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


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The post I was going to write

Sunday, April 4th, 2021

This isn’t the post I was going to write.

The post I was going to write was going to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and would be thematically unified.

But this isn’t that.

When I was at the gym earlier, I had a different post in mind to be writing right now. But even as I think about that, what I’m really thinking is this:  Dear God, it felt glorious to be back at the gym! Hooray for reopened gyms! No this wasn’t the gym that had shit in the showers  — I quit that gym — this is the new gym, new to me and new to everyone, that had to close last year because you-know-why. And now it’s reopened, because you-know-what is subsiding. I was so happy to step across that threshold that if they’d charged a “convenience fee” at the door I just would’ve handed it over. I had a terrific workout, admittedly far superior to the one accomplishable in the setup in my garage, and thanked everybody there on the way out.

The gym’s been open for a week. Why did I wait? Well, on Friday morning, I got the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine. The tradeoff:  You only have to go once (perfect for me, because I’m generally impatient), but the reported incidence of side effects is greater. Then, very late Friday night, I started to feel strange. Like, somehow I couldn’t make any sense of what was happening in “Godzilla versus Kong,” and I mean even more than the “plot” and “dialogue.” When the big battle ended with them joining forces against a common enemy — so unexpected! — and I was trundling off to bed, I started shivering hard, and then had a very flu-like not-great time all night, resulting in my not feeling great on Saturday. I don’t think I could even tell you what I did on Saturday. Oh, wait, I finished one game of Civilization VI (playing Trajan) and then immediately started another as Saladin. That was about what I could accomplish.

But today? Today I sprang awake, ready to do stuff! Like:  get over to that gym! Finally put things away, for God’s sake! And write a perhaps-one-day-print-worthy blog entry, something with pith and insight and clever word play. (This is what I aspire to, anyway.)

Four minutes before I got home from my workout, my wife texted me to say that “the painter” that I didn’t know would be coming would be at our house any minute now and did I want to talk to him. I suspected even then that she meant, “Do you want to grill and flambé him?” because that’s how she thinks I go about hiring contractors. That’s not my method at all. I just want to know what we’re getting, what our options are, how long it’ll last and for God’s sake how much it’s going to cost. I did take a liking to Robert, who spent a cool two hours on Easter Sunday detailing for us his 43-year-history as a house painter, starting with his emigration from Korea, then work in Colorado Springs, followed by Texas, and since 1987 Southern California. At age 29, he realized that he needed a wife “to cook and keep house” and so he got married. (At age 25, I got a wife because I liked her company. But people’s reasons vary.) He also volunteered that Koreans are reliable and hard-working. I actually think that many (most?) people are reliable and hard-working irrespective of nationality, but I may be in the minority on this one. Robert (not his birth name) will be getting me a bid, and we’ll see what it looks like.

(At one point, the post I was going to write was a litany of household improvements and repairs. I was already tallying it in my head:  the tree service was $4225, the plumbing was about $2,000, the new dishwasher and sink came in just under $1,000, the new fence will be $8,000 to $15,000, lord knows how much Robert will want… maybe I’m lucky and his kids’ college is already paid for. But I decided that I’d rather not think about it, let alone write about it.) 

Danny from the neighborhood also came over. Danny from the neighborhood is a short solidly built man originally from the nation below us who worked for the studios for years. I’ve been watching in fascination the past two weeks as he erected and stained a new fence on the property across the street. I’ve seen many, many fences in my life, around this country and in others, and Danny’s fence may be the nicest-looking one I’ve seen. So I called him over to give us an estimate on ours. The last bid we got was that $8,000-$15,000 one, and you would be right if you sense my hesitation at contracting that fellow, but it’s immaterial because he never returned our calls afterward anyway. The other unspoken pandemic problem:  finding available contractors. So many people have turned to home improvement as entertainment in lieu of actually going anywhere and doing anything that these guys are booked up.

By the time Robert and Danny left, two-and-a-half hours had slipped by. So it seemed like time to pull out some of that wine we bought last week on that tour of wineries.

Free tip:  If you ever want to get into the habit of spending a lot more money, one great way to go is to finally discover the difference between shitty wine and good wine. Shitty wine can be had for less than ten bucks, and sometimes for as little as two or three bucks. Our local liquor store ran a sale on cases of Spanish wine at $1.99 a bottle because it wasn’t moving, and most of it was corked. That is, after you could even get it open, and that would be with destroying the cork, the wine inside was bad. Meanwhile, the fabulous wine that rolls down your gullet and reminds you that there is love and light in the world, and that other delights await you? That wine costs many multiples of the cheap shitty wine. How do I know that? Because now I’ve bought it. And now that I’ve bought it, it’s already proving difficult going back to the cheap shitty wine.

After that one glass of the delectable pricey wine today, I switched back to water. Really trying to make this bottle last….

After that, I took our two neurotic uncontrollable dogs for a nice long walk. On that walk, I thought a lot about the post I was going to write. Now it was going to be about wine. As I watched the male dog urinate at length on his favorite bush, I wondered if I’d made a mistake sampling really good wine. Just how much was this going to cost me? Were we going to be offering this to guests?  I was balancing these questions against my impulse to go online and order a case of that one red of which we already have only one bottle left!

