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


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Barfday gifts

July 7th, 2023

My birthday is a week away, so it’s time for marketers who have my personal information to leap into action!

Quick poll. Which is better?

  • The restaurant that emails me a “happy birthday” with no coupon or offer of free dessert on my birthday or anything; or
  • Best Buy emailing me a $5 coupon which will buy… nothing… at Best Buy.

Both are marketing efforts trying to disguise themselves as birthday wishes.

The latter one is more transparent — and stupid. (And from a restaurant I’ve enjoyed.)

The first one is thoughtless — and useless. (And from a company I’ve always admired.)

For-never holding peace

July 5th, 2023

Yesterday, I posted about the ultimate dissolution of my longtime marriage to a very good woman. Truly. It just wasn’t working any more, and although I know that “we really don’t belong together any more” (her words months and months ago, and she was right), that hasn’t quelled my thinking about it, and never will. Again, I’m just glad that it ended amicably and that we’re still friends, with daily interactions through a game we play on our phones, and frequent texts, and sharing photos and memories, and the occasional phone call. She’s a good woman, a good person, a terrific mother, and someone who has brought me a lot of joy in my life.

Last night / this morning, during my usual “what time is it now?” bout of insomnia, I came across the piece below in the New York Times. This is the story of a 20-year marriage that ended very differently. I urge you to read it. The writer, an accomplished attorney and a notable figure (especially now that her story has been widely reported and widely discussed), doesn’t recognize the man she married and can’t figure out if she ever knew him.

Here’s the link, which thanks to the wonders of my paid subscription, will take you past the paywall.

She doesn’t know what to make of this seemingly harmless man with whom she had two daughters — daughters that, with her, he chose to abandon overnight and with whom he no longer wants any contact.

She doesn’t know what to make of him, but I do.

He is what we call a sociopath.

Sociopaths don’t care for others or their feelings; in fact, the feelings of others never enter their orbit. Sociopaths are concerned utterly with themselves. We’ve had at least one former president of the United States who’s evinced this behavior (and I submit probably at least one more), so you’ll recognize it. Her husband is, was, and will be a sociopath. How she doesn’t recognize it I don’t know, except perhaps as a self-protection that allows her to believe that he’s changed, and not that she married a deeply damaged person while never realizing it.

While I’m on about this marriage/divorce/separation topic, let me add the odd subject of Bill de Blasio and Chirlane McCray’s separation. Relationships go bust, as we’ve noted, and interracial relationships can be even more fraught; I’ve lived a bit of it, having been in more than one during my separation and ultimate divorce. You’re not quite sure if you’re being treated “a certain way” because it’s an interracial situation, or if it’s your imagination:

  • The head of the hospital addresses the white guy at the hospital holiday party first because he assumes this is the doctor who works for him, rather than the highly educated and highly compensated African woman with him.
  • Internal thought: Did that woman look at us funny because of the couple we are, or are we imagining it?
  • People assume that your significant other is descended from people of one continent, when actually she is descended from people of an utterly different continent halfway around the globe, and then make unspoken assumptions about who she is and how she’ll be.
  • Quiet discussion: Are we being served last because they don’t like us?
  • and so on.

I don’t have any insight into the de Blasio / McCray situation per se, except I find the terms of their “separation,” such as it is, peculiar (peculiar to me, at least):

“They are not planning to divorce, they said, but will date other people. They will continue to share the Park Slope townhouse where they raised their two children, now in their 20s…”

This is their business, and not mine. But I will say that it’s my experience that you’re either in, or you’re out. (And that applies to most things in life.) Staying married and dating other people might work for them — and it certainly works for others — but staying together in the same place they’ve lived for decades and where they raised their children, and dating other people, with all their other complications?

Marriage when it’s simpler than that is still pretty complicated.

My Independence Day

July 4th, 2023

Birth of the nation, yes. But today may be an historic day for another reason. It may be the day I snapped out of it.

Snapped out of the pandemic. Snapped out of economic concerns. Snapped out of my divorce.

