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


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“It’s not all binary.”

March 2nd, 2017

That’s the smartest thing I’ve heard all day. Or longer.

It was said by one of the other speakers at the Innovation Expo in Napa Valley where I was also a presenter today.

His point: Not everything is yes or no; black or white; Democrat or Republican. Most things — most answers — most choices — lie along a spectrum. Yes sometimes; no other times; sometimes, something in the middle.

The worst thing going on in the country is the binary camps. It’s like we’re all caught in the middle of the Coke vs. Pepsi war we saw twenty years ago, and 7-Up is nowhere to be seen.

It leads to something like this:

I have a friend who is a solid, thoughtful, caring person who also voted for Trump. (As did many of my other friends — and relatives — around the country.) In addition to a lot of other community service this friend does, he’s also part of the ski patrol — you know, those guys who rescue you when you’ve had a bad mishap on the slopes. He’s a life saver. Last month I saw this friend at an event and he was pretty sore because one of his closest friends — a friend whose life, he said, he’d once held in his hands — unfriended him on Facebook because of their differing political views.

That’s pretty bad. I wish it hadn’t happened.

For the record, as you’ve gleaned, I loathe Donald Trump. And it’s not a recent thing — I’ve detested him for 35 years, for reasons that were made abundantly clear throughout last year’s presidential campaign. But people vote for the people they vote for for a variety of reasons, and sometimes that reason is because they’re voting for some of a candidate’s issues (and not others), and sometimes that reason is because they don’t like the other choice, and so they settle. (I didn’t like the person I ultimately felt forced to vote for either.) But I’m doing my best not to lose any friends (or relatives!) because they voted for the other candidate. Even though my fear is that this particular president is a threat to the republic.

Earlier today, in a break between sessions, I got caught up in a Facebook exchange with a friend who lives in Kansas. One of her friends was responding to my friend’s outrage about Kellyanne Conway sitting on her bare feet on a couch in the White House. The exchange got silly in a nasty way, and then this person I don’t know called me out as a “liberal,” which I take it meant pejoratively, and here was my response:

“A couple of misunderstandings on your part that perhaps I can help with. And I’m going to share them with care and respect, because I can see you’re a friend of Jodi’s, and I have to tell you, I love Jodi, and also because I’m doing my best to have respectful conversations with people online. First, the easy part: when you say ‘the liberals lost…’ you are assuming that I’m a liberal. You shouldn’t assume. I’m a common-sense centrist. When I look at what Republicans theoretically represented at one point, most of that would have fit me just fine. Secondly, ‘liberals’ — whomever they are — are not upset because they ‘lost.’ They are upset because they a) don’t like what Trump REPRESENTS (that seems to be: misogyny; racism; authoritarianism; disrespect for the judiciary; mocking the handicapped; and boy could I go on); and b) they are concerned that the election was STOLEN because of Russian interference; and c) they are concerned that Trump is IN THE POCKET of the Russians. So it’s not about losing an ELECTION — we’ve all lost elections — it’s about LOSING THE COUNTRY. That’s why, no matter one’s political inclinations, EVERYONE should seek a full investigation of Russian influence. Because, as Americans, we should all wish for the good of the nation. I wish you a good night.”

Also, in the thread, I agreed with this person that Bill Clinton had disgraced that very same room, the Oval Office, in his dealings with Monica Lewinsky. And, I’ll add, he lied about it under oath.

Not a binary response, for a Democrat.

In the binary-response world, I’d have to stick up for “my” people no matter what, and this other person would have to stick up for his people no matter what.

That’s what we have to get away from.

Because most things in life aren’t binary.

And because facts should matter.

When I was a boy, I kept all the food served to me at dinner nicely isolated in separate areas on my plate, so nothing would touch. I didn’t want the sauce or runnings from one thing seeping into something else. My mother teased me about this once, and I said, “Do you like ketchup?” She assured me that she did. So I said, “Well, you don’t want it in your coffee, do you?” Of course not. So, see: sometimes, in some circumstances, she likes ketchup — but she doesn’t like it in other places.

We all live along a spectrum of choices. At times, even life and death aren’t binary. Medical professionals sometimes debate whether people in certain circumstances on life support are still “alive” or “dead.” As those of us who remember the Terri Schiavo case recall.

Not everything is binary.

Political theatre (of the absurd)

March 2nd, 2017

Samuel Beckett wrote “Waiting for Godot” in four months. Six years later, the GOP are still trying to draft their replacement for Obamacare. All they’ve got so far is intermission.

Late Wednesday

March 1st, 2017

Thanks to everyone who donated to the fund drive to fix Jon’s car and help him get back to work. The goal was $1500. We raised $2270. That alone made it a great day.

