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


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Thoughts about writing on Saturday night

Saturday, April 20th, 2013

I was going to post all sorts of things on this blog tonight, but wound up writing 10 pages of my new play tonight instead.

Late last year, I started going to the gym regularly. Mostly to deal with chronic pain I’ve been experiencing since a car accident (not my fault) two-and-a-half years ago. It’s not something I talk about too much, and it’s not something I believe I’ve written about here before. At first, I started going to the gym just to loosen up, and to sit in the jacuzzi as often and for as long as I could. But then, sometime in February, something started to happen: I started to feel like I needed to go to the gym. Like I had things to work out. And now I’ve further turned that corner: Now I’m someone who looks forward to going to the gym.

For years, I posted on this blog every day. Every single day. Lately, it’s been more sporadic. I’ve wondered why that is, especially since I write every day. It’s not always playwriting (or, clearly, blog writing), but every single day I’m writing something, some of it for a fair amount of pay, some of it for some small amount of pay at some point (those tend to be plays), and some of it, I’m sure, for no pay whatsoever (those would be poems and short stories, which I haven’t even bothered to send out for years now). The itch I now get when I don’t go to the gym or get some other physical activity — the sense of feeling “rammy,” as the adults used to say about the overly rambunctious son of my father’s friend — is akin to the itch I get when I’m not writing.

But here’s what I think spurred an unexpected 10-page writing session on my play tonight: the miracle of seeing four compelling, enjoyable, thought-provoking plays recently, which were like finding water after being in the Mojave of bad theatre for the past two years, and the resumption of my playwriting workshop today. My workshop is stuffed with good writers writing good plays. When you’re in the room with that, you’d have to work not to be inspired by it.

The play I’m writing is a memory play. That’s not what I normally do, or, more appropriately, it isn’t what I’ve mostly done. (Or done at all?) But that’s what this play is. Tomorrow, we’re removing the seats from Moving Arts, the seats that we installed in 1993 or 1994, the seats donated to us that came from a silent movie house in the Bay Area where they were installed in 1916. We’re doing that because we’re putting in new seats. Parting ways with these seats that we’ve had for 20 years, and which have seen almost 100 years of audience derriere, will certainly spark more feelings fit for a memory play. But I’m excited to be part of taking them out for two reasons: because a number of them are going to a good new home where they’ll be cherished; and because while it’s good to appreciate the past, the future always beckons. And we’re already there, all the time.

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.

Things I would be blogging about if my neck wasn’t killing me

Thursday, September 10th, 2009
  • President Obama’s health-care speech last night (great job!) and his killer tactic of inducing that thick-necked GOP jerk to yell out “You lie!” That alone will have swung enough support. Once again, other people have misunderestimated you, sir president. We watch and learn.
  • The Gallup-originated “Strengths-Based Leadership” test I took today, which sized me up as having strengths in Strategic, Activator, Individualization, Responsibility, and Input, resulting from oddly dichotomous choices like “You believe in ghosts” vs. “You like chocolate.” More on this tomorrow, I think, when my neck isn’t killing me. I also would have preferred that the test conclude in words of the same form — all adjectives or all nouns or all gerunds or all something the same. These qualities — Strategic Activator, etc. — sound like mistranslations from the Chinese, like Glorious Serving Sword of Destiny.
  • My second night of rehearsals with my cast, and hearing my rewrites for the first time. Short version:  New opening line sucked (and my actor rightly asked for the old one back); new purposely bad poem is deliciously bad and probably earns a laugh right where I planned because, as I suspected, the actor has the chops to get that laugh and got it right away; still very glad to have the director and actors I have. The director has better ideas than I do, so again, I’m glad he’s directing and I’m not.
  • How “lack mentality” drives me crazy. Brief definition:  “I lack [fill in the blank], so I can’t do [fill in the blank].” It’s just reflexive with people. (Most people?) Once you’ve trained your ear to hear it,  you hear it all the time. Why not instead:  “I want to [fill in the blank], so I have to [fill in the blank].” That’s more actionable; you can actually do something about it. I think today I heard the lack mentality about six times. In one case, I’m concerned that an important arts institution is going to go under — or at least suffer greatly — because of all the lacking going on.
  • My thrill at getting a new script by one of my favorite playwrights. In fact, right now I’m going to go read it in the jacuzzi because, for some reason, my neck is killing me.

