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


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Good timing

Wednesday, March 25th, 2020

Three recent examples of good timing:

 

  1. I went to Spain in January. Talk about perfect timing! But then, I went to see Pere Ubu – and they’ve always had perfect timing.  My daughter and I got into the country, sucked every bit of fun possible out of it for eight days, and left pretty much right before the Coronavirus panic started to hit Europe. What the people of that country are suffering now is almost unimaginable, and I’m thinking about them every day.
  2. On a whim, went to San Diego Comics Fest two weeks ago – i.e., immediately before all such gatherings got canceled. I bought some delicious old funny books at bargain rates, caught a presentation by one of the producers of the David Lynch version of “Dune” filled with fun backstory, and saw something I’d never before seen in 45 years of going to comics conventions:  someone named Ditko. (Yes, it was the nephew of the late, great, mysterious and unphotographed co-creator of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. Who said that they all just knew him as “Uncle Steve,” and were impressed with his drawing ability… but didn’t know what he did for a living.)
  3. And, finally, on the very night before first Los Angeles Mayor Garcetti and then Governor Gavin Newsom shut down the city and then whole state, I had some friends over for drinks and cigars in my back yard. What was supposed to be a gathering of an hour or so stretched to almost five hours as we swapped stories about our friends and families, the economic and political situation and, of course, given that this universe’s foremost expert on it was in attendance, “Star Trek.” Everybody was grateful for the fellowship.

 

I have the memory of those three recent social activities to sustain me. But I also have new memories forged from staying home and being immersed in writing and reading and beating my kid at 500 Rummy, and also in a first-ever achievement last Saturday:  running my “Words That Speak” playwriting workshop as a videoconference, with seven other playwrights joining me for three-and-a-half hours and a lot of laughs and virtual social sharing. The workshop has been running since February, 1993 – but never via video. So:  That’s definitely something new.

 

We’ll all get back to everything soon. In the meantime, let’s do our best to make the best of this time, too.

Little things

Monday, February 17th, 2020

Yes, little things make a big difference.

Yesterday I saw a flat-out terrific play, about the benighted state of journalism and what that portends for us. The play was harrowing, somehow funny as well, very well-played and brilliantly directed. Seriously — brilliantly directed. Especially given that the director’s task involved choreographing the entrances and exits of six actors onto a stage the size of most vestibules, and that those actors had to change clothes repeatedly because five of them were playing more than one character.

(Oh, heck, the play was “Red Ink,” by Steven Leigh Morris, in a production by Playwrights Arena. Here’s a link. It’s running one more week — so go see it now.)

I saw it with a friend (another good director) and we both loved the production and the direction and talked briefly about the theme of the play. But what did we wind up texting about?

The shoes.

The shoes on one of the actors. A really great actor, one I’ve seen before, who played two diametrically opposed characters (one a financially successful if scurrilous businessman, the other a mental patient with kleptomania) and who brought life and energy with him in every scene… but who wore scuffed-up, box-toed cowboy boots missing several lifetimes’ worth of polish.

In scene after scene, I found myself staring at the shoes. It was hard to look away. Even during a production that good. Because the shoes are just wrong. They might be right for the mental patient, but they’re sorely wrong for the elderly disreputable publisher who spends all his time on the beach in Orlando. People are doing costume changes throughout the play, so get the man two pairs of slip-ons. Or, at the very least, polish the boots.

I know. It seems picayune. Pedantic. Other “p” words of low value. But when it takes you out of the play, it’s a big thing. And it’s especially distracting when everything else in the show is so good.

Go see it. If  you care about the news — real news — and about journalists who really care about such things, and if you want to see a hard-hitting and completely entertaining play that delves into that subject, you should see this. Just try not to notice the boots.

Short form, long form, and old form

Saturday, February 15th, 2020

Plays come in all sorts and sizes. For three weeks in a row, one of the playwrights in my workshop, a guy who normally writes plays of about 120 pages, has brought in a new 10-minute play. Each of them has been good, immediately produceable, and would be fun to see. Back in the 1990s, I produced a lot of one-acts and one-act festivals, and Moving Arts kept doing that right up until about six years ago. Current management doesn’t produce one-acts — which is completely their prerogative. I liked them because it gave lots of playwrights a chance, and lots of directors, and lots of actors, and because generally the plays were fun. And, as my producing partner of the time used to say, “If you don’t like one of them, just wait, because there’s another one coming right up.”