Last night I had heard my new play, “How We Know You,” read by actors for the first time, in a first rehearsal for a small invited reading on Saturday night. The cast — two women and a man — are all veteran theatre actors, with many dozens (hundreds?) of credits. Only a truly great actor can be funny and ambiguous in a menacing role without seeming too menacing, which must mean that Dana Schwartz is a truly great actor. Which is certainly my theory. Some people immediately get my plays, and she one of those people. About 12 years ago, we did a reading of my play “Safehouse” at the Hudson Theatre in Hollywood.  I knew then that the play doesn’t fully work, but Dana, and Richard Ruyle, and James Smith, were so great in the play that people got confused and thought the play was great. (At least, until it wasn’t.) But watching Dana last night made me think that, yes, I should pull that play out at some point and try to fix it.

I’m in the San Francisco Bay area and Napa Valley today until Friday night. Given how many different places I’m going, and that I’d have to drive to an airport, park, clear TSA, wait, board, rent a car, drive all over the place anyway, and repeat the process in reverse two days later, I decided just to drive. It took me about four hours to get to my first stop. (Google maps had predicted 6 hours, but we’re not going to talk about that, although I will say at some point I noticed I was doing 102 and decided that might be excessive.)

I can testify that from all visual evidence, the drought is definitely over. In the 29 years I’ve lived in this state, and the innumerable road trips I’ve taken, I’ve never seen the center of the state so filled with lakes. Large lakes, populated by waterfowl, neither of which used to be there. As the line from Coleridge goes, “Water, water, everywhere.” The last several years I’ve been up here, the hills were a caked brown. Now they shimmer with green.  One thing that hasn’t changed:  the ferocious bugs that spatter across your windshield as you drive through the grapevine and stick like glue. No amount of squeegeeing gets them off.

Finally, an endorsement. Every once in a while, Fuddruckers lives up to its claim to have the world’s best hamburgers. Tonight was one of those times. Driving was smooth all day until I hit the crush of cars leaving San Jose around 5 (of course). After about an hour in which I made every phone call I could think to make, and listened to the news, and grew tired of every bit of music in my catalog, I figured it’d make more sense to have a beer and something to go with it while waiting out the traffic. My GPS located a Fuddruckers right along the way. I can’t offhand think of another chain in California where you can get a too-large burger cooked just right, plus steak fries, plus a side salad and, thank you Lord, an ice-cold craft beer, for eighteen bucks. I sat down to enjoy it and as a passing thought wondered what Anthony Bourdain would think of it, when I flipped over the copy of the New Yorker I’d brought inside to read with my meal — and there was a profile of Anthony Bourdain. Timing is everything.

Fund drive

February 27th, 2017

JonsCar

This is what my friend Jon woke up to — someone hit his car late last night and left no information. Sticking him with all the damage.

Jon, who is in his 50s, was unemployed for two years and barely scraping by on little freelance jobs here and here.  Lately he’s found something a little better (although still hourly, and still freelance). His auto insurance covers only liability — not collision — and he works 100 miles away from where he lives… so now he can’t work.

Some of his friends have banded together and set up a GoFundMe page to help Jon get his car fixed. Because he’s seriously out of options. Without the Fund Drive, Jon won’t be able to drive.

If you’ve got an extra twenty bucks… or five bucks… or whatever… that you would otherwise spend at Starbucks or someplace and never miss — you might think about clicking HERE to make a small donation to help him out. Jon is a really good guy — a kind, gentle, thoughtful, caring person — and he needs some help. I promise you you’ll be helping to spread goodness in the world.

Last night, I gave my last four dollars in cash to an older man standing in the cold outside the local supermarket who looked like he really needed it, and who was too embarrassed to ask for it. Sooner or later, every single one of us needs some sort of help — and it always feels good when we’re able to help someone in that situation.

One annoyance fewer

February 26th, 2017

I’m sad for the family of Judge (Joseph) Wapner, of “The People’s Court,” who died today.

But maybe now people with poor hearing will stop asking if I’m related to him….

 

 

Logline

February 21st, 2017

How I just described my new play to my daughter: “Psychological attack, with comedy.”

The Red Skull trumphant!

February 21st, 2017

One rite of passage for presidents is a comic-book appearance. These appearances tell us something about how their times, and history, have viewed these U.S. leaders.

There are many examples of this, but here are just a few.

Abraham Lincoln, as a redwood of our history, is portrayed in a simple but saintly way.

lincolncomic

Theodore Roosevelt, who, like Lincoln, was dead by the time this came out, is shown as a 1930s-era action-adventure hero.

