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


Archive for the ‘Beckett, Samuel’ Category

Web of confusion

Monday, February 7th, 2011


It looks like the major critics have abandoned waiting for “opening night” — whenever that will be — of  the musical “Spider-man:  Turn Off the Dark,” and are now running reviews. Their calculation, no doubt, is this:  The show is doing major box-office business, it’s big talk in theatre circles, and it’s essentially being reviewed daily on the internet by people who’ve seen it. So yet again, old media and its old way of doing business is responding too slowly to new dynamics.

So the “professional” reviews are in, and they are punishing.  The LA Times’ Charles McNulty calls it “a teetering colossus,”  a “frenetic Broadway jumble,”and “an artistic form of megalomania.” In his review for the New York Times, Ben Brantley shares his paper’s decision making process in going ahead with a review, before swooping in for the first strike:

But since this show was looking as if it might settle into being an unending work in progress — with Ms. Taymor playing Michelangelo to her notion of a Sistine Chapel on Broadway — my editors and I decided I might as well check out “Spider-Man” around Monday, the night it was supposed to have opened before its latest postponement. You are of course entitled to disagree with our decision. But from what I saw on Saturday night, “Spider-Man” is so grievously broken in every respect that it is beyond repair.

Of the many effects in the show, he adds:  “But they never connect into a comprehensible story with any momentum. Often you feel as if you were watching the installation of Christmas windows at a fancy department store.”

To me, two things are worth noting from these reviews:

  1. What he and McNulty are describing is spectacle. Whether or not one subscribes to Aristotle, it’s good to bear in mind that he ranked spectacle low on the level of artistic achievement. Story is important for a reason. Even the elementally simple “Waiting for Godot” has  a story — and a good one. And I can personally testify that Spider-Man has featured prominently in any number of good stories for the past 50 years.
  2. The character on the right in the photo above is Hammerhead. Hammerhead is bar none the lamest Spider-Man villain, even lamer than Stiltman (who, really, is a Daredevil villain). Stiltman is just a guy on, well, stilts. Hammerhead is just a guy with a steel plate in his head. I once met a guy with a steel plate in his head; it didn’t give him superhuman abilities, it just protected what was left of his brain. He was almost as dumb as Hammerhead. I didn’t realize that Hammerhead was in the Spider-Man musical; seeing him there alerts me to just how misbegotten this show must be, and makes me wonder how much better the show might have been had they hired any one of the writers who’ve written all those solid comic-book stories to at least consult on this.

Today’s big news

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

Now that I’ve ended my day of internet silence — and thank you again to everyone here who joined me in helping to make the internet more available to everyone, especially those struggling with slow connections — I thought I’d share this great news. The previously lost Beckett play, “Attack the Day Gently,” has been found! Here are the details.

Thanks to Mark Chaet for alerting me to this!

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.

What LA can be like

Monday, December 14th, 2009


Today I was delighted to have lunch with the well-known photographer Harry Langdon. Go to his website and you’ll see that Harry has a long and legendary career as a celebrity photographer. He’s done sessions for people like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Foxx, Ronald Reagan, Stevie Nicks, B.B. King, and so forth. But when a mutual friend told me some months ago that her photographer was Harry Langdon, I said:

“Is he related to the Harry Langdon?”

She thought he was “the” Harry Langdon. But I was thinking of the great silent-film comedian often ranked with Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd:  Harry Langdon, the gifted clown who had run away to join the circus as a boy, became (briefly) one of the highest-paid stars of his era, wound down his career writing jokes for Laurel and Hardy (and, once, substituted for Laurel in an “& Hardy” film), and made a total of 96 films. That Harry Langdon.

She didn’t know. She’d never heard of that Harry Langdon.

A  few days later she emailed to say that yes, he was the son of that Harry Langdon, and would I like to have lunch with Harry Langdon, Jr?  So, today, there I was in Beverly Hills pulling mussels from their shells while discussing senior with Harry Langdon, Jr.   Lunch today was on a near par with the evening 15 years ago I spent in the company of Eleanor Keaton.   I may not care about what Tiger Woods or Lady Gaga are up to, but summoning the distant celebrity past of the silent comedy era is something I can get into.

We talked for a bit and Harry Langdon, Jr. said, “You do seem very well informed about my father.” I told him how much I love silent film comedy; how it represents a specific style of comedy that cannot be done since the introduction of sound; how I grew to love it when watching it as a small boy with my own father; how thrilled I was in college to learn of the connection between silent film comedy, vaudeville, theatre of the absurd, and existentialism (Beckett, who grew up admiring vaudevillians and clowns, based Didi and Gogo on Laurel & Hardy; Keaton’s deadpan comedy of menace is purely existential; Beckett made just one film — and it was with Keaton as the star); and how wonderful and funny an actor I thought his father was. Finally I let the subject wind down because I was afraid I was starting to come across as an obsessive. But then Harry told me where he was last night:

“I was a holiday party. At Stan Lee’s.”

