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


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hot and young vs. cool and old

Friday, March 14th, 2014

South Coast Rep just mailed me a postcard for the world premiere of Five Mile Lake by Rachel Bonds. Here’s the description:

“Jamie enjoys a quiet life in his small Pennsylvania town, fixing up his grandfather’s old lake house and pining after Mary, his troubled coworker. But when his brother comes back to town with a new girlfriend, Jamie’s peaceful world is turned upside down. A tender story about those who stay and those who go away — by one of the country’s hottest young writers.”

It’s a long drive down to Costa Mesa, although I’ve done it often enough when it was a play or playwright that interested me. This doesn’t sound like one of those times. But here’s what I find annoying: when they bill someone as “one of the country’s hottest young writers” — I’ve seen this before — as though young is an advantage of some sort. It’ll be better somehow because the playwright is young. (Which makes me wonder just why Shakespeare and Beckett are done so frequently, because they’re not only old, they’re also dead.) Now I’d like to see someone do the new play by, say, Sam Shepard and bill it as “by one of the country’s coolest old writers.”

Writing rapping

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

Who said what, writer James Joyce or rapper Kool Keith? Take the test here.

24 hours of degrees of separation

Monday, May 20th, 2013

Yesterday, I took my kids to see “Iron Man 3.” I’m watching it and thinking that the bald bad guy is looking pretty familiar — then I see that it’s James Badge Dale, son of my friend Grover Dale, in a very large role. Grover is a distinguished Tony-winning choreographer and dancer, and someone I’ve known for almost 10 years. I met Badge once, at Grover’s house — a house that previously belonged to Gloria Swanson. Later I tell the kids that I’ve met that bald guy. They show no reaction; they don’t care about this sort of thing any more. They also don’t care when I tell them I once spent the day with War Machine, aka Don Cheadle.

Then today someone I know calls me and says, “Have you ever heard of the Odyssey Theatre?” (This is someone from the professional but non-theatre part of my life.) I assure him that I have, and have been there many times. He asks if I can possibly get him tickets to the play that Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman are doing there. As it turns out, a long time ago, I did an event with Megan Mullally, but even closer to that, I know the director of the show. (But no luck — nobody who doesn’t already have tickets is going to be getting tickets to that show.)

Then tonight I get home and decide to watch the episode of “Mad Men” I taped on Sunday night. That guy in the one scene — yes, it’s Kit Williamson, a playwright/actor friend.

Finally, I’m reading the LA Times tonight and I come across this news item:

 

Actor fills tenant role in Beverly Hills

Actor Chris Meloni has leased a gated compound in Beverly Hills at $20,000 a month.

The Spanish-style house, built in 1929, belongs to dancer-actor-choreographer Grover Dale.

The 6,000-square-foot home features a courtyard entry, four fireplaces, a card room, a den, an office, four bedrooms and six bathrooms. There is a guesthouse and a swimming pool.

Meloni, 52, is in this year’s films “42″ and “Man of Steel.”Often associated with his cop roles on “NYPD Blue” and “Law & Order,” he will star in the upcoming TV comedy “I Suck at Girls.” Last year he played a vampire on the series “True Blood.”

Dale, 77, appeared in the musicals “Li’l Abner” and “West Side Story” and the films “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” and “The Landlord.” He choreographed the musical “Billy” and shared a Tony Award as co-director of the anthology “Jerome Robbin’s Broadway.”

Brent Watson of Coldwell Banker’s Beverly Hills North office was the listing agent. Dana Cataldi of Partners Trust in Brentwood represented Meloni.

 

Which led to this thought: “Even the house of someone I know is making headlines.”

Gore Vidal, R.I.P.

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

Various news sources have reported that Gore Vidal died today at age 86. He had been in declining health for some while. Over the years, I’ve seen him numerous times around town at various events such as the LA Times Festival of Books, and I recall seeing him somewhere a year or two ago where he mostly sat planted in a chair, slightly confused. In his final television appearance (at least, the final one I saw), on Bill Maher’s show on HBO, Mr. Maher was uncharacteristically gracious in trying to overlook Mr. Vidal’s slippage. I say all this by way of noting that I doubt anyone is surprised that he’s now died, and to recall the comment a friend made after we’d both seen that HBO show: “He needs to die now.” I like to think that Gore Vidal would have appreciated the candor.