Of the 64 plays I’ve written, many many of them are short plays. One of them, which got produced in Hoboken, NJ but which I’ve never seen staged or even heard read,  is all of three page long. Here’s why:  That’s all it needed. That’s all the story there was. More importantly, that’s all the theme there was:  Once you’ve made your point, you’re done. I was reminded of this when I had a brief discussion today with another playwright in my workshop about the HBO limited series “Mrs. Fletcher.” Ordinarily, “Mrs. Fletcher” wouldn’t be the sort of thing I’d watch, but for one reason:  I’d read the book and it was starring Kathryn Hahn. (Yes, that is one reason. I usually stay away from watching adaptations of things I’ve read because I don’t want the filmed version interfering with the prose version I already enjoyed; but in this case, knowing what the book was about and knowing that the lovely, talented, committed, and brave Kathryn Hahn would be starring in it, I watched it.)  I was pleasantly surprised to learn that each episode was only 30 minutes. Oh. It was serialized more like a comedy than a drama. I was also pleasantly surprised to see that the series ends about two-thirds of the way through the book — right at the climactic event in the novel that resolves the theme. In other words, right where it should. The book, on the other hand, goes on… and everyone’s life is neatly resolved… and quickly what had been a book about adventure and the freedom to be who you wanted to be becomes a book that resolves everyone’s story to the expectation of the society around them. What a disappointment. The series, by the way, was executive-produced by the novelist, who also wrote some of the episodes, so this seems like a rare instance of a novelist getting a second chance at his material… and improving it.

From Méliès's most famous film, 1902.

From Méliès’s most famous film, 1902.

After my workshop this morning, I headed over to the Egyptian Theatre for a screening from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s festival of preservation. They had promised a recently discovered Laurel & Hardy short (I’m a fan) and a fully restored Chaplin short (less of a fan) and never-before-seen films by Georges Méliès (film’s first special-effects master, starting to produce and direct sensationally surprising films in 1896) and by the Lumière brothers, who patented their own version of the cinematograph in 1895. I’m not a film fan per se, but I’m interested in the silent era, and I know that because Méliès burned the negatives to all 520 of his films in a dispute over rights, they’re difficult to see in any good form. The intricacies of the preservation and restoration process on all the films shown, as detailed in introductions by a representative, are too involved to go into detail here; for the Chaplin short, an introductory clip showed all four source-material films (three of them prints and one of them a negative) used to cobble together a complete print that could be restored. The Lumière clips were astounding, showing elegantly dressed and coiffed people, in top hats and waistcoats, or in dresses with majestic headwear, strolling along with the Eiffel Tower in the background, looking every bit as fresh as though it were shot with an iPhone today — but clearly being from 1900 or thereabouts. In another one, people are traveling via moving walkway, such as you find in an airport, and I realized:  That’s right! We had moving walkways in some places in 1900, and then we seemed to forget about the technology, because I don’t think moving walkways returned (and then, again, mostly in airports) until the 1980s or so. The Méliès films were very short; his early pieces were only one minute long, and rightly so, because they present the sort of tricks preferred by Méliès, as a stage magician, over things like plot and conflict. (One of his longer pieces, probably 20 minutes, was screened as well, but it required narration by our host and I’ll admit I fell asleep for probably five minutes of it.) Spectacle works in brief bits, but spectacle without the pursuit of objective — i.e., people in conflict — loses its fascination. This is precisely the problem with some of Terry Gilliam’s films, most especially “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” which is a great bore. When nothing matters, nobody cares.

After the screening, and after a late lunch at the Pig n’ Whistle, an English pub originated in Hollywood in 1927, where I had bangers and mash and a Guinness, and where a busser cleared away my copy of The New Yorker when I went to the restroom (I wouldn’t pay my tab until they returned it — which they did), I went to the Moving Arts one-night event “Tainted Love.” This was an evening of — wait for it — short plays, staged in and around a large multi-level house high in the Hollywood Hills. It was terrific fun to be surrounded by so many friends of the theatre, including actors I’ve worked with since the 90’s, and to get reacquainted with a woman who has, off-and-on, been coming to see our shows for 25 years. I also got to see two longtime acting buddies play marshmallows — there they were in their respectably representative marshmallow costumes, playing it for all it’s worth as they feared getting roasted alive, and making me howl with laughter. Georges Méliès would’ve been proud.

