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


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1 day left for 7 steps

Saturday, June 19th, 2021

My play 7 STEP PROCESS debuted last night, live on Zoom, where it went over better than I ever could have expected. More than 50 people stayed for the live virtual talkback, and flooded the cast and crew with questions and praise, making for an adventurous discussion about just what “theatre” is, especially when the actors have never even met in the same room.

I started writing that play in December precisely with the idea of getting it up on its feet — over Zoom — because not getting to do any theatre was weighing on me. Yes, I was writing all the time, but when you write plays, you want to see them get performed by actors. Plus, I wanted to explore this new medium of doing live theatre online, and turning the proscenium into a small rectangle on people’s computers. What would that be like? Would punch lines still work, in the absence of an audience? Plus plus, I wanted to write about change — because we’re in only the beginning stages of massive cultural and technological change, and not everyone is adapting well. (As we see in the play.)

The second performance starts in under an hour — and we’ve got audience members logging on from across the U.S. and other nations as well (which is thrilling) — but there’s still one more playdate, tomorrow at 3 p.m. Pacific, if you’d like to check it out. Here’s the link.

https://www.eventbrite.com/o/7-step-process-33397834725?fbclid=IwAR2PbSHkgg2cfokOCOIHSrYlN-Rr4CQ0nd1XCP3ZChA9XJWCqlpiV-B_pCk

The end-of-the-month post

Friday, April 30th, 2021

So, no, I can’t end April with only one post. So here we are, with the end-of-the-month post.

I remember the years when I used to post here every day. Maybe I’ll get back to that. If it gives you any comfort* — because I’m sure you no doubt want comforting about what I’m up to — I will tell you that I’ve been very productive during our little global pandemic.

I wrote three full-length plays**, and one of them is headed into production now with an opening targeted for June. (More about that soon.)

I also devoted a lot of time to listening to, and interacting with, and researching even more about, the world’s greatest rock band.*** Time well-spent indeed!

I bought about eleventy-billion more glorious old moldering comic books from the 1940s through 1980s and carefully curated them right into my collection.

And I’ve been doing a lot-lot-lot of reading, and I’ve been working on some exciting projects and initiatives at my company, and I’ve even occasionally had friends over to sit in the back yard and smoke cigars and drink bourbon and talk about writing and the theatre.

And somewhere in all that, I went and got vaccinated. I hope you do that too, if you haven’t already.

And we’ve had lots of repair work done around the house and yard, even up until today, and even more scheduled, and… ugh.

I thought I’d just catch you up somewhat obliquely on some of these things before May hits us smack in the face in the morning. And at some point — perhaps this weekend? — I’ll write one of the two longish posts that have been floating around in my head for literally months now, one of which I’ve actually written notes for, and one of which I’ve taken a photo for. The former one involves the Bee Gees, while the latter one involves Philip K. Dick and Adam Strange.

Stay tuned!

* It actually gives me comfort, as someone raised very German Lutheran, and therefore tied to work. Work is my joy. My people, when we die, say, “I wish I’d worked more.”

** When asked how many of his plays were full-length, Edward Albee famously replied, “All of them.” (Even his 10-page ones.) But in this particular case, I mean a running time of 75-120 minutes.

*** Pere Ubu, of course! There’s always something great going on over here!

Book return

Thursday, February 18th, 2021

One night last week, after about 20 years, I had a guy I know over for drinks and cigars and to talk about theatre and writing and books and music.

One thing about the pandemic: Suddenly we both had time. The social options normally available have telescoped down into almost nothing.

We already knew we had some things in common: We’re both playwrights and stage directors, we’ve both done work with Moving Arts (which is how we know each other), I’ve seen his plays and he’s seen mine, we both have wives and kids, and we both live in Burbank — within walking distance of each other. I learned the latter fact some time last year when he told me that whenever he’s at his kids’ school, he sees the fundraising tile my wife and I sponsored some years ago. More recently, he and his wife bought one too, so that’s something else we have in common.

