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


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My wife’s reaction upon seeing our new family photo hung on our wall

June 25th, 2017

“None of us look good in it, but I guess that’s how we really look.”

Record achievement

June 11th, 2017

RoxyMusicManifesto

Last weekend, a friend brought over a bunch of sealed box sets of music from Warner Records as a donation to an event our theatre company was having. He also presented me with a gift that his wife had gotten for me a while ago but hadn’t had a chance to give me yet:  a sealed box set of all eight of Roxy Music’s studio albums, on LP. This was a reissue from a few years back; when the set originally came out, circa 1985, on Deutsche Grammophone, I had ordered one (from Europe, I believe) for a then-unconscionable amount of money.

I took the new set inside and showed it to my 18-year-old daughter. She wanted to see inside, so I opened it up and slid out the albums. I immediately noticed that the vinyl was far thicker than it was the last time I’d bought vinyl; that would’ve been about 1979, when records were so thin you could’ve used them to wrap leftovers in. My daughter found it even more remarkable, though, because it turned out she’d never seen a record before.

“You’ve never seen a record before?” I asked. I felt like I’d uncovered a new dinosaur in an archaeological dig. She just shook her head no.

I took one of the albums, Manifesto, over to our turntable. To some of us, Manifesto is notorious for having two versions:  the one with the good (original) version of “Angel Eyes,” and the one with the bad discofied version that annoys us mightily. Decades ago, I’d had a cassette tape version of the album that had the “real” version of “Angel Eyes”; when I’d bought the album on CD some time later, I was horrified to find that this splendid, dirty, nasty-sounding song had now been rereleased with a galloping disco beat and cloying harp sounds behind it. Poor Phil Manzanera was still slashing away at his guitar, but now he was trapped in a Bee Gees nightmare. I wanted to see which version of the song might be on this album from the new boxed set.

First, I had to clear stuff off our turntable. It isn’t really a turntable, or not much of one; it’s one of those cheap all-in-one units designed to look retro, but with every component vacuum molded from recycled foam cups or something. Here, it’s one of these:

CrosleyCrummySoundF

I call this the Crosley Crummy Sound F, because that’s what you get out of it. Yes, theoretically it will play a CD, or a cassette tape, or an album, or the radio, and sound of a sort will come out of it. It’s an all-in-one that my beloved wife, who musically speaking has a cowbell for an ear, proudly brought home one day from a department store. The music it generates sounds like it should come with a monkey on a chain. Most exasperatingly, all of those little press buttons arrayed across the middle don’t light up and have tiny raised lettering that blends perfectly with the background, meaning that those labels cannot be read even with our overhead lamp on, and so every button pushed is a mystery. Whenever I’m instructed to do something with this sound box, I have to get a flashlight to see what those buttons say.

The stuff now cleared off the machine’s top, I lifted the lid. Emma watched in fascination. She hadn’t seen a turntable either.

“Never?” I said.

“Audrey had one in her house,” she said, invoking a childhood friend, “but nobody ever turned it on.”

That was understandable. When’s the last time I played an 8-Track tape?

I put the record on and it started spinning and playing and she oohed over it for a moment, and then I went on to do whatever it was I was going to do. I came back about 20 minutes later and heard nothing happening. I went over and looked and the record had finished playing but was still on side one.

“You know you have to flip it over, right?”

“Oh.” She hadn’t known.

So I showed her how to flip it over. Then I showed her the lever to lift and drop the needle. I started side two. Some time later, she asked if she could switch the record — “Sure!” I called back — and heard the album Siren start mid-song.

I took a look. “Um, you see those grooves?” I asked. “Those are the spaces between the songs. You missed the beginning.”

“Oh!” she said.

So I showed her more carefully how to place the needle, while an image came to my mind of the guys from “American Pickers” showing somebody in a barn in the woods exactly how a Harley from a hundred years ago would have to be hand-cranked.

I couldn’t think of anything else to explain about the record or the record player — I’d explained that records needed to be flipped in order to hear both sides; that the needle needed to be raised and lowered via that lever; that the spaces in the tracks denoted the separation between songs; and I’d cautioned her not to jump up and down or she’d put a scratch in the record. I strained to think what could possibly be left to explain, but couldn’t come up with anything. But as I moved away, I saw her looking closely at the inscrutable indicators on the front of the unit.

Finally, she asked, “How do you know when the song is done?”

“Huh?”

“How do you know when the song is done?”