How to never finish anything you write

Sunday, August 18th, 2019

Sit in judgment of yourself while you’re writing it.

Oh, I know the temptation is great. You sit down and soon the questions build:

  1. “Is this as good as that other thing I once wrote?”
  2. “Is this any good at all?”
  3. “Am I any good at all?”
  4. “What’s new on Netflix instead?”

The solution to this is to separate the editing function from the writing function. The editing function is to catch mistakes, or find improvements, but, and here’s the fun part, for that to work you must have written something first. So do the writing function first:  Just free yourself to write what you’re writing; write what may, and leave the editing for later, after you’ve done the writing.

For those of us who write plays, there’s also a fifth question:

       5. “Is anybody actually going to produce this?”

And here’s the answer for that:  Have you ever seen a bad play? I have — plenty of them. If people are going to produce other people’s bad plays, they might as well produce yours. So don’t worry if it’s any good. So just keep writing it the best you can.

Fred Willard 2 Night

Monday, May 20th, 2019
Fred Willard plying his trade with Jimmy Kimmel

Fred Willard plying his trade with Jimmy Kimmel

 

Here at the headquarters of leewochner.com, we’re big fans of the comic actor Fred Willard, dating back to adolescence.  As an early and longtime fan, I just about passed out when Mr. Willard himself came to see a comedy of mine 20 years ago. He sat through it like an Easter Island statue, but then went around telling people it was the funniest play in town. (If only he’d told the right people. But anyway….) It’s difficult to express what a great tribute that was.

The first place I saw him was on Fernwood 2 Night, in 1977, a syndicated satire of small-town talk shows that was supremely important to the 15-year-old me because it was so utterly divorced from the overly slick and rampantly unfunny “normal” offerings on regular network television.  Its gimlet-eyed take on false glitz mirrored my own skepticism. Willard played Jerry Hubbard, a none-too-bright sidekick/announcer with a flair for the obvious, paired against the disdain of the host, Barth Gimble, played by the multifaceted Martin Mull. Since then, I’ve enjoyed the work of both men; I’ve got all of Martin Mull’s solo albums, and as for Fred Willard, I loved him in “Best of Show” and so many other things over the years, whether they were little guest appearances or sitcoms, or voiceover work on King of the Hill or wherever.

I used to know his wife, the playwright Mary Willard, in passing, and went to one of her plays in the 1990s at the Company of Angels Theatre, up the street from Moving Arts (which may have been why we were seeing each other’s work; that, plus our mutual membership in the Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights). I had heard that she died last year, but hadn’t given it much thought. Then, somehow or other through social-media networks, a couple of weeks ago I came across a howlingly funny appearance by Fred Willard in a clip from The Jimmy Kimmel Show, a show I have generally found not-howlingly funny and have avoided like a traffic accident. Fred Willard was his usual deadpan self, and Jimmy Kimmel’s transparently radiant joy at having Fred Willard to work with lit up the entire bit.

All of this is by way of saying that I was delighted today to discover a piece in the LA Times about Fred Willard, and about his personal renaissance under Jimmy Kimmel. (Here’s a link to it.) Fred and Mary had been together 50 years, the piece says, and when she died last year he was left unmoored and wondering if he felt like doing anything at all. Since pairing with Kimmel, they’ve done about 20 sketches together. I’ll have to hunt those down. It’s nice to know he’s still out there making people, including me, laugh.

Critical response

Saturday, November 10th, 2018

Tonight, my wife Valorie and I went to our friend Amy’s 50th birthday party at a club in Sherman Oaks.  Because our lives have been intersecting for more than 15 years, Amy and her husband Ross and Valorie and I have a lot of friends in common.

Still, there were some people there I didn’t know. One guy, Bill, asked how I knew Amy and Ross, and I explained that Amy is my business partner. I’ve also done a lot of theatre with Ross, who is a fine actor and director, but I didn’t go into that because the club was loud and it was a chore to have a conversation.

Bill said he’d known Ross for a long time, ever since they lived next to each other 32 years ago. Then he ventured that he saw Ross in “Cabaret” some years ago, and laughed at the memory, then added that he saw Ross in a show he did last year “across from Paramount.”