Over the course of two-and-a-half hours in my back yard under a glowing patio heater and during half a bottle of bourbon, we took turns shooting references at each other that, yep, the other would actually get. When I compared the Stan Lee / Jack Kirby dynamic with the Edison / Tesla dynamic, both of them revolving around a genius largely unrecognized during his life, he was armed and ready with the tragic details of Tesla’s last years. We shared our admiration for the work of Ayad Akhtar. When we wandered into music, and the role of noise, and John Cage, and I inevitably brought up Pere Ubu, and he offered his love of their songs as songs, and then added Wire, I just about fell over. How often can one find someone equally capable of discussing Marvel comics, brilliant 19th century inventors, particular contemporary playwrights, semi-obscure postpunk bands, the practice of being a writer, Fran Lebowitz, and, especially dozens and dozens of books you’ve read?

What are the odds of this, and with regard to the books in particular? Not to put too fine a point on it, but it takes time to read a book. Most Americans read four books a year. In 2020, I read 33 books; my average is 26 books a year (I just checked; thank you, GoodReads), which I think is pathetic. Although it’s possible to read 100 books a year, distractions like eating and sleeping and other functions get in the way. So finding that you’ve both read Paul Auster and Joan Didion and Julian Barnes and Cormac McCarthy and Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth and some of the Russians and Fitzgerald and Hemingway and on and on while also having all those other interests in common is a bit… disconcerting. Wasn’t the final grandmaster chess tournament in “Queen’s Gambit” like this?

It did turn out, though, that there were two books I’d read and heartily endorsed that he hadn’t read, and two that he swore by that I hadn’t read. The next day, still thrilled and knocked off-kilter by the experience of having someone walk over to my house and have that sort of conversation with me over bourbon and cigars for almost three hours, I went on Amazon and sent him the two books I love that he hadn’t read: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.

He texted me two days later to thank me and to say that he’d already gobbled down the Barnes book, adding a few salient points about it. And then the other day, when I opened my front door to see why my annoying dogs were raising high holy hell this time, I found a package from Amazon on my own doorstep: He had sent me the two I hadn’t read, pictured above.

After I read these, we’ll have four more books we can discuss. And this time, we won’t wait 20 years. We’ve already set the date.

How it’s going

Sunday, January 31st, 2021
Everything’s fine.
  1. Back in this post, I noted that I even though I’m a committed reader of books, I make little headway on the number of books in my reading queue, because I’m buying more than I read. Yes, I’m guilty of tsundoku (an excellent word I learned only recently), or owning a growing pile of books I may never read. So when Taschen targeted me on Facebook with their goddamn ad highlighting a big sale they were having of their beautiful art books, of which I’d like to own all, I did not buy any. I did send the link to a friend who I knew would appreciate it, but I didn’t even glance at their offering of what’s on sale, and I didn’t buy any of it.
  2. When I was on Facebook the next day, the ad came back and I bought two books from it. But they were big beautiful books and I needed them! Baby steps, okay?
  3. I was also targeted on Facebook by some product that promised to remove the bags under my eyes. (The fact that they knew I had them screams out for further regulation by Facebook.) I bought this stuff too. Usually, I’m a bit of a tightwad — I really don’t want all this stuff in my house! — but I do have the eye bags, even if only in the morning (I tell myself). The product promptly arrived, and I put it in my bathroom, but so far there’s been no improvement. Next step: Tomorrow morning, I’m going to take it out of the box.
  4. On Saturday after my playwriting workshop, I came across a tweet from a business guru I follow who shared how the pandemic was affecting him. One idea he floated: Rewatching The Walking Dead, but this time taking notes. The Walking Dead being about, essentially, a pandemic, I thought that funny. So in a welcome interlude from attacking all these books with a pickaxe, I wound up rewatching Season 1 (six episodes, requiring only about five hours) and then this morning, while putzing around and putting off other things I should be doing, I watched a couple more. Season 1 is a masterpiece, and I say this seriously. It’s an emotionally devastating, grinding, unforgiving look at the apocalypse (or, as I like to refer to it, Trump’s Second Term). No one gets off easy, and no one is miraculously saved. Every moment is earned, and the acting, writing, and production values are superb. Seeing it again for the first time in 10 years and now watching it straight through helped me see how terrific it is — and especially how much money was lavished on what was essentially a six-episode miniseries. There is no one set location, so every scene is a new location shoot; locations include a hospital that gets trashed, the Center for Disease Control (which gets blown up), a roadway with a huge car collision and shootout; a skyscraper; sewer tunnels; downtown Atlanta with hundreds of extras and a freaking tank and God knows what else… the list is endless. It’s jaw-dropping.
  5. In Season 2, our hardy band of survivors mostly hangs around a farmhouse and discusses their feelings for 13 interminable episodes. Looks like: All the budget got blown in Season 1.
  6. Back here, I said that theatre on Zoom is not theatre. Since then, we’ve done another reading of a new play from my workshop, and done it on Zoom. The script, by a talented playwright, is strong, and the actors were real pros: working actors you’d recognize, who brought their all. But, still, it was on Zoom. Something about a live “theatre” performance on Zoom just screams, “Hey, check your email.” That’s because the delivery vehicle — Zoom, on your computer — is the same delivery vehicle for your email and your Facebook and your Twitter, etc. The actual theatre demands that you sit there in a darkened room without your smartphone and pay attention. When you’re watching “theatre” on your laptop, though, all those other options lurk in the same dimension as the performance and, if you haven’t turned off texting or email or Facebook or notifications, you’ll be getting those interruptions throughout. The playwright asked me afterward if I thought the play ran a little long and maybe should be trimmed — this, by the way, is #1 on the frequently asked list from a playwright after a reading — and I said there’s no way to know, because it was on Zoom.
  7. By the way — of course! — I’m writing a play that takes place over Zoom. It’s seven scenes long, is intended to run 70 minutes, and I’ve finished the first draft. I’m in rewrites. I would have already finished the rewrites — except I’m writing it on a machine that also has email, and Facebook, and texting, and notifications….