I couldn’t figure out what that meant — until finally I realized that she was thinking there’d be an LED readout, like for a CD:  “Track 1.” “Track 2.” And so forth.

“You don’t hear it any more,” I said. And went to get the newspaper.

Two last things:

  1. I was delighted to learn that, yes, thank you Lord, the LP has the original version of “Angel Eyes”; and
  2. It’s been a week now and nobody has played any more records

 

Cogent criticism

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

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.

Results of the experiment

May 26th, 2017

As an experiment, I bought a $35 bottle of wine.

Turns out, it’s not $20 better than the $15 bottle of wine I bought last week.

It is $20 pricier, though.

The human(less) condition

May 15th, 2017

Are advancements in technology primary aimed at improving the human condition — or eliminating human interaction?

David Byrne lays out an interesting argument that it’s the latter.

Here are just a few formerly human interactions that are now mostly replaced or on their way out:

  • Buying books — replaced by Amazon.com
  • Banking with a teller — replaced by ATMs
  • Grocery checkouts — replaced by self checkout or ordering online
  • Customer service phone calls — routinely handled by automated phone trees and responsive bots
  • Board games — replaced by video game consoles, online video games and smartphone apps

Byrne’s got a much longer list than this, which you can read here, along with his analysis of the situation.

As for my own brief list above:  I’m not missing my interactions with bank tellers; I alternate between buying books online or in person (at comics shops and book stores); I hate the automated telephone situation more than I can express; I still play board games with family (and card games), and also play on an xBox; and I make a point of having humans check out my groceries because it’s quicker than me at the self checkout and because I get to brag about how much I saved through coupons and also because I’m trying to help humans somewhere stay employed.

Because, unlike machinery, humans need to eat.

This is so haggard

May 14th, 2017

What’s a “shit show”?

Recently, I’ve gone from never having heard the term “shit show” to now hearing it, as they say, “all the time.”

I’ve been trying to figure out a) the source of its sudden popularity; and b) what exactly it means, and by that I mean literally.

I get hung up on things like this. When I hear things like “I thought to myself” (the rejoinder I rarely pull out for this redundancy:  “Oh, I didn’t know you were telepathic and could think to others!”) or “it was really unique” or “very unique,” it hurts my ear. I am a lover of language, and of colloquialism — give me Chaucer or Twain or great rock or blues singers any day — so I’m not a stick-in-the-mud, but these particular examples don’t exalt idiomatic English, they drag it down. “That dog won’t hunt” is a great regionalism meaning “that won’t work”; saying “I thought to myself” just means that you actually haven’t done any thinking about it, whatever it is, and similarly, “frankly” generally means “I’m not being so frank” and “at the end of the day” means absolutely nothing unless it’s a time you plan to meet someone. They’re just vestigial bits of utterance that add nothing, and therefore subtract.

I know that “shit show” (or, as the Oxford English Dictionary would have it, “shitshow”) means a bad situation. But what is the origin of this saying?

According to this piece that I just found courtesy of Google, “shit show” dates back to 1964 and an exhibition at the Gertrude Stein Gallery that was, actually “21 piles of sculpted mammal dung” — i.e., an actual shit show. So now we have one more thing to thank artists for:  the term “shit show.”

Why I’ve never heard this term before, even though it’s been in use for 53 years, is a mystery, as is the question of why I’m now hearing it so frequently. And no, not in reference to Donald Trump (although it would certainly apply).

I’m interested in how words come to be, and die off, and morph. The other day, I learned that “behoove” has a noun form:  “behoof.” This caught my attention because “behoove” happens to be a word I hear myself using not infrequently, when I’m trying to get a group of peers to join me in doing something:  “It behooves us to….” is something I said twice last month — I heard it come out of my mouth. “Behoof” is a noun meaning “benefit or advantage”; what a great word! Although I have no doubt I’ll have far less luck getting anyone to join in on doing something for the “behoof” of us all.

A similar discovery, five or ten years ago:  “contempt” has a verb form! Yes, you can hold someone in contempt, but you can also contemn them. This one I used for a while, with no one blinking an eye — I think because they heard it as “condemn.” Admittedly, “contemn” is hard to say with enough distinction to help it stand out from “condemn” — you really have to hit that “t” — but it’s such a great word that I am determined to resurrect it.

