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


Archive for the ‘Ionesco, Eugene’ Category

Awards and rewards

Tuesday, January 23rd, 2024

“It’s an honor just to be nominated.”

That’s what someone I used to know would say during her Oscar party whenever the phone rang and she answered it. The joke being, of course, that that’s what nominees used to say in the press interviews when they’d lost:  “It’s an honor just to be nominated.”

I say “used to say” because I haven’t watched the Oscars since I stopped going to that party, and that was… about 30 years ago… so I don’t know if the losers still say this. I don’t have anything against the Oscars, but I don’t have anything for them either. I don’t see many movies, the show isn’t very entertaining, if there is something entertaining no doubt it’ll be shared a zillion times on social media where I’ll come across it regardless, and overall I figure that rich celebrities already get enough attention.

So when Greta Gerwig got snubbed, with no nomination for Best Director, I couldn’t get worked up about it. I didn’t instantly assume that it was part of a vast anti-feminist conspiracy led by Academy voters, as evidently everyone on social media immediately began to claim. I just figured that most of the people who vote for these nominations gave more votes to other directors.

For the record, I thought “Barbie” was an astounding achievement. (Hey — a movie that I saw. And in a movie theatre!) But if we’re going to talk about theoretically deserving artists who never got the award that they were theoretically entitled to, well, that list will be very long indeed. 

Among many other distinguished personages, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Sidney Lumet, Akira Kurosawa, and Stanley freaking Kubrick never won an Oscar for Best Director. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald never won a Pulitzer. Although Edward Albee did win the Pulitzer (three times), in 1963, the advisory jury nominated “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” but the board awarded the prize to… no one. (Maybe it’s not always an honor just to be nominated.)

The enormously influential Gertrude Stein never won the Nobel Prize for literature. (She did win the first-ever Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.) Franz Kafka never won a prize of any sort (although there’s now one named for him).

Five times, Mahatma Gandhi was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, without winning once. Meanwhile Henry Kissinger won the peace prize for murdering millions of people, and Barack Obama got one for doing nothing that merited it.

I could go on with lists of scientists, writers, painters, playwrights, business heroes both local and not, animal saviors, environmental champions, people of high talent or a do-gooding nature and on and on, who never got properly recognized, sometimes because people didn’t like their work, sometimes because they preferred other people’s work, sometimes because they just didn’t like these people, and sometimes because the decision was arbitrary.

Case in point:

One story goes that in 1969, the jury deciding the Nobel Prize for literature was evenly split between Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, three-to-three, with much heated debate. It was finally resolved when, after lunch, one of the Ionesco supporters, who also liked Beckett’s work, simply changed his vote. Result: a Nobel Prize for Beckett (who called winning it “a catastrophe”) and none for Ionesco, whose plays are less widely recognized and less frequently produced.

What will be the result for Greta Gerwig of this terrible snub? Probably $20 million to direct “Barbie 2.” Not the worst outcome.

Sitting in judgment theatrically

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

Two or three times a year, I get called upon to judge theatre competitions of varying sorts. This year, I’m one of the readers for the PEN USA literary awards, which is always an honor. And this Saturday evening, I’m a judge of this playwriting and performance event at the Secret Rose Theatre. It sounds like a lot of fun. If you’re around, stop by.

I have mixed feelings about contests, awards, and prizes. In grad school, one of my playwriting professors, Jerome Lawrence,  told me he was against writing contests because it pitted writers against writers. I understood his point of view (and that’s an indication of just what sort of a guy Jerry was:  generous beyond measure), especially as someone who at that time had already been on both sides of prize-winning — winning one when I wasn’t sure my play was the best, and losing the same contest the next year when I was sure mine was. Especially when there’s a performance element in judging  a playwriting contest, a lot rides on elements outside the playwright’s control:  How responsive was the audience on the judging night, how “on” were the performers, was it too cold or too hot in the theatre, how was traffic on the way there, was the box office friendly or surly, and so forth.

At the same time, believe me when I say I understand the marketing value of winning any contest or award (and, sometimes, the prize value). I don’t care which movies have won which awards, believe me (especially when  it’s a system that awards “Best Picture” to “Avatar”). But do awards build careers, and would I put the full thrust of marketing and PR behind any awards won? You bet.

There is a story — and I don’t know how reliable it is — that, 40 years ago, the Nobel committee was deadlocked between giving the award for literature to either Samuel Beckett or Eugene Ionesco. Finally, after much deliberation, one of the Ionesco champions who felt that Ionesco’s work had a broader scope than Beckett’s (and there may be something to that), switched sides to end the deadlock. And so:  Samuel Beckett won the Nobel, and Eugene Ionesco never did. Is the work of Beckett, the Nobel-prize-winning writer, better than that of Ionesco? Beckett has become far more deeply rooted in the cultural consciousness — referenced in “The Simpsons,” name-checked on “Quantum Leap,” parodied on Sesame Street — and a lot of that came from winning the Nobel.

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.


Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

Yes, today is 9/9/09, the day that a bunch of 40-year-old albums by a certain band got re-released in various CD re-packagings, to the delight of millions around the world.

