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


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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.

More about Shelley

Saturday, September 2nd, 2017

Here’s the excellent obit for Shelley Berman, from today’s Los Angeles Times. Yesterday, I said that the infamous “Comedian Backstage” documentary had cost him a lot of money — note that here Shelley is quoted as saying it drove him into bankruptcy.

The piece also pays greater attention to his acting career, which was where his performing career began, than I did.

Reading this today also reminded me of something else, a side note of sorts about Shelley’s time at USC.

Eight or 10 years ago, in the graduate writing program where we were both teaching, USC transitioned Shelley into emeritus status. The university had gotten more than a few complaints from students in his humor writing course, and this would allow him to stay associated with the program and the university, and to participate in special events and seminars, while removing the rigors of an actual regular course. And, of course, it’d allow the university to stay associated with a legendary comedian.

But that left the question of who was going to teach humor writing. The dean running our program asked for a recommendation, and without hesitation, I said:  “Mark Evanier.”

At that point, Mark had been writing funny stuff for about 40 years already, and knew just about every comedy writer or comedian in LA and beyond; also, he was a generalist, which was important for a program that wanted you to write in many different disciplines. Mark had written sitcoms, jokes for standup comedians, variety shows, animation — and comic books. Many, many comic books. This was my opportunity to get a comic-book writer — someone who works with Sergio Aragones, no less! — onto the faculty. I reached out, he was interested — and he got hired. Mark proved popular with students,  just as quick on his feet as I promised he would be, and reliably entertaining for the dean.  He also had good taste:  He took immediate dislike to the new director of the writing program — who was later responsible for its collapse.

This is the same program where I got to study under Robert Pirosh, who wrote for the Marx Brothers on “A Night at the Opera” and “A Day at the Races,” and Jerome Lawrence, who co-worte “Inherit the Wind” and “Mame.”  It’s where I got to work with and socialize with Hubert Selby, Jr., the author of “Last Exit to Brooklyn” and “Requiem for a Dream.” And it’s where I got to know Shelley Berman. And it’s where I met the woman who started booking me as a teacher at writing conferences, and who talked me into starting a playwriting workshop.

For about 25 years of my life, that program was a good thing. Shame somebody had to come along and ruin it.

Shelley Berman, R.I.P.

Friday, September 1st, 2017

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I was sorry to learn just now of the passing of my former colleague Shelley Berman. Sorry, and not sorry.

Sorry because he was a terrific comedian and comic writer — a very clever and entertaining man who made me laugh a lot, in person, and on TV.

Sorry because he was struggling with Alzheimer’s and had stopped performing about three years ago. To the extent that I knew Shelley, he was all about performing, so I can only imagine how it felt to him to stop.

Just hanging around in our department at USC, you could pick up great writing tips from other writers. Shelley’s weren’t exactly revelations, but they sounded especially good to a playwright like me, because we knew Shelley worked in the spoken word, as we do. Here’s something I posted on this blog 10 years ago:

Tonight, as I was standing at the copy machine violating Harold Pinter’s copyright (sorry, Hal — just a few pages, I promise), Shelley came by and started sharing the advice he gives his class. The essence is this: shorter sentences are funnier, and beware of actors who add extra words to your lines. Whether or not you already know these things to be true, they sound truer coming from the mouth of Shelley. For 10 minutes I felt that I was getting a private lesson in comedy writing from an expert. Some of us see Shelley every week and we don’t think twice, and I understand that. But just this once it occurred to me that I was talking to Shelley Berman.

I had that feeling because, of course, I grew up seeing Shelley Berman on The Merv Griffin Show or the Mike Douglas Show, doing his telephone bit or some other bit of standup, and laughing my teenage butt off.

Later that year, I flew to Las Vegas to catch Shelley’s act in a casino lounge, which I wrote about here. Two things that I didn’t put in that brief profile:

One was his extraordinary anxiety. At one point, he called out from the stage for a drink. It looked to me like, at age 82, he’d lost his place (which, of course, all of us do — but we’re not on stage) — so he called out to a waitress to bring him a drink. About one nanosecond later he followed that up with, “Is it coming? Is anybody bringing it??!?!?” And I caught a flash of extreme dislike from the bartender and the wait staff that told me this wasn’t the first time this had happened. He got his drink, recovered and carried on, and finished very very well — but I at least didn’t forget the earlier moment. Which also called to mind this episode, tactfully summed up in today’s Variety obit:

In 1962, Berman participated in NBC’s documentary-style television show “Comedian Backstage,” where cameras followed him as he prepared for and performed his nightclub act. The cameras caught Berman becoming angry when a telephone backstage started ringing during his act, which dimmed his popularity for a time.

