A casual listen to others’ conversations lets the imagination run wild
By Patricia Baer
I remember one day in fifth grade when my teacher decided to try something different during the art portion of our day. She decided we would listen to a tape of a 1940s radio broadcast. It was the reproduction of a weekly mystery show—maybe “The Shadow”—and it was riveting. It was not the read-aloud performance of a book on tape. It offered the proverbial fly-on-the-wall perspective, a sensation similar to eavesdropping on a conversation unfolding.
Because of it, I became more intrigued with the act of people watching through casually observing others from an auditory angle. Like the actors in the radio performance, the way people use their voices conveys emotions that tell a story beyond the words spoken, and the same is true of the vocal reactions from companions.
For this reason, going to a public place and eavesdropping on conversations is a classic exercise for both writers and actors. It provides an opportunity to not only learn more about human behavior but also to better appreciate that a subtext or inner monologue can be present in any conversation. Trying to imagine the hidden story in a conversation is one of my favorite ways to pass time when waiting anywhere.
I recently attended the Wisconsin Film Festival in Madison, and the time between films offered many chances to engage in this activity. One conversation that entertained me took place between two young women who were about to finish graduate school. As they talked about their future plans, eventually the conversation turned towards marriage. One was clearly engaged and chatted about the upcoming ceremony. It was not as clear if the second woman was also engaged, and her contribution seemed more like a vision of a hypothetical wedding.
Several scenarios and potential script ideas came to mind, all as films starring Kate Hudson for some reason. Did the second woman’s boyfriend know how much she was thinking about marriage? Was this an extension of a frenemy-like competition between the two? Were they truly happy in their relationships, or were they under pressure from their families? There were so many possibilities to consider.
My favorite overheard conversation, though, happened years ago when I lived in Indiana. While grocery shopping, a woman on her cell phone proceeded to describe “Jane’s” plan to tell “Paul” she was leaving him as soon as he returned from his business trip. Jane had packed several boxes worth of the house “so he understood she was serious,” and now I and everyone else in the cereal aisle knew poor Paul was going to be greeted by a U-Haul in the driveway of his half-empty home in two days. It struck me as the beginning of a twisted comedy about “starting over,” and it took all of my strength not to follow the woman in hopes she would offer additional useful story ideas I could borrow.
Entertaining plots present themselves everywhere if you are listening.