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


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“April is the cruellest month”

April 30th, 2015

“I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

On Sunday the 12th I awoke to a text from a friend asking me to call him. It was time-stamped 3:30 a.m., which to me was indication enough of what it was about: My friend Tom Boyle, whom I wrote about in the previous post, had died that morning. A quick phone call confirmed this.

After that, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, because I didn’t in truth feel like doing anything. His death wasn’t unexpected, but the overly solicitous way my wife and children hovered around me showed that they could see I was a little dazed. When I audibly wished we had some orange juice, my wife ordered our youngest outside immediately to pick some oranges so she could make some. That’s how it was going. I decided to do just what we had said we’d do: go to the Renaissance Faire. And so, all day long, I thought about Tom, because among other things, Tom loved the Renaissance Faire.

And also, all day long, I wrote in my head what I’d write in this space. But when I got home, I didn’t want to do it.

And then I didn’t want to do it the next day.

Or the next day.

And this went on for two-and-a-half weeks.

Almost all procrastination derives from not knowing how to proceed. Usually the assignment is complicated, and so people become stymied. In this case, the task was simple — write something about my friend of 25 years. And I even knew what I wanted to say. Even made notes to that effect.

But I didn’t do it.

Because, I think, that meant truly saying goodbye.

There’s nothing I can say here that will sum up for you my long-term friendship with him. I also don’t think there’s any benefit in being maudlin. Death is the universal constant, so there’s nothing particularly special about this one — except in the way it’s special to me. You can’t just run out and replace a long-term friend. There’s only one in each box of crackerjacks.

This past Saturday, my wife and I went to a memorial gathering of Tom’s family and friends. It was good seeing so many other people who cared about Tom. I thought — expected! — there would be an opportunity to share reminiscences about Tom (I was ready!), but there wasn’t. So now, if I can, I think I’ll do that here, because I do have a memory or two about my friend that I’d like to post. Not right now, and maybe not ever (we’ll see), but maybe. Probably.

For now, I’ll leave it with this: I had future plans with this guy. I didn’t expect we wouldn’t do them.

Hospitality

March 28th, 2015

Last night, I went to visit a friend in the hospital. I didn’t know what to expect, not just about my friend’s condition, but also about visiting a friend in the hospital, because I’d never done that before. Never before have I had a friend in the hospital.

Realizing this on the way over also made me realize how right my wife was when she said recently that I’ve been sheltered from death. Absolutely right, is how right she’s been. As a medical professional, she’s been working alongside it for 30 years. Me? No. My father died, but that was 23 years ago. And a couple of friends have died recently, but I had lost touch with them years earlier. I’ve known a few suicides, but here’s how those have worked: you find out later that they’ve killed themselves. Sometimes, yes, only just shortly after you’ve seen them, but you’re not there for it. At least, I haven’t been. So in the overall tally of death and disease, I and my immediate circle have been extraordinarily lucky.

So far.

This is all by way of saying that, honestly, I was dreading the visit. I didn’t want to go. Oh, I was going, there was no doubt about it; when your good friend of almost 25 years is in the hospital, of course you’re going to go. No, you don’t want to — but you also don’t want to live with regret if you don’t. We had had dinner plans set for Sunday, but he texted me on Friday morning, asking me to call him. When I did, he told me he’d been hospitalized the night before. He was doing much better, he said, and fully expected to be discharged on Sunday night, but dinner was off.

I told him I’d visit.

Hours later when I meekly stuck my head around his hospital room door, I wasn’t surprised by how he looked. He’d been to my house just a few weeks before. So I’d seen the weight loss, and the hair loss, and the other signs of his epic struggle this past year. I sat in the visitor’s chair, a leatherette chair oddly immobilized despite castors that should have enabled it to be rolled into line of site, where my friend wouldn’t have to crane his neck to see me. No matter how I pushed or tugged or swung it, it wouldn’t arc into viewing position, so finally I just shoved it across the floor, scraping the tile. I didn’t care about the floor; I just didn’t want my hospitalized but valiant friend to have to crane his neck. In this way, at 6:30, we started our visit, the visit I needed to make, but didn’t know how to conduct.

No, the big surprise was not his illness, or the depredations it visited upon him, or any of the accoutrements of a hospital room. The big surprise, the thing I was utterly unprepared for, was what a great time we had. Ninety minutes sailed by, and before I saw it coming, visiting time was over.