Not-year in review

Sunday, December 27th, 2020

Today, the Washington Post unveiled its “humorous” 2020 year-in-review, courtesy of Dave Barry, which was even less funny than Dave Barry normally is.

Then the Los Angeles Times carrier dropped today’s edition on my front lawn, featuring its own year-in-review, which made me want to run after her car and take back the Christmas tip I’d given her.

Why would anyone want to perform a year in review on 2020? Except, perhaps, to learn what not to do.

2020 was the year in which I saw no more than one play. At least, not live on-stage — and, no, watching “theatre” on Zoom doesn’t count as theatre, so, yes, I saw only the one. Oh, I was supposed to see more, but I was out of town / out of the country for a huge swath of January, had only the one show scheduled for February, and then, well, you know what happened after that. I sure was looking forward to the revival of 1776 and also to a host of other shows, and I wish I’d liked the one I did get to see.

2020 was the year in which I wrote a full-length play, all 120ish pages of it plus notes, then realized I didn’t like it at all, then set about rewriting it from a different point of view and a different tone, then found that I needed to do research (!) and then realized that maybe this wasn’t the play for me to be writing anyway. Yes, it was that sort of year — in which one writes two versions of the same play and then isn’t satisfied with either.

2020 was also the year in which I saw one concert. Oh, I enjoyed that one tremendously (and we’ll get to that), but what might it have been like to see all the others that were scheduled? The Cruel World Festival alone (an instant sellout, but a friend and I scored great seats) promised sets from Morrissey, Bauhaus, Blondie, Devo, Echo & The Bunnymen, Psychedelic Furs, the Church, Public Image Limited, and so many more. The fest was scheduled for May, then got rescheduled to September, but sometime around June someone woke up to what wasn’t ending anytime soon and just canceled it.

Should I point out that this was the year that Comic-Con was canceled? And, no, that valiant effort of doing a virtual Comic-Con was not Comic-Con. I know, because I’ve been to Comic-Con every year since 1988. Except for one year — guess which one.

2020 was the year in which a politician I’ve always liked and rooted for finally won the presidency — except the other candidate refused to admit defeat and half of his party in the House is still going along with it.

In 2020 in the United States, more than 300,000 people and counting died from what someone (see previous paragraph) kept saying was like the flu, and not to worry about it. So much winning!