“You were at Stan Lee’s holiday party?” I asked.

“You know him? He made a lot of money in comic books.”

Trying not to do a spit take, and worried again about how I was going to come off, I said, “Um… the other thing you should know about me is that I’m a huge, huge comic-book fan.”

And then that topic went on for at least several minutes.

77 million ideas

Monday, September 21st, 2009


Yesterday a friend and I went to Long Beach to see the Brian Eno installation, “77 Million Paintings,”  at the University Art Museum of California State University Long Beach. The genesis of the 77 million paintings enumerated in the title — which, Eno later said during his lecture, would actually be 77 million cubed —  is described well in this piece by the LA Times’ Reed Johnson. In short, a video mosaic of 12 individual screens pulls images randomly from grouped sets contained in databases held by three different computers, generating an ongoing series of freshly executed video “paintings,” which are sonically supported by a soundtrack of  sound loops on six separate tape decks, resulting in randomized musical accompaniment. The intention is to remove deliberation and intention from the artistic process; the result is mesmerizing. As my friend and I found, it was quite easy to get lost in the neverending self-generating inventions of the computers and the tape decks. For one brief period, I felt detached from space and time. I’ve had this feeling before with some art, in various disciplines, but only rarely.

Later, we attended Eno’s lecture at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center (also part of Cal State Long Beach). After 30 years of following the man’s career in all its phases — rock star, record producer, artist, writer, thinker — this was our first chance to see him in the flesh. Eno proved to be thoughtful, puckish, droll, and concerned, in equal measures. I would characterize the first third of his lecture as an admonishment to let go. (This should be expected from an artist whose visual work is created largely from computer generation.) He started by reminding us of something we’ve known for 566 years, since Copernicus:  that not only we are not at the center of the universe, we are off in a small corner, in one of a billion billion solar systems, and we exist as only one of innumerable species just on this one planet, where only an estimated 10% of species have been cataloged. In other words,  Get over yourself. Again, this viewpoint should be expected from someone extolling the virtues of random, unemotionally generated, art.

On the way home I wondered aloud how well these theories that can work so well  in visual art and music would work in long-form narrative. Having read (or tried to read) Samuel Beckett’s novels and some of William S. Burroughs’ longer pieces, I unfortunately believe I know too well. In such cases, even a little plot can go a long way. Organic writing — which I practice and preach — benefits from pruning and shaping. Effects can engage an audience, but only for so long; the best effect is an emotional verisimilitude, however achieved, that transports people into a deep level of caring about what happens. That occurs in better productions of “Waiting for Godot” because Didi and Gogo are present and we can relate; it never happens with “The Unnameable,” which is a true chore to read. When he’s collaborating with, say, Robert Fripp, Eno is free to produce an album of electronic feedback loops, but when he’s producing records for U2 or Coldplay, he must serve the song. To his immense credit, he never claimed in this talk that he was abandoning all oversight; rather, he talked about intentional balance, moderating oneself along the continuum between surrendering all control, or controling all elements, depending upon the desired outcome. I think that’s about right.

If you’re interested in “77 Million Paintings” and cannot make it to Long Beach, where it runs through December, here’s some good news:  a beautiful software-and-DVD version exists. Here it is on Amazon.com.  I bought a copy at the museum, and at about 35 bucks, it’s a steal. The package includes the software to run these self-generating images on  your computer, with accompanying soundtrack. In addition, there’s a beautiful booklet with notes from the artist, plus an interview DVD. Get it and surrender all control to it.

Page (and stage) turners

Sunday, March 29th, 2009

I’ll never forget the first time I started to read Frank Herbert’s “Dune,” in my late teens. Or the second time. Or the third time. Without finishing it. There had to be something to this book, its advocates were so legion, but whatever it was, I wasn’t finding it. Each time, I experienced the first 100 pages  as a cascade of names and items I couldn’t place or keep straight:  the Kwisatz Haderach, the Bene Gesserit, Feyd Rautha, various Atreides and Harkonnens, stillsuits, weirding modules, heighliners, and on and on. Now there’s a Wikipedia page covering just the technology. At the time, there was no such resource. There was just the lonely labor of trying again and again until something started to make sense. Three times, I bailed on this book, until finally one night, pruning in the tub, I made it past page 100 and actually got interested.

