Maybe you want your play to right a wrong or expiate a guilt or tickle a funny bone or change the world. Fine. But remember this question, one Dr. R. Elliott Stout, my theater professor at Denison University, had framed above his desk: “AND WHAT IS THE AUDIENCE DOING ALL THIS TIME?” David Mamet, who wrote such great plays as Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalo, once noted that the two hours an audience spends at the performance of a play is a lot to ask of a person’s life. Count the hours spent in the dark by even the most infrequent theatergoer and by the time he reaches eighty-three years of age, you’ll find he’d like a lot of those hours back. Our job in the theater is to make that octogenarian regret not one moment he’s spent in the dark.
Think of the times you’ve gone to the theater at the end of a long, tense, tiring day. You got the ticket for some godforsaken reason, and as the clock ticks toward eight, you want nothing more than to leave the theater and get home as soon as possible. You look at the program and are horrified to find the production has not one but two intermissions. You won’t be home until eleven or twelve. You look for the exit, but before you can make your move, the crowd grows silent, the lights go down, and you’re trapped in your row. You know in your bones it’s wrong to yell “fire.” And then it’s forty minutes later, the lights are up, the crowd is moving to the lobby, and all you can think about is how excited you are to find out what’s going to happen in the second act. You go back to your seat well before the curtain goes up again because you don’t want to miss a beat. Suddenly it’s the second intermission, and you don’t leave your seat this time because you’re actually talking about the play with the stranger next to you. Then the lights go down again, and before you know it the curtain call is over; the actors have left the stage, and you’re still applauding. You’re still sitting in your seat. You don’t want to leave the theater. And you’re trying to remember the last time a play made you feel that way.
That’s our job as playwrights. That’s what we do. We compel tired people, who have every reason to leave, to stay in their seats. And love staying. And come back for the next one.
Yes! Indeed. At times one can forget the people sitting in the dark – but in the end, it’s all about them. It’s a thought-provoking little shift of perspective, isn’t it? I think I want that question framed too…