PORTLAND — Within five minutes of meeting Linda Shary, Andrew Kiezulas had discussed his efforts to remain sober, his fascination with World War II, and the pros and cons of time travel.
All because he saw Shary sitting at a table in Monument Square behind a sandwich board offering “Free Conversations.”
Shary, a Portland actor and director, had about 16 conversations with strangers during the city’s First Friday Art Walk in early October. The chats were the focus of an interactive performance piece she created and staged. She handed folks a conversation “menu” with a range of topics, and then guided them through short conversations and small talk.
At a time when more and more conversations seem to take place in cyberspace than in person, the question of whether technology has diluted the quantity and quality of personal interaction is being raised more and more. Books, news articles, classroom discussions, and art have all explored the idea, as tweets, text messages and Facebook posts increasingly make face-to-face contact seem outdated and unnecessary.
Many academics, writers and artists agree that people today seem to be hiding from personal contact. They may be enabled by new technology, but technology is probably not the sole cause. Politics, violence, and other big-picture societal problems likely play a role.
Less face-to-face contact, or even less small talk, might lead to bigger problems for society, many contend.
“Talking about the weather, or daily tasks, helps bind us with other people and makes us feel part of a community,” said Kevin Sweeney, chairman of the English department at Southern Maine Community College. “Sometimes the small details are the most interesting things, and can lead to talking about the big things in a meaningful way.”
Shary, who is in her 50s and works as a private school administrator, got back into acting and performing recently after years of working in business and raising her teenage daughter.
Since August she has been staging intimate, site-specific, interactive outdoor pieces with help from a $1,500 Maine Arts Commission grant. The first two involved a series of 10-minute plays written 48 hours before being performed, while the third piece was the one focused on conversations, in Monument Square.
Shary got the idea for her free conversations after reading about Minnesota-based artist Taylor Baldry. Baldry has done an exercise he calls “The Conversationalist” in about 30 Minneapolis parks and public spaces over the past two years.
“I guess I’ve been surprised with how eager people are to connect face-to-face. I saw people sharing the kinds of stories I would never imagine people sharing with a total stranger,” said Baldry, 30.
During her Monument Square “performance” on Oct. 4, Shary handed passers-by conversation “menus,” which were divided into “entrees,” or subjects to talk about for up to five minutes, plus “lighter fare” topics that could be discussed for up to one minute.
The entrees list included: time travel – future or past, advantages and disadvantages; superhero powers – best ones and why; favorite foods – what’s good for you and what’s not; and a few others. The lighter fare discussions were “either/or” debates about tea and coffee, dogs and cats, or spring and fall.
Shary’s menu also included conversation guidelines – turn off cellphones, listen, pause occasionally, laugh as needed, and thank each other.
Kiezulas, 32, a student at the University of Southern Maine, was attending the First Friday Art Walk with his girlfriend and some friends. He sat down at Shary’s table and asked her what she was doing.
He agreed that “there’s too little personal stuff, where you care about what someone has to say.”
Without much prompting, he started to tell Shary: “I do these meditations, where I look at an inanimate object and imagine what it would say to me. It’s revolutionized the way I see people and interact with them.”
When Shary asked how he came to do such exercises, Kiezulas paused and took a breath.
“So, I’m sober. Long road to sobriety. My uncle’s got 30 years sober and he handed me this book, with (the exercise) in it.”
A few minutes after Kiezulas left, after talking about a wide range of things, 12-year-old Johanna Canter of Portland walked up to the table and told Shary she had been studying the menu. She said she would like to talk about superhero powers. Flying and being invisible sounded like the best to her.
“Would you use them for good, or would you be mischievous and play tricks on people you didn’t like?” asked Shary.
“A little of both, I think,” said Johanna. “I just think it would be fun to do secret stuff.”
Rebecca Leeman, who is studying to be a chef at Southern Maine Community College, looked over Shary’s menu and picked the topic of favorite foods.
“I’m learning about classic French cooking, and it’s really tasty, but not really good for you,” said Leeman.
“Have you seen or read ‘Julie and Julia’?” asked Shary. “Julia Child’s cooking was all about the butter. Maybe there’s something to be said for living well and being happy, even if the food is not always the healthiest.”
Some people who didn’t stop to converse took a menu with them, giving Shary hope they might use it as a conversation starter in the privacy of their own homes.
About 100 menus were given out. Johanna, the 12-year-old who had talked about superhero powers, came back later and asked if she could steal the idea, and facilitate free conversations herself.
“There is and will always be a hunger, a basic desire for one-to-one interaction with people, including strangers,” said Shary a few days after her free conversations took place. “It’s what makes us human, it’s what gives us a sense of humor, it’s when we are at our best. I’m hoping there are free conversations going on all over Portland right now.”
Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: