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


Archive for the ‘Beckett, Samuel’ Category

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.”

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.

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.)

Sitting in judgment theatrically

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

Two or three times a year, I get called upon to judge theatre competitions of varying sorts. This year, I’m one of the readers for the PEN USA literary awards, which is always an honor. And this Saturday evening, I’m a judge of this playwriting and performance event at the Secret Rose Theatre. It sounds like a lot of fun. If you’re around, stop by.

I have mixed feelings about contests, awards, and prizes. In grad school, one of my playwriting professors, Jerome Lawrence,  told me he was against writing contests because it pitted writers against writers. I understood his point of view (and that’s an indication of just what sort of a guy Jerry was:  generous beyond measure), especially as someone who at that time had already been on both sides of prize-winning — winning one when I wasn’t sure my play was the best, and losing the same contest the next year when I was sure mine was. Especially when there’s a performance element in judging  a playwriting contest, a lot rides on elements outside the playwright’s control:  How responsive was the audience on the judging night, how “on” were the performers, was it too cold or too hot in the theatre, how was traffic on the way there, was the box office friendly or surly, and so forth.

At the same time, believe me when I say I understand the marketing value of winning any contest or award (and, sometimes, the prize value). I don’t care which movies have won which awards, believe me (especially when  it’s a system that awards “Best Picture” to “Avatar”). But do awards build careers, and would I put the full thrust of marketing and PR behind any awards won? You bet.

There is a story — and I don’t know how reliable it is — that, 40 years ago, the Nobel committee was deadlocked between giving the award for literature to either Samuel Beckett or Eugene Ionesco. Finally, after much deliberation, one of the Ionesco champions who felt that Ionesco’s work had a broader scope than Beckett’s (and there may be something to that), switched sides to end the deadlock. And so:  Samuel Beckett won the Nobel, and Eugene Ionesco never did. Is the work of Beckett, the Nobel-prize-winning writer, better than that of Ionesco? Beckett has become far more deeply rooted in the cultural consciousness — referenced in “The Simpsons,” name-checked on “Quantum Leap,” parodied on Sesame Street — and a lot of that came from winning the Nobel.

Web of confusion

Monday, February 7th, 2011


It looks like the major critics have abandoned waiting for “opening night” — whenever that will be — of  the musical “Spider-man:  Turn Off the Dark,” and are now running reviews. Their calculation, no doubt, is this:  The show is doing major box-office business, it’s big talk in theatre circles, and it’s essentially being reviewed daily on the internet by people who’ve seen it. So yet again, old media and its old way of doing business is responding too slowly to new dynamics.

So the “professional” reviews are in, and they are punishing.  The LA Times’ Charles McNulty calls it “a teetering colossus,”  a “frenetic Broadway jumble,”and “an artistic form of megalomania.” In his review for the New York Times, Ben Brantley shares his paper’s decision making process in going ahead with a review, before swooping in for the first strike:

But since this show was looking as if it might settle into being an unending work in progress — with Ms. Taymor playing Michelangelo to her notion of a Sistine Chapel on Broadway — my editors and I decided I might as well check out “Spider-Man” around Monday, the night it was supposed to have opened before its latest postponement. You are of course entitled to disagree with our decision. But from what I saw on Saturday night, “Spider-Man” is so grievously broken in every respect that it is beyond repair.

Of the many effects in the show, he adds:  “But they never connect into a comprehensible story with any momentum. Often you feel as if you were watching the installation of Christmas windows at a fancy department store.”

To me, two things are worth noting from these reviews:

  1. What he and McNulty are describing is spectacle. Whether or not one subscribes to Aristotle, it’s good to bear in mind that he ranked spectacle low on the level of artistic achievement. Story is important for a reason. Even the elementally simple “Waiting for Godot” has  a story — and a good one. And I can personally testify that Spider-Man has featured prominently in any number of good stories for the past 50 years.
  2. The character on the right in the photo above is Hammerhead. Hammerhead is bar none the lamest Spider-Man villain, even lamer than Stiltman (who, really, is a Daredevil villain). Stiltman is just a guy on, well, stilts. Hammerhead is just a guy with a steel plate in his head. I once met a guy with a steel plate in his head; it didn’t give him superhuman abilities, it just protected what was left of his brain. He was almost as dumb as Hammerhead. I didn’t realize that Hammerhead was in the Spider-Man musical; seeing him there alerts me to just how misbegotten this show must be, and makes me wonder how much better the show might have been had they hired any one of the writers who’ve written all those solid comic-book stories to at least consult on this.

