” the various shooters gave, aren’t for nothing. I’m going to talk to my Congressman about the legislation I believe in, and I’m going to send him some money, and send some other money elsewhere against other people. And I’m going to keep telling everyone:  I’m not against guns, and I’m not against hunting or target shooting or self-protection — but I’m against gun massacres, and this has to stop.

But while I’m doing all this, I’m going to hold onto hope. Because sooner or later, we will win.

 

Fringe appeal

Thursday, June 9th, 2016

fringe

Starting today, the Hollywood Fringe Festival is upon us again, and I’m carefully marking my selections.

What’s the Hollywood Fringe Festival? It’s 2-3 weeks of new, engaging, offbeat, sometimes hilarious and wonderful but sometimes absolutely horrible theatrical events staged around greater Hollywood. To quote their website, “Each June during the Hollywood Fringe, the arts infiltrate the Hollywood neighborhood: fully equipped theaters, parks, clubs, churches, restaurants and other unexpected places host hundreds of productions by local, national, and international arts companies and independent performers. Participation in the Hollywood Fringe is completely open and uncensored.”

Which might explain how, one year, I was able to perform as a cynical crow in one show and, two years hence, a smart-alecky duck in another. (My acting abilities are clearly limited to playing one-note animals.)

The joy of the Fringe is not merely in seeing as many shows as you can — it’s also in feeling the vibe around town as you pass by theatres in Hollywood and see crowds milling around on sidewalks, even at 2 a.m., awaiting whatever the next performance is. It’s an exciting time for what is, to me, the most exciting art form.

Today, I bought tickets for my first two selections.

MyAlamoWarOn Monday, June 20th, at 7 p.m. I’ll be seeing “My Alamo War,” a one-man show written by and starring my longtime friend the playwright Ernest Kearney. Ernest is a fiercely talented and principled writer-performer whose work I’ve been following (and, one time, producing) for 20 years. Last year he wrote and starred in what was perhaps the most beautiful and heartfelt show I saw all year — a slideshow documenting his year or two managing a storage facility that fronted on Hollywood Boulevard in the 1980s. During that time, Ernest took at least one photo every day, and grew to know the people who passed by his workplace window. His story — and their stories — merged into a searing, funny, and deeply moving event that, if he ever repeats it, I will invite many, many people to. His new show concerns his “war” against the Tony and Susan Alamo Christian Foundation, a nefarious group whose awful booklets and pamphlets I’ve been collecting since the 1980s in order to keep my bile duct working. Ernest, who, as well as being funny and clever and a severely talented writer, is a fearless fellow, evidently engaged in some sort of guerrilla war against them for two years — and I’m eager to find out who won. My money would be on him.

 

designatedmournerOn Saturday, June 25th, I’ll be seeing “The Designated Mourner,” by Wallace Shawn at 5 p.m. at Theatre of NOTE. Close friends and long-time readers of this blog are aware of my deep interest in Mr. Shawn’s writing. (I’m currently reading his book of essays, where I find once again that I’m drawn to his writing while shaking my head at the “logic” of his arguments, or lack thereof.) I’ve read the playscript version of this play several times, and have seen the filmed version (which is very good) twice, and am looking forward to seeing it staged for the first time. In the play, we’re there for the moment when America (it seems) slides into being a banana republic and we’ve lost our cultural and moral anchors; it’s a world where no one will care any longer about John Donne. One could argue that we’re already there. But then, one could also argue that because the Internet has created access for everyone to everything, now more people than ever know about and appreciate John Donne. (And the latter, clearly, is my argument.) I don’t fully buy Shawn’s story of how the country will fall apart, but he may be having the last laugh under President Trump.

When I get the time, I’m going to do my best to squeeze in as much of the Fringe as possible. Some of it will be terrific, and some of it will be terrible, but the totality of those two or three weeks will be intoxicating.

Moving forward

Friday, May 20th, 2016

I just got in from the staged workshop reading of a new play by an emerging playwright, at Moving Arts. It was incredibly rewarding to be in a space that a handful of us turned into a theatre in 1992 and to marvel that there it is, 24 years later, still open and operating and doing new work and doing a really, really good job with that new work. Many of the faces have changed, of course (including mine, when you think about it), but the spirit of doing adventurous new work and doing your best to make it good — that has stayed.

The playwright, who is a genuine talent and someone I’ve known for probably eight years now, said during the intermission that she’d been concerned during act one that the actors were holding back too much, so she’d just come outside from having “unleashed” them. That proved true. Because near the end of the play, the actor playing Apollo moved into a frenzy and threw himself against a back wall — a back wall that, as I knew, was actually a thin painted piece of wooden shielding hiding our electrical panels. Which promptly cracked in half, prompting laughs from the audience, as the play continued, broken skewed wall panel and all. When the play was finished, he came over sheepishly to greet me and two of his friends and I said, “Well, 24 years later, that was something new.”

But there was a lot that was new: the play, most of the talent involved,  most of the audience, and more. One thing that’s never gotten old:  doing what’s new.

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.