What did we talk about? We talked a lot about theatre. We’ve built two theaters together, and I hope to do a third some day with him. We talked about our theatre experiences, and what incredible and practical training for life that a life in the theatre can provide. Because the basic tenet is that the show will go on, and go on at the time scheduled, theatre people are prepared for anything. We know that something will go wrong — it always does, whether it’s a missed cue or a missing prop or a missing actor — and so, we’re always prepared to adapt. That mindset of preparation and adaptability makes one powerful. We also talked about our childhoods, with each of us always the smartest one in class and all the difficulties that come with that. He said he was always trying to pull them up this level; I laughed hard at that. He also, from his sickbed, re-enacted his response hunching back to his room after one of the more painful admission treatments he’d received: “Ow-ow-ow-ow-ow-ow-ow.” That was uproariously funny. Shortly after I arrived, so did his dinner, but he left it there on his tray, untouched. But as he shared one hilarious story after another, and I kept laughing, bit by bit his color returned, his voice grew stronger, and then he started eating.

Like every true performer, he came alive for the audience.

I was sorry to see 8 o’clock arrive. But ninety minutes is typical for a one-man show, so it seemed a good time to leave. I didn’t want to wear him out.

“About Sunday, you’ll let me know if things change?” I asked.

He didn’t understand. He thought I was wondering if maybe we could still do dinner that day, which I knew was off.

“No,” I said. I wanted a return engagement. “If they wind up keeping you, I’ll come back. I’d like to come back.”

Post-punk comics

March 20th, 2015

Two of the things I most love, together at last: post-punk music, and comic books. Mark Mothersbaugh as Iron Man? Perfect. Enjoy the rest here.

Young playwrights get early break

March 5th, 2015

Three years ago, my then-13-year-old daughter had her first play read by professional actors. (Here’s that story again.)

Recently on The Tonight Show, three even younger kids got the same experience. These plays are hilarious, and prove yet again that playwriting can’t really be all that hard. What I said three years ago holds true: Oh, for a world so lacking in subtext.

Disfigurative art

March 3rd, 2015

On the one hand, I admire Brian Dettmer’s art. It’s beautiful and striking.

But on the other hand, it involves maiming books.

When I was made aware of Dettmer’s work by my friend Doug Hackney, I responded, “Destroying books? Who is this guy, ISIS?” Because that’s the way I feel about it. (And them.) Doug responded that it was a tough call for him as well.

But — because art lovers are almost assuredly book lovers too, and what book lover can delight in seeing a book get cut up? — perhaps that visceral reaction is precisely the point.

Here. Judge for yourself.

Music man

February 25th, 2015

In the same week that Starbucks announces it won’t be selling CDs any more, Henry Rollins makes the case for always buying your music in a physical form.

The price of theatre

February 24th, 2015

On Friday, a friend and I went to see the Arthur Miller play “The Price” downtown at the Taper. I am not by nature an Arthur Miller fan; I’d rather be burned at the stake than ever again sit through the screaming girls in “The Crucible,” and to me the dramatic problems presented in “Death of a Salesman” would be easily solved if only Willy Loman would get a job he’s better suited for. But “The Price” turned out to be a completely engaging, unexpected and well-written evaluation of the price paid for certain life decisions by two brothers fighting (or not) over what’s left behind after their father’s death. Moreover, it’s anchored by four very fine performances, especially that of 87-year-old Alan Mandell, stealing the show as a comically sly appraiser wheedling a storehouse of old furniture out of Sam Robards’ grasp in exchange for peanuts. Mandell delivers every laugh possible while bringing to life a performance that’s completely plausible and true. That he can do this at age 87 is argument itself against term limits for stage actors.

Afterward, my friend and I went for a drink and shared another sort of price: While it’s often reported how expensive it is to attend the theatre, there’s the even greater very real financial cost paid by those devoted to making theatre. The backdrop for this discussion was our own experiences (I have no doubt I’m out hundreds of thousands of dollars) as well as the ugly rumblings from Actors Equity that it may end the 99-seat plan that allows union actors to perform on LA’s small stages. Moving actors in sub-100-seat houses from token payments of $10 or $20 a performance into minimum wage won’t help them make a living; instead, it’ll shutter our small theatres and sideline thousands of actors. (But then, if you’re the union and you subsist on dues and shares of revenues, and your revenue resulting from these theatres is almost nil, why should you care?) The actors have been subsidizing small theatre, for sure — but so have been the playwrights and the directors and the board ops and everyone else involved. And God knows the producers — and I’ve been one — have spent both opportunity costs and actual hard cash on keeping small theatre alive, because it means so much to us.