When the dogs and I got home from our walk and our run, I decided that I didn’t want to think about the wines either and I certainly didn’t want to write about them and that’s when I pulled the water out of the refrigerator.

Next project, after dinner, in this day of projects:  putting hundreds of comic books safely and securely into plastic bags with nice firm acid-free cardboard backings in them, and then organizing them in their storage boxes. Noted:  these boxes of comics have gotten a lot heavier over the past 40 years.  They certainly didn’t weigh this much when I was 18!

And then, because it’s Sunday night and that’s when you’ll find the best auctions ending, going on eBay to source more of these heavy comic books. And then, also because it’s Sunday night and that’s one of my nights to clean up the kitchen, cleaning up the kitchen.

So now it’s almost 11 p.m. and no, I’m not going to write the post I was going to write. What am I going to do? Do some reading, and probably get back to Civilization VI and converting the German cities to my religion; no, Frederick Barbarossa doesn’t like it, but if wants to do something about it, hey, have at it, pal.

Tomorrow’s another day. Maybe then I’ll write the better post.

Against self-expression

Saturday, February 13th, 2021
Painted (on commission) by Hieronymus Bosch

Today, on a Zoom call, David Thomas of Pere Ubu was saying again that “self-expression is evil.” He said it twice — once, 30 years ago, in a television interview that a couple dozen of us were now watching with him, and again, afterward, to us.  And of course many other times over the years in other interviews.

Thus the answer to why in its 45-year history Pere Ubu has recorded almost no love songs. 

This served as a reminder that this tough-mindedness is part of why I could never cozy up to the singer-songwriter movement of the 1970s, but instantly sutured myself onto Pere Ubu 35 years ago when I first heard them.

But before I go on let me be careful not to ascribe to David, whose work I admire tremendously, opinions that are mine and not his. Whatever he means by “self-expression” may not be what I mean by “self-expression.” I generally mean that baring one’s soul through art is not in and of itself interesting; a few drinks with a friend at a pub would sort that out better. Doing it through what you think is art is actually quite boring — as evidenced by the sort of poem that used to appear in Reader’s Digest, and also by countless high-school journals, including mine, in which I endlessly pined for girls in ways that still embarrass me, 40 years later, because I can’t forget my own adolescent weakness.

If you’re lucky, people will be interested in your art.  If they were primarily interested in you, you’d be a reality TV star.

And that’s the way it should be for artists. Art first. Confession and “self-expression” never.

I’ve worked with hundreds (and hundreds) of playwrights over the past 30 years. And, of course, actors and directors and scenic designers and musicians and visual artists and choreographers and so forth. I take it for granted that they’ve all had hurtful childhoods — some of them actually hurtful, some of them a hurt of their imagination (which doesn’t make it any less real). Even after all these years, while I like almost all these people and am glad to know them, I find it hard to get worked up about their personal pain. By its nature it’s so self-involving that it just can’t be interesting. How interesting can childhood trauma be, if everyone’s had some version of it? Childhood trauma isn’t unique — it’s universal.

Art, on the other hand can be profoundly interesting when people put their hurt into it in service of the work. I’m not sad to say that I can’t get moved by the early death of John Lennon’s mother — but him screaming about it on Plastic Ono Band certainly gets my attention and approval. That isn’t self-expression, that’s art that includes self-expression. (And, anyway, was Julia’s death bad luck for him — or was it what he needed to become a Beatle? We should note that Paul McCartney also lost his mother in his childhood.) We know almost nothing about Hieronymus Bosch’s life, but I know all I need to know from his paintings, and I can assume that some of him is in there, even though they were painted on commission.

That’s how it should be.

If the art is interesting, the self that comes through that art is interesting. Art that serves as self-expression is best kept with your middle-school participation trophies, forgotten in a closet filled with such clutter.

In the other practice, self-expression is presented on a platter, a la those mawkish TV romances made for dowagers. Most of the explicit self-expression I see in would-be art is handed to us as confession. Confession and sharing are antithetical to conflict, and it’s conflict that makes art powerful. What are those classic three storylines? Man versus man; man versus nature; man versus himself. Note that each of those has a “versus.” On the other hand, when a character sits down and earnestly tells another character how sad she feels, you can feel the play sink like the House of Usher. This is why for years in my writing workshop, I’ve railed against plays whose central story is this:  “Grandma’s dying, and I feel sad.” Well, that’s you. How do we in the audience feel about it?

Pere Ubu, meanwhile, has achieved 45 years of powerfully moving work that is utterly devoid of sentimentality. Is it filled with feeling? Absolutely. Does it elicit feelings in the audience? Of course. The staying power of the music, and the thrill it engenders in its adherents, provide testimony to that. So too is attending a live show and seeing the impact of the music on all those assembled; there is a charge in the air, every time. But none of it is saccharine, none of it is handed to you, and none of it asks you to crank up emotions you don’t have. Like all great art, Pere Ubu respects the work too much for that. It would be degrading to stoop to mawkishness.

