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


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Curtain for now

Saturday, July 1st, 2017

Last Sunday night, this playwright had one of the best nights he’s ever had in the theatre. And I’ve had lots of great nights in the theatre, starting 40 years ago. My play, “Triptych,” which was running as part of the Hollywood Fringe, closed — but it closed to a packed house, tumultuous laughter in all the right places, and to this review.

Occasionally, when you’re the playwright and if you’re lucky, the people who’ve come to see your play look at you afterward with a new appreciation: “Wow. He can actually write.” They don’t say that, but you can see it in their eyes.  I got a lot of that on that night — and I also got a phone call the next day from someone who’s known me for a few years now, but who hasn’t known me as a playwright. “I was really impressed!” he said. “Have you written plays before?”
(Which made a lot of people who know me well laugh.)

I’m extremely grateful to my director, cast and crew, who took an emotionally complicated and dramatically deceptive — and risky! — new play and figured it all out in about four weeks and mounted it under the inordinate pressure that is a Fringe festival — where you get no access in advance to the theatre, where you have to bring in all of the props and set pieces, and where you have to be broken down and out within 15 minutes after every performance. While competing against 350 other productions for audience. That they could do all that, deliver and honest-to-God spot-on performance one could only hope for, and elicit laughs, was gratifying. (But not surprising — because I’ve worked with them all before, and know how good they are.)
My only regret was that the play had gone unreviewed. But then, as I mentioned above, I discovered today that the production got this review. The critic, Ernest Kearney, is a playwright, and a good one. The added benefit of having a good playwright review your play is the informed insights he might bring; in this case, Ernest is very smart about my play. He’s seen earlier work of mine; he’s right that I’m misleading the audience intentionally; he’s right that I’m “burying” the lead. I’ve had good reviews and bad reviews and dumb reviews. The best ones are the smart ones.
Today in my playwriting workshop, someone asked me what was next for “Triptych.” I don’t know at the moment. I may send it out to developmental workshops. But at the moment, I’m writing another, entirely different, play.

Cogent criticism

Saturday, June 3rd, 2017

My new play, “Triptych,” opened today. It runs through June in Hollywood at the Stephanie Feury Theatre. Here’s where to learn more, and get tickets.

Here are some initial responses.

A theatrical producer I’ve known for a long time now posted this on Facebook:  “Just saw this today. A bracing mix of art, sex and violence. Made me think, feel, and think again. Lee Wochner mixes up a potent brew. I recommend it!”

The artistically minded mother of a director and playwright I’ve worked with posted this:  “My husband  & I saw today’s performance & enjoyed our afternoon. I especially liked the ending but I’ll never tell! Long stem Red Roses & Kudo’s to Lee Wochner, Michael David, Daria Balling, Ross Kramer, Laura Buckles & Dana Xedos.”

But here’s what both my director and I think is the most cogent criticism so far. When it was over, my 14-year-old son turned to me and said, “Dad, this play reeks of you.”

And it does. It reeks of me. The wordplay, the insistence on grammar, the vocabulary, some of the tensions in the relationships, the mockery of Barefoot wine, and much more. “I’ve heard you say a lot of that!” he said later.

We stopped at the supermarket later to pick up a few things, and he went on about how much he heard “me” through the play. I told him that I’ve written lots of plays, and lots of different sorts of plays, and that not all of them sound that much like me. I told him that I’ve written a lot of blue-collar characters with restricted vocabulary, and reminded him that I grew up knowing a lot of people like that and that I have great respect for them.

But he hasn’t seen those plays — and I had thought he hadn’t seen any other of my plays, until I remembered he’d seen a couple of short plays of mine the past couple of years at the annual Moving Arts holiday party.

So, for now, I’m associated with the terrible caustic people in my new play. He and his sister (18) associated my wife with it in a different way. Responding to a situation in the play, they asked her, “Do you have a lesbian lover?!?!?” Her response:  “Not that you know of.”

