Joe Stock stood up to speak and the place cleared out. The only ones who stayed were his wife and a few friends.
Stock had been invited to the Back Alley Theatre in Van Nuys to talk about the plight of political prisoners and to tell people about Amnesty International, a human rights organization he does volunteer work for. His presentation followed a play that is running at the theater this month, a dark tale of a woman imprisoned in East Germany.
As the performance ended, a theater spokeswoman asked the 60 or so patrons who had attended to remain for the discussion session. Stock, a soft-spoken Sherman Oaks man, was not surprised by the exit en masse .
"That play was pretty heavy stuff," he said. "People were worn out. They probably didn't want to hear any more. They'd probably had enough of the nastiness."
Stock and his wife, Margaret, have been involved with Amnesty International for 13 years. A friend took them to a meeting once and they were hooked.
Amnesty International seeks the release of what it calls "prisoners of conscience." These are men, women and children imprisoned for political or religious beliefs, ethnic origin or even language. The organization insists it does not work on behalf of anyone who has used or advocated violence.
For many years, Amnesty International labored in anonymity. Lately there has been public notice. There are television commercials with famous actors. Rock musicians held a series of benefit concerts recently.
Yet, Amnesty International's work is hardly glamorous. It consists of writing hundreds of letters each month to government officials, prison wardens and, sometimes, the prisoners themselves.
The writing is done by people like Joe and Margaret Stock, volunteers who belong to a network of community-based Amnesty groups. These groups usually have 10 to 25 members each. There are 3,600 of them around the world, about 30 in Los Angeles and Orange counties, said Judy Martinez, an organization spokeswoman.
Seventy-five people currently belong to the San Fernando Valley group. But only 25 or so show up regularly for meetings held every fourth Monday at a savings and loan in Sherman Oaks.
"When people find out that the main work we do is writing letters, most of them don't have the patience to hang in there," said Betty Moss, the group's leader.
Valley members have been assigned two prisoners to work for: one man serving time in a Syrian jail for belonging to an outlawed Communist faction and a South African who was imprisoned for reasons the group has not yet been able to determine. The members write at least 45 letters a week.
"We want the authorities to know that someone in the outside world is watching," Moss said. "It lessens the chance that the prisoner will be tortured or destroyed."
No one knows for certain if the letters are being read or if the prisoner is still alive. Rarely are prisoners released.
"You don't see results after you've written a letter or two," Stock said.
Yet, Amnesty International's London headquarters reports that work done by community groups in the United States alone led to the release of 150 prisoners last year.
"They are the real strength," Martinez said of the community groups. "They do the writing."
And the Valley group, over the past decade, has earned a couple of successes. There was a Chilean doctor jailed after the Pinochet coup who is now free and living in Los Angeles. A young man in Greece who cited religious beliefs in refusing to take part in that country's draft was recently released from prison.
Amnesty International does not give out the names of these or other prisoners it has worked for. The organization says such people are either still living in the country that imprisoned them or left relatives behind.
The Back Alley Theatre became interested in having Amnesty International speak as part of a regular feature at the playhouse. Since the fall of 1985, the theater has offered audience discussions after Wednesday night performances. Its motives are purely capitalistic, admitted theater spokeswoman Diana Daves. Post-performance discussions, she said, are a proven "audience development tool."
"It was a way to get people interested in coming out on Wednesdays," she said.
The first play at which the theater tried this approach portrayed a bricklayer who unwittingly purchased a load of bricks that had been exposed to radiation. Toxic waste experts were invited to speak after that performance.
"With each successive play, I've tried to coordinate the speaker with the plot," Daves said. "I think we have developed a following of people who like that."
Wednesday night, Daves said, that following didn't show up. So Stock kept his talk short and light. He told stories about the prisoners who were released. Daves asked a few questions after that, offered encouraging nods of the head, and the discussion ended.
Fran Krimston was one of the few who remained after Wednesday's play to listen to Stock. She thought maybe more people should have stuck around.
"I think we need to be more aware of the fact that there are people out there who need help."