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


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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.

On the shopping block

Sunday, December 20th, 2015

This year, my wife and I planned a Thanksgiving dinner for 13 people: our five family members, plus eight guests.

On the day before Thanksgiving, I realized that we had only four dining chairs. A conclusion that should speak for itself, but here goes: Where would the other nine people sit?

Before I address that, we should ponder why a family of five has only four dining chairs. One could also add onto that, Why does a family of five also have a dining table actually intended for only four? What message is being sent here? About 25 years ago, I wrote a play called “Uncle Hem” in which a dysfunctional family of five has only four chairs, with one clearly and tyrannically reserved for the domineering female head of the household; throughout the play, the other four are constantly jockeying for a place to sit (or be) in that family. At the time, I had no idea just how prescient this play would be, although in the play it seems intentional, while in my family’s case, at some point my wife and I bought a four-person dining set and then never got a new one as our family grew. This seems to have served us well enough, especially when our eldest was off at college or living elsewhere, and when we’ve had a guest or two, we’ve added a padded folding chair. But eight more people? Unless they wanted to sit outside on patio furniture for their Thanksgiving meal — an idea my wife floated! — we’d need more chairs.

Which is how I came to join Costco last month.

First, on that day before Thanksgiving, I called around at party rental houses seeking rental chairs. When I told them that I needed them for Thanksgiving, I was laughed at. Evidently, one reserves party rental chairs much further in advance during a heavy party-rental-chair season. So it became clear that I’d need to buy them — which was fine. We entertain frequently and hey, perhaps people might like to sit down now and then. I texted my 13-year-old and offered him lunch of his choice if he’d accompany me to Costco. He agreed, I drove home to pick him up in my wife’s minivan, and off we were.

After 20 minutes of circling the Costco parking lot like a carrion bird waiting for someone to die in the desert, we got lucky as a spot was vacated by an Asian couple screaming at their children in a shrill and unrecognizable language. Inside, Costco proved to be just what I’d feared: an overwhelming, overstuffed, impossibly impassable hive of shopping frenzy. I thought, This is like a pyramid in Ben Carson’s mind, but instead of being stuffed with grain preserved for millennia, it’s stuffed with people elbowing each other out of the way for goods. But, yep, I found what we needed right away —  padded folding chairs that readily passed my personal comfort testing — and so after joining Costco on the spot, I commandeered a long sleigh-like cart, loaded up the chairs, and carefully steered the sleigh through narrow lanes, edging around crowded display pits and huddled masses of shoppers. Much like the 1970 Ford Country Squire station wagon, the sleigh proved impossible to see over; whatever lay ahead of that extended hood and, gracious, down by the wheels, was most definitely terra incognito. Nearing the register, a robust frazzle-haired middle-aged woman wheeled around and shrieked at me, “STOP HITTING ME WITH YOUR CART! THAT’S THE SECOND TIME YOU HIT ME!” I apologized, and then said, “If you’d said something the first time, maybe I wouldn’t have done it the second time.” Which just added to her visible frenzy. I paid for our purchase — cash or Amex only!, the ways of Costco being arcane to us — and we headed home to unload.

Since then, I’ve returned to Costco twice and both times have been unable to park. I suppose I could ride a bicycle there, but given that the entire point of Costco is to overburden yourself with purchases, how would I get any of it home? The “enterprise” membership to Costco cost $110, meaning that those $14.99 chairs thus far have actually cost me $28.74. I hope to be able to park at Costco some time again in the next year so that I can buy other things just to lower the per-item cost of those chairs.

Yesterday, my wife and daughter and I went grocery shopping. I floated the idea of going to Costco. My wife, who had been excited when I joined Costco, said, “You want to go to Costco? NOW? You’ll never find parking! There’s nowhere to park!” My daughter, who went with me on one of those fruitless trawlings of the Costco parking lot, grimaced at the thought. “NO!” she said, “NO! I don’t want to go!” The previous time I had been headed to Costco, my youngest had insisted that I pull over at the next corner, immediately, and drop him off so that he could walk one mile home instead of going to Costco. Idea for updating Dante: There’s the 7th Circle of Hell, and below that, there’s the Costco Parking Lot.

