The play ended after 10 o'clock, and the audience had only five minutes to flee before the post-performance discussion started. But nearly everyone in the audience stayed, and an hour later many still seemed reluctant to leave.
Maybe it was the discussion leader, Leo Buscaglia, who kept them. Maybe it was the play, Doris Baizley's "Mrs. California," whose producers included author Buscaglia. Or, as he noted, maybe it was the chance for people to actually talk with one another about an experience they had all just shared.
Buscaglia remarked that people these days too often go to a play or movie, walk out, say it was great and start talking about what kind of pizza they're going to have. (I think he meant sushi.) And, listening to the torrent of comments from the audience, it did seem that many of them hadn't had that sort of opportunity for some time.
Part of the problem obviously is our addiction to television. In the privacy of our homes, we talk through the show. Not only do too many people transfer this national pastime to the concert hall or theater, but if you talk through the show, there isn't much left to say when it ends.
Television also trains us to watch now, think later. After all, how long do we have to truly ponder "Dynasty" before "Hotel" comes rushing along? Our viewing time is broken up into convenient half-hour and hour chunks, and the panorama changes with comforting regularity.
Entertainment has become the fast food of the '80s. Accustomed to eating on the run, we're now taking our culture on the run. We get movies to go for our VCRs and concerts to go for our compact disc players. We exercise to Books on Tape.
However, I'm one of those people who still prefers the concert hall or theater to my living room (or your living room, for that matter). I prefer my theater fresh, rather than canned or even fresh-frozen, and I enjoy seeing the orchestra as well as hearing it. It also magnifies the experience for me to be part of that collective called an audience.
Given that intermission these days is primarily an extended commercial break--time out for food, drink and bathroom stops--it is generally only when the curtain comes down for the last time that we in the audience get our turn. Yet even a professional audience person like me rarely lingers past the final curtain anymore. Overcommitted, overstimulated and overtired, we rush for our automobiles. Besides, if we linger too long, somebody will be busily stealing our hubcaps (or, worse, covering the front windshield with flyers for free palm readings.)
Not that we don't ever discuss the show. But as my colleague David Fox commented the other day, by the time we decide where we're going to eat, get there and actually order, so much time has passed that we can barely remember the play that preceded dinner. Sometimes we can't even remember that we went to a play.
It used to be that we could at least talk about the show in the car on the way home, but even that is getting rare. Now, to save time, we meet our friends at the theater, and we talk about the play on the way to the car not in the car.
A play or film can, of course, be experienced--and enjoyed--on many levels. Take a play like "Mrs. California," which follows four finalists through the cooking, sewing, ironing and other heats of the 1955 Mrs. California contest. You can pay your money, take your seat and have some solid laughs over the next 90 minutes. Or you can stop and think about what such contests tell us about women's roles then and now.
Buscaglia, Baizley and co-producer Peg Yorkin encouraged such thinking during the post-performance discussion. Baizley explained that many of the things we thought she had cleverly invented had instead actually happened--there really was a "best iced dessert" competition in the 1955 Mrs. California contest, for instance--and many people in the audience related the on-stage events to their own experiences.
People were still talking to one another as they left the theater, and my feeling was that many of those conversations would continue well into the night. As for me, I discovered later that my next-door neighbor was also out in the audience that evening and thought what a pity it was that we hadn't known sooner. Not only could we have car-pooled, but we could have discussed the discussion all the way home.