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


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Archive for the ‘Thoughts’ Category

Ah, that special feeling…

Sunday, November 27th, 2022

… that comes from two hours of work on your new play that result in exactly one new page of writing.

It was Dorothy Parker who said, “I hate writing. I love having written.”

Thanks / giving

Saturday, November 26th, 2022

I think the true meaning of Thanksgiving is being thankful that:

  1. You’ve finally finished preparing this gigantic meal
  2. You’ve finally finished cleaning up after the gigantic meal
  3. You’ve finally finished the turkey leftovers

One should also be thankful that one’s made-from-scratch apple pie turned out well enough that everyone — your son, your guests, and even you yourself — ate it and expressed vast gratitude for it, even though one knows that it in no way resembled the way it was depicted in glorious technicolor photos online of desserts baked by people who can actually bake.

Making the apple pie, from scratch, including the dough. Looks casual, but actually stressful. Not audible: The brilliant Pere Ubu repertoire playing in the background, played on a setting I call “Invigorate.”


Something else to be thankful for: that the after-meal screening of “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” delivered everything one could wish for. I’d seen the movie only once — when it was released, in 1987 — and lobbied hard for screening it now, over my Gen Z son’s objections that it was “some movie from the 80s” and “looked stupid” and a friend’s hard press for some indy film starring James Urbaniak the trailer of which made it look, to me, painful to behold in the way of “trying too hard to be clever.” I’d seen “Planes,” etc. only the once, as I said, but I remembered it as pure joy with big laughs, and my son had never seen it, and neither had a good friend in attendance, and no, neither I nor our guests wanted to watch the movie about concentration camps or whatever it was that my son had flagged for our holiday enjoyment. Apologies to the friend who informed us that he’d seen “Planes,” etc. “five or six times already” — sincerely, buddy, sorry — but luckily “Planes, etc.” held up well and delivered as promised and was loads of fun, with everyone laughing big laughs, including the offspring and the assembled guests and me. Even though, I hasten to add: The 1980s were filled with truly wonderful music, but not one iota of that is in this movie, the soundtrack of which resorts to precisely the worst auditory excrescence of that era, leaving everything sounding like a terrible collage of Herbie Hancock, MC Hammer, and simpering men begging women to return to them. Otherwise: a fine, fun movie.

Thanksgiving, as I’ve discovered by hosting it more than once, is a costly affair. Not in money (that’s the least of it), but in time. All in, it took up 14 hours, from pre-ordering elements of it to two supermarket visits, prep, cooking, eating it, games-playing, the movie, and cleanup. But it’s worth it. It’s good to have family and friends ready to participate — in fact, it’s good to have family and friends, period. And it’s good to give things away, including your time, to people you love and enjoy.

Although next year, I might just take them all out to dinner.

Mr. Peters

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2022

Astonishingly, I went to sleep last night at 9:37 p.m.

And I don’t mean just to bed — I mean to sleep. I looked at my iPhone before drifting off and it read 9:37.

Usually, I go to sleep around 12:30 a.m., sleep for 46 minutes, then wake up and think about what I’m going to do until I’m finally able to fall asleep again hours later. But this time I felt like I was one of those parents in a comic strip that the teens make fun of for going to bed so early.

And not just going to bed so early. Falling asleep at 9:37 meant I’d be back up very early. Which I am. I woke up at 4:37 a.m. After having a dream about Mr. Peters.

Who is Mr. Peters?

Mr. Peters is the name I gave to a character I was writing in my sleep. His original working name, in my dream, was The Man Who Pees Anywhere.

Yes, I was writing a sketch comedy show in my sleep. And in that dream, I was making up a list of characters I thought I could play. One was The Older Man Who Yells at Younger People. (Perhaps based on a friend.) And another was The Man Who Pees Anywhere.