A quick scan of my bookshelves reveals 13 volumes of his works, plus others that I’ve read that I know are misshelved: I read “Creation” and his omnibus of essays, and “Kalki” and “Myra Breckinridge” and I don’t see any of them there. All tolled, I’ve read many thousands of pages of his work, some of them twice, and have earned the right to say that he was not a prose stylist. (And so, don’t believe any obits that would have you think so.) What he was was a popularizer — someone who knew history, both ancient and modern, better than you did, and could spin an entertaining yarn about it that conveyed his firmly held opinions. That’s what he did in print, and that’s what he did on television, frequently with Johnny Carson but often with others: make a middlebrow audience feel smarter. To read Gore Vidal was to make connections between past and present, and between people here and people there, that you otherwise would have missed, and to think afresh about things that everyone else had considered settled.

This middlebrow reader will miss him. Not because I agreed with him (sometimes yes, sometimes no), but because his writing was informative, his opinions were usually countervailing, and his style was always entertaining. And also because he’s our last great literary celebrity, someone who was widely read and widely bed.

Ray Bradbury and me

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012

It was 22 years ago this summer that I met Ray Bradbury.

I grew up reading Bradbury, as many of us did. But for a couple of years, I saw him regularly at writers’ conferences where we were both booked in to speak and to teach. He was a main draw, of course, and I was listed in much smaller print inside the brochures, among all those other people whose names wind up as also scheduled to appear.

These writers’ conferences were produced by a woman named Joan Jones who was a real raconteur, a middle-aged live wire with a honeyed Southern drawl and a smooth persistence in getting what she wanted. Joan was what all of us want in a producer: a detail-oriented force of nature who paid on time. She also proved to be a formative influence on my life. I’ve been teaching writing for 22 years now—thanks to Joan, bless her soul, getting me started. Without Joan, my circle of friends and scope of accomplishments would be far smaller. And Joan was loyal: If she booked you once, and you didn’t screw it up, she kept booking you.

So it was that I met Ray Bradbury and saw him periodically for a time. He was 70 when I met him and a warm presence – gregarious, thoughtful, generous, and funny. He knew seemingly everyone and told stories about them not to name-drop but to share adventures, as when he talked about working on the film version of Moby Dick with Walter Huston and, well, setting Walter Huston straight about a few things. Bradbury was kind to everyone who wanted to talk to him, even when they were interrupting our lunch. (This sort of kindness – kindness during the interruption of lunch – is not the norm with well-known figures in Los Angeles.) And he was passionate about writing – about the value of it, about what it meant to be a writer, about sticking to your guns, and about plying your craft every day. On the subject of writing, he was evangelical. As a writer, and especially as a well-known, highly regarded, appropriately lauded writer, one who also had his own television show hosted by himself, he also knew he didn’t have to play by the rules. This meant:

  1. That he didn’t have to drive. (Others always drove him. He routinely figured that someone would always give him a ride, no matter what time or to what place – and he was right.)
  2. That he could show up every time wearing short white tennis shorts without the slightest thought that perhaps this was not what people would like to see him wear.
  3. That no, he did not have to get off stage at the appointed time.

This latter point led more than once to a scene where an irresistible force (Joan) would meet up with an immovable object (Bradbury). As someone who has produced conferences himself, I fully understand the importance of sticking to the schedule of events. But Bradbury would have none of it. If he was giving a talk of some sort and wanted to make more points, or field more questions, he was damn well going to do it. Joan tried everything: signaling him from the back of the audience, then signaling him from the side, then signaling him from the front of the audience, then trying to call for the last question, until she was edging her way up onto the stage, and then, standing directly beside him in a proximity that would make almost anyone else flinch, and still he wouldn’t stop until he was ready. In this way, Ray Bradbury was a rock star. I’ve never seen any other writer get away with this. (Although I’ve seen Werner Herzog do nearly the same.) As much as I felt for Joan Jones who, after all, had hired me to do this, had brought me into the circle of teaching writers, who made an enormous impact on my life, I had to admire the way Bradbury wielded power while retaining an aura of gentility.