Closing Windows

Sunday, February 1st, 2009

If I owned Microsoft stock, I’d strongly consider selling. Like, right now.

This isn’t because of any great fears about the stock market in general. Lately, I’ve been buying a little stock. And it isn’t because of my long-standing ambivalence toward Microsoft, which stems from my background as an Apple user since 1982.

No, I would sell Microsoft because I think the Third Wave 2.0 is about ready to wash over it.

(In his 1980 book “The Third Wave,” Alvin Toffler posited that the First Wave was the settled agricultural society that replaced hunter-gatherer cultures; the Second Wave was the industrial age society; and the Third Wave was the post-industrial, or information-based, society. I think we’ve already seen a lot of that — and now we’re in the first shakeout, or Third Wave 2.0.)

Problems come in threes, goes the saying. Here are Microsoft’s:

  1. For the first time, sales of Windows are down. This is at the same time that world demand for “netbooks” is going to skyrocket. What are netbooks? They’re small, cheap, portable computers that retail for about $300. These are the machines that will get outer Mongolia online, and the projected adoption rate is staggering. How easily will Microsoft be able to sell an installation of Windows onto these machines for $100, when the machine itself costs only $300? Not easily. Especially when Linux is free.
  2. Microsoft was famously late in recognizing the possibilities of the Internet. Google owns the search-engine business that could have been Microsoft’s, and the Yahoo deal didn’t happen. Now Gmail is going to eat Outlook’s lunch. If Google controls the search business, and Firefox rules the browser world, and Google (again) takes over email, what’s left online for Microsoft?
  3. Problem #3:  pessimism. Yes, I have heard the rumor that the economy is bad. But do I think it’s going to permanently “reset” at a lower level? That’s what Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer thinks. Really? Even with continued population growth, and new economies coming online all over the world, it’s going to be smaller? Or is it just that Microsoft won’t be able to adapt to new realities? “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier,” Colin Powell famously said. (And no, I don’t think he was prescribing a Candide-like naivete.) The opposite is certainly true:  pessimism is draining. I suppose such sourness is understandable, coming on the heels of Vista’s grand kerplunk, and those bad commercials with Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Gates buying shoes. But still.

I don’t know what Microsoft is going to do from here on out, except lose market share. (Especially to Google.)

By the way, I would sell Apple stock, too, if I still had any. Not because I think they’re falling behind or screwing up. I’d sell because the performance of the stock market relies  upon perception, and whether or not it’s true, the perception is that Steve Jobs is Apple. That’s the downside of running a personality cult:  There’s trouble when the personality proves to be all too mortal.

The comic book he had to have

Friday, November 28th, 2008

A few nights ago I had a dream in which I broke into my neighborhood comic-book store in the middle of the night because I just knew a comic book I was waiting for was finally there and I couldn’t wait any longer. So I smashed the store’s display window, gingerly stepping over the shards of plate glass jutting from the casement, and headed directly for the display bearing that choice book. And, indeed, there it was. But as I reached out to grab it, I stopped to realize what I was doing, and whom I was doing it to, and how this was in no way the person I think I am. So I left the comic, and the comic-book store, and got home as quickly as I could, my own shame following closely behind. After a sleepless night (still in the dream), I couldn’t bear it any longer and drove back to the comic-book store to confess and to offer to pay for the broken window and to throw myself onto the mercy of the store’s owner — but when entered the store I found him sitting bereft on the floor, having thrown tarps over all the comic-book displays after deciding to leave the business because he couldn’t imagine how someone who loves comic-book could have done this to him. After voicing my sympathy, I left and decided my only course of action was to mail an anonymous cashier’s check and then leave town and hope to rebuild my dignity elsewhere.When I woke up in the morning, I still felt like I had done this to the owner of the comic-book store. It was a hard feeling to shake. For almost 10 years, I’ve never done anything there except pay for comic books and engage in idle chitchat. But now I felt soiled by something I hadn’t done. To even think it made me feel grimy. Because the dream had posed the operant question: How could someone who loves comic-books do this?

Today while running errands, I saw that I was passing the comic-book store and decided to stop in. I saw Paul, the store’s owner, and decided to tell him my dream; I figured that that way, I finally would be rid of it. I shared it with him, along with Freud’s analysis that there are only two sorts of dreams: neurotic and wish-fulfillment. Clearly, this neurotic dream revealed how much the simple pleasures of comic books – so far removed from the pressure of work and responsibility associated with writing, teaching, business, and political activism – mean to me. I closed my narration of this dream with the rhetorical question he had posed in it: “How could someone who loves comic books do this to him?”

