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


Making up for almost-lost time

November 27th, 2016

A dear friend of mine had surgery not that long ago that still leaves her tired. When I picked her up today to go see the matinee of a new play, she said she wasn’t sure she’d be up for an early dinner afterward because she hadn’t been able to take a nap. We agreed to play it by ear.

The play was terrible.

As is usually the case with this sort of thing, you can tell within the first few minutes just how bad it’s going to be, if not sooner (like, before it even begins). In this particular case, the acting in the first scene was what I’m going to call “neurotic New Yorker” over-the-top, with all of the intended comedy falling with a thud all over the audience. Every scene afterward seemed like it was from an entirely new and different play: a human crawls onto the stage play-acting as a kitty cat (complete with lines); cheerleaders for some reason show up and dance around; there’s a searing melodrama between a strident young woman and her overbearing and two-dimensional Trumpist father; and a young actress takes on the additional role of “Grandma” in a performance ripped straight from “The Carol Burnett Show,” minus any shred of comic ability.

At intermission, my friend turned to me and said the magic words, “Do you want to just leave?”

She was checking first to see if I thought it was as horrible as she did. Maybe she was just being courteous, but the idea that she wondered if I might be enjoying this play cast a certain pall over my conception of our friendship. Surely she knew me better than this:  Of course I wanted to leave.

For lots of reasons, I’m not somebody who’s generally eager to leave during intermission. Yes, it seems rude to the actors. Also, sometimes there’s something that bears watching — a performer, an unanswered question, a clever bit of writing that lends hope to the future. (But not in this case.) And, finally, my not wanting to be a hypocrite; I say this as someone who at one point produced just enough bad theatre that he’s aware that nobody sets out to do crummy work.

But the perk of leaving at intermission was obvious:  Now we had time for an even earlier dinner. So we went out for sushi and talked about all sorts of things, and at one point remarked that we’d been friends for more than twenty years now. She brought up her retirement planning; I floated the idea of cashing out all sorts of things in a far-flung future. When you put those sorts of things into perspective, as we did, along with her life-saving surgery and my frequently thinking back to my friend who died last year — then it becomes awfully easy to leave during an intermission so you can make better use of the time you have.


November 24th, 2016

I’m someone who wakes up every morning thankful. Grateful. Really.

I guess I read enough and watch enough and see enough and can mentally extrapolate from irksome circumstance through to terrifying situations well enough that when I wake up and none of the horrors of the world applies to me at that moment, I’m just grateful for that. And to know that to feel otherwise than lucky, to have food and shelter and family and friends, to read “The Road” and know that phew none of that post-nuclear desperation has happened around here yet, to read about the people who are grateful for the opportunity to live in the bottom of the dump in Nigeria because the pickings are better there, for me to focus instead on the minor nits and picks of the day or the irritations of, say, traffic, would be… churlish. Disrespectful to comity and some greater force. Ungrateful.

Yesterday, my elder son and I spoke on the phone, and then we exchanged texts. We had a brief conversation about acknowledgement and gratitude. In his brief digital list of things he’s grateful for, he included “heat.” He lives in Chicago now, and if you’re from southern California and haven’t experienced Chicago in November, I don’t recommend it. He said he feels especially sorry right now for the homeless people there. I liked that sentiment so much that I texted him some money he didn’t ask for, and said I hoped he’d spend it on a nice Thanksgiving dinner, and something fun, and I figured he’d have a little extra to drop on some of the homeless people.