It might’ve happened last month, the snapping-out-of. Or even earlier this week. But at some point recently it happened, because as I devoted some time this morning to cleaning out my writing room, which had become overrun on every flat surface and every square inch of carpeted floor, I came across all sorts of things from 2020 and 2021 and 2022, and asked myself, “When did this happen?”

As in:

  • “Oh! That’s right! I wrote this play and it was produced. Completely forgot about it.”
  • “This LP is a one-of-a-kind test pressing of the remaster of the album that introduced me to Pere Ubu almost 40 years ago! HOW DID I GET THIS?”
  • “Oh wow. My Twitter music buddy in Nashville sent me this package. Did I even open it? What is it?”
  • “This is an unused gift certificate to my local comics shop from my sons – from two years ago!”
  • “These 15 pages that I wrote, dated and printed out and paper-clipped together, are called ‘Blink.’ Is this a short story? A play? A monologue piece? What is this?”

These are just some of the things I found sloshing around in stacks and piles in a room I’d let overgrow like kudzu the past two years.  Plays or parts of plays that I’d written, some pieces of fiction, rehearsal notes, correspondence from friends across the U.S. and the U.K., disks from musicians I revere in Ohio and California and Brighton, England, and ephemera of my travels and sightings: ticket stubs, theatre programs, pins, postcards.

Throughout these two years, I’ve felt healthy and well. And I’ve sure been active. But it was bizarre to look at so much archaeological evidence from those two years and not recognize the tribe responsible — which was I, myself.

Thirty-one years ago, when my father was dying, a friend of the time told me that it takes two years to get over trauma. Specifically, he said it takes two years to get over the death of a parent. He said that when his mother died, he went on a kibbutz (even though he isn’t Jewish) and acted strangely all around and then realized in retrospect two years later how oddly he’d been behaving. He was kindly advising me that I was going to lose my mind for a couple of years after my father died, that the death of your parent was like mortality knocking on your own door. As he nicely related this to me, trying to do me a service, I thought, “Yes, but I’m stronger than you. That’s not going to happen to me.” And then that August of 1992, my father died, and then in 1994 while on a mountain top in Arkansas on a fellowship at a playwriting retreat for a month I realized that I’d been a complete asshole for two years, so I called my wife and apologized, and then came back to town and apologized to other people too.

So maybe the past two years have been like that. Except instead of the death of my father, it was the death of my marriage.

I never expected my father to die — he wasn’t supposed to do that — and I don’t expect to die, not really, and I certainly didn’t expect my marriage to die.

But it’s been okay. It’s a cliché to say we’ve both changed, my ex-wife and I, but it’s true; we just don’t belong together any more, not as life partners. I’m glad that she and I are still friends. I care about her, I truly do. Thirty-eight years of almost entirely positive memories — of romance, of childrearing, of vacations with and without kids, of raucous laughter with friends, of adventures out on rivers and in woods and in cities and with family — are worth safekeeping. Precisely when each of our three beautiful children was conceived; that’s worth treasuring. These are precious memories, to be treated with respect and care. When I told my divorce attorney that I wanted the parting to be amicable, she said, “Everyone says that.” And then when the court issued the final divorce decree, a day that my now ex-wife and I both met with a wrenching sadness, the same attorney said with surprise, “Congratulations. It really was amicable,” which was a testament to the determination my wife and I had both made, to keep talking, to talk it through, to keep it friendly, to preserve the good feelings and the good memories as part of the heritage for ourselves and our children.

Since July of 2021, when the pandemic was in full swing and the marriage was flatlining, I’ve been busy building the next phase of my life, connecting with friends on a deeper level, bearing down on my business and lifting it up, immersing myself in the music that suffuses me with the thrill of discovery, and re-entering the dating world so I can find a new partner to share adventures with. And, evidently, writing all sorts of things, some of them half-remembered.

I never stopped working on any of that, but today I feel like I have a fuller awareness.

It’s my Independence Day.

Slapstick

June 28th, 2023

In the Buster Keaton universe, Buster is frequently an inept fool who at some point falls asleep and then awakens with superhuman abilities. You see this in SHERLOCK, JR., in THE NAVIGATOR and many other instances.