“Oh, what show was that?”

“I don’t know. Something with three people,” he said.

I remembered this play. It was called “Triptych.”

“How was it?” I asked.

“Not good. But you couldn’t blame Ross. It was the script.”

I didn’t tell Bill that I too had seen that play.

Because I wrote it.

Assorted good news

Thursday, October 11th, 2018

We’ve all heard the bad news. Occasionally, I like to share some good news here in a vain attempt to balance it out. Here goes.

  • Last month, the California Department of Motor Vehicles fined almost 500 not-disabled people for using parking placards reserved for disabled people. Those who were caught had their disabled parking placards taken away and now face fines ranging from $250 to $1,000. This makes me absolutely delighted. My late brother-in-law was in a wheelchair his entire life, my mother now occasionally uses one, my brother is fighting Parkinson’s and has difficulty walking, and I have several friends in wheelchairs.  That’s who those placards — and parking spaces! — are reserved for. They’re not meant for people who just want to park a little closer while they run in to buy coffee — they’re meant for people who face real challenges getting into and out of vehicles and need to park closer and in wider spaces. I wish the DMV great success in finding and fining even more of these thieves.
  • On a personal note, my new play is moving along nicely. I knew you were wondering. Plus, my back is, well, back to fully functioning.
  • Earlier this week, the great band Devo was nominated to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. While this is not as momentous as if the even more revolutionary and distinctive band Pere Ubu had been nominated, this is still well-deserved, and I rejoice in their nomination. Their rendition of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” remains the superior version, far outclassing the first version, by those Rolling fellows. I hope they get inducted and only wish that Bob 2 had lived to see it, but I’m glad I got to see him and the rest of the band while he was still around.
  • Incredibly, another band high on my list was nominated at the same time. I have every Roxy Music album and listen to them endlessly. Ditto for Bryan Ferry’s solo disks — every one of them, except that one where he covered his own songs in a precious 1920’s style (no thanks); I’ve also got five or eight of Brian Eno’s albums and one of Phil Manzanera’s. The later Roxy Music albums are filled with beautiful yearning; the early Roxy Music albums are raucous and twisted, stuffed with songs that started fake dance crazes,  proselytized the delights of anonymous post-midnight pickups, and pledged love to a blow-up doll. When you can deliver an anthem built around lyrics like “Plain wrapper baby, your skin is like vinyl … deluxe and delightful, inflatable doll,” you deserve to be in a hall of fame.

So: There. It’s not all bad in the world.

So much writing (so little posting)

Sunday, September 30th, 2018

I wanted to get one last post in for September before ringing out the month, so this is that post.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing, just not a lot of posting.

Sometimes — frequently? generally? — I can do both. But lately I’ve been trying to finish a draft of my new full-length play, a play that I have been working on off-and-on for years, and what has helped me make real progress has been staying in the universe of that play. That means:  restricting my writing to being writing about that play. About those characters. About their overall situation. Even when I’m writing scenes and bits and pieces that I suspect won’t wind up in the play. So, in addition to the play itself, I’ve got a notebook full of scenes, and monologues, and notes, and other bits… and I think they’re adding up to something.

For most of my writing life, I’ve written more than one thing at the same time. Sometimes, I’m writing three plays at the same time. I’ve written my share of short stories, a couple of abandoned novels, dozens of terrible poems, innumerable essays and book reviews and blog posts and what-have-you, as well as about sixty plays of varying length and plenty of folderol and also lots and lots of advertising and marketing copy. I’m always writing something. So it’s been strange to restrict myself, as much as possible, to this play, but it’s a play I’ve wanted to finish for a while and I decided to make this change.

You know what else consumed some time? Well…. Last week I had promised to send a director friend the pages that I had so far. That means about 60 pages plus scattered notes and a general structure, with lines in the play that sometimes read “Scene 5. Missing.” or summations like “in this scene, X will do Y.” In other words, not a finished draft. I opened the file on my laptop to work on it and started to read it from front to back just to check that structure and see if it would be clear what was going on to someone unfamiliar with the project. When I saw what state it was in, I was alarmed:  What was this? It was a mess! I thought I had straightened all this out, and toned down the embarrassing lapse I had committed in presenting one of the characters as an obvious, unsympathetic, antagonist; not only was he clearly a two-dimensional villain, but things seemed to be in the wrong order everywhere. How had this happened? So I spent an entire evening two Fridays ago fixing all of that, smoothing out that supporting character and letting him have a fair point of view; moving scenes around; clarifying the general arc of the play; and then adding several pages of new copy over the course of the play. Satisfied, finally, I went to save it back onto the laptop into the directory where it should be…

And I found another version of the play, from earlier in the week, in that same directory.