2020 was the year in which one of my favorite restaurants, Pacific Dining Car, a place of many memories for me, went out of business… one year short of its 100th anniversary. That is so 2020! Now I’m afraid thousands of other restaurants are going to follow it into oblivion, if they haven’t already, taking hundreds of thousands of jobs with them.

In 2020, many of my friends lost their jobs. Their long-time jobs. Hard-to-replace jobs.

In 2020 it cost a small fortune and a short lifetime to get a package from the U.K., thanks to changes made by our postmaster. Some delivery days, the U.S. mail didn’t arrive at all, a true first in my lifetime, and yet another achievement for the current administration.

2020 was the year in which one of my kids came home for Christmas, but the other didn’t because of our reasonable fears during the pandemic.

2020 wasn’t a total bust. As the year opened, my daughter and I went to Spain to see Pere Ubu play, and also spent time in the same room as Hieronymus Bosch paintings I’ve admired for decades, and rode high-speed rail from Madrid to Segovia, and ate in the world’s oldest restaurant, and went to a flamenco show and did some shopping and had an altogether excellent time. I sometimes think that reflecting on January is what kept me together through March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November and December.

And, y’know what? I’m healthy and alive and so are my family, the sun is shining, and I don’t own a restaurant. If 2020 has one lesson for us, it’s this: Be grateful for what you have, and do your best not to spread misery around, because many people have it far worse. If we’re going to review 2020, we should celebrate it for leaving us with that lesson.

Voltaire said — and I’m paraphrasing here — that man is essentially optimistic because he goes to bed making plans for the next day. In that spirit: 2021, I await you!

You’ll need that: A cautionary tale

Sunday, August 30th, 2020

(Except I’m not quite sure what caution you should take.)

I’ve moved myself, and my stuff, many times over the years. Just like everyone else.

Kindergarten through grad school, I went to nine different schools.

I moved with my family to a different house when I was 10.

When I was 19, I rented a house in Ocean City, NJ. After almost a year, I moved back in with my parents. (Awkward!) Then I moved back to that same house. Then I moved back in again with my parents. (Yikes.) Then I moved with my girlfriend into an apartment inland from Ocean City, in Somers Point. Then I rented a house with her in, yet again, Ocean City. Then she and I got married and moved to California, where we lived in an apartment for a few years, and then a house for a few years, and then, in 1996, we bought the house we still live in.

In all of those houses and apartments I’ve also had a place for writing. Mostly, it’s been a room all its own: a writing room. I still have one today.

I’ve also had lots of offices. When I was running Moving Arts, from 1992 to 2002, I had an office at our theatre on Hyperion Avenue in Los Angeles. When we added our spaces at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, I had an office there, too, in downtown. When I became President & CEO of the Los Angeles theatre alliance, I gained an office in that space, meaning that I now had three offices: the one at home that I wrote out of, the one at the theatre center where I produced theatre, and the one six blocks away where I ran the alliance of local non-profit theatres.

For the past 16 years, instead of producing theatre and running a nonprofit or two (or three!) simultaneously while being a playwright, I’ve been someone with a consulting business who is also a playwright. From 2004 to mid-2006, I ran that business from my home office, but then opened an actual external office, across the street from City Hall in Burbank. I took on a partner in 2007. The company now has 11 employees, which has necessitated larger offices. We moved about 10 years ago to San Fernando Boulevard (still in Burbank) and then six-and-a-half years ago we moved to Burbank Boulevard (still in Burbank) and then last week we moved to Magnolia Boulevard (still in Burbank). We like Burbank.

Oh, and last May we had a flood at our office — a real calamity — that required us to relocate to another office for four months… and then move back.

So, for almost 50 years, I have been on a conveyor belt of living spaces, schools, and offices. I am tired of moving.

I’m tired of moving me, and I’m tired of moving my stuff. It’s physically taxing, it’s time-consuming, and it’s mentally draining. I have a problem finding things to begin with, so imagine how it must feel to always be unpacking and wondering just where something is.

But there’s something else that gets moved now. Something that we sometimes don’t think about. Something quieter and even more important than all that stuff, something that’s always getting moved.

Our data.