In my own universe, I’m an inept fool who at some point remembers to have some fucking COFFEE, and then gains pretty-much-human abilities.

(I’m also someone who just found a way to compare himself in some way with the brilliant Buster Keaton, so I’m taking that as a win.)

My morning show

April 28th, 2023

Hey, everybody, I’m on this theatre show LIVE tomorrow morning at the highly untheatrical time of 7:15 a.m. Pacific Time. Hope you can join us!

Here’s the info:

Dear Friends & Viewers, Saturday 9am: new DAVE’S GONE BY with writer-director Lee Wochner! Featuring: Rabbi Sol Solomon chats with veteran playwright and theatrical director Lee Wochner. Plus: Today/Yesterday Trivia Quiz, Greeley Crimes & Old Times, and a Colorado Limerick of the Damned (Aetna Estates).Watch the 892nd episode of Dave’s Gone By LIVE, Saturday morning, April 29, 9am-noon(ET):

http://www.facebook.com/davesgoneby. Says Rabbi Sol about this week’s show, “This was a shock to me, but apparently they have live theater out in California. I wish to learn more about this, particularly what percentage of shows might be in Yiddish. Or Hebrew. Or have naked actresses. Honestly, if it has the third, shtup the other two.” *Since 2002, Dave’s Gone By has been blending humor, culture, and interviews in a one-of-a-kind way. Host Dave Lefkowitz is an award-winning playwright and arts journalist. His current hobbies include theater, music, and stocking up on diapers for whoever becomes the next US President.

Enjoy all the archives at davesgoneby-dot-com.#davesgoneby,@radiodave2https://www.facebook.com/david.sheward.7

In praise of plotlessness

April 2nd, 2023

“Suspense is cheap,” my writing professor told me when I was an undergrad. But he was a poet who for some reason was teaching fiction writing to a fledgling playwright, so what did we know? If your literary sensibilities are informed by the short stories showing up every week in The New Yorker, then no, there’s no suspense, no plot, and probably no conflict, just theme. Most of those stories end with a tiny “ah-hah” moment, only slightly a twist, and only barely ironic.

(I say this as an admirer of many of those stories.)

Movies, most of them, operate differently of course. There, suspense is the principal factor: How will our hero Tom Cruise get out of it this time? The answer:  with CGI. Ditto comic books, which is where most movies now take their cue.

Theme without plot as we generally understand it is principally the province of literary work, either on the page or in the theatre, whereas plays that flow primarily from plot are old-fashioned. We now view plays that operate mostly from plot as melodramas; literary plays as exemplified by Harold Pinter and Caryl Churchill and Ionesco or Beckett may have some element of plot, but they mostly investigate and express themes. Audiences get less caught up in asking what’s going to happen than in trying to understand what they’re watching and what to make of it. The real whodunit is a whatisthis.

What brings this to mind is a weekend of seeing two of these thematic and ostensibly plotless pieces:  “Playtime,” the Jacques Tati film, and a dynamic production of “Love and Information” at the Antaeus Theatre.

“Playtime” presents a fascinating case. Its two-hour runtime is occupied mostly by the bumbling of our hero, Monsieur Hulot, as he is waylaid while trying to meet for a job interview, and later as he’s the unfortunate participant in the very bad opening of a new Parisian restaurant. Add in a young American tourist who wanders into and out of scenes and occasionally encounters him and you have just about the entirety of the story. But the story is beside the point. The point here is that the then-new age of 1964 presents a confusion of ill-conceived modern technology that alienates and flummoxes everyone who comes into contact with it. Useless gadgets fill our lives, and constant intrusions by the latest things and ideas drain our attention. While we’re all individuals, we may have one or two or three doppelgangers in any crowd, making us easily mistaken for someone else. The theme? The creators are at the mercy of the systems and services they’ve created. In an AI age, that’s compelling.

It should also be said that “Playtime” is riveting and funny. While bereft of plot, it’s full of action — and also tightly choreographed sight gags that fill every scene. What makes the movie so watchable is the fear it creates that one might miss something by looking the wrong way. Tati abjures closeups; the entire film is told through master shots, forcing us to choose where to look. Sometimes there’s too much to see, while other times potential distractions are stripped away to present us simply with a chair to be sat upon or a portfolio to be unzipped loudly.