In the sketches with The Man Who Pees Anywhere — later dubbed in the same dream, as I noted, as Mr. Peters or, sometimes, “Mr. P.” — people would be talking to him and he’d just turn slightly, whip it out, and urinate wherever. In one scene I imagined, students in a college hallway would be speaking with him, he’d turn his back to them slightly, and he’d start urinating into a hallway trash can. The young woman would be appalled, but to everyone else it would be business as usual: “That’s just our Mr. P!”

In my dream, I was sitting on the floor of my parents’ house, circa the 1970s when I was still a boy, and mapping out situations for The Man Who Pees Anywhere. The other three men — younger than I am, being in their 30s, and two of them based on guys I’m in a meeting with tomorrow (well, today), and one of them being a guy I know who was actually in a performing comedy group — were reliving their glory days of several years ago when evidently they were already sketch comedy sensations. They had memes and t-shirts and videos and everything. I just had the back of a piece of construction paper and my ideas.

Originally, we were just putting together one show. Then I said, “Let’s do six. That’s how many you need to pitch HBO.”

They didn’t want to do six. In fact, I’m not sure they wanted to do anything except relive those past successes.

Another thing I said was, “Have you seen The Kids in the Hall? We can be funnier than them — easy!”

But I was unable to convince them, and then I got stuck trying to come up with a third great character for myself, and instead kept spinning on other places where The Man Who Pees Anywhere might relieve himself, thus reliving my own past successes (albeit much more recent), and then it was 4:37 and I woke up.

And went and peed where one should, in the bathroom.

Anniversaries

Monday, October 31st, 2022

Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the founding of my theatre, and today is my 35th wedding anniversary.

The theatre company, Moving Arts, is going as strong as ever. As for the marriage, it should be legally ended in the next 60 days. So: a somewhat mixed pair of anniversaries. And with both of them right on top of each other for decades, you can see why this season, of Halloween and the night before, has always rung so loud for me. In fact, my wife and I not only got married on Halloween, our wedding was a big costume party with about 200 guests in all sorts of masquerades.

Back to the theatre company:  I remember when our 5th anniversary seemed like such a huge accomplishment. We had a 5th birthday party, and rented out a restaurant, and had shirts made and everything. There were all sorts of way stations we set up in the restaurant where you could try games of chance or get your fortune read or whatever, all as lures to spend more money at our birthday fundraiser. It was insane good fun.

For another anniversary (the 20th, I think), we took over the old Silent Movie theatre on Fairfax and remounted our very first plays for one night only, then had cake and drinks in the courtyard out back.

But somehow, despite the doggedness we showed right from the beginning, when Moving Arts’ anniversary rolls around it still surprises me. “Thirty? Wow!” For our 5th birthday somebody had the good idea of doing a mini documentary or series of interviews or something, and one of our resident producers said there that we were in it for the long haul. She was right. (And I hope we have that tape somewhere….)

Re the other anniversary:  My wife and I separated in July of last year when she went to Florida and decided to stay. We’ve been working on the divorce in fits and starts since then, with me getting waylaid emotionally or getting pulled away by business, and she suffering through the death of first her father, then her mother. But we’ve kept it friendly throughout, and we’re still friends. That’s the way it should be. This morning I awoke to a text from her that showed one of our wedding photos, with the two of us in the 17th century royal court costumes we wore to get married, and the note “Still best wedding ever. 3 terrific kids and three decades of life experiences. To us. Happy Halloween, my friend.” And a heart emoticon. That was nice. (I did not point out that it’s been four decades of life experiences; at a certain stage, no one appreciates that sort of reminder.)

On October 15th, I celebrated a new kind of anniversary:  nine months of dating my sensational girlfriend. We’re both busy working professionals with many responsibilities: She’s a nurse practitioner of nursing who works full-time plus has her own practice, plus a 3-year-old son, while I’m kept busy with my company, my playwriting workshop, and my own writing. But somehow in those nine months we’ve gone roller skating, miniature golfing, to the movies, and taken three trips together and shared many laughs and a lot of love. I’m just crazy about her, and she about me, and anyone can see it.

