When I was in college, I habitually did my homework at the counter of a local bookstore café, guzzling enough coffee to stay awake and alert. The evening crowd was sparse, so the atmosphere was usually quiet enough to concentrate until theater-goers streamed in after a performance down the street. There were other regulars there, including one guy who sat at the counter just about every night I was there, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and staring piercingly at everybody.
What’s he looking at, I’d think, sometimes slightly unnerved. Who is he?
I didn’t know until about a year later when I saw his picture in the program of one of the plays being performed down the street, a play he wrote. I didn’t see him in the café much after that; he was too recognized to blend in with the others hovering over their cappuccinos, he started to frequent other places where he could swallow the atmosphere without being swallowed up, where he could see and hear life without his celebrity being an intrusive part of it. I’m not sure what if anything he gleaned from his observations during those early evenings he transposed into his work, but it made me start to study people more acutely, it made me start to stare and soak everything in. I wanted to see him again, if only to ask him if this was the key to getting this writing thing right. But I didn’t see him again until graduation when he was crossing the quad wearing the cap and gown of an honorary recipient and all I could think of to say was, “Hi.”
Theater is not only eyes but ears too, and I imagine he eavesdropped as much as he stared. What came out was genius. A playwriting student I met a few years later went so far as to secretly tape-record conversations around him. I haven’t seen his name or picture in any programs. There’s a lot more to be said for using initial observations as a launching pad for exploring imaginative space. As the great philosopher Lawrence T. (Yogi) Berra once said, “you can observe a lot by watching.”
Just leave the mini-cam and tape recorder home.