TRcomicbook

 

His cousin Franklin Roosevelt is retconned as the secret founder of the Justice Society of America! (Plus the All-Star Squadron, to boot!) In other words, he’s effected great change, frequently from behind the scenes.

FDRcomicbook

 

Lyndon Johnson is a straightforward executive who restored calm and stability after the Kennedy assassination.

LBJcomic

 

(But shortly thereafter (and prior to discontent about the Vietnam War), he becomes a crusader for social justice.)

comic-great-society

And here’s Barack Obama, against a blue sky, radiating hope.

AmazinSpidermanObama

 

And now, just one month into his presidency, Donald Trump has made his entry into comic books. Unfortunately, it’s as the voice of the Red Skull. Who is the Red Skull? A supervillain known as a Nazi leftover, archenemy of Captain America, and the antithesis of American democracy.

These, below, are Trump’s exact words, but now assigned by Twitter account “President Supervillain” to an ages-old image of the Red Skull as he battles Captain America.

TrumpRedSkullTorture

Captain America, it should be remembered, was created by two Jews.

Make of all this what you will. I know what I make of it.

For more about President Supervillain and President Donald Trump as the Red Skull, click here.

Monday, not Sunday

February 20th, 2017

While in the past I’ve been happy to celebrate Washington’s birthday, or Lincoln’s birthday, I’ve never wanted to celebrate President’s Day, for the simple reason that I don’t celebrate all of them. I didn’t like it when George W. Bush was the president, I don’t recall liking it before that, and I certainly don’t like it now.

In addition to not-celebrating the holiday, another reason I had a hard time just a minute ago remembering that it’s Monday and not Sunday is that I spent the morning eating a leisurely breakfast with strong coffee, horsing around on my iPhone playing far too many rounds of Drop7, and making mental lists of things I should do today but probably won’t. In other words: Sunday activities. I was especially confused when the newspaper was even slimmer than usual — pretty slim for a Sunday! … Oh.

Yesterday, on what felt like Saturday but was actually Sunday, I took my daughter to LACMA to see the exhibit of German art of the Renaissance. My forebears were torn between two factions (in this case, the Catholics and the Protestants), an awful conflict that gave rise to some great art and some very snotty illustrations that reminded me of the underground comix o the 1960s. (Good thing nothing like this is happening these days.) The work was deeply beautiful and generally disturbing — very warlike, with representations of the chosen arbiters (Martin Luther or the Pope) swinging between deific and demonic, and with much heraldry, spilled blood, and tortured Christs. The portraiture of the one-percenters (who, of course, could afford portraits of themselves), was necessarily flattering. Hats off, then, to Albrecht Durer, who had the audacity to depict one such Burgermeister as a thin-lipped, cold-eyed coot. I can only wonder what this person thought of his portrait.

While we were there, we paid extra to see the exhibit showcasing the work of Diego Rivera and Pablo Picasso. I’d never thought of the two together, associating the former with a sort of socialist-peasant art and the latter with modernism, and I wasn’t aware of their friendship, but now I’ve been educated. I was especially interested to see how informed Rivera’s work was by Mayan art, with its simple uninflected portrayals of people, and also to see Picasso’s elementary illustrations of a translation of Ovid; it’s astounding how much he could convey with just a simple fluid line.

My friend and former playwriting workshop member Tira Palmquist is having quite a year or two or three. She’s been racking up productions all over the place, and just broke through the LORT curtain with her play “Two Degrees,” which is currently running at Denver Center for the Performing Arts. She says a number of smart and useful things in this interview, and is even so kind as to give me a shoutout. In with all the other wise things she says here, I particularly recommend this advice: “Write as much as possible. Set difficult goals.”

Go to the gym. Do the grocery shopping. Write as much as possible. That’s my to-do list for today.

Intermission

February 19th, 2017

Posting on this blog may pick up again now that I’ve actually completed a first draft of my new full-length play, “How We Know You.” While I’m surprised that it took about eight months — especially since I was able to write 26 pages in the first week — but there’s nothing like a deadline to get something finished, and I’ve been seriously cranking away at it again the past two weeks. I think I got it in just under the wire for a first reading that was already announced and already scheduled for Sunday the 5th at 5:30 at Moving Arts. Assuming, that is, that my preferred director doesn’t hate it and he’s able to get it cast in time.

So now I’m celebrating. Although I write a play or two (or more) a year, I think this is my first completed full-length in… three years? Four years? Celebration means: I went to the gym to burn off all that excess energy after typing “END OF PLAY,” then stopped on my way home to pick up a bottle of Grey Goose, which I’m now drinking with some cranberry juice while munching homemade popcorn and writing this.

