Saturday, June 11, 2005

I wasn't even aware that Union County has a cultural arts commission. I think what fooled me was the lack of culture or arts in Union County. But as it turns out, not only do we have official government-sanctioned arts support but the commission runs a workshop series for artists. That's why I was up at eight in the morning on a Saturday heading to Kean College: Not only would the "ArtsInspire!" conference be a good opportunity for networking, so claimed my mom, but they were having a workshop on getting your writing published. Even as a writer, I'm plenty content with avoiding publishing seminars because before one publishes a work, he must complete it, and I have a non-existent track record completing pieces I've started.

But my mother kept harping on me about how great this workshop would be, and I figured it would be easier to go than to listen put up with her incessant nagging till the day of the workshop and her incessant reminding me how disappointed she is that I didn't go in the days following the workshop.

There were between forty and fifty "artists" like me at this workshop, although most of them had that fourth-grade teacher look to them, with the short cropped hair, the casual dress, the demeanor that said, "I don't need to care about my wrinkles and crows' feet." There was the obligatory bald guy with a ponytail. Not that I was expecting anyone I might relate to there, but I could tell the conference's prospects as a networking opportunity were shot from the moment I walked in. The whole concept behind networking is: here I am, a playwright without a producer, so I need to go someplace where there'll be producers without playwrights. Or failing that, someplace where there'll be people carrying around e-mail addresses for producers without playwrights. But stuck in a hot room with another Union County old-folks' club, nobody there was fewer degrees of separation from publicity than I am.

There's the keynote speaker, this woman who's an actress, coffee spokeswoman, and co-founder of ArtsGenesis, whatever that is. Her speech vacillated between mildly interesting — she played Lady Macbeth at Dannamora maximum security prison — and pretentious art-speak — a member of the Blackfoot Indians interrupted a speech she was giving in New Mexico with a rant about how his people couldn't understand her concept of "art" because to them, art is endemic to every aspect of their life: their cuisine, their clothing, their religion... and you can imagine where this is going with our ArtsGenesis co-founder in front of a bunch of artisté wannabes. What could I do, I'd already paid my twelve dollar conference fee. I already had my nametag stuck on my shirt.

Fortunately, the workshop on getting published was one of the first after the keynote. We went into a "meeting room," which differs from a conference room in that it has all the chairs but no long table down the middle. Myra, who was leading the workshop, and the fourth-grade teachers didn't like the seating arrangement, and one fourth-grade teacher suggested that we arrange the chairs in a semi-circle. Myra agreed, because we were going to "introduce each other." At which point, I pretended I had to go to the bathroom and didn't come back.

Because it wasn't introduce yourselves, tell us your name and why you're here, which would have been understandable if unnecessary and pointless. It was introduce each other, which has the ring of some kind of lame icebreaking exercise that's supposed to make everyone feel comfortable with each other but instead the whole room just takes on an awkward air. I vaguely recall having to do that once before, maybe in college, maybe at that church retreat Mom forced me to go on, maybe just in my imagination because I don't have a vast enough collection of humiliating experiences in my life. You sit in a circle or something and you have to say your name, and where you're from, and some totally superfluous fact about yourself like your favorite ice cream flavor or three things you'd take with you if you were stranded on a deserted island or something. Then you have to repeat the previous person's name, hometown, and superfluous fact for the edification of all. Or, if you have a particularly sadistic team leader, you have to repeat all the previous peoples' info.

There's a million variations on the icebreaker, all designed around the strategy that if people look like dolts when they first meet, it won't be such a fall when they actually do something genuinely doltish. There's the one where the group leader has a bag of M&M's and everyone takes a handful, and then they have to say one thing about themselves for each M&M they've got. "Here, have some candy. Mwah hah hah hah." There's the "Fear Factor" variation: everybody gets an idiotic task to do — cluck like a chicken or recite the alphabet backwards or sing a nursery rhyme. That was the one we had to do at the church retreat, which is why I can only think of the most sanitized examples.

Frankly, I'd like to meet the bastard camp counselor who came up with these ideas and beat the living shit out of him. I can get together a whole group of people and we could bond that way.