So, 30 and 35 years later, the future looks bright. Moving Arts has a new and better home and many terrifically talented people attached, and my ex and I are still friends and still care about each other and still text or talk regularly, sharing laughs. One thing is clear: She will be very hard to replace at charades.

I’m looking forward to more anniversaries of all sorts.

Where no man has gone before

Monday, October 10th, 2022

Y’know what? I’m not too proud to announce my absolute enduring love of William Shatner.

Shatner was a big part of the twin poles of my moral and ethical upbringing, those signposts being “Star Trek” on one side and Marvel comics on the other. I’m not sure I realized just how much my entire belief system was built atop these two pop-culture foundations, but reading Sapiens last year made it all clear. Sometimes, when you apply the animal/vegetable/mineral quiz, you realize you are undeniably bauxite. I didn’t want to belong to the church of liberal humanism — of higher expectations, in a belief that humanity can and should do better, in the way promulgated by both “Star Trek” and those great Lee/Kirby Marvel comics, both of which showed us that people of different races and even different species could work together for the common good, both of which showed us what was right and what was wrong, and both of which called upon us to be our better selves — but I do.

And so this is why I bought a ticket to see Sunday’s “Shatnerfest” at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, so I could see the great man in person, even if it meant sitting through three of his middling (or worse) low-budget indie features of the 1970s.

Yes, sure, three low-rent William Shatner movies in a row. But then: William Shatner.

For the record:

“Kingdom of the Spiders” (1977) is one of the better “nature-gone-wild” horror movies of its era and, I think, of all time, and Shatner is honest-to-God impressive in it. He’s in his mid-40s, and looking fit and younger than his age, as he rides horses, ropes a steer, leaps around, and combats about a million actual live tarantulas. He’s witty and charming in the movie when it’s called for, he’s an action hero when needed, and he’s a good-looking roguish lover before Harrison Ford patented the character. Watching this movie allows you a glimpse into an alternative universe where William Shatner had a very different career.

“The Devil’s Rain” (1975) features Shatner in a supporting role, as both a 17th century reformed devil-worshipper and a modern-day combatant who loses his soul to the devil. The movie stars Ernest Borgnine and a bunch of other faded stars and soon-to-be’s, including Tom Skerritt and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him John Travolta. But it’s dull in the extreme, and, well, I drank a tall-boy beer during this one and fell asleep, safe in the knowledge that I was missing nothing. (You try staying awake for six straight hours of not-great 50-year old movies!)

Finally, “Impulse” (1974) is bad. Bad, bad, bad, in a way we once associated with drive-in movies later relegated to channel Z after midnight. It’s bad, but it’s not dull. The twin delights are Shatner as a ladies’ man who is also a demented serial killer (!!!) and a snotty pre-adolescent girl determined to foil his plans. No effort was made in making this a good movie. It was shot in 15 days (12 of them with The Shat) and for about nine bucks, but took in $4 million at the box office, making for a very good time for the director and the producers. And, judging by the audience Sunday, for audience members like me found it highly entertaining and howlingly funny.)

Then: William Shatner came out.

Shatner is 91 years old. I know other people in their 90s, and while I find them impressive in their own way, they haven’t been global pop-culture icons for going on 60 years, and they haven’t recorded albums and written novels and memoirs, and they for God’s sake have not gone up in space at age 90. They’re also not the sort of raconteur who can off-the-cuff keep an audience engaged for 45 minutes of freewheeling conversational fun without note cards and while doing lots of funny back-and-forth with the crowd.

Yes, I know The Shat has a reputation for being “difficult” (whatever that means), but I don’t care. I’ve never been called upon to make a TV show or a movie with him, and I never will be. I rely on Shatner for entertainment value, and he always delivers. Whatever he’s in, and whether he’s good in it, terrific in it, or just plain awful, he’s always always always watchable — unlike some highly regarded actors who get up their own backsides sometimes.