In all of those moves, of course, I’ve also been moving computers. And servers. And backup drives. And disks. And multiple laptops, and iPads, and handheld devices (iPhones, Handspring Treos and Handspring Visors, Palm Pilots) and more. Some of those devices are now defunct, and the ones that still function get system updates and software updates. In one of the recent moves, I discovered that I had four old iPhones. And that was after having sold one.

Nothing is constant.

A year or so ago, I found a virus on my laptop that, to my horror, had corrupted dozens (maybe hundreds) of my files. Files of my writing. Plays, short stories, poems, essays — about 15 years of work had been wiped out, just turned into .exe files. When I calmed down, I remembered that I had print copies of all this in my files (always keep print copies, people!), but I didn’t want to type or scan all that back in and wondered if there was some way to rescue the files. Plus — if my files had gotten corrupted, I needed the situation addressed! So, I had the owner of the IT firm that services my company take a look at my laptop and see what could be done. He examined it and clarified the entire situation for me.

I hadn’t gotten a virus, and I hadn’t gotten hacked. Everything was still there and uncorrupted — it was just unreadable.

All of my old files had been written in software that was no longer supported. Even though there were many, many versions of that software in the 1980s and 1990s, as it went from Appleworks to Clarisworks to Appleworks and then ultimately away, in one of the many file transfers from older laptops to newer ones, those versions of word processing programs had fallen by the wayside, and now all these data files were unreadable .exe files. There was no application program to match them with.

So: Just to clarify: I had successfully transferred the data every time. I had also backed up every file onto first storage disks (which were now unreadable; who has a disk reader?) and, later, digital files (in the cloud, or on local networks, or on a backup drive). None of that mattered. The data was now unreadable.

Fuck it, I thought. I’ve still got all those paper copies. I’ll worry about this another time.

Several months ago, my great-nephew in New Jersey asked to see a copy of one of my plays. He’d heard about it from his brother and had placed third in a statewide acting competition with a monologue from another of my plays, and he wanted to read this one. When I looked for it on my laptop, I discovered that, yep, it was one of those unreadable ones. Well, no problem, I’d just go pull the paper copy and scan it and send it to him that way.

Except when I looked in my files in my writing room there was no paper copy.

I looked again and again, the way a person in a thriller looks again and again at the dead body of the person he’s accidentally killed just to make sure he’s really seeing what he’s seeing, but, no, there was no paper copy.

Then I had a big fat drink.

The play that had some of my absolute best work, a play that had been done in London and New York and Los Angeles and elsewhere was… gone. Evidently, somehow, in one of the moves of my paper files, it hadn’t moved. Its entire redwell folder, overstuffed with drafts and notes and a completed final copy, was missing.

I had become one of those creative artists with lost work.

It didn’t feel good.

I started to piece together where I might — might — be able to get a copy. Well, there were the actors from the various productions. And the directors. And — for some reason — I’d sent a copy to a friend on the East Coast back in 1995 when the play was new. I reached out to him, and he offered to go look for it in his storage space… some day. I asked twice, displaying as little anxiety as I could, and finally he told me he’d get around to it. I understood. I did. There’s so much to get around to. Our lives are one endless to-do.

I tried hard to put this out of my mind.

But I couldn’t.

In all these moves, what else hadn’t moved? What else was I missing digitally, and what else, for God’s sake, had disappeared from my paper files as well?

And — let’s be honest — did it really matter?

I mean, really?

I consoled myself by deciding that I’m always focused on the future anyway. Wasn’t all that old stuff just… old stuff? Who really cared?

(We call this “rationalization.” Talking oneself into okayness.)

Last week, because, as I said, my company was moving offices again, I resolved to strictly separate what should be there and what should be here. Oh, I was observing the same protocols as before, but now even more strictly. I brought boxes and boxes of papers home — papers that more directly relate to my playwriting career than my marketing and consulting career. In order to ensure that I had enough space at home for all this additional paper, I cleaned out a closet in my previous writing room at home. (Yes, I have even moved writing rooms at home. I forgot to mention this.) From that closet, I pulled out boxes of tax filings and receipts from the 1990s and early 2000s, birthday cards, ancient office supplies, and… an old iMac.