That this abstract film lured more than 400 attendees out to see it and then resulted in raucous laughter and applause is a testament to its achievement. That it does it without much in the way of what we ordinarily consider a story puts paid the myth that Aristotle must be obeyed.

After seeing “Playtime” on Friday night, I caught “Love and Information” on Saturday night at the Antaeus in Glendale. I will go anywhere I can, any time I can, to see a play by Caryl Churchill, a brilliant playwright who tears off the shackles of conventional storytelling norms but nevertheless produces completely absorbing tales. In this particular play, 49 separate short scenes ranging from a few seconds to a few minutes set about immersing us in the reality of modern human life:  quests for information, conflicts and debates about misinformation, people coming together and breaking apart. 

Further credit where it’s due:  The script comes with no stage directions, no character names, not even any character descriptions, so every choice must be made by the production cast and crew. In this case, director Emily Chase and the cast have made decisions to situate each of the varied scenes in various places and to cast them as they saw appropriate. We may be watching what’s clearly staged as a couple, but listening to the text reveals that that has been designated by the production, not the playwright. Some scenes now take place on iPhone screens we see projected on the walls. The dominatrix in one scene isn’t referenced in the text; neither the raucous music behind the wall or the evident interrogation going on aren’t clearly demanded by the writer. But every choice made by the cast and the director pulls it all together with the text to result in something completely entertaining, and riveting, and astonishing. I only wish it were running longer so I could go see it again.

Almost everyone know how to tell a story. We all know the rudiments:  beginning, middle, and end. But there are other sorts of stories, stories that don’t have all those elements, and don’t have things like rising conflict, and opposition, and denouement, and more.  Plot is by nature mechanical; theme is emotional. The advantage the theatre presents us with is the presence of the actors and of each other — the sense that we are all of us in this room at this time for this one time and that we’re all going to share in a feeling larger than ourselves. 

You can engage in plot. But in the theatre, you must pursue theme.

Ticked off

March 13th, 2023

When my alarm went off this morning at “7:30” a.m. and I knew damn well by the position of the sun that it was actually 6:30 a.m. and I’d just lost an hour of much-needed sleep, I was filled with resentment. “What monster created this Daylight Saving Time?”

I was glad when a little research exonerated Benjamin Franklin, often blamed but apparently blameless, who appears to have written an essay in jest calculating the expense that could be saved on candles; we shouldn’t fault Doctor Franklin that others were so stupid as to take it seriously. The list of suspects behind this invidious time-shifting scourge of humanity is long and widespread, arcing from the 1700s to recent times, and stretching from the United States across Europe to New Zealand, heretofore known solely as the filming location for tedious Tolkien adaptations. Hiding somewhere in there is an actual culprit.

While it seems difficult to settle who originated this Very Bad idea of tinkering with our circadian rhythms twice annually, the better question is: Who will put a stop to it? Is there a petition to sign anywhere? A protest where I can show up? I would suggest that we en masse throw away our time-telling tools, except I don’t want to be without my iPhone and neither do you. So: What to do?

In the meantime, everyone I came into contact with today confessed to being bleary, confused, and dreary — and the people who are as a matter of course bleary, confused and dreary even more so. If Daylight Saving Time was intended as a productivity tool, and therefore yet another holdover plaguing us from the Industrial Age, then we need to report that it’s having the opposite effect, turning us into confused, shambling undead until finally we adjust.

I would have more to say, but I’m now going to bed — at the unconscionable time of 9:30 p.m.! —because I didn’t get enough sleep, and because my system is confused about what time it really is.

Good night.

My Oscars tradition

March 12th, 2023

Yesterday, rooting around in the refrigerator after my playwriting workshop, I laid eyes on a wrapped offering purchased the night before from our local supermarket.

“Hey,” I said to my son. “Tomorrow night, we can cook this roast and eat it while we don’t watch the Oscars.”

“Sounds good,” he said. Then he added, “I don’t think I’ve ever watched the Oscars.”

He already knows I don’t watch them either.