As for me, I slept this morning until I woke, awakening in what Wallace Shawn calls “the mansion of books and art” that some of us are incredibly fortunate to live in. I exchanged Thanksgiving greetings with some friends on Facebook, and a text with the dear friend who had emergency surgery two days ago, came downstairs, fixed some breakfast, read the newspaper, and looked forward to whole roomfuls of furniture that we bought last night and that will arrive in two weeks. The bed alone cost us seven thousand dollars. We’re not wealthy, but we work hard for our money, and we wanted that adjustable bed with the you’re-sinking-into-it mattress and the massager, plus the dresser, plus the nightstands, plus the lamps, plus the entertainment stand, plus the bed frame and headboard, plus for downstairs the sofa and the loveseat and the recliner and the two end tables plus the center table plus the rug plus the five decorative items and the “free” blanket. So they’re all arriving on December 8th, a date we chose because we’d finally have time to remove all the old furniture and paint and be otherwise ready. The new furniture will make it even more comfortable for us here, and for our guests, and will help to keep people working at the furniture store and at the manufacturing plants and the newspaper where the furniture company advertises and elsewhere, and resulted in a very nice Thanksgiving-eve commission for our 24-year-old salesman, a nice helpful guy named Narek who emigrated from Tehran with his family. I’m now grateful to Narek and to a system that let him and his family come in and that lets us exchange goods and services around the globe.

I would be thankful if that continues.

How last night felt for most of us

November 9th, 2016

Everything’s still here — but it’s been moved around, like a burglar came in while we were out at the movies. It makes for an uncomfortable scene in your own home.

Stephen Colbert had a similar sort of night, it turns out, but his was televised.

Silver linings

November 9th, 2016
  1. Now we’ll have a First Lady we can see naked on the internet if we want.
  2. No excuses for GOP now.
  3. Now that there’s no opposition to drop bombs on, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, etc., soon out of business?
  4. Won’t have to ever hear from Hillary Clinton again.
  5. Good material for comedians for at least four years.
  6. Good daily reminder of principles I don’t share. Keeps me strong.

After the burial

November 9th, 2016

The election was called about three hours ago, but the result was obvious almost from the start, when the first returns started to come in.

Hats off to my friend Doug. Months ago, he called it. He pointed at the Brexit and gasped, and then he closely tracked what was coming, with mounting alarm. I owe him dinner. I wish I could feel good about his winning the point. (He doesn’t feel good about it either.)

I’m already over my anger and my sadness. Life goes on tomorrow. If we’re going to have a global recession because of this, as is the hot topic at the moment, I refuse to contribute to it. I’m going to get up tomorrow and fight for my little corner of the economy just like every other day.

I also won’t root against President-elect Trump. Yes, it’s hard to even write the title; I loathe him. But what I did like was his victory speech. It was completely unexpected in tone, being  generous of spirit, and just what we needed, in calling for people to come together. I hope we’ll see more of that. I will oppose him and his positions when I disagree, which will be almost all the time, but I have to hope for him to succeed. You see, I live with him. So do you. So does everyone else on the planet. So we must hope for the best.

What little anger I have left, after this long and exhausting and disgusting national contest, is directed at the media who made billions of dollars off the Trump campaign before finally approaching it as a serious candidacy, and, especially, at many of the elders in the Democratic party. Two years ago, I said to many of those people, “Ready for Hillary?!?!? NO, I’m not ready for Hillary. I want an actual contest with actual primaries.”  But party elders worked to clear the field for her — and here we are. Eight years ago, she was beaten by an inexperienced and (let me say it) black man, against all odds — and then this year was almost beaten by an elderly, socialist, Jewish Senator from Vermont with almost zero track record of success. And tonight she was beaten by a misogynistic, profiteering tyro with no understanding of the job requirements. So you know who I’m blaming right now? The Democrats who actively discouraged an actual contest and pushed the nomination of an unpopular candidate with a history of blowing a lead.

But the dirt is already on that coffin. And after the burial, life goes on.

Goodbye, 538; I guess you couldn’t count

November 8th, 2016


I’m sharing this, from FiveThirtyEight.com — back from yesterday, which now seems like a millennium ago, back when 538 still had a relevant business model. As of 2 minutes ago, they’re the new Pets.com.


November 8th, 2016

I voted weeks ago.

So Donald Trump’s extremely compelling last-minute argument that he’d just make everything great unfortunately came too late.

Election eve prediction

November 7th, 2016

Having read the latest polls, I can now confidently make this prediction:

When all the counting is done tomorrow night, I will have just as many votes in the electoral college as Gary Johnson and Jill Stein COMBINED. And I didn’t have to make an ass of myself to do it.

