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


Not Monkeein’ around

September 21st, 2016


Much to my own surprise, last Friday night I went to see The Monkees again, this time on their 50th anniversary tour. Four years ago, I had publicly pledged not to see them again — you can read about that odd evening here — but the moment it was announced that Mike Nesmith would be playing with them, for the only time on this tour and for the last time ever, my friend Richard and I, the same Richard who went with me four years ago, decided to buy tickets.

And y’know what? They were terrific.

This was very much in the spirit of The Beach Boys’ 50th Anniversary Tour, in which the remaining living Beach Boys (Brian, Mike, Al, and I guess we’re still counting Bruce) put on an incredible four-hour show for which my friend Trey and I had 4th row center seats, in an experience not only worth the trip to Dallas, but also one that remains seared in my memory bank of positive experiences. That night, the Beach Boys were generous of spirit, played and sang together, and Brian Wilson even seemed to know where he was at times.

Whereas, in 2012, the Monkees seemed like strangers who’d arrived on the same stage by accident, this time the three principals seemed like they could be (or could have been) in the same band. They harmonized; they played together; they deferred to each other. At some point, it dawned on Mike Nesmith that he was actually having a good time. A smile spread across his face and he relaxed into the music. He played probably half of the evening’s songs with them, including a stint of six songs in a row during the second set that culminated in a solo performance of a song they’d once recorded that he’d envisioned in a different way. In his capable hands, “Circle Sky” was a blazing centerpiece, as it should have been. Most importantly to me, he played and sang “Me and Magdalena,” from their new album, which is one of the most achingly beautiful and haunting songs I’ve ever heard. The combination of the song, the timber of his voice, and the pangs of his 12-string Gretsch, transports me. All together, they played 32 songs, and then they were done.

Except they aren’t. Kind of. The tour now goes on, without Nesmith, which left Richard and me puzzling over what that non-Nesmith experience must be like. Diminished, for sure. (Evidently, on the rest of the tour Micky Dolenz sings “Circle Sky” and he is joined by Peter Tork for “Me and Magdalena.” I will go to my grave happy not to hear that.) I ventured to Richard that the contribution of Nesmith’s sound grounds what would otherwise be a flyweight pop contraption; Richard went perhaps further and said that he lends them credibility. I think that’s true. Dolenz can sing, but somehow there’s an authority to Mike Nesmith’s vocals, his songwriting, and his guitar playing, that lends credence to the whole enterprise. Without any intended slight to the band’s powerhouse songwriters such as Carole King or Neil Diamond, without Nesmith, the Monkees are like Herman’s Hermits, with more hits. I wonder if people catching the rest of the tour will even suspect what they missed.

Poor reception

September 19th, 2016

You will be unsurprised when I tell you that today I received in the mail an invoice from Sirius XM satellite radio for $60 for my subscription “renewal,” which I canceled in August.

I ripped it in half and threw it into the recycling.

I guess I can now look forward to my next conversation with them.

(I wonder how many people just pay the bill.)

About Edward Albee

September 17th, 2016

To most of the playwrights of my generation, Edward Albee was not just a great writer, but also a heroic figure.

Heroic because he famously didn’t care what critics thought. Perhaps this was the blessing of receiving mixed reviews from the start.

Heroic because he didn’t cater to audiences. As someone raised without love, he never expected it. That freed his writing.

Heroic because he was a relentless defender of civil liberties, for artists and others, going so far in his late 70’s as to appear outside in a blizzard to protest an injustice.

Heroic because he spent so much of his own money and his precious time supporting emerging playwrights, with his foundation and writers’ retreat, and in personally supporting playwriting conferences such as the Great Plains Theatre Conference with his time and his presence.

Heroic because he never knuckled under, never softened his beliefs, never caviled, and, as Jon Robin Baitz said, was more than willing to write a play wherein a man falls in love with a goat, and to do that as an old man: “A young man’s play written by an old lion,” Baitz said. This, to be sure, is unusual.

To say that Albee was an inspiration to many, many hundreds or thousands of us, is a vast understatement. Even if you never got to meet him, as many (most?) of us did, he still touched you through his work as a writer, or his work as a supporter of writers.