Today’s big news

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

Now that I’ve ended my day of internet silence — and thank you again to everyone here who joined me in helping to make the internet more available to everyone, especially those struggling with slow connections — I thought I’d share this great news. The previously lost Beckett play, “Attack the Day Gently,” has been found! Here are the details.

Thanks to Mark Chaet for alerting me to this!

Email to a young director

Saturday, March 6th, 2010

When I was a kid, comic book editors were thoughtful enough to include the mailing addresses of fans who wrote in. There’s a whole generation of us who made a lot of good friends that way.

Now we have the internet.

Which is how I received this communication today:

Hi, my name is Isabel R–. I am 13 years old, I live in Mexico City and I now study in the American School Foundation. Right now in my civics class we are making a project about our future. I currently love theater, and it’s my lifetime dream to be a part of it and spend my whole life on it. I want to study acting, but I seriously don’t think I could be that good, so instead I would just love to direct, be in charge of everyone and be responsible [for] the whole play. This is why I was wondering if you could answer me an interview about your studies. I seriously respect you because you are a director, and in my opinion it takes a lot to be one.
I hope you will answer,
Isabel R–
P.S if you don’t have the time to answer or email me back, don’t worry I know you must be full of work ;)

Here’s my reply:


Isabel, I am indeed full of work. (And full of a lot else, too.) But I’m happy to answer you. The theatre is a wonderful thing to devote your life to. If you want to, you should do it.

Before we get to the questionnaire you attached, I’d like to say this:  You should study acting. Why? Three reasons:

1.    Because you want to. Thirteen is far too young to decide that you can’t be good at something. Know what the right age is? Never. Last month I heard a radio interview with an 82-year-old woman who had just piloted a plane for the first time. At age 80, she decided that she wanted to learn to fly, and now, two years later, she was flying solo. It’s not a good idea to limit yourself at any age. (It’s also good to have grandchildren to take away the keys, if necessary.)
2.    You should act because you want to, and you should act because it will help you as a director. Directors work with actors. That means you need to understand acting and actors. No, I was never an actor. But I did some acting in both high school and college (poorly, I might add), and since then I’ve done staged readings that I’ve been drafted into. And every Saturday I get to read at least one part in my workshop. Do some acting. It’s fun. And even if you’re bad, nobody dies as a result.
3.    It’s good to fail. Failure teaches you things. It’s also good to succeed. What isn’t good is to not try. Don’t avoid failure, or you won’t try enough new things.

Okay, let’s tackle that questionnaire.

1.    What did you study?

I have no formal theatre training. None. I have degrees in Communications (Associate of Arts), Literature and Language (Bachelor of Arts), and Professional Writing (a Masters degree). This qualifies me to answer your questionnaire, and to answer things for people even when I don’t know what I’m talking about. You learn that how you say things can lend a certainty to your tone that convinces others; that’s useful. It’s amazing what you can get away with when you sound confident. I also took a lot of science in college, and I’m glad I did. Other than the writing classes, the classes that stuck with me the most were probably Logic and Philosophy which, compiled with the others, form the backbone of criticism. Oh, I did study playwriting in graduate school, but it didn’t teach me how to write plays – I was already getting produced, after all. But it helped build my circle of contacts.

2. Where did you study?

I think you’re asking me theatre-related questions. What I would say is this:  To learn the theatre, you get involved with theatre. You attend plays, you volunteer, who do photocopying and script reading and chewing-gum-scraping and whatever else they need. And then, one day, an actor doesn’t show up and you read that part to help out. Or, in my case, the cool kids are putting on a high school play and even though you’re invited to participate, they don’t invite your other friends (the non-cool kids), and you don’t feel good about that, so you wind up writing your own play expressly for those uncool kids.  And then when you hear people in the audience laugh at your funny lines, you are hooked forever.

The simple lesson:  In most things in life, you learn by doing. So go get involved with directors and actors and playwrights and costume designers and stage managers and lighting designers and all the other theatre people and you’ll learn everything. Because theatre people – honestly – can do everything. They have to.

3. How long?

To this day. On Saturdays I convene a playwriting workshop (for almost 20 years now), and I’m always glad to learn new things from the smart talented people who come. And at least a couple of times a month, I go see plays. Even bad ones are useful (although annoying). You can learn good things from bad plays.

4. Did you study an MBA?

That’s a business degree. (Now I own a business (not my first) and am once again completely self-taught. Libraries and book stores and the internet are wonderful things.) I believe you mean an MFA. I have an MFA-equivalent degree. It is a terminal degree, but I am living with it.