Year-end update

Thursday, December 31st, 2020

No, no, I won’t be doing a look back on 2020, because as I recently noted here, Who’d want to? But it’s not a bad day for housekeeping, even blog-housekeeping, so here goes:

In this post, I related that my reading pile continues to grow. When I’d had the conversation with my friend about my stack of books-in-waiting, there were 78 books on the list; after reading 32 books over the course of 2020, the number of books had somehow risen to 103. Since then, two things have happened. First, I finished reading another book. (No cause for applause; it just happens.) Secondly, my family and I went to pick up sushi on Tuesday night, but we arrived early and the order wasn’t ready. So, looking around, my wife suggested we drop into Barnes & Noble. “Um, I said, it’s a book store….” Because we knew what would happen. So, yes, while in there for all of 10 minutes, I wound up buying two books. So now my number rests at 104. If book publishers had one ounce of moral fiber, they’d stop publishing books until I could catch up.

In this post, I exposed the true nature of one of our dogs. Unfortunately for him, it seems that every member of my immediate family also read that blog post and is now onto him as well. Instead of seeing him as “goofy” (their term), he’s now viewed, and treated, as cunning. Sorry, pal.

Back here, I was bemoaning all the theatre that didn’t happen in 2020 and that, therefore I didn’t get to see. I also said that “theatre” on Zoom is not theatre. (I don’t know what it is, because it isn’t TV either, but it isn’t theatre. Theatrical, sure, potentially. But not theatre itself.) On Tuesday night, before the unfortunate bookstore visit that further extended my reading pile, I took my wife and two sons to see “Stranger Things – The Drive-Into Experience.” If watching a play on Zoom isn’t theatre, neither is sitting in your car for an hour and wending your way through a dimly lit parking structure while young actors jump around outside your car, pantomiming actions to prerecorded dialogue being played over your radio while video screens run loops behind them. I’ve enjoyed watching “Stranger Things” on Netflix (mostly because it captures the teen experience of the 80s so well), and wish I’d enjoyed this. But if you’re sitting in your car watching video screens of excerpts of the TV show, why not just stay home and watch the TV show? Right off the top of my head, three very creative and inventive stage collaborators I’ve had the good fortune to work with — Paul S., Matt A., and Ross K. — came to mind as people who would’ve made this actually theatrical. At one point, my wife looked over at me from the passenger’s seat. “Why are you on your phone?” she asked. Well, I couldn’t see the screen in front of me, being completely blocked by a large SUV, and didn’t much care. I checked the reviews online and they were effusive, which just made me realize that these other attendees had no idea what they could’ve had in the alternate-universe production in my mind. Best line goes to my older son: “This is the perfect show for Los Angeles: Everybody gets to stay in their car and drive around inside a parking structure.”

Finally, it behooves me to say, as I’ve been saying for so long, that “years” and “decades” don’t really exist. We’ve manufactured these concepts. Our need to create these organizing principles is a direct output of the way our brains are wired; we need to collect time into buckets of meaning that we can make sense of, and that we can remember events by. Why do most of us associate a specific year with, for instance, a certain album or movie coming out, or a presidential election, or a life event? We do so to provide a hook for related memories to hang on.

I can prove to you that decades don’t exist: Think of, say, the 60’s. Okay, got it? Well, that period that we associate it with was actually more like 1958 through 1974. See? Not contemporaneous with “the sixties.” The 1970s, which I remember vividly, and which were exceedingly weird and somewhat terrifying, ran from late 1974 through 1980. Which made it, thankfully, a short decade. Meanwhile, the 1300’s lasted for about two hundred years. When you think about 2020, aren’t you really thinking about mid-March through now? Or maybe somewhat into 2021? 2020 was not actually 2020.

I share this by way of noting that tonight is New Year’s Eve, and we treat it as a way to intend a better year for the next year, and to plan our better selves. So perhaps it is useful. But I would remind us that every year, every day, every minute, is what we make of it. Don’t let a single moment slip down the drain hole unappreciated.

Biting wit

Wednesday, December 11th, 2019

I woke up this morning feeling pretty good about a whole bunch of things, but by luck three hours of extensive dental work put a quick ending to that. Yes, there’s nothing like dental work to give you a good dose of reality.

This particular session with my dentist — excuse me, team of dentists, in this case, this job being too big for any one person to manage alone — certainly sharpened my perceptions. Over the course of the morning, I found time to debate which drilling sound was worse (the low rumbling blaster-drill, or the high shrieking needling drill?), and to generally imagine all the ways in which I might improve my life if I survived this. Throughout, the team did its best to provide comfort and alleviate suffering, and they certainly went the extra mile. Most of us have had dental anesthesia injected into the gum area where the dentist is going to work; I suspect far fewer of us have had the good fortune to have injections all across the top gum line, all along the inside of that top gum line, and then in the roof of our mouth as well. Just another mark of distinction for this case, I guess.