When I say he was a “supporter,” that doesn’t mean he was easy. Quite the opposite: He was notoriously prickly. He was prickly the one time I met him, and he was notoriously prickly to reporters, interpreters of his work, critics, audiences, close friends, and probably everyone else at some time or other.

In an odd way, I benefited 10 years ago from his prickliness. Albee had had a falling out with the Great Plains Theatre Conference; evidently, they’d asked him if he could please possibly be a little nicer in his feedback to the young playwrights, and he took umbrage, and quit the conference just a few weeks prior to its start. People close to the conference were asked for suggestions about teachers of playwriting, playwrights, or workshop leaders, who might be able to fill in for Albee for the week and give feedback, but be a little more, um, upbeat. The actor-director girlfriend of someone in my playwriting workshop who was and is an extremely talented playwright and who had been at the conference and who had visited my workshop suggested me — and I got booked. So, oddly, I got to fill Edward Albee’s role for a week.

As if.

But, subbing for Edward Albee, I got to hobnob with Marshall Mason and Doug Wright. (High honors. Marshall and directed the first play I ever bought a ticket for, when I was a teenager: Christopher Reeve appearing in Lanford Wilson’s “Fifth of July” in New York.) I also got treated to steak dinners courtesy of Omaha Steaks (one of the sponsors of the conference; including a private reception where Marshall took pains to ensure that I wasn’t going to skewer playwrights as Albee had done), got to appear on local television, and was generally treated the way one would hope always to be treated. And, deliciously, I got to render input on some terrific new plays, including the thrilling play “Devil Sedan” by Kenley Smith, who has since become a friend, and to do it in the manner I practice to this day: to be helpful, and constructive, and goal-oriented for the play, rather than to be the guy who drops an anvil on someone’s head from the sixth story. I saw that other approach in graduate school, and since then, but I’ve yet to see anyone benefit from it.

If Albee wasn’t always kind or thoughtful in some situations, he nevertheless remains a lodestone. Very occasionally, when I might ask myself if I’m “really” going to do “that” or say “that” or set up “that” situation in a play, I think of Albee, the man who wrote the play about someone compelled to throw over his entire life for the love of a goat. And then I say, “Fuck it” and do it. And, always always always, that’s the right choice.

Thank you, sir. For the plays and for the example.

Siriusly fast

September 7th, 2016

Three days ago, I was wondering just how long it would be before Sirius XM contacted me with a new offer. Well, we have our answer: three days.

They just emailed me this great new offer: an “all access” subscription for just $199 a year. (Never mind that under the previous deal, I paid $20 for three months.)

Now I can have even more Sirius to not listen to, and at three times the price.

The cost of air travel

September 7th, 2016

Bottle of water at Burbank airport: $2.99.

Bottle of same kind of water at Denver airport: $1.30.


Sandwich, said bottle of water, plus chips, at Burbank airport: $20.90.

Two bottles of water, plus chocolate bar with almonds, plus corn chips, at Denver airport: $6 plus change.

(Because you can’t bring a bottle of water into the airport, it is ipso factor commonplace to purchase bottles of water at the airport.)

Cost of wifi, good for the entire day on Southwest, but working only intermittently and not robust enough to support streaming, but nevertheless allowing me to post this from somewhere high above the middle of the country: $8.

Cost of common courtesy among passengers: absolutely nothing, but also intermittent.

Siriusly not listening

September 5th, 2016

A few months ago, in a moment of weakness, I subscribed to Sirius XM satellite radio.

I was sitting in my back yard purposely doing nothing in the middle of a week day because for the past week or so I hadn’t been able to succeed at anything. Oh, sure, I could put my shoes on and even tie the laces, but that was about it. The situation brought to mind a story I’d read about a guy who had started a business and put his everything into it, working his fingers down to the nub, but nothing was coming of it and the future wasn’t looking any brighter, so he took the day to sit in the park and feed the pigeons, but as soon as he sat down on a bench with bird seed in hand, his cellphone rang and he closed a six-figure deal. Or something like that. My situation was nowhere near that — I wasn’t losing, I just wasn’t winning — but I figured I’d test the Zen logic of this story (whatever logic this story may have had) by sitting in my back yard and just having a cigar.