So that’s our Oscars tradition: not watching the Oscars. It’s somewhat related to not seeing almost any of the nominated films. I did see “The Woman King,” and thought it was flat-out terrific, a great old-fashioned kind of heart-tugging action movie the sort of which Hollywood made regularly in its Golden Age. So of course it wasn’t nominated for anything.

While the Academy Awards are on tonight, we’ll probably play a game and then we’re definitely going to watching “The Last of Us.” .A few weeks ago was our not-Super-Bowl-Sunday. I think he played “League of Legends” while I did some writing and read a book.

If you enjoy the Oscars, or the Super Bowl, cheers to you. They seem like nice things to get into with friends; I’m just not into them. My rule of thumb: I don’t care about any awards that I’m not up for. Which, when you think about it, leaves me nearly unlimited time to celebrate not-celebrating.

Attestations

February 28th, 2023
  1. I can attest to this: The movie “Cocaine Bear” is loads of fun if you’re seeing it for cheap on a Tuesday night with a friend who is sitting next to you in the movie theatre howling with laughter. But I can’t imagine watching it at home alone, or as anything other than a goof — which it is 100% intended to be.
  2. It has been raining in Los Angeles pretty much every day since December. This being the eve of March, enough is enough. Whoever schedules these things needs to do a better job. On Sunday night, I went to see a concert and thought, “Wow! It isn’t raining!” But when I left the concert, it was pouring while I scurried off to my car, having left the umbrella in the car because, well, it hadn’t been raining. This morning when I woke up the day was bright and blue and the air crisp. Over the course of the day, the sky darkened and I thought, “Oh, fuck, it’s coming again.” And it did.
  3. Over the course of all this, I’ve had a team of roofers out to my house eight times. Eight times. At some point, either they’ll get it right, or maybe they’ll just outlast the rain.
  4. I had assumed that the excellent noisy indie band Yo La Tengo would tour with additional musicians, being a three-piece band with a dense and complicated sound, especially on their excellent new album, “This Stupid World.” Nope. Sunday’s show revealed that the three of them are multi-instrumentalists who sample some of their sounds live and then set them to repeat while they go off to play other things, and that they generally move into different stations of the stage throughout. Don’t be surprised if the drummer takes center stage to sing, and the bassist is now also playing keyboards, and the “drums” are being handled by the guitarist on what sounds like a Casio. My first thought, watching this: Hats off to them for saving all that money on adding a touring musician or two!
  5. By the way, structurally the hero of that cocaine-sniffing bear movie is the bear. I’m not kidding. In the late parts of the movie, it’s the bear that’s the protagonist.
  6. Eight months ago for my birthday, a friend gave me a $60 gift certificate to a used bookstore in Pasadena. My current lady agreed to accompany me even though I warned her what I could be like in bookstores: relentless. I was rewarded by learning how remarkably patient she can be. Something else I learned: Sixty bucks can get you a big whopping bag of books, including three novels by Thomas McGuane, a favorite of mine, that I’d never read, plus two business books, novels by Joyce Carol Oates and Kim Stanley Robinson I’d been meaning to get to for some time, and assorted other things, including a Marvel comics giant I had as a kid, and was now able to get in near mint condition 45 years later for the bold price of $4.50. I wasn’t in any danger of running out of books to read around the house, but now I’m even better armed.
  7. I’ve been thinking lately of two writers in particular, Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury. Because each of them wrote a science-fictional short story about rain that wouldn’t end. Right now, outside my window, I can hear Noah pounding nails into his big new boat. I like London enormously. I just never expected to be living there in Los Angeles.

The song got it wrong

February 24th, 2023

Not only does it rain in California (no matter what the girls will warn ya), it also drops to 39 degrees, which no one warned us about. At least, not since I arrived here in 1988.

My English friends would feel right at home.

In fact, one of them wonders if somehow I’ve entered a topsy-turvy universe and am actually IN the UK right now.

While I’m here, a quick note that I’ve had the same roofers out eight times to fix my roof. I finally charged the $4200 they cost back off my credit card — because the roof still leaks.

So perhaps the best song for today is this one.