Good timing, because the city where I live is doing an e-waste drive this weekend. I would be able to trash ancient machine for free. But first, my wife wanted to make sure our data was removed.

My son and I booted it up.

It was filled with old data: family photos and emails and stuff. We found movies that I’d shot and edited in which he and the rest of the family appear, he at age 3. He’s just turned 18. My heart skipped a beat.

“I wonder if my old plays are on here…” I said.

They were. I could see their icons nested in their little folders. They weren’t .exe files.

My essays and my poems and my short stories and everything else were there too. But I would need the old software on there, too, for them to be readable.

I clicked on the icon for the missing play — and it sprang to life on the screen. There it was. All one hundred pages or so, in glorious glowing type. I haven’t done a full inventory — but it sure looks like everything that was missing is now back. This must be how an amnesiac feels when he snaps back into full awareness.

What is the lesson here that I would share with you? Is it to back everything up? Well, I did that. Is it to save paper copies? Well, I’ve always done that. Is it to transfer your files? I’ve always done that as well. The only lesson, it seems, is to never throw anything away. Because some day, you’ll need it.

Now there’s just one thing left. I need to figure out how to get those files off this computer in a format that I can still access. And, I guess, to print more paper copies.

What’s next

Sunday, July 19th, 2020

This weekend, as with most weekends recently, has been consumed with straightening up my comic-book collection and working on my new play. I’m slowly running out of thousands of old comic books that still need to be paired with nice plastic bags and boards and carefully slid into comics storage boxes, and I also may finally be running out of ways to rewrite the same 119 pages, at least in a way that theoretically improves upon them. I’ve already got more delicious rotting old comic books on their way to my house, courtesy of eBay and Mercari, and at some point I suppose this play will be done.

This morning I had a very nice surprise on the weekly Pere Ubu live show on Patreon when the band’s manager, the smart and very talented Kiersty Boon, sang me happy birthday, which even earned a nod from David Thomas. Again, a nice surprise. If you’re not on the Ubu Patreon platform yet, you’re going to want to watch that and much here, so here’s the link. Earlier in the week, I had posted on Facebook that all I wanted for my birthday was a new-new Pere Ubu album (a new one having just come out a month or so ago), at which a fellow fan and friend remonstrated, “Oi, Lee! You’re such a greedy boy!” But on the show, Kiersty and David announced that there is now indeed a new-new Pere Ubu album available for download, proving yet again that when you want something, you should put that want out into the universe in order for it to happen. In retrospect, I wish I had wanted Donald Trump out of office for my birthday.

While doing my self-appointed chores today (laundry; work on play; straighten up more comics; complete the online Sudoku Mega; pick more avocados from our tree for my wife to barter at work), I still found time to take on a bunch of objectivists, libertarians and crackpots on the Facebook page dedicated to the late Steve Ditko, best known as co-creator of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange and as an acolyte of Ayn Rand. The thread started when someone posted a lunkhead op-ed claiming that the nation had met its ruin because we weren’t adhering to the most extreme sort of religious evangelism, and equating protesters with rioters (never mind that the nation was founded protesters who rioted, and that most of us who have protested several times in our lives have never once rioted). When, finally, after much back-and-forth between myself and several other people posting, the original author admitted that he’d never even read the thing he linked to, for which he then got eviscerated by others, I declared victory and left the discussion. But not before one of the commenters assured us all that if he were in charge, this rebellion would be put down fast! I offered that Google could provide driving directions, should he gather the momentum, and that in the meantime he should beware paper cuts while reading those old comics.

Whenever I finish a TV show or movie or book, I get an email from Netflix or Goodreads asking me “What’s next?” Y’know what, guys? When I know, you’ll know. Let’s just leave it at that. Especially in 2020, no one knows what’s next.