As the drilling and sawing and scraping and jackhammering and power-washing and, yes, the actual use of pliers, was going on for, oh, about a century, I also reflected on how much worse this would have been in the old west. We don’t get to see too many dental scenes in Westerns — I suspect mostly because the people who’ve made such movies have rightly concluded that no one wants to see them — but I have an expansive imagination capable of filling in the missing scenes. We would have seen our hero chugging down a bottle of whiskey first, then lying there with his head tightly belted down to a table while the “dentist” (more likely, town doctor — which would also save on casting another role, given that most of those movies already had someone playing town doctor) works at him with  hammer and chisel and two attendants struggle to hold him down while we see his legs flailing wildly in the air. My feet stayed firmly placed atop the chair’s footpad, although my head jerked powerfully each time my palate was pierced with an injection needle. So my experience seems like an improvement.

Once it was all over, my entire cranium, jaw, and face felt like the aftermath of explosive demolition, with smoke still rising from the blast site. I managed to struggle out of the chair and pick my way back to my car and home, where I addressed the situation with two Alleve and a tumbler of bourbon and attempts at distraction. I looked at the newspaper, but that made my head hurt worse, so then I looked at Facebook and Twitter, but containing as they did most of the same outrage reflected in the newspaper, that was no help, so finally I went online and did a mega-Sudoku puzzle. That was a pretty good 23 minutes. The rest of the day, I dozed on and off, made two phone calls where I had to explain why I could barely talk, and generally moped around.

In all things, I believe in balance. So, given this travail and the need to counter it, and because I had clearly survived, I decided to go to Spain in a few weeks. In a stroke of good timing, it turns out that while I’m there I can see this universe’s foremost band, Pere Ubu, in concert in Madrid. Sure, it might be that I had already bought the ticket to Spain and the ticket for the concert, but I’m still mentally connecting it to the ordeal of the dental work. I already feel better.

Outcomes

Thursday, June 20th, 2019

Yesterday, exasperated in a discussion with someone who has all sorts of advantages but told me he didn’t “have any meaning” in his life, I posted this on Facebook:  “A meaningful life comes from helping others. It isn’t fucking complicated.”

As of now, I’ve got 119 people agreeing with that on Facebook, and lots of comments.

No, Moses didn’t come down off the mountain with a third tablet intended for each and every one of us with a secret message giving us a life mission. If you’re waiting for something like that, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. But the life mission of most mammals is clear:  help each other. If you keep a keen eye out you’ll see it, certainly in dogs but also in rodents and birds and most warm-blooded animals.

The other thing I had to say, when I was tired of hearing the same complaint, the complaint of seven years now, from someone so close to me, was this:  a good life is made up of daily actions. Sitting around and agonizing about your misery isn’t going to get you anywhere. If you truly have some misery, you’re entitled to do some of that — but I’d much rather take the example of my beloved oldest brother, who has a terrible case of Parkinson’s disease but who hasn’t complained about it once. He has noted, as the years have passed, the things he can’t do — when I saw him two months ago he said he had to use an iPad to read now because he can no longer turn pages, and he’s shared other circumstances like that, and I can see how unsteady he is in walking or moving in general — but an actual complaint? No. Not one that I’ve heard. And I would think, given how debilitating this has been for a formerly very healthy and vibrant man, that this has been extremely frustrating, and that he’s earned the right to complain.

But, no. Instead, someone who is healthy and young is the one moaning about meaninglessness. Let me add this:  Camus and Sartre may have had their doubts about meaning, too — but at least they wrote books about it.

Allow me a moment to put a brighter spin on this.

This morning, I was the moderator at the Hollywood Economic Summit for a panel discussion about the intersection of live entertainment and economic impact. This is a topic I’ve been talking about, in one way or another, for more than 25 years. Ask any restaurant owner next to a theatre what business is like on a performance night, versus business on a dark night; add into that the parking lots, and cocktail lounges, and even babysitters, and certainly the cast and crew, and the vendors associated with the production, and you start to get a picture. The Pantages Theatre in Hollywood will see 850,000 people this year. That’s a lot of people, bringing a lot of money to Hollywood, and that’s just one example.

After the panel, a guy stopped me at the door and said, “Lee, you may not remember me, but you changed my life.”

(And, before I go on, let me apologize for what’s going to wind up being a story congratulating myself. But I didn’t do what I’m about to tell you about for any congratulations or reward — but I am trying to pass along a lesson that I believe in. So please excuse me.)

I didn’t remember him, until he reminded me of the full story. In 2001, I was the president and CEO of LA Stage Alliance, the performing arts service organization serving greater Los Angeles. This man, Jeff, called and asked if he could speak with me, and said he was new in town, and was a theatre guy, but didn’t know anyone and was looking for a job. I told him to come down and see me. He came down for what was supposed to be 30 minutes, and, he says, I spent a lot more time than that with him — and then picked up the phone and called the Shubert Theatre and asked someone I knew there if he’d see Jeff. Jeff went over, and got hired, and now, 18 years later, Jeff works at the Pantages in Hollywood. He handed me his card, and I looked at it, and saw his title:  General Manager. “Jeff!” I said. “You’re a big muckety-muck!”