So, yesterday, my daughter and I went to Target instead. Target (or “tar-shay”) is the other approved shopping destination of blue staters. Yes, we are stereotypes. We will never get caught dead in Walmart or Kmart, and Sears remains iffy, but Costco and Target are approved, acceptable alternatives. At Target, we loaded up on La Croix. La Croix is the approved beverage of blue staters. Twenty-five years ago, when I worked at 20th Century Fox, I learned about Perrier and Pellegrino, which, at the time, I couldn’t imagine drinking. Now my family is deeply into La Croix sparkling waters, and especially the abstruse flavors such as pamplemousse and, newly discovered yesterday!, mure-pepino (a.k.a. blackberry-cucumber). This may all be filtered with radioactive waste, for all I know, and it definitely gives me gas, but it’s a thrill to sample it blindly over ice and try to figure out what faint flavor this overpriced carbonated water contains. It deeply thrills me in some way that when I was back in southern New Jersey in November, my sons and I discovered that not only did local supermarkets not carry La Croix, no one had heard of it. This seemed like a victory for our sophisticated tastes and a reminder that I’d been right to leave provincial South Jersey behind decades before. (These self-congratulatory feelings, however fleeting, explain the triumph of upscale branding, in which it’s better to say a drink has the flavor of “pomme-baya” rather than “apple-berry” and also why our house is filled with Apple products. You’re welcome, Apple shareholders.)

After piling 10 cases of La Croix into our cart, we headed for the kitchen section to review griddles, my having thrown away our griddle that morning when I noticed its surface coating shredding off into my eggs. I found a perfect new griddle hanging on display at the price of $29.99, and then did something I don’t believe I’ve ever done before — I fired up my Amazon app to see what the same thing would cost if ordered online that very moment. Amazon claimed that the griddle is “normally” $45, “normal” being some time period that I don’t believe ever existed, but that it was available right that moment for $20.99. Which meant that I was going to pay a 33% premium if I wanted it right now. I thought about this and decided two things: 1) I didn’t want to wait 1-2 days to have a griddle, this being an instant-gratification culture and therefore a delay in purchasing seeming frankly un-American;  and 2) it seemed deeply “unfair” to shop at Target, which is assuming all those brick-and-mortar costs, so that I could buy at Amazon. (Leaving aside whether or not it’s “unfair” for Target to try to charge me more.) So I bought it, feeling very blue-state-good about doing the right thing. Never mind that one of the reasons we went to Target is because at our local Ralphs supermarket La Croix is $4.29 a box, which seems unreasonable to me and would therefore limit my enjoyment of kiwi-sandia and other flavors, and at Target it’s $3.69, and so, yes, we’d made this trip to save $6, and we’d just overspent on something else by $9. Proving once again that price may be important, but branding is paramount.

Emma and I checked out with our purchases and started to wheel our heavily laden shopping cart outside when we noticed it was raining. This is newsworthy around here. Not just raining — pouring. Well, not to worry. We’d just wheel the cart to our car, which I’d parked to the extreme west, past Lowe’s and Staples, so as to avoid the Costco-like infuriating parking lot of misery and death that fronts Target. We got oh, about half a block away, just to the edge of Lowe’s, and were not yet soaked through, when we came upon a post-apocalyptic collection of abandoned shopping carts, a sight right out of “The Walking Dead.” Now I had a sinking feeling. “Um… I hope our cart is going to make it past here,” I offered. Because at some shopping centers, carts have sensors that prohibit their moving too far away and getting stolen. “I don’t think so,” Emma said. And, sure enough, we then ground to a halt. We couldn’t move the cart one micron. It was like trying to plow a field by shoving a Kenmore dishwasher ahead of you. So Emma pulled up the hood on her sweatshirt and waited while I ran off into the rain to retrieve my car. When I got back, the closest I could park was 30 feet away, so there we were, shuttling cases of La Croix and that griddle in the downpour.

When I hear some people excitedly offer up plans to “let’s go shopping!” I can’t figure out their enthusiasm. And I don’t think that’s going to change.

Fuck, yes

Saturday, December 12th, 2015

Mary Norris (The New Yorker’s “Comma Queen”) on the thrill of profanity in print, which is something I know a bit about. A couple of weeks ago, a playwright friend of mine announced proudly that a play of his had been included in a collection of works for middle-schoolers. I said, “Do you think I should submit? If I take the word ‘fuck’ out of… um… ALL of my plays?”

(Which is not quite the case. For three years running, I’ve had a play performed at the annual Moving Arts holiday party. The first two years, the plays were rigorously clean, just because I didn’t think those particular characters would sling around the eff word. This year, because my characters were plotting a backstabbing school board race, I said fuck that. This play, “Campain,” will not be appearing in a collection of works for middle-schoolers.)

One of the parts of Norris’ piece that I especially enjoy is her noting that highfalutin’ people have made proper use of unmentionable words, including Pushkin, Lermontov, Dostoevsky and others making hash with Russian forms of “cock,” “fuck,” “cunt” and the other usual favorites. Why have these otherwise respectable and noteworthy figures done so? Because these expressions make language fun. You know it, and I know it too.