Good timing

Wednesday, March 25th, 2020

Three recent examples of good timing:

 

  1. I went to Spain in January. Talk about perfect timing! But then, I went to see Pere Ubu – and they’ve always had perfect timing.  My daughter and I got into the country, sucked every bit of fun possible out of it for eight days, and left pretty much right before the Coronavirus panic started to hit Europe. What the people of that country are suffering now is almost unimaginable, and I’m thinking about them every day.
  2. On a whim, went to San Diego Comics Fest two weeks ago – i.e., immediately before all such gatherings got canceled. I bought some delicious old funny books at bargain rates, caught a presentation by one of the producers of the David Lynch version of “Dune” filled with fun backstory, and saw something I’d never before seen in 45 years of going to comics conventions:  someone named Ditko. (Yes, it was the nephew of the late, great, mysterious and unphotographed co-creator of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. Who said that they all just knew him as “Uncle Steve,” and were impressed with his drawing ability… but didn’t know what he did for a living.)
  3. And, finally, on the very night before first Los Angeles Mayor Garcetti and then Governor Gavin Newsom shut down the city and then whole state, I had some friends over for drinks and cigars in my back yard. What was supposed to be a gathering of an hour or so stretched to almost five hours as we swapped stories about our friends and families, the economic and political situation and, of course, given that this universe’s foremost expert on it was in attendance, “Star Trek.” Everybody was grateful for the fellowship.

 

I have the memory of those three recent social activities to sustain me. But I also have new memories forged from staying home and being immersed in writing and reading and beating my kid at 500 Rummy, and also in a first-ever achievement last Saturday:  running my “Words That Speak” playwriting workshop as a videoconference, with seven other playwrights joining me for three-and-a-half hours and a lot of laughs and virtual social sharing. The workshop has been running since February, 1993 – but never via video. So:  That’s definitely something new.

 

We’ll all get back to everything soon. In the meantime, let’s do our best to make the best of this time, too.

Little things

Monday, February 17th, 2020

Yes, little things make a big difference.

Yesterday I saw a flat-out terrific play, about the benighted state of journalism and what that portends for us. The play was harrowing, somehow funny as well, very well-played and brilliantly directed. Seriously — brilliantly directed. Especially given that the director’s task involved choreographing the entrances and exits of six actors onto a stage the size of most vestibules, and that those actors had to change clothes repeatedly because five of them were playing more than one character.

(Oh, heck, the play was “Red Ink,” by Steven Leigh Morris, in a production by Playwrights Arena. Here’s a link. It’s running one more week — so go see it now.)

I saw it with a friend (another good director) and we both loved the production and the direction and talked briefly about the theme of the play. But what did we wind up texting about?

The shoes.

The shoes on one of the actors. A really great actor, one I’ve seen before, who played two diametrically opposed characters (one a financially successful if scurrilous businessman, the other a mental patient with kleptomania) and who brought life and energy with him in every scene… but who wore scuffed-up, box-toed cowboy boots missing several lifetimes’ worth of polish.

In scene after scene, I found myself staring at the shoes. It was hard to look away. Even during a production that good. Because the shoes are just wrong. They might be right for the mental patient, but they’re sorely wrong for the elderly disreputable publisher who spends all his time on the beach in Orlando. People are doing costume changes throughout the play, so get the man two pairs of slip-ons. Or, at the very least, polish the boots.

I know. It seems picayune. Pedantic. Other “p” words of low value. But when it takes you out of the play, it’s a big thing. And it’s especially distracting when everything else in the show is so good.

Go see it. If  you care about the news — real news — and about journalists who really care about such things, and if you want to see a hard-hitting and completely entertaining play that delves into that subject, you should see this. Just try not to notice the boots.

Short form, long form, and old form

Saturday, February 15th, 2020

Plays come in all sorts and sizes. For three weeks in a row, one of the playwrights in my workshop, a guy who normally writes plays of about 120 pages, has brought in a new 10-minute play. Each of them has been good, immediately produceable, and would be fun to see. Back in the 1990s, I produced a lot of one-acts and one-act festivals, and Moving Arts kept doing that right up until about six years ago. Current management doesn’t produce one-acts — which is completely their prerogative. I liked them because it gave lots of playwrights a chance, and lots of directors, and lots of actors, and because generally the plays were fun. And, as my producing partner of the time used to say, “If you don’t like one of them, just wait, because there’s another one coming right up.”