Sure enough, my cellphone rang.

But it wasn’t a six-figure deal of any sort. It was a twenty-dollar deal, with me doing the paying. To Sirius. A nice man with an Indian accent was excitedly offering me the deal of a lifetime — three months of Sirius XM satellite radio, reactivated in my car, for just twenty dollars. I heard him out, and I thought, sure, let’s make this guy’s day and say yes. He’s probably making a hundred of these calls a day, and mostly getting hangups, and it’s only twenty bucks, and hey, I’ll get Sirius XM satellite radio again, and it’s not like I’m doing anything else at the moment, so Hell yes, let’s just say yes. The man nearly shit his pants when I said yes, leaving me wondering if I were the only sale he’d ever made, or just the first. His voice notched up several octaves in glee. For fear that they’d endlessly renew my subscription without letting me know, I wouldn’t give him my credit-card information, but I said if they’d send me a bill, I’d pay it, which I did a few days later.

Then, for the next three months, I listened to almost nothing on Sirius XM satellite radio.

Even as I drove up and down the state in a series of trips down to Orange County or San Diego and back up through Los Angeles to the San Francisco Bay Area, I listened to almost none of it. Occasionally, I’d give it a try, but the political shows were dominated by people I didn’t want to listen to, and no matter what music station I tried, I preferred the music I already had on my iPhone, which my car channeled effortlessly via Bluetooth. Add to that the New Yorker fiction podcast, and other podcasts, and Sirius proved seriously unneeded.

Two weeks ago, the reminder that I had put in my calendar to cancel Sirius popped up, so I opened the email I’d saved for this express purpose and clicked on the link to my account. To no one’s surprise, I discovered that one is not able to cancel Sirius XM from their website. I know why not, and so do you: because they’re going to have someone in customer service try to talk me out of canceling. I called the number provided, and that someone turned out to be named Tammy.

“Hi, Tammy,” I said after she introduced herself, “I’m calling to cancel my subscription to Sirius.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that,” she said smoothly. “May I ask why?”

“I’m not listening to it.”

“Oh, you’re not listening to it? Oh… uh… oh….” I could practically hear her scrolling down the list of responses she could choose from. Evidently, no one ever says they’re not listening to it. “Oh, that’s a shame. Not listening to it…. Not listening to it….” She kept repeating this as she scrolled.

“No,” I said, trying to goose this along, “I’m not listening to it. So I’d like to cancel.”

“Oh, well, we’re sorry to hear that. You’re just not listening to it, or…?”

“Nope. I’m not listening to it.” I couldn’t figure out how to advance the conversation, and clearly neither could she. This must be what a first date is like through Tinder when both parties show up, instantly see no future together, but are too polite to make an immediate break for it.

Just then, Tammy found a new idea. “Well, I would like to tell you about our desktop satellite radio. With the desktop satellite radio, you can listen to Sirius anywhere, you don’t have to be in your car.”

“But I’m already not listening to Sirius anywhere. Having another place to not listen to it doesn’t seem helpful. I just want to cancel.”

“We have a special promotional rate–”

“Tammy, you seem like a nice person. And I realize it’s your job to talk me out of it. But I just want to cancel. Can you please just cancel my subscription?”

“May I tell you a little about our special deal?”

I was now watching the timer on my desktop phone. I had things to do, and staying polite with Tammy was no longer one of them. “May I tell you a little about my business, and how it works?” And so that’s what I started to do — to talk to her about what I do for a living, which I wanted to get back to right then.

Now her tone grew frosty. But she pressed on. I guess she was going on about various reasons that I should continue my Sirius XM subscription, and various promotional offers, and how in the best of all possible worlds I’d stay with the service, but I don’t know for sure because I had stopped listening. Instead, I was editing some documents on my desk. Before you think me a heel, bear in mind that I was now several minutes into a conversation I didn’t want but couldn’t seem to get out of.

“So what do you think?” she finally asked.