5. If yes, where did you study it? How long?

The University of Southern California. In general, a graduate degree requires two years. What you learn may not be as important as who you meet. Building a network of contacts is important.

6. After studying, in what have you worked?

I have written radio commercials, billboards, plays, advertising copy, fundraising letters, essays, poems, cartoon strips, short stories, websites, interviews, speeches, public service announcements, headlines, newspaper stories, technical specs, instructions, magazine articles, and just about everything else you can imagine. At some time or other I’ve been paid in almost every conceivable field of writing. (Yes, I even got paid for poems once.) I own a creative marketing agency (with another theatre person!) named Counterintuity. That allows me to offer creativity all over the place. Leonardo da Vinci was an artist and a scientist; Benjamin Franklin was a writer and statesman and scientist and inventor; Will Eisner was one of the founders of comic books and graphic novels, and also a businessman. I am inspired by their greatness.

7. What have you been doing lately?

See above. Plus, I travel frequently. And I read a lot. And I like to take long walks with friends and my dog and smoke cigars. (The dog doesn’t smoke.) And I like to play games with my family and by myself (“Risk” on my iPhone, “Civilization” on my laptop, and “Oblivion” on the xBox.) I also go to the theatre, of course. Last night three friends and I went to see a play that we didn’t like at all, but we had great fun afterward, and that made it worth it.
8. As you have worked in plays, what have been your favorite or most famous?

Almost all the plays I have directed are new plays. The theatre I founded in 1992 does only new plays. I’ve directed world premieres by Trey Nichols, Werner Trieschmann, Sheila Callaghan, EM Lewis, and many others. I don’t direct as often any more because I don’t have time, but I make an effort to do it at least once a year. Last year, I directed four times and am still unclear how that was possible. Famous playwrights whose work I like include Beckett, Pinter, Ionesco, Mamet, Labute, Albee, Kushner, and August Wilson. I think that Shakespeare guy is pretty good too. I am a big fan of Buster Keaton, so any well-done commedia del arte excites me; a couple of years ago I flew across country just to see Bill Irwin’s new show. It was well worth it.

9. In the play, what is your job?

To make an impact other than boredom on the audience.
10. What [do] you get out of this career?

Brief bursts of intense satisfaction. Followed by an addictive need for more.

11. Do you live well with your job?

I’m not sure what you mean, but I’m going to try to answer what I think you mean. I make my living being a creative storyteller, sometimes for business clients, sometimes for audiences or students. Stories are at the core of who we are. The human brain has grown and expanded because we developed language, and we developed language because we needed to share stories – about the hunt, about our struggles, about who we are and want we want. Without stories, we would all still be in the trees. It’s enormously gratifying to move an audience with a story you’re telling – whether it’s a ticket-buying audience watching one of my plays, or an audience of two in a business setting. It’s also enormously gratifying to get pulled into the stories of others whose voice you respond to. I’m lucky enough to have very smart, very funny friends who keep me surprised and entertained.

12. Has this career choice made you happy?

I don’t believe in happiness. Pursuing it is fine, but I don’t know anyone who has gotten it, and if anyone were to get it, I don’t know what he or she would do next. I do believe in work, good work, and in remembering that on any given day, most people in the world are worse off than I am. Bear that in mind and it’s easier to focus on your work.

Thank you for emailing me. Keep doing what you’re doing and you’ll always be someplace interesting. I apologize if my reply isn’t as good as Rilke’s, but no one’s is.

What LA can be like

Monday, December 14th, 2009


Today I was delighted to have lunch with the well-known photographer Harry Langdon. Go to his website and you’ll see that Harry has a long and legendary career as a celebrity photographer. He’s done sessions for people like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Foxx, Ronald Reagan, Stevie Nicks, B.B. King, and so forth. But when a mutual friend told me some months ago that her photographer was Harry Langdon, I said:

“Is he related to the Harry Langdon?”

She thought he was “the” Harry Langdon. But I was thinking of the great silent-film comedian often ranked with Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd:  Harry Langdon, the gifted clown who had run away to join the circus as a boy, became (briefly) one of the highest-paid stars of his era, wound down his career writing jokes for Laurel and Hardy (and, once, substituted for Laurel in an “& Hardy” film), and made a total of 96 films. That Harry Langdon.

She didn’t know. She’d never heard of that Harry Langdon.