He looked at me and said, “That’s funny, because someone just did.”

A few days before, someone else in the store had alerted Paul and another worker in the store that he thought the person who’d just left had swiped two hardback collections by putting down the stack of comics he’d just purchased, looking around, then picking them back up but with these hardbacks underneath. Paul couldn’t believe it and paid no attention; after all, this was a longtime customer, someone who came in with a closeknit circle of friends, someone who came from an affluent family. But then he remembered that a month or two earlier someone else had noticed something missing at the same time this person had just left. So he and two others scoured every corner of this rather large store, looking behind every stack and every rack, nowhere turning up these two $25 hardbacks, until he reluctantly concluded they indeed had been stolen. Next time this customer came in, they asked him about it and, Paul says, his denials were so strenuous they seemed like playacting, and so this customer has been banned from the store.

In my dream, the comic-book store shuts down and I exile myself. In reality, the store catches the thief and he is exiled.

I shared all this with my wife. She often says I have low-level ESP (while I think I’m just sensitive to subtext, as all playwrights should be). Now she wondered if I were precognitive, too. If that were true, our lives would be a nightmare, given some of these dreams. But what truly interests me in this are the intertwined tales of one man afraid that through an unthinking act he will ruin something important to him, and one man who does precisely that not to save fifty bucks that he assuredly has, but to substitute for the fun of escapist fiction the real-life cheap thrill of theft.

No laughing matter

Sunday, October 12th, 2008

It’s finally happened: I’ve lost my sense of humor. About one thing, at least.

The other morning as I was driving my son to take his driver’s license test, we passed a billboard for the new Oliver Stone movie, “W.” Guess who it’s about.

“Dad, are you going to go see that?”

“No,” I said rigidly.

“It looks really funny in the trailer.”

“There’s nothing funny about him,” I said, noting to myself the irony of the word “trailer” in connection with the infamous subject of this film. “Trailer” as in “FEMA trailer.” As in: rusting hulks bought for too much money from private contractors for the scattered survivors of Hurricane Katrina. More reasons not to be amused.

In today’s LA Times I came across a caption about the movie that said it was the story of one man’s rise “from riches to more riches.” I guess that’s humorous too.

I haven’t lost my sense of humor about everything. I’m always cracking wise on those marathon training runs; it’s a good way to deal with the seeming impossibility of running dozens of miles, or other ordeals. I’ve written comedies about cancer and suicide and incest, and even my recent play about the son of a serial killer was good for a few laughs. But it’s hard to imagine anything funny about “W.” or the creature the film is named after. Maybe the scale of impact is too great to laugh away. The serial killer in my play killed a few dozen women; the Bush death count is in the hundreds of thousands (Iraqi civilians; Afghani civilians; U.S. soldiers; Katrina victims; old folks shooting themselves because their retirement has been wiped out and they can’t pay the mortgage; and on and on). I don’t think I’m alone in this sentiment: I don’t want to spend any more time with him, real or fictional.

Except in one case.

If there is a sequel, one in which he’s tried and convicted, I will gladly buy a ticket. Many of them.

I don’t think I’m alone in that, either.

Favorite moment of the day

Wednesday, September 24th, 2008

Someone just sent me an email telling me she was going to fax me something because her email isn’t working.

Has the Large Hadron Collider destroyed the world yet?

Wednesday, September 10th, 2008

Click here to find out.

(And check back frequently for updates.)

What I’ve learned from running

Monday, August 11th, 2008

Since May, I’ve been in training to do an AIDS marathon this fall. (If you’d like to sponsor me and haven’t already done so, please click here.) In that time I have learned many things — things so astonishing to me that I’m considering collecting them into a book. Maybe it wouldn’t be this generation’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” or even close, but it would be by me. Here’s just some of what I’ve learned.

1. Your achievement is your own. No one else cares.

On Sunday, I ran my furthest distance yet — 13 miles. To me, this is an amazing accomplishment. I came home and told my little boy and he said, “Oh, yeah? I can run a thousand miles.” His dead certainty was disconcerting. I told my wife I had run 13 miles and she looked at me said, about my forthcoming marathon trip in the fall, “I guess you expect me to change my work schedule.” Nobody at the training site was impressed either, because they had just run the same 13 miles.