While I was at the gym, and, again, celebrating finishing this play, I started to think about the plays that I haven’t finished. Now, in general, I’m someone who finishes what he starts. I believe in that, and also, when I was in a writing program in grad school, one of our teachers counseled us on that. “You have to finish what you start,” he said — and then we never saw him again, because he quit to go take on another writing job. Despite that, I have done my best to heed his advice, even if just because the perversity of his hypocrisy strikes me as funny. But there are some plays that I haven’t finished — yet. Eventually, I will get around to finishing all or most of them, assuming I don’t die first.

(Side note: Whenever I think of a writer knowing he’s going to die, I’m reminded of Louis L’Amour, whose writing room had stacks of manuscript and letters and papers in every direction all across the room. When he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, L’Amour came home and started going through all those papers, to sort them out and clean them up. But his wife kindly said to him that he needn’t worry, because she’d take care of it — and so, he was able to go back to writing. Every writer should be so lucky as to have a spouse like that.)
Anyway, I have about 35 finished plays, and almost two dozen that are either almost finished, somewhat finished, more fragmentary than the Dead Sea Scrolls, or pretty much just a title and a few lines. Here are some of the unfinished plays I hope to finish writing.

“7 Horns” (full-length)
This play I actually had a developmental process on, and a reading at some college. (Was it Occidental College, alma mater of Barack Obama? I think so.) It’s about a small town facing impending real-estate development. Interestingly — well, I think it’s interesting — the play had a mother and adult daughter talk about the death of their son/brother; when we were working on the play, there was a mother-daughter duo in our acting company at Moving Arts and they were extremely effective and moving in this scene. Later, I found out that they had indeed lost their son/brother, and they wondered if I had written this scene expressly for them. Nope — just happenstance.

Odds of getting finished: After the reading, a playwright friend said to me, “You know, developers aren’t evil.” Many years later, I have come around to his way of thinking. So… I’ll need to see if it’s still relevant. To me.

“The Bar Plays” (full-length)
About 20 years ago, I saw a couple of Canadian playwright George F. Walker’s “Suburban Motel Plays,” a cycle of one-acts connected only by virtue of taking place at the same motel. My thought then: I could do this, but with a bar.

Odds of getting finished: To my practical/pragmatic side, It still seems like a very producible side, and I did write one or two of these. The problem is that I don’t go to bars much any more. (In the larger scope of things, maybe that’s not such a problem.) I would have to do research, and I’m not sure this is the sort of research I’d enjoy doing.

The Cratchet Family Christmas” (one-act)
Every July or so I dig this up, and what I’ve got of it still makes at least me laugh. It’s vile and funny and completely unsentimental.

Odds of getting finished: High, dammit! This must happen!

“Creator” (full-length)
A dying literature professor has decided that because he is dying, the universe is dying: It is a projection of his subconscious. His daughter is a professor of modernist literature; they have disagreements over meaning: what is important, what is real.

Odds of getting finished: I’ve written scene one, scene three, some sort of interlude, and I have notes for some other parts. The problem? In my mind, the literature professor had a compelling argument for why he was the Creator — and in the 14 years since I started this play, I’ve forgotten what it was.

“Crotch Rot” (full-length)
I couldn’t remember anything — anything — about this play, so I just looked at it again. It seems to concern three stinking 20-something members of a grunge band.

Odds of getting finished: Slim. But I’ll probably pirate the characters or dialogue for something else.

“The Epiphany Party” (one-act)
Four female friends mock the celebration of Epiphany by holding a party in which each of them is supposed to have an Epiphany.

Odds of getting finished: Actually, this is finished. I just don’t like it.

“Fear, Inc.” (full-length)
In which the government is orchestrating terror attacks in order to keep the public under control. I should point out that I started this long before the Trump administration came into being.

Odds of getting finished: This should happen. I mean: relevance!

“I, Teratoma” (full-length)
I’m sure that every playwright has a play in which a blood-sucking tumor named Terry eats its way through family and friends. For laughs. (It’s a comedy. Of sorts.)

Odds of getting finished: Very high! You’ve got to love a play where the playwright has written himself a note that reads, “MAYBE TERRY HAS A MOUTH. OR A SLIT FOR A MOUTH. OR A VAGINAL OPENING ON ITS ‘FACE.’ ” Just writing that here again inspires me to go finish it!

“Inspecting Fitzgerald” (one-act? full-length?)
This is comprised of several short scenes featuring Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, including the (in)famous true story of the time Hemingway inspected Fitzgerald’s manhood in a restaurant bathroom.