At some point, Joan stopped producing writers’ conferences—she’d talked of doing them on cruise ships, which I was keenly interested in, but then changed her mind when she figured she could make more money running more private classes, her own and those of others. (And she encouraged me to start my own. So: no Joan Jones, no “Words That Speak” playwriting workshop, now in its 19th year. Thank you, Joan.) And so although I would run into Bradbury around town – at the theatre, mostly, and I have numerous friends who worked with him the past 35 years in the theatre – it was only every few years.
Over the past five or six years, the encounters with Bradbury were far less satisfying. I understand that he was older, and unwell, and I’m going to do my best to be charitable here, but the more I saw of him the less I wanted to hear from him.

The photo above was taken in December of 2008 when my friend and colleague Sid Stebel, who was a close friend of Bradbury’s, hosted a small dinner party in Chinatown. Bradbury was 88 at the time, and in recent years had been making appearances at Comic-Con in defense of the Bush administration, its “war on terror,” the invasion of Iraq, and other viewpoints that were difficult to reconcile with the man—and the writer—I thought I’d known. I have friends of all political persuasions, and I tried to take Bradbury’s support of the war in Iraq in the way that Christopher Hitchens supported it: as a defense of liberty and an attack against militarized theocrats. But there was no way to make anything good of his unfortunate and loudly expressed views about “minorities” both racial and non-Christian. When a mixed-race friend of mine walked out on a Bradbury appearance at Comic-Con, I knew why.

Thinking about some of Bradbury’s stories now, I’m reminded that he was a romantic—someone nostalgic for the blessed days of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Science fiction writers are futurists (even when that future is dystopian), but Bradbury, who was mislabeled an SF writer, was fixated on the past, and how we might bring it with us. (One bit of evidence: This quote, from a BBC interview in 2011: “We have too many cellphones. We’ve got too many internets. We have got to get rid of those machines. We have too many machines now.” That’s the voice of someone extremely out of touch.) And what do we call a wounded romantic? A cynic. That’s something I never thought I’d see in Ray Bradbury. The Ray Bradbury I had known thought that even if the government outlawed books, thinking people would memorize them and confound the authorities, that ultimately we could always triumph over oppression and small-mindedness. That doesn’t quite equate with cheering on jingoism years later.

So my feelings about Ray Bradbury are now complicated. Do I regret having been present when he said so many of the things he said in his later years? Yes. Am I glad I met him? Yes, because of those early experiences, and because it was nice to know even a little bit someone who inspired so many writers, and also because, obviously, I can say I met him. It makes for a good story, and I know that’s something he would have appreciated. I just wish I had a photo of myself with him from years before, when I could still recognize him.

New playwright premiere

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

Yes, I did go see Waiting for Godot at the Taper on Friday night, and it was marvelous. It was surprising how fresh and entertaining the play was, and how moving in its conclusion, especially given how many times I’ve seen productions of it. Big congrats to the cast, director Michael Arabian, all the designers, and everyone else involved, on a flawless production.

But there’s another production that I’d like to talk about at greater length.

On Tuesday night I was able to see another play, this one the world premiere reading of a new play that marked the literary debut of a promising new playwright: my daughter Emma. Emma is an 8th grader who participated in a program at her school by Center Theatre Group — the folks who put on that Waiting for Godot production you should see — wherein students work for many weeks with a playwright who is a teaching artist to learn how plays work, and how to write one. Over the course of the school year, they do improv games, write scenes and lines of dialogue, and get to work with professional actors, culminating in an evening of readings by those professional actors. (One of whom, it turns out, was Rob Nagle, whom I’ve worked with at Moving Arts.) Eight of these brief plays, each of them co-authored by small groups of the students, were performed on Tuesday night by the actors.

Here’s the plot of the play by my 13-year-old daughter and her co-authors:

A father asks his (13-year-old?) daughter if she’s done her homework. She says she wants to watch TV first. (As I was watching this unfold, I was immediately hooked by the theatricality of this setup. I closely related to it, and its inherently theatrical complications.) He gets angry and loses his cool — so the daughter and her mother leave. They just get on a bus and leave town. For good. And then the father is angry with himself (for enforcing homework, I guess).

Clearly, there’s a lesson here for all of us, and that lesson was not lost on me: Be careful about how you insist on homework getting done, lest your wife and daughter get on a bus and leave town for good.