Haggard

I’m reading “The Goldfinch,” by Donna Tartt — a gift from a writer in my playwriting workshop. However enjoyable, I’m not sure I’m tailored for this sort of book — a rambling 800-page picaresque with plot roundelays a la Dickens — but the author’s wordplay keeps me going. She’s aces at the English language. She plucks from the ether words I’ve long forgot or never learned, and uses them to great impact. Her long set pieces about furniture restoration reminded me of Harold Pinter’s catalog of nuts and bolts and bits and bobs in “The Caretaker,” a laundry-list style of storytelling that I’ve been heavily indebted to (i.e., swiped from) for 30 years now. The richness of the words is too delectable for someone with my ear to resist.

Dead-smack in the middle of this page on the left from Tartt’s book, you’ll see the word “haggard.” “Haggard” holds special significance for me because in the late 90s and early aughts I made a concerted effort to introduce it into the language with a slangy new meeting.

At the time, my son was bringing home all sorts of slang from grade school, some of it exciting, but some of it irritating. He was also spending time with other kids around the neighborhood, including a dimwitted boy down the block who always came calling for him, and blond twins across the street who at an early age seemed reckless and somewhat untended. (In adulthood, one of them straightened out in the armed forces; the other one I believe went to prison.) These kids, like all kids, were fast and loose with language, so I tried an experiment. Every time I was called to witness on some exploit, to watch a video game or a scooter trick, or to admire some new possession, I’d say, “That’s so haggard!”

“Haggard,” we may recall, means “having a gaunt, wasted, or exhausted appearance, as from prolonged suffering, exertion, or anxiety; worn.”

But I wanted to see if we could change that. Change it into meaning, say, “exciting,” or “awesome,” or “astonishing,” or “unexpected.”

After all, “cool” (as in, “that’s cool!”) can also mean “hot” (“That’s hot!”) and “fuck” can seemingly mean absolutely anything, so why can’t “haggard” be extrapolated into meaning “exciting” or “awesome” or “astonishing” or “unexpected”?

So I started using it that way with these kids. I figured these boys would take it around the block, and take it to school, and I’d watch to see how it would spread to other kids, and then maybe to adults.

The first time I was called outside to watch something — a trick on a bicycle, I think — I said, “That’s haggard!” The other kids immediately nodded because they could tell from my tone that, yes indeed, that trick was haggard.

After that initial success, I started proclaiming all sorts of things haggard:  new shoes, a new haircut, an incredible story from school, success with grades — it was all haggard. I was careful not to overexpose the term, and to use “cool” and also “the bomb” (which was in explosive use at the time) so as not to be too obvious, but I was dutiful in salting my exclamations with “haggard.” So every third or fourth event or action was “haggard.”

I cannot fully convey the thrill I felt the first time I heard one of the twins exclaim that a trick performed in front of my house on a scooter ramp I’d built for them all was “haggard!” “That’s so haggard!” one of them screamed. I positively glowed in triumph.

What I hadn’t counted on was my son’s reaction.

“It doesn’t mean that!” he burst out.  The other kids looked up. “He’s just saying that! ‘Haggard’ doesn’t mean it! So don’t say it!”

I don’t remember whether I’d told him of my scheme, or if he’d caught on, but now the language of his friends was infected by my ruse, and he didn’t like it. As the days unfolded, I used “haggard” a few more times, but as I watched his agitation and scowling grow with each incident I could see it wasn’t funny to him, and so it wasn’t funny to me, and I let it drop — although I did still hear it, occasionally, from his friends, before finally its new meaning ebbed away.

The other day, when I came across “haggard” on the page in “The Goldfinch,” I took the photo above and texted it to my son, who now lives in Chicago. I didn’t append any explanation; just sent him the photo.

He texted back, “Is this you still trying to make haggard cool? Because I never doubted it was a word.”

(What he doesn’t realize:  He’s probably picked up that pattern of answering the question by starting a phrase with “because” from me; it’s a hallmark of my writing — like it or not — and I probably picked it up from reading (and corresponding with) Harlan Ellison in my teens.)

My reply:  “Just look how cool it is! Haggard is so cool that it’s, well, haggard!”

He responded:  “It’s a great word in its own right. Does a wonderful job of describing someone who is tired yet hard working, a person who is being worked to the bone is well-described as haggard. But it is not cool.”

And my reply, of course, was:  “It will be.”

So:  Please help me with this.

 

 

The view from afar

May 4th, 2017

FutureArchaeologistI’m on a road trip (southern New Jersey, NYC, Las Vegas, South Lake Tahoe, then Kansas) that, with a brief interregnum, will keep me out of LA for the most part of three weeks.