 

A note about the program

Wednesday, May 31st, 2017

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As you can see above, my play opens this Saturday as part of the Hollywood Fringe. (And, if you’re a local, here’s a discount offer:  We have a few seats for the June 3 and June 10 performances at only $9.50 each when you use the discount code APPLE. For God’s sake, don’t tell anybody.)

My producer asked me to write a note for the program, and I told him I’d get it to him Tuesday. Which means that at 10 p.m. yesterday (Tuesday), I was writing it.

On the face of it, the assignment was simple:  200-250 words, from the playwright, for the play program. And, hey, I’ve written many program notes, introductory comments, introductions, prefaces, etc., over the years. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert on 200-250 words (although I did pretty well within that limitation for a few years for the LA Times holiday book section, back when there was a holiday book section), but I do well enough. Just in the past month, I’ve written three of these things for three different publications.

But when you’re writing a note for the program of your play, there are some limitations that aren’t immediately obvious. For instance:

  • You don’t want to give away the plot, because that cheats the audience of the experience.
  • You don’t want to say what the play is “about,” because that also cheats the audience of the experience. It relieves them of the responsibility of thinking about it. Plus, why have the play at all if you’re going to have a note that explains it in just 200-250 words?
  • You don’t want to discuss your inspiration, because it misdirects your audience — now they’re thinking about you, rather than the play.

So, in general, it’s just better not to have a program note.

But I do try to play along, to be a good sport, to be a soldier for the production. After all,  the actors and the director and the designers and the crew and everyone else have put in a lot of effort — while you’ve mostly sat at home. So, when asked, I write them.

Here’s what I wrote for this one, and I assure you, it has almost nothing to do with the play. What I hope it does do is to say that even the things we think we know are open to interpretation.

 

As a young man thirty-five years ago, mustering what little money I had, I bought a very pricey print of “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymus Bosch from the Philadelphia Museum of Art and had it very expensively framed, and since then it has hung in every apartment or house where I’ve lived, and where I can look at it every day I’m home.

It is a triptych.

The leftmost panel depicts Jesus, Adam and Eve in Eden. The central panel is filled with people, all of them naked, cavorting with each other against the backdrop of a lush, full paradise. The final panel shows us an awful tableau of sinners being tortured in the most imaginative ways in Hell.

For a painting that seems so straightforward, it contains diabolical levels of mystery. Do the sins of the middle panel lead to the perdition of the third? Or is the middle the ideal state, a Paradise lost, that we are doomed to regret if we cannot attain it? Those, and many other theories about the painting, abound.

I don’t expect to get a definitive explanation – about this, or about many things. But thinking about this, and the many other things, fills me with wonder – about people, and about their unrevealed inner workings.

 

I hope that says just enough, and not more.

Coming soon

Wednesday, April 5th, 2017

Without risking becoming one of those tiresome people who recounts how busy he’s been by providing a litany of tasks and appointments, let’s just confirm the assumption that there’s been a lot going on. Among other things, I’ve given a number of talks in California that I hope to be writing about here soon. (We’ll see.) And in addition to doing a lot of speaking, I’ve been doing a lot of (non-blog) writing.

Looking ahead:

I’ll be in New Jersey and New York May 4 – May 10, so I’m hoping to catch up with some friends and colleagues.

May 10 – May 12, I’ll be in Lake Tahoe on business.

May 18 – 21, I’ll be in bucolic Hays, Kansas for my good friend James Smith’s long-overdue wedding to a delightful and beautiful woman who will actually have him. James has been in more of my plays than any other actor (eight of them? 10?), and now he’ll be acting the role of a responsible grown-up. I’ve never been to Hays, Kansas or, I think Kansas itself. A good friend who is also a very good playwright, Ross Tedford Kendall, is also from Kansas, and when I told him I’d be visiting Hays, he just laughed long and hard. That caught my attention. But hey, where I’m from isn’t exactly a metropolis either.