Odds of getting finished: I had a reading of the existing pages once and everyone present wanted the rest of the play. But it’s been so long that those people may be dead now. Hemingway and Fitzgerald live on, though, so I should finish this.

“Ripped-Up Dog-Face Guy” (one-act? full-length?)
This was inspired by a book my then-8-year-old son was reading, called “The Gardener.” Evidently, I envisioned Ripped-Up Dog-Face Guy to be a character name.

Odds of getting finished: I still love the musicality of that name; that’s really what I was hung up on. But that’s about all I’ve got. I also seem to recall that I was turning this into a song at some point.

“Secrets of the Wonder Thing” (full-length)
This is the only sequel I’ve ever attempted. It depicts a dystopian alternate version of our own Earth — one in danger of becoming all too real, under Donald J. Trump — but is actually hopeful in that mass change results from individual action. Even when the individual action is taken by strange people with seemingly useless superpowers.

Odds of getting finished: Well, the first part, “Anapest,” was produced in London and New York, and had workshop in Los Angeles, New York, and Arkansas. And, again, the topic seems awfully relevant….

“Sex in the Year Zero Zero” (full-length)
Like those motel plays, this was going to be a series of somewhat-connected one-acts about sex. Guess in what year I started this.

Odds of getting finished: Probably. The parts that I’ve already written have gotten readings, and play well. I just need another fifteen years so that I can write knowledgeably about elderly sex, and then I’m all set.

“The Never Was” (full-length)
The action cuts between the two surviving members of a rock band and their younger selves, as they reunite in a bar to hash out grievances and, maybe, finally get some recognition because a car company wants to license one of their songs.

Odds of getting finished: I’ve got forty-one pages written on this play. Including the ending, which I promise you is killer. I know exactly how this play goes. So — I should just finish it. (Clearly, this is a note to myself.)

“Troubled Men” (full-length)
This is the full-length version of my one-act “About the Deep Woods Killer,” which concerns the son of a convicted serial killer, who is trying to keep himself together and stay away from alcohol and suicide. “About the Deep Woods Killer” was produced some years ago in Los Angeles and got very strong reviews and, more importantly, made several women in the audience cry. It’s a sensitive play coming from someone not known for his sensitivity. (That would be me.)

Odds of getting finished: Similar to “The Never Was,” I’ve got almost forty pages, including the ending — and it’s a strong one — and I’ve got notes on the rest. So — I should just finish it. I did get a little gun shy when I caught myself doing something I counsel others against — I was writing one character as, clearly, the villain of the piece. Ouch. I’m still embarrassed. So I’d need to fix that, plus, well, just finish it.

Other unfinished plays: “Friends for Life,” “God the Communicator,” “House Arrest,” “Second Ice Age,” “Imperium,” “Ozma of Oz” (my only attempt at a full-length musical), “Play Idea,” “Reactor,” and “Speedy.”

I have no doubt I’ll be doing rewrites on “How We Know You.” That’s how the process of playwriting works. But I’d also like to wrap up one of these other ones this year. Which one should it be?

That’s entertainment

February 12th, 2017

One night last week, after another full day of Trump, I decided to take my wife to see the touring production of “Motown the Musical” at the Pantages in Hollywood. I’m not generally much for musicals, but I love Motown (who doesn’t?), and I thought it’d be a fun evening out, and a welcome distraction from everything going on in the news:  protests, police actions, presidents breaking the law, and more.

The show was everything I was hoping for:  great songs well-sung, interspersed with some storytelling as we moved chronologically through the history of Motown. If a glance at the program left me wondering just how on Earth the show was going to get through more than sixty hits from the Motown catalog, the show soon clarified it:  while occasionally you’d get the full song, or most of it, for the most part you’d get about three bars, which is the musical equivalent of a nod in the direction of a song you know. Which was frustrating. You’d get keyed up to hear a song you love, and just when you recognized it, it was over. Imagine hearing, say, a “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” — but then having it cut off at “Ain’t No–.” It was kinda like that; like ain’t no song finishin’ no how.

That said, the performers were terrific, especially a little boy who completely channeled the pre-adolescent Michael Jackson, and a beautiful honey-voiced young woman who, in an extended sequence that replicated Diana Ross’s solo debut in Las Vegas, reminded everyone present just why Ross was a huge star.

The show also reminded everyone about something else.

As the history moved further and further into the 1960s and later, the backdrop turned to Vietnam and Watergate… and protests, police actions, and presidents breaking the law.

My wife turned to me and said, “Wow. Nothing ever changes, does it?”