Advice for the stage director

November 6th, 2016

I am not the best stage director I know.

I’m not even the 20th best stage director I know.

And probably not the 50th.

But after 40 years of directing for the stage, starting in my teens, I do know some things, and I thought I’d share them. These specific bits of advice — very specific — follow from a play I saw recently. In no particular order, I offer these quick takeaways for directors everywhere:

  • When a character says “pass me the hot-water pitcher,” please make sure that it’s a water pitcher. And that it appears to be filled with hot water. This will entail having the actor who has grabbed it by its side pull his hand away as though it’s been burned. Or, perhaps, he could grab it  by the handle. Either way, help us believe that it’s a pitcher, that it’s the right pitcher for the set, and that it’s filled with hot water.
  • When we are led to believe that a character is yelling down a flight of stairs for another character to enter, and then the first character steps into the scene, don’t have the second character immediately follow — because then we’ll know that he was right outside the door, next to her, all along, for God’s sake.
  • If the play is set in the 1960’s, do not have print art on the walls that all of us in attendance can recognize as being unmistakably from the 1980s.
  • And don’t mix those prints with pastoral prints popularized in the 1950s.
  • Along the same line, if you’re going to have three pairs of chairs on stage, can they at least have a glancing similarity? Like — they’re from the same period, or design type? Otherwise, you’re making us believe that the upper-middle-class couple you’re trying to make us believe lives there is, well, psychotic.
  • If the set designer says, “Hey! I’ve got an idea! When they talk about other countries, they could refer to a globe, so I’m going to pick up a children’s globe from some thrift shop and stick it on the sideboard next to what we’re supposed to believe is a fancy tea service,” you should worry about your set designer.
  • If a character is described as old and frail, and the play consistently refers to him as old and frail, may I suggest that you cast someone who can appear as old and frail? Middle-aged and well-built isn’t going to do it.
  • When someone says “Pass the teapot,” engineer the action is such a way that the teapot is not literally already touching the requesting person’s resting hand at the time.
  • If we are led to believe that the old and frail man is homeless, do not outfit him in a brand-new coat. Insight:  People who live on the street are frequently dirty.
  • If he’s going to be barefoot, perhaps dirty up his feet. (See the note just preceding.)
  • If one character says to another — who is the homeless man, and who we are told has been trying to sell matches out in the rain for days — “These matches are all wet!” then please make the matchboxes soggy. We can see them. If they look like they were just purchased from Smart n’ Final, here’s what we are going to think: “Those were just purchased from Smart n’ Final!” While Smart n’ Final is only a mile away, this reminder of its proximity is troubling for a play set in another country.
  • If you hear that one of your actors delivers almost every line in the same manner, the two of you should investigate variance. (Or replacement.)
  • If your actors are doing an accent, insist on the same accent. Both collectively and individually.
  • Try sitting in the house while directing. At least a couple of times. One of the things you may discover is that your lights are fucking blinding the audience on several occasions during the play. When you see people pick up their program to shield their eyes, that is an indicator. Heed it.
  • Dissuade the house manager or whoever she is from giving a curtain speech from the stage. If she insists on doing this, make sure she’s back off that stage before your play starts.
  • If you are directing a three-character play, cast three good actors. Or, for God’s sake, settle for two if necessary. Even just one if that’s all you can manage. But at least that one.
  • Finally, don’t ask your friends how the play is. They’re your friends, so they’ll just lie. Invite an audience in a couple of times, for rehearsals here and there, or for previews, and ask them to be brutally honest. If they say to you that they honestly can’t tell you what the play was about, or what those actors were talking about, and perhaps can’t even recount any of the events of the play, and finally they just spent the time reading the program or checking out the light plot, you should listen. Before the rest of us have to pay money for it.


Imperfect settings

November 2nd, 2016

Donald Trump, as someone who doesn’t pay his bills, and who denies saying just about anything he’s said, knows a thing or two about falsehood, cheating, lying, and manipulation. He’d fit right in at these 6 Infamous Places of Political Corruption.