On June 3, my new play “Triptych” will be opening in the Hollywood Fringe Festival. More to come about that. (Including a link to secure tickets.) The play went through several different working titles, including “Pyramid,” “Triangle,” “Triptych” and “How We Know You,” before my director convinced me to call it “Triptych.” I would say I’m hoping for the best, as one always does with a production, but I’m blessed with three honest-to-God great actors, all of whom I’ve worked with before, and a talented director who understands my work and my sensibility. If you’re in LA in June, I hope you’ll come see it.

Logline

Tuesday, February 21st, 2017

How I just described my new play to my daughter: “Psychological attack, with comedy.”

Monday, not Sunday

Monday, February 20th, 2017

While in the past I’ve been happy to celebrate Washington’s birthday, or Lincoln’s birthday, I’ve never wanted to celebrate President’s Day, for the simple reason that I don’t celebrate all of them. I didn’t like it when George W. Bush was the president, I don’t recall liking it before that, and I certainly don’t like it now.

In addition to not-celebrating the holiday, another reason I had a hard time just a minute ago remembering that it’s Monday and not Sunday is that I spent the morning eating a leisurely breakfast with strong coffee, horsing around on my iPhone playing far too many rounds of Drop7, and making mental lists of things I should do today but probably won’t. In other words: Sunday activities. I was especially confused when the newspaper was even slimmer than usual — pretty slim for a Sunday! … Oh.

Yesterday, on what felt like Saturday but was actually Sunday, I took my daughter to LACMA to see the exhibit of German art of the Renaissance. My forebears were torn between two factions (in this case, the Catholics and the Protestants), an awful conflict that gave rise to some great art and some very snotty illustrations that reminded me of the underground comix o the 1960s. (Good thing nothing like this is happening these days.) The work was deeply beautiful and generally disturbing — very warlike, with representations of the chosen arbiters (Martin Luther or the Pope) swinging between deific and demonic, and with much heraldry, spilled blood, and tortured Christs. The portraiture of the one-percenters (who, of course, could afford portraits of themselves), was necessarily flattering. Hats off, then, to Albrecht Durer, who had the audacity to depict one such Burgermeister as a thin-lipped, cold-eyed coot. I can only wonder what this person thought of his portrait.

While we were there, we paid extra to see the exhibit showcasing the work of Diego Rivera and Pablo Picasso. I’d never thought of the two together, associating the former with a sort of socialist-peasant art and the latter with modernism, and I wasn’t aware of their friendship, but now I’ve been educated. I was especially interested to see how informed Rivera’s work was by Mayan art, with its simple uninflected portrayals of people, and also to see Picasso’s elementary illustrations of a translation of Ovid; it’s astounding how much he could convey with just a simple fluid line.

My friend and former playwriting workshop member Tira Palmquist is having quite a year or two or three. She’s been racking up productions all over the place, and just broke through the LORT curtain with her play “Two Degrees,” which is currently running at Denver Center for the Performing Arts. She says a number of smart and useful things in this interview, and is even so kind as to give me a shoutout. In with all the other wise things she says here, I particularly recommend this advice: “Write as much as possible. Set difficult goals.”

Go to the gym. Do the grocery shopping. Write as much as possible. That’s my to-do list for today.

Intermission

Sunday, February 19th, 2017

Posting on this blog may pick up again now that I’ve actually completed a first draft of my new full-length play, “How We Know You.” While I’m surprised that it took about eight months — especially since I was able to write 26 pages in the first week — but there’s nothing like a deadline to get something finished, and I’ve been seriously cranking away at it again the past two weeks. I think I got it in just under the wire for a first reading that was already announced and already scheduled for Sunday the 5th at 5:30 at Moving Arts. Assuming, that is, that my preferred director doesn’t hate it and he’s able to get it cast in time.