On my flight last night from Denver to Philadelphia, we hit major turbulence. As the plane bucked and swerved, and rose and fell, the woman next to me grew anxious and the woman next to her, on the aisle, started to openly pray. I kept reading my book. (“The Goldfinch.”) The woman beside me turned to me and said, “You seem okay. You’re just reading your book.”

“Statistically, you’re safer in the air than you are on the ground,” I said. “Name the last commercial airliner that crashed.”

She and the other woman puzzled over it and finally fished up an example from five or seven years ago.

“Right,” I said. “And there are thousands of flights a day. Two others things,” I added. “First, I’ve been on a flight with far worse turbulence than this.”

“Worse than this?” one of them said.

“Uh huh. And you’ll note I’m still here. Plus:  This plane has to land safely because I have things to do tomorrow.”

The chuckled over that, and later said that helped, and thanked me.

And here I am.

My good friend Paul, a friend of 35 years, picked me up at the airport, his 80-year-old mother in tow. I said to Paul, “Paul, do you realize we’ve been friends for thirty-five years? You should’ve been more entertaining!” Actually, he’s been plenty entertaining, in his chronically even-keeled way, if you have a dry sense of humor. How do I know we’ve been friends for 35 years? Because, although I feel 100% 32 years old within myself, in the car, we started comparing ailments — he with a troublesome neck ailment that keeps his head straying over to the left, me with bursitis that sometimes leaves me limping around the block. I ventured the idea of medical marijuana — in Gummi Bear form. Next stop: Shady Rest.

One of the things I had to do, so that my plane had to land safely, was to take my great-nephew Brody out to dinner. He’s the middle son of my sister’s daughter, and a smart, interesting kid, newly aged 13, and we’ve been texting about exotic meals and things neither of us has tried. So I decided to take him out for a pricey dinner, where we could appreciate what we had and have a real conversation. I took him to The Knife & Fork Inn in Atlantic City, perhaps the only upscale restaurant remaining in that blighted seaside resort town that has seen far better days. His mother had cautioned him against ordering too big, but I told him to get whatever he wanted — he’s going to be 13 only once, after all — so he ordered the lobster tail and filet mignon, and I ordered the rack of lamb and a side of asparagus in a Bearnaise sauce, and we split an order of tuna tartare. While I was hoping for escargot as the dish he’d try, it wasn’t on the menu, but to my delight he scooped up the tuna tartare, found it to his liking, and kept digging in for more.

Throughout dinner, I got a reminder of what it’s like to be a 13-year-old boy.

Brody talked about his siblings — incredibly annoying, of course — and about video games and movies and about the best possible topic in the world, which is comic books, and also how awful and wrong it is when movies stray from the “true” story found in the comic books. As someone well-versed in the indignity of the omission of Ant-Man and the Wasp — both of them founders in the comics! — from the Avengers movies, I share his outrage. We’re both looking forward to Free Comic-Book Day this Saturday, and were debating whether we’d line up for the free comic books or just dash into the store to try to score bargains. He also talked about girls. He’s had four girlfriends so far, and he was man enough to share which ones had dumped him (those are his words) and which ones he had let go. I shared a story from my own youth, when I was about his age and at an 8th grade dance, and “Nights in White Satin” was playing, and I leaned into the girl I was dancing with and started to kiss her on the neck and she said, “Don’t do that,” and I asked why and she said, “Because my mother is standing right behind you” and I turned around and indeed her mother was.

He howled with laughter at that story.

Howling

He also shared once again his interest in old things and said he’d like to be an archaeologist. This is a boy who seems older than his years, and interested in things that wildly predate him, whether it’s history or the antiquity of cultural artifacts from his recent forebears. (For instance:  A few years ago, he desperately wanted a Davy Crockett coonskin cap. That was a fad 50 years before his birth.) Whether or not he winds up being an archaeologist, he seems to me to have a lot of intellectual capacity. Because I think my job at this point is precisely not to offer off-putting sentiments from a middle-aged-adult perspective, the only advice I gave him all night was this:  “Stay open-minded. Form your own judgments.”

But that’s the advice I would offer everyone.

 

One way to spot a surefire hit movie

April 24th, 2017

When people take photos of the movie poster.

IMG_2018

Incredible, incredible dialogue

April 24th, 2017

Here’s the transcript of the Associated Press interview with Donald Trump. I don’t expect you to read it all. I certainly don’t expect him to.

I will say that this would serve as the script for my next play, but lately I’m not writing Theatre of the Absurd.