We say good morning from Sonoita, Arizona. I was overnight 15 miles west in Patagonia. Dinner hour was shared with an 88 year old poet, a modern day vaudevillian, the showman’s stalwart wife and pair of Golden retrievers.
Creative personalities are not rare. I’ve a broader definition now, the club isn’t so exclusive, a great many belong, many unaware how and where their special talent fits in.
I know painters, potters, jugglers and writers all producing good work and a living wage. They are explicit and their role has been perfected.
Picasso’s work is singular, there is not a second painter of his kind. Martha Graham is a one-off without any other choreographers influencing the world of dance with the same force. Frank Lloyd Wright set down a remarkable body of work through the buildings he imagined then had built.
Martha Graham lived to 97. Picasso and Wright died at 95. I would argue Wright’s work remained vital and only got better. Picasso did not shatter convention in the latter part of his career. Graham too possessed an intensity but had choreographed her most important work in the first half of her life.
The young and untested Burt Bacharach caught his first break playing piano, scoring arrangements for Marlene Dietrich. Then after he began writing music for Hal David’s lyrics. Then, they found Dionne Warwick in 1961. The talented trio produced some of the best popular music of the last century.
Elvis Costello teamed up with Bacharach and released Painted from Memory in 1998. The landmark album advanced Costello’s songwriting craft. What is worth noting is both Costello’s songs and lyrics benefited from Bacharach’s editing and revising. The collaboration passed the test, each made the other better, together the work verges on the best either has ever done.
Creative people are not rare, a great many fit the description. Fred Astaire, Charlie Chaplin, and Frank Sinatra were forceful performing artists of their generation. Sinatra, once he began recording in high fidelity seems to have left the world with the more durable body of work. Chaplin’s films are brilliant but unlike a Sinatra’s music the cinematic style of Chaplin is from another time. The best of Astaire’s work is there to see, but again you have to take the time.
Some of William Shakespeare’s work requires no special training to enjoy. Romeo and Juliet, Midsummer Nights Dream and Othello are quite accessible. The breadth and depth of the plotting, characters and dialogue of all 36 of his plays is the best writing ever composed for theater. The productions Shakespeare mounted at the Globe Theatre on the Thames in London for the Royal Court is an intoxicating display of creative genius.
Creativity happens in the foreground, the present moment, and the creative types that are self aware know that in the background there is the body of work left for posterity by this pantheon of brilliant artists. Sondheim, Steinbeck and Coltrane all scaled the heights leaving the world singularly brilliant work.
In 2000 I embarked upon a decade of shows, each October I would play the month at Schnepf Farms. Five days a week, five shows a day, performances ran 30-40 minutes. I worked for Carrie Schnepf. Carrie had a background in music and theater, she knew she wanted to produce something like what I had come up with, and together we took much time and effort figuring out how to make what I was doing work for her audiences at her farm.
Carrie’s husband Mark possessed less show business skills, he was after all a farmer, but Mark was supportive of our introducing the particular experience my show provided.
Much of my background was pure street theater. I’d come off a 20 year run in San Francisco. I was rebuilding the act. My target audience remained the same as ever, anyone of any age should be able to watch my show and enjoy. But, to fit into the family festival market in Arizona I needed to dial down the urban edge, bring a more open heart to the work, allow for the audiences to have a less bang-bang inner city show.
By now I had become a father, my daughter was 7 years old. She had retaught me how to see the world through a child’s eyes, something I’d promised myself I would never forget but by dent of time had slipped from my grasp.
Most of my work on the streets was aimed at the adults, not that children didn’t enjoy the show, but they were not my focus until now. Understanding the children and making more of an effort to be attuned to this faction in my audience changed everything. The changes I made were met with fresh bookings, new clients, a great many venues were suddenly eager for what I was doing.
From the start I had the pleasure of becoming a favorite with the Schnepf’s youngest son. Between shows I let the 6 year old play with my juggling equipment. The kid gravitated toward playing with the Chinese yo-yo. He picked up a few moves by accident as he interacted with the juggling equipment less as a student and more as if he was a mere child lost in a flight of fancy, he had no goals or plans, he just wanted to play.
All these years later I know Grayson as a grown man. He remembers the Chinese yo-yo, can still do a few moves, and has watched enough shows to have enough savvy to be sure to sell his moves with clever patter when he fools around with the juggling equipment.
I’m still swinging for the fences, trying to knock the ball out of the park. Whether it is writing a new show or finishing the next novel I remain in the hunt of expressing myself hoping that what I’ve come up with will resonate with my audiences.
Then, I saw a 27 year old Grayson Schnepf last weekend. It was a fine reunion. I had come out to the farm to walk around there in my old digs. In 2000 when I had come out to Queen Creek to perform on the farm it hadn’t been in my mind that I would have the opportunity to influence a young budding child’s imagination. That my creative process, also in some sense a spiritual process, an interpersonal process of call and response, where if I was to succeed I would need to connect to everyone and every opportunity.
What the young Grayson imagined was that my itinerate life of traveling town to town working with people, spreading laughter and intrigue, sharing my particular knack for pulling people in and how this happiness was authentic, infused my life through and through, that the young son to a farmer recognized close up how even a less celebrated, less famous, less acclaimed performer could forge a viable creative life.
I’d imagined I’d created memories for a thousand audiences, that essentially what we call a show was an experience that can be many things, good or bad, easily dismissed, forgotten or remembered, or perhaps even something singularly formative, something that may change the course of another person’s life.
I’ve spent the week thinking about Grayson, how my being simple, uncomplicated and open to the young man while he was still in his earliest chapters of his childhood I had provided an unguarded glimpse into the creative process, that I was content, that my work had made for a fulfilling life, that not anything else on the farm, not the petting zoo, the carousel ride or the fire roasted corn could duplicate the experience I was providing for the farm’s audiences.
Grayson I know as an extraordinary talent. Whatever he does with his life a good portion of his success will come from his creativity, his imagination, his playfulness and in part because I had by accident given him a firsthand glimpse of a performer in pursuit of a life of authentic self expression. Last weekend I struck creative pay dirt, I got to see how I nudged one young man a little further down the road to living his best (creative) life.