And he is.

And he thanked me profusely because I had made that introduction that got him launched.

But let me tell you where I learned to do things like that:  from a man named Lars Hansen. When I met Lars, circa 1996, he was the Executive Director of the Pasadena Playhouse and a major fixture in Los Angeles theatre and I was the Artistic Director of a 36-seat theatre called Moving Arts. We were both serving on the board of Theatre LA, and Lars and I hit it off. He had a vision for the audience experience, and the intersection of the performing arts and commerce that spoke to me. Lars was generous by nature, and just kept giving me stuff:  advice, connections, and whatever he could spare at the Playhouse — including, once, hundreds (yes, I said hundreds) of tickets at his theatre to use for a fundraiser. It was partly because of Lars’ influence and generosity that I wound up as CEO of LA Stage Alliance — I have no doubt of that — and it’s because of that that I was in a position to help Jeff, and because of that, Jeff and I ran into each other today, completing a circle that has taken 23 years.

So when Jeff’s thanking me, he’s actually thanking Lars, who I think of almost every day… even though he died 10 years ago.

Lars led a life of impact. He certainly impacted me. I still have friendships that I developed completely through Lars. And I’m still grateful to him.

Lars wasn’t the only helper in my life. In fact, my life has been filled with helpful people. My business partner says that when you put something out into the universe, it comes back to you, and I’ve found that to be true. When I was a boy, I remember watching the Philadelphia newscast one night with my father, and seeing the story of a poor black boy in that city who’d gotten burned in a fire. My father never said anything about it, but he was obviously moved — and shortly later I learned from my mother that he wrote a check and mailed it in anonymously to the boy’s family. He never said anything about it to me and he never wanted any credit for it. That’s a lesson I never forgot, and an image that remains burned in my memory, of watching that newscast.

But aren’t most of us like that, really? Aren’t most people good? Don’t we do what we can, when we can?

It doesn’t take heroics to help somebody else, not usually. It takes a little time, and a little awareness. And really, isn’t that what we’re here for? To help each other?

Don’t get distracted by the terrible people. They’re a minority. Honest. If you want a meaningful life, make one by helping others.

p.s. Here’s some info about my friend Lars and here’s his obit. He was a great guy.

A period of transition

Sunday, March 31st, 2019

I was just searching for something in my Evernote file and found this:

We’re in a period of permanent transition. Nothing will settle.
It’s not an age of reading — it’s an age of looking. Looking at print or looking at screens — some of the print is interactive with sound and motion.

The old forms needn’t die. People are still buying tickets to the theatre, which has been dying for thousands of years.

I wrote that on July 25, 2014 (at Comic-Con in San Diego), no doubt as a jumping-off point for something I didn’t wind up writing. Since then, the permanent transition has continued, and nothing has settled.

By happenstance, I went to WonderCon today. I spent half of my time in the exhibit hall searching for just where comic books might be, then discovered that I was in Hall C of the Exhibit Hall — an area mostly devoted to independent artists and people lumbering around in gigantic bulky clumsy costumes representing things I didn’t recognize — and that comic books were in a small quadrant in a corner of Hall A. I’m now calling that one of the sections where “old forms needn’t die.”

I’ve been going to comics conventions for 54 years, and can remember when the exhibit hall was a smorgasbord. You’d have a comic-book dealer next to a science fiction dealer next to somebody selling Tribbles and around the corner from somebody hawking his own new board game. That’s how you’d come across new things you never knew about or thought about. Now we’ve got redlining:  comics way over there; whatever Funko Pops are and similar novelties in a separate hall, gaming stuff way back there, and so forth. At a time when the people of the U.S. seem more divided than ever (almost; we haven’t hauled out any cannons yet), someone has now split fandom down into its constituent elements too.

I remember being warned about this in the 2000s:  that, increasingly, we’d get served only the news we wanted, and blithely ignore the things that didn’t pertain to us, that we didn’t select. Take a look at Twitter or Facebook and tell me that that isn’t exactly what’s happening. And who is the perfect avatar of this dynamic? The guy who lobs one distracting new “emergency” after another into the chattersphere. It’s aggravating how much oxygen and attention he consumes.

Still, the old forms needn’t die. We’ve carved everything and everyone into smaller and smaller niches, just as the Alvin and Heidi Toffler predicted in “The Third Wave.” It’s all still here, just smaller and discrete. Which is fine in many ways. A lot of the mass market didn’t serve a lot of people, including me. Television was very bad when I was a kid; ironically, there’s so much great television now that no one could possibly watch all of it and most of it looks bland. Turn on your TV (or device) and there are so many high-quality choices that none of them seems compelling. A lone diamond sparkles against velvet, but looks lost inside a gem mine.