And when I opened that version, I found that in that one, I had indeed fixed that character, and straightened out the arc of the play — and also had written eight new pages that now weren’t in this new draft. Which also had five pages of new copy.

So, in other words, somehow… I have been working on this play in two different drafts. Updating them both. Adding to them both.

Am I busy? Sure. Distracted sometimes? You bet. But I don’t think I have Alzheimer’s.

After that discovery, which as you can imagine was not a happy one, I spent further hours straightening all of that out, at least preliminarily, so I could send the pages to my director friend. When you find you’ve got two separate suits you’re tailoring and then realize that really they should be one unified piece, it takes some ripping and tearing and redesign to make that work.

My goal is to finish a good strong draft of this play by the end of this year, and then have a reading in January. I should be able to do that, so long as I don’t start working on a third version of it.

In the meantime, now that I’ve written all of that other stuff going on in it, I should feel more secure in that universe, and able to post here more frequently.

25 years of drama

Monday, October 30th, 2017

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Two Saturday nights ago, we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the opening of Moving Arts. But, actually, it’s tonight that’s the 25th anniversary.

I won’t go into our history again — I did that five years ago on that earlier commemoration; you can read that history here — but I do have to note a few changes, and one constant.

  1. Tom Boyle, who was a big part of that founding, and of many years of my life, died a couple of years ago. I miss him and think about him most days. I’d love to talk to him about the current political situation, or the recent crop of movies or TV, or just play a game or share a drink, and I do try to imagine how those conversations would sound, but my imagination is a poor substitute for Tom himself. Because he was smart and funny and loyal, he was everything I look for in a friend. I’m glad I got to spend as much time with him as I did before he finally pierced the veil and stepped into the beyond. I will say that his death has made me appreciate my still-living friends even more.
  2. Since that post of five years ago, we’ve gained some new board members who have done a lot to move the organization forward. We’ve actually got cash in the bank. (Which should in no way deter you from making an end-of-year contribution — we’ll always need more, and cheerfully accept it!) At times in the past, the cash in the bank was about five bucks. Now, in 2017, we’ve got more than five bucks. Significantly more. It’s not a buying-a-house-in-Los-Angeles amount of money — nowhere near — but it’s not five bucks. That’s saying a lot for a small-theatre company in Los Angeles.
  3. Probably a year (maybe two?) after I wrote that 20th anniversary post, we were incredibly fortunate to land a new artistic director, Darin Anthony. He’s a talented director and a visionary leader and it’s my pleasure to do what I can to support him. Everybody else on the board feels the same way. He wants to do big things, and he’s inspiring the rest of us to help him.

Here’s the constant (and you saw this coming):

Twenty-five years later, we’re still doing new plays. Sometimes I ask myself if I ever envisioned, in 1992, that we’d still be here in 2017. I don’t know. I do remember wondering in February of 1993 if we’d be there in March of 1993. That was tough — and there have been many, many other financially tough times — but we’ve gotten through them all, and in some ways we’re doing better now than ever. And we’ve got big plans for the future. It’s an exciting time for Moving Arts.

Was it five years ago, on our 20th anniversary, that Steve Lozier and some others produced an event at the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax that featured celebrities doing roles from our first production? I can’t remember any more. But I do remember what we did two Saturdays ago:  We held a big house party in the Hollywood Hills that featured five short plays fully staged at different locations within that house. They were all new plays; the venue was packed (our biggest turnout ever for that event); and there were so many people having such a great time, myself included, that I actually sent out to get more alcohol delivered from the local liquor store. All of the plays were fun, and so was the event. At some point, I repaired outside up on the hillside terrace behind the house to share Cuban cigars with two other playwrights and have drinks and just talk. That cemented the evening for me:  new plays, great fun, and camaraderie among smart creative people.

That’s what we’ve been doing for 25 years: birthing new plays, and bringing smart creative people together. Every day you get to do that sort of thing is a celebration.

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.