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


Archive for the ‘LaBute, Neil’ Category

Celebrity instant playwriting

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

Here’s a fun stunt:  Neil LaBute and Theresa Rebeck will write plays next week in a webcast event, based on prompts provided by the LA Times. Vote here for your pick of prompts. For the record, I’m drumming up support for this one: “Kristin enrolls in a figure studies class, then realizes that she knows the nude model, Ron, from church.” I’m eager to see what former Mormon LaBute and feminist Rebeck come up with on that one.

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.


Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

It’s holy writ among playwrights that a bad production can screw up even a masterpiece. (Don’t believe it? Imagine William Shatner doing Shakespeare — or just singing “Rocket Man.”) But some plays hold up better than others under all circumstances, and after seeing a production of it this past Friday in a tenement theatre in San Francisco I’m thinking that Neil LaBute’s “The Shape of Things” is one of them.

The basic premise is just so much fun:  An average college nerd given a chance with an unconventional and attractive young artiste is remade in the process and left wondering, in the end, who he is and what just happened. This particular production was the directing debut of a recent college grad, and the casting reminded me of many a production I have myself featured in somehow as director or producer or (worst) playwright:  This actor’s great, this one’s good, this one’ll do, and this one… we’ll make work somehow. One actor telegraphed the play’s finale — if you didn’t know the final twist, you could certainly guess it from every actorly indication starting with Moment One. (Note to young actors (or bad actors, or all actors):  Please don’t play the end, and please don’t play the intention; and please don’t play subtext; just be. Please.) Another was physically wrong in almost every way but brought such bonhommie to the role that I grew to appreciate him and his oddly accidental comic moments. The lead was a sensation. And despite whatever faults — including the introduction of an intermission that the playwright expressly doesn’t want — the production worked well, got laughs, and held the attention of the audience. LaBute’s play asks smart questions about the essence of identity and the nature of art and the authenticity of sexual attraction; its success stems from its ability to entertain while being provocative.

What undoubtedly added to the enjoyment for me was that my son was seeing it with me. We went to San Francisco very last minute for three days on some personal business and decided to see a play on Friday night. My heart is usually found in a smaller theatre, so that’s where we went. Thirty years in, it’s hard for me to look at these things without a critical eye (but boy, when I love it, it is a joy to behold); but for Lex, this sort of thing is still new and young. His enjoyment of the play, which he’d already read, rubbed off on me. Whatever relatively minor faults of the production, I left feeling that I wanted to see another play in another small theatre right away.

The next night, after a day full of errands and obligations all over San Francisco, we went to the movies. We both wanted to see “Taken,” but it wasn’t playing near our hotel, so we wound up seeing “Fast & Furious.” Throwing us, in one night, from the sublime to the ridiculous. Let me just say that if ever in my life I’m having the stuffing beaten out of me, if someone is to grab me, throw me against a hard wood table so hard that it breaks in half, pick me up and hit me eight times hard to the craniofacial area, I hope it’s Vin Diesel, because judging from the recovery of Paul Walker it must be like getting pummeled with soft pillows. Walker sits up, wipes an invisible dripping from his nose, and talks down Vin Diesel with soothing words:  It’s the classic misunderstanding, but it’s all for the good, and no hard feelings. You or I would be on life support, but Walker is made of movie stuff. Earlier in the picture, Diesel’s posse of roadway hoodlums south of the border power their muscle cars down twisting mountaintop expanses of secluded roadway at top speeds in reverse, dropping trailer hitches onto gasoline tankers so they can haul off the precious fuel. (I’m assuming this was conceived when oil was at $150 a barrel, not the $50 it’s hovering at now. In 2009 if you want to make off with that much money, you just get a federal bailout.) The fuel swipe goes awry and Vin Diesel and his car find themselves trapped between a rock and a hard place:  hurtling toward one truck on a dead-end mountain pass while another tractor trailer endlessly flipping and bouncing from midair to hard ground is tumbling precisely their way. His solution:  Expertly timing when the tractor trailer is in midair and driving beneath it, getting out from under by the skin of his paint job. This trick is so neat that, of course, the movie repeats it again later. In big-budget action-adventure movies, if once is good, twice (or more) must be better.

For me, the movie dies 10 minutes in with Michelle Rodriguez’s character. No, I don’t know why I care about Michelle Rodriguez. I just know I can’t take my eyes off her. It isn’t purely heat; she’s got that indecipherable screen charisma that some people have and some people don’t. In a season of “Lost” that I don’t remember much about and didn’t care much about at the time, she was magnetic. (As was Michael Emerson.) Even surrounded by nitro-fueled steroid cars and whatever has been injected into Vin Diesel’s muscles and head, she stands out. But then she dies. In retrospect. We don’t even get to see it (except later). My son, who knew of my interest in seeing this movie because of Michelle Rodriguez, whispered “Uh oh” when we learned she wasn’t going to be reappearing in this movie. Not that her disappearance was a surprise, either:  Once your action-adventure hero somewhat unwillingly parts with his leading lady but leaves her a note (or, in this case, a big whopping bundle of cash; nothing says farewell my lovely so well as stacks of dead presidents), you know she’s doomed. But then, nothing, absolutely nothing, is a surprise in this movie, up to and including the identity of the mysterious drug lord everyone is hunting, and who turns out to be precisely who everyone (except our hero) thinks it is in the first place.

Finally — and I really can’t leave this subject without a word about this — let’s discuss Vin Diesel. I know that we shouldn’t discuss anyone with the name Vin Diesel, and I realize that each of us has only a limited time on Earth and I’m now spending some of mine on Vin Diesel,  and you’re spending some of  yours reading about Vin Diesel, but I can’t resist. Somehow I didn’t mind him in “The Chronicles of Riddick.” Maybe that’s because Judi Dench was in it. Maybe it’s because it was a science fiction movie with enough distractions, including Thandie Newton. (No Michelle Rodriguez, but she’ll do.) But “Fast & Furious” had me asking myself if Vin Diesel isn’t the flattest “actor” since Charles Bronson. An actor who was in a couple of my plays in the 1990’s did a movie with Charles Bronson in that period. I asked him what Charles Bronson was like. His reply:  “Like cement.” Just an inert slab that happened to be there for you to bounce lines off. I recently watched “Death Wish” again — and no, I don’t know why — and it’s true:  the “distraught” Charles Bronson upset over his wife’s murder and daughter’s rape is indistinguishable from the “workaday” Charles Bronson doing business out in the desert is indistinguishable from the vigilante Charles Bronson shooting would-be muggers in the park is indistinguishable from the murderous Charles Bronson evading police pursuing him from the subway station. Each has the emotional consistency of drywall. I couldn’t think when I’d seen that since in a major name film actor — but then seeing Vin Diesel in his latest solved that riddle for me. Say what you will about Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who can’t deliver a comic line to save his schwarzenegger, but at least he can crack his face into a smile.

Oddly, though, for all its obvious problems, “Fast & Furious” is every bit as unwreckable as “The Shape of Things” — probably moreso. The latter is clever enough to withstand the uneven application of artistic ability. The former is so witless, so amped up on steroids and meth, that no amount of artistic ability is needed, or even germane. “What I learned from you is to have a code,” Paul Walker’s character tells Vin Diesel; from all evidence, that character’s code is to do whatever he wants whenever he wants wherever he wants, no matter the impact on anyone else. (We call that hedonism. No, Virginia, it is not a basis for heroism.) The movie’s code is similarly easy to grasp:  maximum impact, but no repercussions. Repeat. Faster. Repeat.