Yeah, that’s one way to put it. The way he put it — to me and to many other people, for 30 or more years — was that it was unfair treatment, that the club had been expressly told to turn off all phones (of course), and that this (temporarily) ruined his career and cost him a lot of money.

The other thing that I didn’t put into my piece here 10 years ago — and I’m surprised I didn’t — was this. I said that Shelley very kindly seated me next to his wife, Sarah, for his act. If you are an artist of any sort, the very best thing you can do in life is this:  Get an adoring spouse. An adoring spouse will make all the difference. She (or he) doesn’t always need to adore  you, but if she can adore your work, you’ve got it made. I say this from experience. Throughout the show, Sarah roared with laughter at everything Shelley said — not to shill, but genuinely. She absolutely loved his work, and loved him. Sarah and Shelley were together for 60 years, and I have no doubt that she is a very big reason he had such a long, and large, career.

 

 

“We didn’t have to talk”

Wednesday, August 2nd, 2017

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Patti Smith’s terse but beautiful remembrance of her close friend Sam Shepard.

Sam Shepard, R.I.P.

Monday, July 31st, 2017

I was sad to awaken this morning to the news of Sam Shepard’s death. Shepard is one of those playwrights who reignited my passion for the theatre while I was in college. I had a copy of “Seven Plays,” which includes Buried Child, True West, La Turista, and other plays I’ve grown to cherish. At one point, desperate for cash, I sold that book back to the college bookstore — and, of course, found several years later that I just had to buy it again.

Shepard’s dialogue and prose were seductively plainspoken, but the meaning of his work was always deeper and more elliptical — something that, to me, made his writing a cousin to that of Cormac McCarthy. I strongly recommend his book of essays, The Motel Chronicles, and the excellent filmed stage production of True West starring Gary Sinise and John Malkovich, which is available in full on YouTube.

I’m just sorry there won’t be any more.

The terrible prescience of “Glengarry Glen Ross”

Sunday, July 30th, 2017

On this blog, I write about Donald Trump as little as I can bear; he already hogs too much of my day everywhere else, so I don’t want it here as well.

But I can’t resist linking to this terrific little piece that compares Trump, and his latest amanuensis Anthony Scaramucci, with a character in the 1992 film version of “Glengarry Glen Ross.” As this piece notes, the stage version doesn’t include the much-loved opener with Alec Baldwin, which has continues to serve as an unfortunate model for some. (Just this past week, someone in the business world brought the Baldwin character up to me — and was dumbfounded to learn that it isn’t in the stage version.)

Anyway, here’s the piece. It’s an all-too-true characterization of the current president of the United States.

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.

Poor plodding

Monday, June 26th, 2017

I find that I’m not as enthused about W. G. Sebald as his reputation would have it, or, at least, I’m not as enthused about his 1990 novel Vertigo as critical opinion would have it. Nevertheless, I’ve been reading my way through it, slowly to be sure, and trying to pick up why his work is in such critical favor.

Just now I picked it up and couldn’t find my place. Usually I’m good about remembering where I am in a book. I generally don’t use a bookmark because I like to make of this a little memory test for myself: Can I remember where I left off?  Tonight, I found my page:  43. Ah, yes. Our unnamed hero is on some sort of little tour with a friend he’s gotten out of the asylum for the day.

I read for a bit, then started to feel tired, so I put the book down. But before going to sleep, I figured I’d update my Goodreads status. I like the app because I use it to maintain a queue of books I’m going to read, and because by tracking the books I’ve read, or am reading, it helps me hit my annual goal of at least 26 books. I opened the app to enter my progress in reading Vertigo. And there was my last entry, showing where I’d stopped:

Page 46.

Three pages after where I’d just started again.

So I’d reread pages 43-46, and had absolutely no recollection of them.

Either I have Alzheimer’s, or I’m dozing off while reading this thing, or this is pretty dull stuff.

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.