Now we search, in a time when everything is findable. Nothing need go out of print (or “print”) any more, and no market is too small for some attention. At the convention, I picked up a newly published book called “Comic Book Implosion:  An Oral History of DC Comics Circa 1978.” The book relates the story of DC Comics announcing a big “DC Explosion!” of new titles in 1978 — and then canceling the entire effort two months later. Not exactly “The Story of Civilization,” right? Pretty arcane — but, still, there’s some interest in the topic somewhere (like, here — with me), so it exists. I also would assume that the topic exists on Wikipedia, and it does. In 2001, I attended a speech by Thomas Friedman wherein he talked about what he called the “Evernet” — being ever-available, ever-on, because of the cellphone and the internet.

That was six years before the iPhone, which solidified the Evernet, increased immediate access to information, and also increased the immediate sharability of information — as well as disinformation. Since then, the permanent transition has continued abated. And now, thanks to speed and availability, fluctuations will increase (economic; sociopolitical; cultural) and nothing will settle.

Thoughts about writing on Saturday night

Saturday, April 20th, 2013

I was going to post all sorts of things on this blog tonight, but wound up writing 10 pages of my new play tonight instead.

Late last year, I started going to the gym regularly. Mostly to deal with chronic pain I’ve been experiencing since a car accident (not my fault) two-and-a-half years ago. It’s not something I talk about too much, and it’s not something I believe I’ve written about here before. At first, I started going to the gym just to loosen up, and to sit in the jacuzzi as often and for as long as I could. But then, sometime in February, something started to happen: I started to feel like I needed to go to the gym. Like I had things to work out. And now I’ve further turned that corner: Now I’m someone who looks forward to going to the gym.

For years, I posted on this blog every day. Every single day. Lately, it’s been more sporadic. I’ve wondered why that is, especially since I write every day. It’s not always playwriting (or, clearly, blog writing), but every single day I’m writing something, some of it for a fair amount of pay, some of it for some small amount of pay at some point (those tend to be plays), and some of it, I’m sure, for no pay whatsoever (those would be poems and short stories, which I haven’t even bothered to send out for years now). The itch I now get when I don’t go to the gym or get some other physical activity — the sense of feeling “rammy,” as the adults used to say about the overly rambunctious son of my father’s friend — is akin to the itch I get when I’m not writing.

But here’s what I think spurred an unexpected 10-page writing session on my play tonight: the miracle of seeing four compelling, enjoyable, thought-provoking plays recently, which were like finding water after being in the Mojave of bad theatre for the past two years, and the resumption of my playwriting workshop today. My workshop is stuffed with good writers writing good plays. When you’re in the room with that, you’d have to work not to be inspired by it.

The play I’m writing is a memory play. That’s not what I normally do, or, more appropriately, it isn’t what I’ve mostly done. (Or done at all?) But that’s what this play is. Tomorrow, we’re removing the seats from Moving Arts, the seats that we installed in 1993 or 1994, the seats donated to us that came from a silent movie house in the Bay Area where they were installed in 1916. We’re doing that because we’re putting in new seats. Parting ways with these seats that we’ve had for 20 years, and which have seen almost 100 years of audience derriere, will certainly spark more feelings fit for a memory play. But I’m excited to be part of taking them out for two reasons: because a number of them are going to a good new home where they’ll be cherished; and because while it’s good to appreciate the past, the future always beckons. And we’re already there, all the time.

Email to a young director

Saturday, March 6th, 2010

When I was a kid, comic book editors were thoughtful enough to include the mailing addresses of fans who wrote in. There’s a whole generation of us who made a lot of good friends that way.

Now we have the internet.

Which is how I received this communication today:

Hi, my name is Isabel R–. I am 13 years old, I live in Mexico City and I now study in the American School Foundation. Right now in my civics class we are making a project about our future. I currently love theater, and it’s my lifetime dream to be a part of it and spend my whole life on it. I want to study acting, but I seriously don’t think I could be that good, so instead I would just love to direct, be in charge of everyone and be responsible [for] the whole play. This is why I was wondering if you could answer me an interview about your studies. I seriously respect you because you are a director, and in my opinion it takes a lot to be one.
I hope you will answer,
Isabel R–
P.S if you don’t have the time to answer or email me back, don’t worry I know you must be full of work 😉

Here’s my reply:

————

Isabel, I am indeed full of work. (And full of a lot else, too.) But I’m happy to answer you. The theatre is a wonderful thing to devote your life to. If you want to, you should do it.

Before we get to the questionnaire you attached, I’d like to say this:  You should study acting. Why? Three reasons:

1.    Because you want to. Thirteen is far too young to decide that you can’t be good at something. Know what the right age is? Never. Last month I heard a radio interview with an 82-year-old woman who had just piloted a plane for the first time. At age 80, she decided that she wanted to learn to fly, and now, two years later, she was flying solo. It’s not a good idea to limit yourself at any age. (It’s also good to have grandchildren to take away the keys, if necessary.)
2.    You should act because you want to, and you should act because it will help you as a director. Directors work with actors. That means you need to understand acting and actors. No, I was never an actor. But I did some acting in both high school and college (poorly, I might add), and since then I’ve done staged readings that I’ve been drafted into. And every Saturday I get to read at least one part in my workshop. Do some acting. It’s fun. And even if you’re bad, nobody dies as a result.
3.    It’s good to fail. Failure teaches you things. It’s also good to succeed. What isn’t good is to not try. Don’t avoid failure, or you won’t try enough new things.