A  few days later she emailed to say that yes, he was the son of that Harry Langdon, and would I like to have lunch with Harry Langdon, Jr?  So, today, there I was in Beverly Hills pulling mussels from their shells while discussing senior with Harry Langdon, Jr.   Lunch today was on a near par with the evening 15 years ago I spent in the company of Eleanor Keaton.   I may not care about what Tiger Woods or Lady Gaga are up to, but summoning the distant celebrity past of the silent comedy era is something I can get into.

We talked for a bit and Harry Langdon, Jr. said, “You do seem very well informed about my father.” I told him how much I love silent film comedy; how it represents a specific style of comedy that cannot be done since the introduction of sound; how I grew to love it when watching it as a small boy with my own father; how thrilled I was in college to learn of the connection between silent film comedy, vaudeville, theatre of the absurd, and existentialism (Beckett, who grew up admiring vaudevillians and clowns, based Didi and Gogo on Laurel & Hardy; Keaton’s deadpan comedy of menace is purely existential; Beckett made just one film — and it was with Keaton as the star); and how wonderful and funny an actor I thought his father was. Finally I let the subject wind down because I was afraid I was starting to come across as an obsessive. But then Harry told me where he was last night:

“I was a holiday party. At Stan Lee’s.”

“You were at Stan Lee’s holiday party?” I asked.

“You know him? He made a lot of money in comic books.”

Trying not to do a spit take, and worried again about how I was going to come off, I said, “Um… the other thing you should know about me is that I’m a huge, huge comic-book fan.”

And then that topic went on for at least several minutes.

77 million ideas

Monday, September 21st, 2009


Yesterday a friend and I went to Long Beach to see the Brian Eno installation, “77 Million Paintings,”  at the University Art Museum of California State University Long Beach. The genesis of the 77 million paintings enumerated in the title — which, Eno later said during his lecture, would actually be 77 million cubed –  is described well in this piece by the LA Times’ Reed Johnson. In short, a video mosaic of 12 individual screens pulls images randomly from grouped sets contained in databases held by three different computers, generating an ongoing series of freshly executed video “paintings,” which are sonically supported by a soundtrack of  sound loops on six separate tape decks, resulting in randomized musical accompaniment. The intention is to remove deliberation and intention from the artistic process; the result is mesmerizing. As my friend and I found, it was quite easy to get lost in the neverending self-generating inventions of the computers and the tape decks. For one brief period, I felt detached from space and time. I’ve had this feeling before with some art, in various disciplines, but only rarely.

Later, we attended Eno’s lecture at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center (also part of Cal State Long Beach). After 30 years of following the man’s career in all its phases — rock star, record producer, artist, writer, thinker — this was our first chance to see him in the flesh. Eno proved to be thoughtful, puckish, droll, and concerned, in equal measures. I would characterize the first third of his lecture as an admonishment to let go. (This should be expected from an artist whose visual work is created largely from computer generation.) He started by reminding us of something we’ve known for 566 years, since Copernicus:  that not only we are not at the center of the universe, we are off in a small corner, in one of a billion billion solar systems, and we exist as only one of innumerable species just on this one planet, where only an estimated 10% of species have been cataloged. In other words,  Get over yourself. Again, this viewpoint should be expected from someone extolling the virtues of random, unemotionally generated, art.

On the way home I wondered aloud how well these theories that can work so well  in visual art and music would work in long-form narrative. Having read (or tried to read) Samuel Beckett’s novels and some of William S. Burroughs’ longer pieces, I unfortunately believe I know too well. In such cases, even a little plot can go a long way. Organic writing — which I practice and preach — benefits from pruning and shaping. Effects can engage an audience, but only for so long; the best effect is an emotional verisimilitude, however achieved, that transports people into a deep level of caring about what happens. That occurs in better productions of “Waiting for Godot” because Didi and Gogo are present and we can relate; it never happens with “The Unnameable,” which is a true chore to read. When he’s collaborating with, say, Robert Fripp, Eno is free to produce an album of electronic feedback loops, but when he’s producing records for U2 or Coldplay, he must serve the song. To his immense credit, he never claimed in this talk that he was abandoning all oversight; rather, he talked about intentional balance, moderating oneself along the continuum between surrendering all control, or controling all elements, depending upon the desired outcome. I think that’s about right.

If you’re interested in “77 Million Paintings” and cannot make it to Long Beach, where it runs through December, here’s some good news:  a beautiful software-and-DVD version exists. Here it is on Amazon.com.  I bought a copy at the museum, and at about 35 bucks, it’s a steal. The package includes the software to run these self-generating images on  your computer, with accompanying soundtrack. In addition, there’s a beautiful booklet with notes from the artist, plus an interview DVD. Get it and surrender all control to it.