When a theater is only open to the public for 15 minutes before and after a performance—and is otherwise closed and locked, with the public let in and, if necessary, kicked out—the question arises of how to make the performing arts a conversation, a participatory activity more articulated than active listening. Here’s a simple story of how that engagement happened, in a town of 7,000 people, in a way that I have rarely seen elsewhere.
I spent Thanksgiving visiting my parents in the small town they’ve retired to, a few hours north of San Francisco, on the border between wine country and redwood country. Their town has a fourplex movie theater that usually shows only least-common-denominator tentpole movies: X-Men, Avatar, Ice Age. On Monday evenings, the theater shows one screening of an independent film, or a less widely distributed studio movie: arthouse fare.
I went to the Monday-night screening of Buck, a 2011 documentary about Buck Brannaman, a horse-trainer who travels around the country teaching horse-owners how to raise horses without breaking them. We learn that Buck himself had a very rough childhood, and we see how this informs his own approach to horses.
Here’s what happened that night. An audience of 40 or so watched the movie. Afterwards, most of this group walked from the movie theater to the town’s art gallery, next door, where there was some wine, snacks, and a circle of metal folding chairs. After 10 minutes or so of mingling, we each took a seat in the circle. The two hosts of the evening, the same ones who booked the quality films on Monday nights in this small town, set the simple rules of conversation: we would go around the circle and each speak briefly about our impression of the movie, whether or not we liked it, what we thought. Then we went around the circle a second time, with any concluding thoughts.
The whole thing took about 20 minutes. The conversation was very good: some people had worked with horses, some related to Buck’s family, some shared broader observations; some compared it to the Herzog cave-painting documentary that had been screened the previous week.
Only afterwards did I find out that there were people in the room who were not otherwise on civil terms with each other. Outside of this room, they kept to themselves, or were on opposing sides at zoning hearings, school-board meetings, the standard places where private citizens share public space. Without this circle of metal chairs and the hosts, they never crossed paths except in conflict.
Here was a space for setting all of that aside, not just communally in a darkened theater but in a conversation. The movie itself had only done part of that work. The art was only part of the experience. If the lights had come up in the movie theater and, as usually happened, we had all filed into the street with those we had arrived with, the greater connection would not have happened, and the town and the lives of those who live there would be worse for it.