Okay, let’s tackle that questionnaire.

1.    What did you study?

I have no formal theatre training. None. I have degrees in Communications (Associate of Arts), Literature and Language (Bachelor of Arts), and Professional Writing (a Masters degree). This qualifies me to answer your questionnaire, and to answer things for people even when I don’t know what I’m talking about. You learn that how you say things can lend a certainty to your tone that convinces others; that’s useful. It’s amazing what you can get away with when you sound confident. I also took a lot of science in college, and I’m glad I did. Other than the writing classes, the classes that stuck with me the most were probably Logic and Philosophy which, compiled with the others, form the backbone of criticism. Oh, I did study playwriting in graduate school, but it didn’t teach me how to write plays – I was already getting produced, after all. But it helped build my circle of contacts.

2. Where did you study?

I think you’re asking me theatre-related questions. What I would say is this:  To learn the theatre, you get involved with theatre. You attend plays, you volunteer, who do photocopying and script reading and chewing-gum-scraping and whatever else they need. And then, one day, an actor doesn’t show up and you read that part to help out. Or, in my case, the cool kids are putting on a high school play and even though you’re invited to participate, they don’t invite your other friends (the non-cool kids), and you don’t feel good about that, so you wind up writing your own play expressly for those uncool kids.  And then when you hear people in the audience laugh at your funny lines, you are hooked forever.

The simple lesson:  In most things in life, you learn by doing. So go get involved with directors and actors and playwrights and costume designers and stage managers and lighting designers and all the other theatre people and you’ll learn everything. Because theatre people – honestly – can do everything. They have to.

3. How long?

To this day. On Saturdays I convene a playwriting workshop (for almost 20 years now), and I’m always glad to learn new things from the smart talented people who come. And at least a couple of times a month, I go see plays. Even bad ones are useful (although annoying). You can learn good things from bad plays.

4. Did you study an MBA?

That’s a business degree. (Now I own a business (not my first) and am once again completely self-taught. Libraries and book stores and the internet are wonderful things.) I believe you mean an MFA. I have an MFA-equivalent degree. It is a terminal degree, but I am living with it.

5. If yes, where did you study it? How long?

The University of Southern California. In general, a graduate degree requires two years. What you learn may not be as important as who you meet. Building a network of contacts is important.

6. After studying, in what have you worked?

I have written radio commercials, billboards, plays, advertising copy, fundraising letters, essays, poems, cartoon strips, short stories, websites, interviews, speeches, public service announcements, headlines, newspaper stories, technical specs, instructions, magazine articles, and just about everything else you can imagine. At some time or other I’ve been paid in almost every conceivable field of writing. (Yes, I even got paid for poems once.) I own a creative marketing agency (with another theatre person!) named Counterintuity. That allows me to offer creativity all over the place. Leonardo da Vinci was an artist and a scientist; Benjamin Franklin was a writer and statesman and scientist and inventor; Will Eisner was one of the founders of comic books and graphic novels, and also a businessman. I am inspired by their greatness.

7. What have you been doing lately?

See above. Plus, I travel frequently. And I read a lot. And I like to take long walks with friends and my dog and smoke cigars. (The dog doesn’t smoke.) And I like to play games with my family and by myself (“Risk” on my iPhone, “Civilization” on my laptop, and “Oblivion” on the xBox.) I also go to the theatre, of course. Last night three friends and I went to see a play that we didn’t like at all, but we had great fun afterward, and that made it worth it.
8. As you have worked in plays, what have been your favorite or most famous?

Almost all the plays I have directed are new plays. The theatre I founded in 1992 does only new plays. I’ve directed world premieres by Trey Nichols, Werner Trieschmann, Sheila Callaghan, EM Lewis, and many others. I don’t direct as often any more because I don’t have time, but I make an effort to do it at least once a year. Last year, I directed four times and am still unclear how that was possible. Famous playwrights whose work I like include Beckett, Pinter, Ionesco, Mamet, Labute, Albee, Kushner, and August Wilson. I think that Shakespeare guy is pretty good too. I am a big fan of Buster Keaton, so any well-done commedia del arte excites me; a couple of years ago I flew across country just to see Bill Irwin’s new show. It was well worth it.

9. In the play, what is your job?

To make an impact other than boredom on the audience.
10. What [do] you get out of this career?

Brief bursts of intense satisfaction. Followed by an addictive need for more.

11. Do you live well with your job?

I’m not sure what you mean, but I’m going to try to answer what I think you mean. I make my living being a creative storyteller, sometimes for business clients, sometimes for audiences or students. Stories are at the core of who we are. The human brain has grown and expanded because we developed language, and we developed language because we needed to share stories – about the hunt, about our struggles, about who we are and want we want. Without stories, we would all still be in the trees. It’s enormously gratifying to move an audience with a story you’re telling – whether it’s a ticket-buying audience watching one of my plays, or an audience of two in a business setting. It’s also enormously gratifying to get pulled into the stories of others whose voice you respond to. I’m lucky enough to have very smart, very funny friends who keep me surprised and entertained.