While I realize that William Shatner’s primary influence on my life is in playing a character he is not, I also credit him for his creativity and for his incredible drive, even at this advanced age. He is an inspiration — even to himself. One of the stories he shared Sunday was this one: When, last year, before setting sail for outer space courtesy of Jeff Bezos and earning his own “NBC News Special Report” on that spaceflight, he was given a last-minute chance while the ship was still on the gantry to change his mind and get out. He thought about it, he said… until his inner voice reminded him, “But I’m Captain Kirk!” The only course of action was onward and upward.

Shatner also said that, at age 91, he knows he’ll die soon. “Like…” he said, “in 20 or 30 years.”

Make it so.

Fail mail

Monday, October 10th, 2022

Good morning, happy Monday, and allow me to once again inveigh against postal holidays.

I hate them.

The post office is like a public utility — it’s not like we turn off the electricity or the gas 10 times a year!

Our first postmaster, Benjamin Franklin, a man who in his day (in the 1700s!!!) developed a system that was able to send a letter from Philadelphia to New York AND RECEIVE A REPLY in just 24 hours, is no doubt spinning in his grave.

Someone should stamp the idea of the postal holiday “Return to sender.”

Harumph.

Heiß

Monday, September 5th, 2022

That’s German for “hot” — a word I heard a lot from my German-American mother when I was growing up. And it’s certainly a word I’m thinking about today.

Because boy is it heiß.

Yesterday a friend in Napa Valley was complaining about the 109-degree heat up there. Well, lucky him:  It was 111 degrees here in Burbank, CA. It’s been so hot that the normally shy baby lizards are out in force, scampering into the shade wherever they can find it.

(Unlike my dogs — who, it turns out, are maniacs.)

On Saturday night I had a couple of friends over for cigars and drinks in my back yard. I sardonically reassured them that if it got chilly I could turn on my patio heater. No one laughed. There was no need for the heater; when the party broke up at 1:30 a.m., it was eighty-nine degrees outside. That’s eighty-nine with an 8 and a 9, ninety minutes after midnight and long after that great hot glowing orb in the sky had revolved away. 

I just now came in from my front yard, where I was yet again trimming my giganimous tipuana tree. I decided to do this because the temperature was a mere 98 degrees, so why not? My elder son and I planted this tree on October 19, 2003, and had I known what a curse I was bestowing on myself, I would have planted something else. It turns out that the tipuana tree is registered by many nations as an invasive species — but, of course, that’s what our city’s arborist happily recommended that I install. This tree grows faster than our national debt. While cutting off its tendrils, I started to mentally calculate just how much of my life I’ve spent trimming this tree over the past 19 years; I could’ve used that time to paddle out to Australia instead. I last trimmed the tree in late May (so: three-and-a-half months ago), and every few years I have to hire a squadron of tree-climbing men with power saws and a crane to scale its heights and lop off the branches that, left untended, would shear the roof off my house and plunge holes through my windows. So there I was just now, yet again, dragging around a ladder and hoisting my branch cutter and guillotining off all the hanging branches I could reach. There’s no money or joy in this, but I know there would be a lot of expense and heartache in not doing it. 

While I was out there, I started thinking about my uncle Art Miller, late of Johnstown, PA. Sometime in the 1970s, Uncle Art went out to trim his hedges and rose bushes and dropped dead of heat stroke and a heart attack. To me, he was a warm presence who wore corduroy slippers around his house, always smelled pleasingly of cigars, and had a general air of kindness and mild joy. I loved my Uncle Art, and think about him fondly, but I’m in no rush to join him. So now I’m back inside, writing this.

Battling busters

Monday, September 5th, 2022

The UPS workers are fast, but those Teamsters have the upper body strength. It’ll be an interesting fight to be sure.

What I write (and what I don’t)

Wednesday, August 31st, 2022

Although I haven’t been doing a lot of writing here of late, I have been doing a lot of writing. So if you’ve been worried about that — and I know you have! — please release that sigh of relief. I think, all things considered, my output remains about where it should be.

I’m about a third of the way into a new full-length play. I say a third, because I’ve got 46 pages, but I’m sure a bunch of those are going to get cut.