Speaking of which, the excerpt below may show why in college when presented with my choice of semester-long tutorial, I chose Chaucer (much to my ongoing delight). Here’s a bit of bawd from the bard, from “The Summoner’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales. The next time you hear someone railing against “kids these days,” remember, this was written by a grown man, a fucking government official and courtier, about 1386, for the enjoyment of his peers:

“Lo, hear my oath! In me shall truth not lack.”
“Now then, come put your hand right down my back,”
Replied this man, “and grope you well behind;
For underneath my buttocks shall you find
A thing that I have hid in privity.”
“Ah,” thought the friar, “this shall go with me!”
And down he thrust his hand right to the cleft,
In hope that he should find there some good gift.
And when the sick man felt the friar here
Groping about his hole and all his rear,
Into his hand he let the friar a fart.
There is no stallion drawing loaded cart
That might have let a fart of such a sound.
The friar leaped up as with wild lion’s bound:
“Ah, treacherous churl,” he cried, “by God’s own bones,
I’ll see that he who scorns me thus atones;

Wisdom

Saturday, November 28th, 2015

This morning in my playwriting workshop, when, in one of the plays being read, a character said he’d have to take another one to Las Vegas, I asked, “How far away is that?” I wanted to know because facts provide context, and propel motivation and therefore story. And I didn’t know how far that drive would be, or what the ramifications would be, because I didn’t know where this scene was set.

“It’s set in Area 51,” someone volunteered. (Not the playwright — I ask playwrights to remain silent, listening while their scenes are discussed.)

“Was it established where Area 51 is?” I asked, “because not everyone knows.”

There was a general murmur that of course everyone knows where Area 51 is. “It’s in Nevada!” a few people offered.

I turned to a young woman in the workshop and asked her, “Do you know where it is?”

“I have no idea,” she said.

“It’s in Arizona,” I said confidently.

“Oh, okay,” she said.

The guy next to her — a very smart person, like everyone in this workshop of eight very smart and talented writers — said, “Is it? Really? I thought it was in Nevada.”

“Nope,” I said, “Arizona.”

“Hmph,” he said, reconsidering.

By now there was pure outrage from the people who definitely knew that Area 51 is in Nevada. “See how easy that is?” I said, scanning the looks of puzzlement. “I’ve already got almost half the room convinced. Just by making shit up — but sounding convincing.” It’s a playwriting trick, making people sound confident, but it’s also handy in real life. The sound of conviction carries far, even when there’s nothing beneath it.

Remember that the next time you watch one of these presidential debates.

Mid-week update

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015

Well, I’ve broken in my new writing office at home. Just finished the first draft of a new play in here. While running downstairs periodically to check on a big complicated soup I’m making.

I watched the first Democratic presidential debate of the season last night, with my daughter, who is 17 and a soon-to-be first-time voter. Her insights into the debate were somewhat different than mine. To my ear, it took Hillary Clinton all of 10 seconds to start pandering on issues that she knows she couldn’t affect if she were made president for life (such as mandating profit-sharing by corporations). My daughter, in addition to cheering on free college tuition and railing against what I know she was mentally characterizing as “handouts” (she’s rather conservative on some issues; one of her brothers called her a fascist the other day), she had this to say about the candidates: “They’re all so olllddd. Lincoln Chafee looks like a turkey. And Hillary dyes her hair.” Which reminded me that, eons ago, Millicent Fenwick, a female candidate for Senate in New Jersey, lost her race purely because she was photographed smoking a cigar. (Far ahead of her time, Ms. Fenwick.) With about 15 minutes left in the debate, it occurred to me that while Emma will be a voter in next year’s presidential race (she’s already registered), she won’t be eligible to vote in the primary, which in California is in June, because her birthday is in July. So, to some degree, the debate would have been pointless to her. The instant I related this to her, she picked herself up and left the room.

Tomorrow morning I’ll be looking to do a quick polish on that play, then I have a meeting I’m looking forward to, and then later I’m off to Knott’s Scary Farm (!) with said daughter, her ominously silent boyfriend, my elder son and my good friend Trey. Every year for more than 15 years now, Trey and I partake in haunted mazes. A couple of years ago, I swore off Knott’s Scary Farm (our usual haunt) because it had grown so colorless, but last year Universal Studio’s Haunted Halloween was so over-saturated with shuffling bodies standing in line for hours desperately trying to get elsewhere that you’d have thought the zombie apocalypse had begun. Given that, plus a rave review for the reportedly massive upgrade that Knott’s has done this year, we’re back at Knott’s Berry Farm. So: not sure if there’ll be a post here tomorrow. I hope I’ll be getting the bejeezus scared out of me in an entertaining fashion.