Scheduling and life circumstances had cost my friend and me more than a year and a half since we’d last seen each other. I just confirmed this in my calendar. The last time we’d gone out together had been in August of 2013 to see a Woody Allen movie. Judging by the terrific time we had together on Friday night, that’s far too long. I also note that in 2011 we saw a movie called “The Debt.” I couldn’t remember anything about this movie, so I just looked it up. Now it comes back to me. It’s a thriller about old friends who shared an adventure in the past, but who question the choices they made, much as the characters in “The Price” do. And much as we all do.

Critical praise

February 21st, 2015

My weekly playwriting workshop, Words That Speak, now in its 22nd year, resumed this morning after a one-month hiatus when the last round ended. Usually, I accept eight playwrights; this time, I took nine, based on the quality of their work, including three new people. (And could have taken more, but eight or nine is really all that can work for a weekly writing workshop where everyone’s work will be heard every time.)

Some of these playwrights have been in the workshop for five, eight, or 10 years.

During the break, I heard one of the new enrollees asking one of the veterans about his experience in the workshop. He talked about the plays he’s written and the productions he’s gotten since starting with me.

“So the workshop helps?” she asked.

“Well,” he replied, “I haven’t gotten worse.”

It’s inspiration like this that has carried me all these years.

Must-see TV

February 18th, 2015

I wish the Beckett estate would lift the embargo so the first (and only) season of this could be released on DVD or streaming.

Well, I guess ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

Valentine’s Day

February 15th, 2015

For Valentine’s Day, my wife Valorie and I exchanged cards and chocolates. I got her a medium-sized box of chocolates and a pricey card. She got me a tiny little heart-shaped box of chocolates containing only four chocolates (completely fair, because I don’t care for sweets) and a cheap card (because she’s cheap).

Then we decided to take our two sons and our aged but rambunctious dog for a hike. Our 16-year-old daughter had been promised a multi-phase excursion by her boyfriend, so we were looking for something for the rest of us to do together. Valorie suggested the Franklin Canyon reservoir hiking trail because it’s bucolic, we hadn’t been there in a while, and there weren’t too many hills to trouble the dog. I thought that an excellent idea, so off we went.

On the drive over, Valorie’s iPhone dinged, indicating an incoming text message. She was busy driving, because I was loaded up on Benadryl. (No, we don’t have snow or ice, but unlike the northeast, we do have plenty of pollen right now.) I helpfully took the phone in order to see who had texted. It was our daughter.

“I hate amc!” her text reported.

We all wanted to know why. (Except for her little brother, who doesn’t want to know anything about her, unless it’s something that will get her into trouble.) So I texted back, using my wife’s phone, “Why?” Then, still in helpful mode, I took the opportunity to add, “Your father is such a dreamboat.”

There was no immediate reply. So I texted again, this time stating, “He’s the best.”

Still nothing. Which surprised me, given the categorical nature of the statement. Maybe she wasn’t getting these. Or maybe — maybe — she was nodding in silent agreement. But I wanted to know for sure. So I added, “I’m lucky to have him.” Surely, this should elicit a reply, because it applied to her as well.

Finally, she texted back. “Amc mom the movie theater.”

Coupled with the heavy-duty antihistamines in my system, her poor use of capitalization and spelling made my head swim. Plus, she was overlooking the main point! I responded, “I know. Why do you hate it?” And then, trying to steer her back to the primary topic, I added in a separate text, “Your dad is also so funny! Makes me laugh.”

That certainly should have prompted her to comment. But instead we got a detailed report about how her 16-year-old self had been barred from entering an R-rated movie. I said nothing, but did momentarily flash back to my being ushered in to see “Caligula” (!!!) at the age of 16, and my naively believing it would be a historical epic and not, well, hard-core porn, replete with scenes that made me clutch myself in protection while watching it. How times had changed. It used to be that you could pay your money and see your porn in the movie theatre along with everyone else as long as you looked to be reasonably close to 18. (Or, in my case, even while still looking 13.) Now I guess teenagers have to watch it in secret on the internet.

The bigger question I had, though, was at what point do teens truly transition into adulthood, with an interest in others? My daughter had been presented with numerous openings to weigh in on her father’s positive qualities. But instead she was relentlessly focused on the inanities of movie-theatre policies, which will become utterly moot for her within 18 months. Mistaken priorities, for sure.