I’ve actually started writing a short story* — my first in years. The entire reason I came to Los Angeles 34 (gasp) years ago was to attend grad school at the University of Southern California, and the entire reason I chose that program was because it encouraged writing in more than one discipline, and I was writing both plays and short stories. I’ve never stopped writing plays, but the short stories have become more sporadic. At some point — and I swear this is true — I got tired of seeing them in print. Because: It didn’t compare to hearing live audience reaction to my plays, or reading the reviews. (Even the bad ones.) With all the short stories and, yes, poems (don’t look at me that way) that got published, the magazine or journal would come out… and then the silence would ensue. It didn’t seem to build into anything. Put another way: I just became a junkie for audience response.

*(Confession: When I say “started writing a short story,” what I mean to say is that I have written the notes for that story. I sure hope it follows — and this weekend! — or I’ll lose the thread.)

And I write a lot of copy for marketing/advertising clients, and I write a lot of funny emails to family and friends, and a couple of weeks ago I wrote an assigned piece for a magazine in Canada, and I’m writing this right now.

Today I wrote something for people who spend their lives in service of justice, frequently for poor people and for people facing discrimination. They needed this written, and I was proud to do it. I also wrote a candidate statement for someone running for office, someone I believe in. I also wrote a press release recently for a community group. I think these things are important.

Someone (I think Dorothy Parker) said that when you’re a writer, you face a life of homework. (Maybe it was Fran Lebowitz. In fact, I now think it was Fran Lebowitz.) Anyway, imagine working all day in a job you created and that’s centered around writing, editing, and communicating… and then coming home to do more of it. Plus weekends. So it’s like that.

Not that I’m complaining. I love working with words. I’m a sucker for alliteration and anaphora and all puns, good and bad. Plus, something John Steinbeck once said about writing as a career should silence anyone who’d complain about it: “It sure beats working in the mud with a stick all day.”

Something I haven’t been writing here for quite a while now are blog posts about politics. I swore them off for what boils down to two reasons:

  • I wasn’t saying anything that somebody else wasn’t saying better
  • And I wasn’t being funny or clever, because I was just so outraged

The related reason is that we have an ex-president about whom I’ve discovered I have zero sense of humor (which is shocking to me: having zero sense of humor about anything), and he dominates enough of the news every day. My little victory is that he’s no longer appearing in my blog.

So that’s what I’m not writing.

Men’s home furniture

Monday, August 29th, 2022

Whenever I’m out of town, I try to stop into a local comics shop to see if I can fill in some missing issues in whatever I’m collecting. This past weekend, while I was down in Carlsbad, CA, just north of San Diego proper, I found a large and overall excellent comic-book store that actually had five of the issues I’m looking for to fill in a run, and all of them reasonably priced. The comics shop was in a mall, so that’s how I happened to find myself in a mall. (Because, really, who goes to malls any more?)

And that’s also how I came across Macy’s men’s home furniture of Carlsbad, California.

Now, I don’t know what men’s home furniture is, and because of that, I don’t know if I need or want any. I mean, I have the standard furniture, like couches, chairs, a recliner, a dining table and chairs, a bed, and so forth. How would men’s home furniture differ? Is men’s home furniture, say, a La-Z-Boy with a beer holder and built-in remotes? Sunken into the left arm is there a humidor? Or is it a gamer’s chair that has a PlayStation 5 controller built right in, maybe with a VR headset? Is men’s home furniture something more, um, personal that I won’t go into detail about here? What is it?

My girlfriend tried to convince me that the sign tells us that this Macy’s offers, wait for it, men’s clothing, home items, and furniture, and that it’s not all one thing. Could she be right, and this signage is just evidence of bad kerning?

If that’s the case, that makes this just another Macy’s. But if, as I suspect, it’s a place that has men’s home furniture, then it’s got something distinctive to offer, in the form of a line of products I haven’t seen in any other department store, let alone any Macy’s.

If they’d listed comic books, I would’ve gone inside to find out.