Over the years, I have made appearances in the writing of other people I’ve known, sometimes in poems, sometimes in plays or stories or essays, sometimes thinly disguised and sometimes not. One time I went to the reading of a play at the Pasadena Playhouse by someone I know and the characters were discussing another character, unseen in the play, who seemed rather much like me, and whose character name was “Mr. Wochner.” That seemed eerily similar to my own name, which is “Mr. Wochner.” So I have had previous experience of seeing a character that might or might not be based upon me shown in another light. But to be the abject villain of a piece — a piece written in part by my daughter, in which our heroine simply wants to watch TV unfettered by the necessities of homework — was new. And to witness the wretched state that the encounter with a demanding father left the mother and daughter in as they rode the bus to a faraway town was to leave me questioning my approach to homework. (Mother: “Do you think we’ll be okay?” Daughter: “I don’t know.”)

I was impressed with all eight of the students’ plays. They were funny, they were dark, they were brave, and they were untrammeled by the proclivities of professional playwriting that insists upon such things as subtext. In these plays, what is said is what is meant, and that made me hunger for such a world, where if we don’t want to go somewhere we say it, where if we want something from each other we just demand it immediately with the expectation that it will be given. The evening was a window into the mind of 13-year-olds, and that made for an experience I’ll long remember. And I offer this as proof: Tonight I took my family out to dinner, and then when we got home, we watched some TV. And when it was over, and only when it was over, did I tell my daughter to go do her homework. I don’t want to find her with a one-way bus ticket to elsewhere.

 

Waiting again for Godot

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

I’m seeing Waiting for Godot tonight at the Mark Taper Forum.

Just recently, I was telling the playwrights in my workshop that I would not being seeing this, given how many productions I’ve seen of this play. Just off the top of my head, here are some of them:

  • a college production in 198x starring my friend Joe Stafford. (Still probably the best Pozzo I’ve seen. Joe had a commanding and imperious presence, leavened by an impish humor.)
  • the filmed version with Burgess Meredith and Zero Mostel
  • as much of the staged version with Robin Williams and Steve Martin as I was able to stand
  • a production in… was it 1989? At the Taper, Too. (Now known as [Inside] the Ford.)
  • a production at the Matrix starring Robin Gammell and David Dukes. They were superb. Dukes may have been the best Vladimir I’ve seen — you really felt his pain when Godot didn’t show up, and his desperate desire for the man to make an appearance, for God’s sake
  • a production by the Dublin Gate Theatre in 2006 at UCLA Live that, despite its acclaim, I didn’t like at all because it was so meaningful.  “Godot” is much better when played as vaudeville; Robin Gammell (above) was an excellent clown. The play is intended to be played that way — one stage direction has a character “scratching his head like Stan Laurel.” When it’s filled with portent, it’s a drag. And that’s what this production was like.

I’m sure I’m leaving out four other productions. Minimum.

And yet, I’m going again. Why? Top-notch cast, including Alan Mandell (who is now 84 and unlikely to be doing this sort of thing much longer; sorry, Alan), and featuring two actors who knew and worked with Beckett himself (Alan, and Barry McGovern); a video clip (above) from the production that, just in this excerpt, shows that the approach is right; it’s one of the most important plays of the 20th century and one I find deeply effecting; and, well, my friend Dorinne had an extra ticket and invited me.

Wish me luck.

Bukowski unbound

Friday, February 17th, 2012

Last night, my friend Jonathan Josephson’s theatre troupe descended unannounced on Barney’s Beanery in West Hollywood to perform several poems by Charles Bukowski. You can watch the performance below — and be sure to note the reactions of diners seated in and around the playing area. I understand their constrained response:  I’m not sure I’d want to be eating Barney’s signature chili dog while being accosted by an actor reciting “My Underwear Has Shit Stains Too.”

Fun fact find of the day

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011

When Andre the Giant was a boy, Samuel Beckett used to drive him to school — in the back of his truck because that’s the only place he’d fit. All they would discuss was cricket. The absurdity of this situation — the future professional wrestler and adored star of “The Princess Bride” growing up carted by a future Nobel playwright of the existential — cries out for a play. Maybe I should write it. (I know Ionesco would have, had it occurred to him.)

Celebrity instant playwriting

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

Here’s a fun stunt:  Neil LaBute and Theresa Rebeck will write plays next week in a webcast event, based on prompts provided by the LA Times. Vote here for your pick of prompts. For the record, I’m drumming up support for this one: “Kristin enrolls in a figure studies class, then realizes that she knows the nude model, Ron, from church.” I’m eager to see what former Mormon LaBute and feminist Rebeck come up with on that one.