So now I’m celebrating. Although I write a play or two (or more) a year, I think this is my first completed full-length in… three years? Four years? Celebration means: I went to the gym to burn off all that excess energy after typing “END OF PLAY,” then stopped on my way home to pick up a bottle of Grey Goose, which I’m now drinking with some cranberry juice while munching homemade popcorn and writing this.

While I was at the gym, and, again, celebrating finishing this play, I started to think about the plays that I haven’t finished. Now, in general, I’m someone who finishes what he starts. I believe in that, and also, when I was in a writing program in grad school, one of our teachers counseled us on that. “You have to finish what you start,” he said — and then we never saw him again, because he quit to go take on another writing job. Despite that, I have done my best to heed his advice, even if just because the perversity of his hypocrisy strikes me as funny. But there are some plays that I haven’t finished — yet. Eventually, I will get around to finishing all or most of them, assuming I don’t die first.

(Side note: Whenever I think of a writer knowing he’s going to die, I’m reminded of Louis L’Amour, whose writing room had stacks of manuscript and letters and papers in every direction all across the room. When he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, L’Amour came home and started going through all those papers, to sort them out and clean them up. But his wife kindly said to him that he needn’t worry, because she’d take care of it — and so, he was able to go back to writing. Every writer should be so lucky as to have a spouse like that.)
Anyway, I have about 35 finished plays, and almost two dozen that are either almost finished, somewhat finished, more fragmentary than the Dead Sea Scrolls, or pretty much just a title and a few lines. Here are some of the unfinished plays I hope to finish writing.

“7 Horns” (full-length)
This play I actually had a developmental process on, and a reading at some college. (Was it Occidental College, alma mater of Barack Obama? I think so.) It’s about a small town facing impending real-estate development. Interestingly — well, I think it’s interesting — the play had a mother and adult daughter talk about the death of their son/brother; when we were working on the play, there was a mother-daughter duo in our acting company at Moving Arts and they were extremely effective and moving in this scene. Later, I found out that they had indeed lost their son/brother, and they wondered if I had written this scene expressly for them. Nope — just happenstance.

Odds of getting finished: After the reading, a playwright friend said to me, “You know, developers aren’t evil.” Many years later, I have come around to his way of thinking. So… I’ll need to see if it’s still relevant. To me.

“The Bar Plays” (full-length)
About 20 years ago, I saw a couple of Canadian playwright George F. Walker’s “Suburban Motel Plays,” a cycle of one-acts connected only by virtue of taking place at the same motel. My thought then: I could do this, but with a bar.

Odds of getting finished: To my practical/pragmatic side, It still seems like a very producible side, and I did write one or two of these. The problem is that I don’t go to bars much any more. (In the larger scope of things, maybe that’s not such a problem.) I would have to do research, and I’m not sure this is the sort of research I’d enjoy doing.

The Cratchet Family Christmas” (one-act)
Every July or so I dig this up, and what I’ve got of it still makes at least me laugh. It’s vile and funny and completely unsentimental.

Odds of getting finished: High, dammit! This must happen!

“Creator” (full-length)
A dying literature professor has decided that because he is dying, the universe is dying: It is a projection of his subconscious. His daughter is a professor of modernist literature; they have disagreements over meaning: what is important, what is real.

Odds of getting finished: I’ve written scene one, scene three, some sort of interlude, and I have notes for some other parts. The problem? In my mind, the literature professor had a compelling argument for why he was the Creator — and in the 14 years since I started this play, I’ve forgotten what it was.

“Crotch Rot” (full-length)
I couldn’t remember anything — anything — about this play, so I just looked at it again. It seems to concern three stinking 20-something members of a grunge band.

Odds of getting finished: Slim. But I’ll probably pirate the characters or dialogue for something else.

“The Epiphany Party” (one-act)
Four female friends mock the celebration of Epiphany by holding a party in which each of them is supposed to have an Epiphany.

Odds of getting finished: Actually, this is finished. I just don’t like it.