For others among us, it was another day in the countdown toward the new Pere Ubu album, “Long Live Pere Ubu!” Even if it turns out I hate it, I guarantee it’ll be far more artistically provocative than any other new music coming out this month. Yes, the Beatles were provocative. Forty years ago.

The new Ubu album brings together two things I’ve been interested in for a long time:  the band Pere Ubu, and the inspiration for their name, Alfred Jarry’s “Ubu Roi.” “Ubu Roi” was an adolescent prank — a play written by a high-school kid to mock his teacher. I wrote a novel in a similar tone when I was the same age, but my novel’s still in a box somewhere while Jarry’s play radically changed its artform. (Do we get to have Ionesco, or Theatre of the Absurd as a whole, without Jarry? Probably not.)

Fittingly, Pere Ubu the band has been every  bit as influential as “Ubu Roi,” and even more doggedly uncommercial. One of the bonus features on an Ubu CD is a series of documents, including one that references an album’s sales as numbering about 6,000. This for a band with a three-decade history and a sound that influenced Nine Inch Nails, the Pixies (and, therefore, Nirvana), Joy Division, REM, Thomas Dolby, Hüsker Dü, Henry Rollins, Bauhaus, and innumerable others including the entire industrial-rock movement, a band rightfully recognized in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (albeit in an undeservedly small corner), where one of singer David Thomas’ instruments is proudly displayed:  a railroad spike with accompanying ball peen hammer. And if you listen closely enough, you can hear that very instrument on some early tracks where it is played to perfection.

This FAQ about the rationale behind the concept and recording of “Long Live Pere Ubu!” speaks to some of the many reasons I love this band. Imagine this sentiment, by David Thomas about the resurgent appearance of the monstrous Pere Ubu wherever you look, being uttered by any other recording artist this long in the game:  “Regardless of whoever or whatever it is that you personally choose to lionize, it’s more than likely that such a person or organization is Père Ubu. Every talking head that you see and admire on the tv is Père Ubu.” Thirty-four years on, 20 years past the last gasping relevance of the Rolling Stones, Pere Ubu retains the industrial crackle of original thought. That makes every new CD by them a release worthy of anticipation.

Lost in translation

Thursday, August 6th, 2009


Last night my son Lex and I watched the film version of “The Kite Runner.” When it was over, I asked him what he thought.

“It was okay,” he said.

And he was right:  It was okay.

Except when I read the novel just six months ago, it was a gut-wrenching experience. I even cried. Twice. The tragedy of childhood betrayal and mixed-up identity against the background of poverty and lowered circumstances was breathtaking. As was the palpably new sense of how horrible it would be like to live under the Taliban.

None of that is in the movie.

Well, actually, all of it is in the movie — all of the scenes. In making the adaptation, they didn’t monkey around with the story or the characterizations. There’s only one scene I noticed missing from the book, and I have to agree that it could be cut. (Although given a later scene that’s in the movie, I suspect they shot that earlier one as well.) But what’s left out, somehow, is the impact. Some things just don’t translate to other media.

A notable example:  To get out of Afghanistan when the Russians and then the Taliban movie in, the boy and his father and several others have to be transported across the border in the belly of a fuel tanker. We have that scene in the movie, but there’s no resonance:  The boy gets into the tanker. His father tells him it will be all right. The boy says he can’t breath. To distract him and provide what comfort he can, his father has him turn on the small iridescent light on his wristwatch and recite a poem. Next scene:  They are in India.

This is pretty much the form the scene takes in the novel. Except Khaled Hosseini is able to convey the lingering, choking, searing stench of fuel, and the utter darkness of the tank. Film can’t do smell (although fiction can), and film can’t do darkness (although fiction can). When the boy looks at his watch, we see a closeup of a boy looking at his watch; there’s no context because there’s no way to see deeper in the frame. The novel isn’t limited by frames. The book, a seemingly sightless medium, offers greater vision.

Sadly, I don’t think they’ve done anything wrong in this movie. It just doesn’t make a statement the way the novel does. The impact was lost in translation.

I’ve  thought a lot about translation over the years. I remember reading “Ubu Roi” in French in college and wondering whether it just shouldn’t have been translated into English; no matter how hard one tries, a pun in French doesn’t work in English. (One of Pa Ubu’s recurring outbursts is “Merdre!” which makes a pun of “murder” and “shit.” In English, I’ve seen this translated as “Pschitt!” Which is just “shit” misspelled, and with none of the menace.) I wonder how far off the mark the translations of some of my favorite writers, Kafka and Rilke among them, must be. I remember translating “La Cancatrice Chauve” myself as part of my graduation obligations and wondering just how absurd my translation was. I remember one semester in particular raising the question of translation with several different professors, all of whom gave what amounts to the stock answer:  While a translation is not as good as the original, you usually get a fair amount.

I hope that’s true. And if I had to wait to learn German and Turkish and Spanish and Norwegian, I wouldn’t have read Kafka, Goethe, Kant, Rilke, Orhan Pamuk, Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or Knut Hamsun, to name just a few. Still, I would think it’s harder to translate from one language to another than from one medium to another, especially from novel to film, because film exists in the universal language of sight. And yet here we have a powerful, wrenching novel, faithfully translated into a film that, finally, is just okay.

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.