The other night my wife saw me hunkered down in front of the bookcase on my side of the bed, looking for the next novel to read. In general, I read two or three books (and multiple magazines) at the same time. I’m looking forward to finishing the history of Germany  under the Nazis (especially delightful because I know how it ends) and then returning to the account of Roman Empires, as well as finishing Julian Barnes’ meditation on death and that account of how censorship ended so many comic artists’ careers. But in the meantime, I was looking for a novel, having recently finished T.C. Boyle’s “A Friend of the Earth,” as noted here previously. My eye landed upon Cormac McCarthy’s border trilogy:  a one-volume compendium of “All the Pretty Horses,” “The Crossing,” and “Cities of the Plain.”

However overstylized his writing may be (or perhaps because of its trickery) I find McCarthy to be a wonderful writer. No matter his overuse of polysyndeton, he has a grasp of vocabulary and flow and scenic description that at times beggars belief. I get caught up and keep reading. In addition to “All the Pretty Horses,” I’ve read “No Country for Old Men” and “The Road,” and enjoyed them all immensely. But I got stopped cold about 160 pages into “The Crossing” by an endless monologue given by an old man unmoored from this life. This old man goes on about… something… for so long I felt trapped in purgatory with him. And finally freed myself by putting the book down. A quick check-in with my son revealed that, unprompted, he had stopped at precisely the same waystation. Neither of us knew what the old man was talking about, endlessly and with seemingly no purpose, and both of us had ditched.

But now I picked it back up and climbed into bed. Even if the plot didn’t advance — and clearly, that’s what I was missing, some action, some sense of forward movement, something that would pick me up and carry me along in the way that made “No Country for Old Men” utterly unputdownable — I figured I would find myself entranced again by some of the prose before quietly slipping off to sleep. Without the aid of a bookmark, I found where I had left off probably six months ago, near the terminus of the old man’s interminable monologue, and started up again. And then found myself reading for hours. Here’s what happens:  The existential treatise ends a mere page or so after I had quit, with the old man bidding our protagonist, 17-year-old Billy Parham, farewell. Billy rather speedily crosses the border from Mexico back into the U.S. (New Mexico; nice touch) and returns to his family’s ranch to discover that the ranch has been cleaned out and his parents murdered. He heads into town and gleans what information he can from the sheriff, then picks up his younger brother, who somehow escaped the onslaught, and returns with him to Mexico, where they seek their horses and, no doubt, the men responsible for the murders.

In other words, now the book is a page turner.

I related this to my son, getting up to the point of Billy’s return and what he finds, when my son called out, “Stop. Maybe now I want to finish reading it.” He’ll have to wait for me to finish it first.

Is all this a very long way of saying that story is important? Perhaps. Is it the most important element? Maybe not. I loved “The Incredibles” because I got so caught up in Mr. Incredible’s personal crisis (a hero forced to reject his heroism, and so subject to the predations of bureaucracy and the 9 to 5); by contrast I in no way care about Ginormica’s problem in “Monsters vs. Aliens” (a young woman supported in marrying the wrong man by her friends and family discovers her true family when she is imprisoned with friendly monsters, of which she now is one). (More about this later.) The key difference is not in the story elements, but in the thematic and character elements. But story is important, and it seems oddly irritating in 2009 to have to say this. It is especially irritating to have to say this with regard to the theatre, where somehow it has become laughable to suggest that we should care what happens, and that actions should have consequences, but here is Theresa Rebeck, in today’s LA Times, having to defend these notions for us. I have stood in her shoes too many times. It’s especially galling to have cut one’s teeth on Ionesco and Beckett and to have one’s view of theatre derided as “nostalgic.”

Audiences aren’t stupid and they don’t lie. With drama we can more easily fool ourselves, but comedy is the truest form because it exposes all falsehoods:  Either it is funny or it isn’t, and either the audience laughed or it didn’t.  It’s that simple. No, not all experiences are universal.  There were many who loved “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” but if I never see another newish Neil Simon play it will be far too soon. (Seeing “The Dinner Party” was for me a singular event; it was the very evening in which I swore I would forever after more cautiously guard my time. This after two hours of feeling my life drain away.)  Every play is not for every body; but many new plays are for nobody — nobody except the people who make them. If the language poets killed poetry, I’m afraid their ilk have now turned their sights onto the stage. Twenty-five years ago, an undergrad professor told me that if poetry lost the educated, the enlightened, the readers, the people it already had and should have, then the fault lay with the poets. I think about that every time I come across a new poem utterly inflated with its own word play and cleverness but resolutely impregnable of meaning. But where I feel worst about this is in the theatre, when audiences are left cold by something obtuse that the playwright and the director are so unjustly proud of. The underlying purpose of all theatre must remain catharsis — that frisson of fellow-feeling, when the emotional brutality of the event whether comic or dramatic is brought upon us. When language is made pre-eminent over feeling, all we’re left with is puns.