12. Has this career choice made you happy?

I don’t believe in happiness. Pursuing it is fine, but I don’t know anyone who has gotten it, and if anyone were to get it, I don’t know what he or she would do next. I do believe in work, good work, and in remembering that on any given day, most people in the world are worse off than I am. Bear that in mind and it’s easier to focus on your work.

Thank you for emailing me. Keep doing what you’re doing and you’ll always be someplace interesting. I apologize if my reply isn’t as good as Rilke’s, but no one’s is.

Things I would be blogging about if my neck wasn’t killing me

Thursday, September 10th, 2009
  • President Obama’s health-care speech last night (great job!) and his killer tactic of inducing that thick-necked GOP jerk to yell out “You lie!” That alone will have swung enough support. Once again, other people have misunderestimated you, sir president. We watch and learn.
  • The Gallup-originated “Strengths-Based Leadership” test I took today, which sized me up as having strengths in Strategic, Activator, Individualization, Responsibility, and Input, resulting from oddly dichotomous choices like “You believe in ghosts” vs. “You like chocolate.” More on this tomorrow, I think, when my neck isn’t killing me. I also would have preferred that the test conclude in words of the same form — all adjectives or all nouns or all gerunds or all something the same. These qualities — Strategic Activator, etc. — sound like mistranslations from the Chinese, like Glorious Serving Sword of Destiny.
  • My second night of rehearsals with my cast, and hearing my rewrites for the first time. Short version:  New opening line sucked (and my actor rightly asked for the old one back); new purposely bad poem is deliciously bad and probably earns a laugh right where I planned because, as I suspected, the actor has the chops to get that laugh and got it right away; still very glad to have the director and actors I have. The director has better ideas than I do, so again, I’m glad he’s directing and I’m not.
  • How “lack mentality” drives me crazy. Brief definition:  “I lack [fill in the blank], so I can’t do [fill in the blank].” It’s just reflexive with people. (Most people?) Once you’ve trained your ear to hear it,  you hear it all the time. Why not instead:  “I want to [fill in the blank], so I have to [fill in the blank].” That’s more actionable; you can actually do something about it. I think today I heard the lack mentality about six times. In one case, I’m concerned that an important arts institution is going to go under — or at least suffer greatly — because of all the lacking going on.
  • My thrill at getting a new script by one of my favorite playwrights. In fact, right now I’m going to go read it in the jacuzzi because, for some reason, my neck is killing me.

Closing Windows

Sunday, February 1st, 2009

If I owned Microsoft stock, I’d strongly consider selling. Like, right now.

This isn’t because of any great fears about the stock market in general. Lately, I’ve been buying a little stock. And it isn’t because of my long-standing ambivalence toward Microsoft, which stems from my background as an Apple user since 1982.

No, I would sell Microsoft because I think the Third Wave 2.0 is about ready to wash over it.

(In his 1980 book “The Third Wave,” Alvin Toffler posited that the First Wave was the settled agricultural society that replaced hunter-gatherer cultures; the Second Wave was the industrial age society; and the Third Wave was the post-industrial, or information-based, society. I think we’ve already seen a lot of that — and now we’re in the first shakeout, or Third Wave 2.0.)

Problems come in threes, goes the saying. Here are Microsoft’s:

  1. For the first time, sales of Windows are down. This is at the same time that world demand for “netbooks” is going to skyrocket. What are netbooks? They’re small, cheap, portable computers that retail for about $300. These are the machines that will get outer Mongolia online, and the projected adoption rate is staggering. How easily will Microsoft be able to sell an installation of Windows onto these machines for $100, when the machine itself costs only $300? Not easily. Especially when Linux is free.
  2. Microsoft was famously late in recognizing the possibilities of the Internet. Google owns the search-engine business that could have been Microsoft’s, and the Yahoo deal didn’t happen. Now Gmail is going to eat Outlook’s lunch. If Google controls the search business, and Firefox rules the browser world, and Google (again) takes over email, what’s left online for Microsoft?
  3. Problem #3:  pessimism. Yes, I have heard the rumor that the economy is bad. But do I think it’s going to permanently “reset” at a lower level? That’s what Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer thinks. Really? Even with continued population growth, and new economies coming online all over the world, it’s going to be smaller? Or is it just that Microsoft won’t be able to adapt to new realities? “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier,” Colin Powell famously said. (And no, I don’t think he was prescribing a Candide-like naivete.) The opposite is certainly true:  pessimism is draining. I suppose such sourness is understandable, coming on the heels of Vista’s grand kerplunk, and those bad commercials with Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Gates buying shoes. But still.

I don’t know what Microsoft is going to do from here on out, except lose market share. (Especially to Google.)

By the way, I would sell Apple stock, too, if I still had any. Not because I think they’re falling behind or screwing up. I’d sell because the performance of the stock market relies  upon perception, and whether or not it’s true, the perception is that Steve Jobs is Apple. That’s the downside of running a personality cult:  There’s trouble when the personality proves to be all too mortal.