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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 Responses to “Outcomes”

  1. Dan Says:

    THAT was inspirational. I mean that. I came away with my outlook (at least temporarily) changed.


  2. Lee Wochner Says:

    Thank you, Dan. I appreciate that. (And I’m glad to be helpful.)

  3. Brian Benison Says:

    Excellent, Lee! Particularly like, “Don’t get distracted by the terrible people.”-which is even a great point on its own.

Leave a Reply