2. The foulest place on Earth is not where you think.

Is it the bottom of the world’s largest garbage pit, in Lagos, Nigeria? No. Is it the drinking water beneath Pittsburgh, PA? No. It’s not even the dark thoughts in the furthest corner of Larry Flynt’s mind. The foulest place on Earth is the freestanding porta-potty in Griffith Park next to the training site. It is so foul that if I were to post a photo of its interior, the internet would shrivel and die. If I were to describe it in terms too readily understood, you would never return to this blog for fear I might do it again. Just imagine the very worst toilet situation imaginable, extending your imagination to all surfaces within (including the ceiling), and then add in the stench, then multiply by infinity. That approaches the state of this, the foulest place on Earth.

3. The laws of physics don’t apply to running.

I’ve been running since May, and I’m now running between 14 and 34 miles per week, depending upon what week I’m on in the training schedule. I don’t eat fast food, I don’t drink soda, I eat fish twice a week and plenty of fruits and vegetables, and I’ve cut out most alcohol. Guess how much weight I’ve lost. If you said “none,” you win. Not one ell-bee. Not a gram. Inevitably when I tell people this, they’ll say, “You’re gaining muscle.” I haven’t seen that. I have large calves, so you’d expect it there, but nope — same level of (or lack of) definition. How is this possible? Yesterday on that long run, I shared this question with a fellow runner. She replied, “Well, your ass looks great.” I didn’t ask if she meant it looks better now than it did, and whether therefore I had a saggy ass or maybe fat ass before this. In fact, I dropped the whole matter, though I did feel compelled to first respond, “Uh… yours too.”

4.  It may indeed be true that your parents walked nine miles uphill both ways to school through three feet of snow.

I say that because the training course — through Griffith Park, through the Equestrian Center, through the Rancho District, into Burbank and back — is uphill both ways. However, I can’t vouch for the three feet of snow.

5. Bum smell is mostly sweat.

You know that smell that bums get? Of course it comes from poor hygiene, unclean clothing, and bad diet. But I now suspect that, specifically, it’s mostly sweat. That’s because I’m smelling it on myself after long runs. Yes, after a long run I smell like a bum. (Or someone from a distant land with different bathing rituals. Say, France.) Of course I take a shower when I get home after one of these runs, but first I have to come inside. My children greet me this way: By covering their noses. Literally. This Sunday, my daughter and my little boy stood in the room adjacent and looked at me, each of them peering over an arm stretched across to cover a nose. They wouldn’t come any closer. At one point, my daughter added a comment:  “Ewwwwww.” I had suspected the situation even before getting home, when I stopped at the Smart ‘n’ Final two blocks from our house to get orange juice and hazelnut creamer so I could enjoy the sort of breakfast I now felt entitled to, having run 13 miles. Still wearing my soaking running clothes and staying respectfully distant from others, I grabbed what I needed, placed it on the checkout conveyor belt and backed up several feet. The cashier, a man in his mid-20’s, greeted me. Then there was silence as he scanned my goods. Finally I said, “I just ran 13 miles.” Without looking up, he said, “That explains it.”

More observations to follow, I’m sure.

Con-nections

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

I’m off in 5 minutes to the San Diego Comic Con, my 21st annual attendance. Back in 2008, my then-roommate and I took a drive, so to speak, down to San Diego to check out the Con for a day. We liked it so much we decided that the next year we’d actually stay over and go for a couple of days. Now it’s a five-day affair, with a rotating lineup of friends and allies sharing a large suite. Last year there were seven of us, this year there will be six, and next year there may be eight or nine (depending upon the college destinations and summer plans of my son and his friend, as well as what is a promised “Return to the Con!” by pop-culture-ephemera inspiration Joe Stafford — for whom there will Always be sleeping room on the floor by the window).

As this piece in today’s LA Times (hey, look: They still publish that!) details, the idea of “dropping in” on the Con is now quaint and ludicrous. The Con is now big business. But y’know what? The people running this very large, very sprawling, very economically and culturally important event are doing a great job. Really. That it’s a non-profit run mostly by volunteers makes it all the more amazing.

If you’re going to the Con and things like poker, whiskey, and cigars interest you, drop me a line.