Of the 64 plays I’ve written, many many of them are short plays. One of them, which got produced in Hoboken, NJ but which I’ve never seen staged or even heard read,  is all of three page long. Here’s why:  That’s all it needed. That’s all the story there was. More importantly, that’s all the theme there was:  Once you’ve made your point, you’re done. I was reminded of this when I had a brief discussion today with another playwright in my workshop about the HBO limited series “Mrs. Fletcher.” Ordinarily, “Mrs. Fletcher” wouldn’t be the sort of thing I’d watch, but for one reason:  I’d read the book and it was starring Kathryn Hahn. (Yes, that is one reason. I usually stay away from watching adaptations of things I’ve read because I don’t want the filmed version interfering with the prose version I already enjoyed; but in this case, knowing what the book was about and knowing that the lovely, talented, committed, and brave Kathryn Hahn would be starring in it, I watched it.)  I was pleasantly surprised to learn that each episode was only 30 minutes. Oh. It was serialized more like a comedy than a drama. I was also pleasantly surprised to see that the series ends about two-thirds of the way through the book — right at the climactic event in the novel that resolves the theme. In other words, right where it should. The book, on the other hand, goes on… and everyone’s life is neatly resolved… and quickly what had been a book about adventure and the freedom to be who you wanted to be becomes a book that resolves everyone’s story to the expectation of the society around them. What a disappointment. The series, by the way, was executive-produced by the novelist, who also wrote some of the episodes, so this seems like a rare instance of a novelist getting a second chance at his material… and improving it.

From Méliès's most famous film, 1902.

From Méliès’s most famous film, 1902.

After my workshop this morning, I headed over to the Egyptian Theatre for a screening from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s festival of preservation. They had promised a recently discovered Laurel & Hardy short (I’m a fan) and a fully restored Chaplin short (less of a fan) and never-before-seen films by Georges Méliès (film’s first special-effects master, starting to produce and direct sensationally surprising films in 1896) and by the Lumière brothers, who patented their own version of the cinematograph in 1895. I’m not a film fan per se, but I’m interested in the silent era, and I know that because Méliès burned the negatives to all 520 of his films in a dispute over rights, they’re difficult to see in any good form. The intricacies of the preservation and restoration process on all the films shown, as detailed in introductions by a representative, are too involved to go into detail here; for the Chaplin short, an introductory clip showed all four source-material films (three of them prints and one of them a negative) used to cobble together a complete print that could be restored. The Lumière clips were astounding, showing elegantly dressed and coiffed people, in top hats and waistcoats, or in dresses with majestic headwear, strolling along with the Eiffel Tower in the background, looking every bit as fresh as though it were shot with an iPhone today — but clearly being from 1900 or thereabouts. In another one, people are traveling via moving walkway, such as you find in an airport, and I realized:  That’s right! We had moving walkways in some places in 1900, and then we seemed to forget about the technology, because I don’t think moving walkways returned (and then, again, mostly in airports) until the 1980s or so. The Méliès films were very short; his early pieces were only one minute long, and rightly so, because they present the sort of tricks preferred by Méliès, as a stage magician, over things like plot and conflict. (One of his longer pieces, probably 20 minutes, was screened as well, but it required narration by our host and I’ll admit I fell asleep for probably five minutes of it.) Spectacle works in brief bits, but spectacle without the pursuit of objective — i.e., people in conflict — loses its fascination. This is precisely the problem with some of Terry Gilliam’s films, most especially “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” which is a great bore. When nothing matters, nobody cares.

After the screening, and after a late lunch at the Pig n’ Whistle, an English pub originated in Hollywood in 1927, where I had bangers and mash and a Guinness, and where a busser cleared away my copy of The New Yorker when I went to the restroom (I wouldn’t pay my tab until they returned it — which they did), I went to the Moving Arts one-night event “Tainted Love.” This was an evening of — wait for it — short plays, staged in and around a large multi-level house high in the Hollywood Hills. It was terrific fun to be surrounded by so many friends of the theatre, including actors I’ve worked with since the 90’s, and to get reacquainted with a woman who has, off-and-on, been coming to see our shows for 25 years. I also got to see two longtime acting buddies play marshmallows — there they were in their respectably representative marshmallow costumes, playing it for all it’s worth as they feared getting roasted alive, and making me howl with laughter. Georges Méliès would’ve been proud.