“About what?”

“About that offer?”

“Nothing,” I said. “I stopped listening. I started editing some documents on my desk.”

After a beat, she said, “You have three days left on your subscription. Do you want it canceled as of today, or in three days?”

“Doesn’t matter to me. I’m not listening to it.”

And then she canceled the account. I guess she’d finally heard me.

A few days ago, I got an exciting renewal offer in the mail from Sirius XM. I recycled it immediately. I’m sure an Indian man will be calling me soon.

No news is bad news

September 4th, 2016

The New York Times is ending its coverage of regional theatre, and restaurants and culture in its suburban delivery areas. (Here’s more on that story.) If you’re a theatre in New Jersey, Westchester, Long Island or Connecticut, that’s pretty bad news.

On one of the theatre groups I belong to on Facebook, people were predictably outraged. Sample comments:

“This is shortsighted and totally lacking in regard for the need of the wider community for access to its own cultural scene!!!!!!”

They seem to be denying their motto’All the news that’s fit to print.’ “

“As long as I get my Justin Bieber updates. That’s all that matters.”
 “They’ve seen their future. So I hear they’re starting a Justin Bieber SECTION.”

It was these last two that got my goat. So I posted this:

“This is the point at which I ask, ‘How many of us who are shocked and upset have been PAYING to read the New York Times?’ Some, sure — but the numbers are way down. I remember when the LA Times had 1,000,000+ readers in print; now it’s… 250,000? The advertisers started leaving these papers after the subscribers started leaving. I’m now the ONLY LA Times subscriber on my block. On a similar note: How many people here are willing (and PROUD) to write for The Huffington Post, for free, while its founder made millions from it and while its unpaid parasitic repurposing of newspaper content was helping to eat those newspapers alive? Newspapers have had to PAY to cover those stories (unlike the HuffPo). Without our support, they’ve been forced to make tragic cuts.”

So, yes, I was once again on a familiar tear about The Huffington Post, which enriches a select handful of early investors, including Arianna herself, while asking all the writers to contribute for free, and while taking paid newspaper content, aggregating it, and turning it into clickbait.

Today, though, I realized how even more apt my comparison of that organ to a parasite was. Unchecked, parasites kill the host — and then they themselves die. Newspapers in their present form won’t — can’t — survive. But the need for actually reliable news, the sort that comes from having paid news gatherers go out and develop connections and do research and develop and report stories, will continue. It may even become more valuable, as it becomes more scarce, and that means it will cost more. Maybe that will mean that the HuffPo, with a business model built on unpaid writing and filched reporting, would have to pay for its content. Wouldn’t that be a shame?

A few weeks ago, John Oliver delivered a hilarious but tragic takedown of what’s happening to newspapers. This, I promise you, is well worth your 19 minutes.


What time is it?

August 17th, 2016


It’s time for the LA Times, which is part of “Tronc,” to hire a new copy editor. Because that’s not a clock.

Send me a dollar

August 14th, 2016

Dear friends and readers of this blog:

I’ve received probably hundreds (maybe thousands) of funding requests from people I know, on Facebook, via email, and even in snailmail, to support your charity or your art or your project. I’ve helped when I could. Today, for the first time, I’m asking for your support.

Please send me a dollar.

Here is the address:

Lee Wochner
3305 W. Burbank Blvd.,
Burbank, CA 91505

If you can send more, that would be appreciated too. But please do send at least the dollar.

Thank you.

p.s. If you’d like to use PayPal, here’s the email address: lee AT leewochner.com. Please remember to remove the “at” and replace it with the “at sign.” Thank you again!

Accidental poetry

August 11th, 2016

Sometimes you wind up writing something perhaps artistic without realizing it. I was emailed a lunch-order request for a meeting I’m attending tomorrow. So here’s what I sent:


I am attending.

I’d like:


on white

with mustard

and a bag of BBQ chips


(This almost looks like a poem by e e cummings. To wit:)

i will wade out
                        till my thighs are steeped in burning flowers
I will take the sun in my mouth
and leap into the ripe air
                                                 with closed eyes
to dash against darkness