“Fear, Inc.” (full-length)
In which the government is orchestrating terror attacks in order to keep the public under control. I should point out that I started this long before the Trump administration came into being.

Odds of getting finished: This should happen. I mean: relevance!

“I, Teratoma” (full-length)
I’m sure that every playwright has a play in which a blood-sucking tumor named Terry eats its way through family and friends. For laughs. (It’s a comedy. Of sorts.)

Odds of getting finished: Very high! You’ve got to love a play where the playwright has written himself a note that reads, “MAYBE TERRY HAS A MOUTH. OR A SLIT FOR A MOUTH. OR A VAGINAL OPENING ON ITS ‘FACE.’ ” Just writing that here again inspires me to go finish it!

“Inspecting Fitzgerald” (one-act? full-length?)
This is comprised of several short scenes featuring Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, including the (in)famous true story of the time Hemingway inspected Fitzgerald’s manhood in a restaurant bathroom.

Odds of getting finished: I had a reading of the existing pages once and everyone present wanted the rest of the play. But it’s been so long that those people may be dead now. Hemingway and Fitzgerald live on, though, so I should finish this.

“Ripped-Up Dog-Face Guy” (one-act? full-length?)
This was inspired by a book my then-8-year-old son was reading, called “The Gardener.” Evidently, I envisioned Ripped-Up Dog-Face Guy to be a character name.

Odds of getting finished: I still love the musicality of that name; that’s really what I was hung up on. But that’s about all I’ve got. I also seem to recall that I was turning this into a song at some point.

“Secrets of the Wonder Thing” (full-length)
This is the only sequel I’ve ever attempted. It depicts a dystopian alternate version of our own Earth — one in danger of becoming all too real, under Donald J. Trump — but is actually hopeful in that mass change results from individual action. Even when the individual action is taken by strange people with seemingly useless superpowers.

Odds of getting finished: Well, the first part, “Anapest,” was produced in London and New York, and had workshop in Los Angeles, New York, and Arkansas. And, again, the topic seems awfully relevant….

“Sex in the Year Zero Zero” (full-length)
Like those motel plays, this was going to be a series of somewhat-connected one-acts about sex. Guess in what year I started this.

Odds of getting finished: Probably. The parts that I’ve already written have gotten readings, and play well. I just need another fifteen years so that I can write knowledgeably about elderly sex, and then I’m all set.

“The Never Was” (full-length)
The action cuts between the two surviving members of a rock band and their younger selves, as they reunite in a bar to hash out grievances and, maybe, finally get some recognition because a car company wants to license one of their songs.

Odds of getting finished: I’ve got forty-one pages written on this play. Including the ending, which I promise you is killer. I know exactly how this play goes. So — I should just finish it. (Clearly, this is a note to myself.)

“Troubled Men” (full-length)
This is the full-length version of my one-act “About the Deep Woods Killer,” which concerns the son of a convicted serial killer, who is trying to keep himself together and stay away from alcohol and suicide. “About the Deep Woods Killer” was produced some years ago in Los Angeles and got very strong reviews and, more importantly, made several women in the audience cry. It’s a sensitive play coming from someone not known for his sensitivity. (That would be me.)

Odds of getting finished: Similar to “The Never Was,” I’ve got almost forty pages, including the ending — and it’s a strong one — and I’ve got notes on the rest. So — I should just finish it. I did get a little gun shy when I caught myself doing something I counsel others against — I was writing one character as, clearly, the villain of the piece. Ouch. I’m still embarrassed. So I’d need to fix that, plus, well, just finish it.

Other unfinished plays: “Friends for Life,” “God the Communicator,” “House Arrest,” “Second Ice Age,” “Imperium,” “Ozma of Oz” (my only attempt at a full-length musical), “Play Idea,” “Reactor,” and “Speedy.”

I have no doubt I’ll be doing rewrites on “How We Know You.” That’s how the process of playwriting works. But I’d also like to wrap up one of these other ones this year. Which one should it be?

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.

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.

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.