There's something disconcerting about realizing an old friend is really talented, maybe even in a way, a sort of genius. I had just such a realization the other evening watching my college chum Andy Offutt Irwin perform at a story-telling event, and then listening to his latest CD, Risk Assessment.
Of course I knew Andy was gifted even back at Georgia College where we met, but I was young and stupid in those days instead of old and stupid like I am now. I met him and his friend, Charles "Drip" Waldrip, when we were cast together in Feiffer's People for the Georgia College theater. After rehearsal one night Andy and Drip were talking about playing a simple but elegant practical joke on the music department. There were two identical sets of lockers, separated by a sort of alcove; Andy and Drip proposed switching the lockers and observing the ensuing chaos come the morn. I am not ashamed to say I boldly asked to come along; I think I may have actually employed the phrase, "Can I be your friend?" I knew these were people I wanted to know. After moving the lockers, we went to Drip's house, where we watched Johnny Carson and ate Cheez-Wiz on Ritz Crackers. I had never felt so hip and sophisticated in my life.
But back to Andy.
Even in college, all the pieces were there, and I'm surprised at myself I didn't put them together. You knew he would be something - he was an actor, a musician, a raconteur - but exactly what? He was always special, one of those people whose personality or something - spirit, or soul if you will - seems about a size and a half too large for his body. There was an incandescence about Andy, and when you were standing next to him, you felt quite literally that you'd entered his presence. I don't want to get all metaphysical here, but you felt like something of Andy was overlapping you. In addition, he had the strangest skill-set of useless but remarkable talents. He was the best whistler I'd ever met (I reviewed his CD Lip Service in an earlier blog) and he could make the most astonishing series of sound-effects: for example, he could exactly imitate the electronic whistle that used to tell McDonald's employees the french-fries were done. He would do this standing in line for his Big Mac and watch the pimply fry-cooks scurry to lift the basket from the grease and stare in perplexity at fries that were clearly still half-frozen. Maybe I can be excused for my lack of imagination at how these gifts would come together because none of us had ever heard of such a thing as a professional story-teller. It was the late '70's and Garrison Keillor had yet to enter the public eye.
Every art form requires its own set of abilities, and story-telling is no exception. In one area, story-telling overlaps with story-writing, which is what I do. This has to do with the strategic parceling out of information, giving the audience a stream of carefully chosen and arranged data points that gradually accumulate and resonate against each other so at the end, we appreciate that there is this whole unified thing. I've deliberately described this as passionlessly and analytically as possible to show it is really a very simple principle. I'm not saying it's easy to do, but the principle is simple. Here Andy is a master and I find myself listening to him with such attention because I'm trying to figure out how he does it. The told story, as opposed to the written one, must ramble. It must seem utterly artless and yet - at the end - the audience must appreciate that those seemingly digressive details, those riffs and tangents, were all part of a carefully-considered and thought-out piece. The story must emerge as something that didn't just happen, but was made. The word poem means a "made thing," and in this, poetry, story-writing, and story-telling are alike.
Additionally, the story-teller must call on abilities the writer never needs. Here's where Andy's vocal talents come into play. His chirps, whistles, and beeps and honks - the way his voice goes high and sinks at command into bullfrog-basement low - are as much a part of his craft as the words he chooses. It would be easy to dismiss this aspect as a gimmickry, but you'd have to hear Andy in action to realize what a wonder it can be. Andy's character Aunt Marguerite he performs with such precision - lord knows, I have known this woman - a certain specific type of southern woman who, alas, is even now headed for extinction if not extinct already. When a Yankee tells Marguerite all southerners are bigots, and Marguerite responds with, "Do you mean all Southerners, or just the white ones?" or someone says the Ten Commandments should be put in front of the courthouse and Marguerite says instead it ought to be the Beatitudes, you can't appreciate how funny and profound it is without hearing it in her voice.
Lastly - and of course, I save the most astonishing thing for last - a story-teller has got to be more or less out of control. When it comes to writing a story, that's something I can somewhat do - and as far as Andy's vocal gifts, it's something I cannot do, but the out of control part is the thing I'd be terrified to do.
Sometimes artists compare their work to walking a tightrope, which I guess is pretty apt. The truth is, walking a tightrope isn't that hard. It takes practice and precision, but you can do it. The trick is just staying on the rope. It's about control. When I write or perform in public, I walk a tightrope. I practice every little detail until I know it will come out exactly the way I want and then I do it. Above all else, I don't want anything unrehearsed; it's too damn risky. That's why I prefer writing to speaking, I actually don't want to hear the response from the audience, it's too distracting. But Andy's the other way - he doesn't walk a tightrope, he jumps up and down on it. He leaves the tightrope and wanders - mid-air as far as I can tell - over to the trapeze or to the back of an elephant or camel if one happens to pass by. If an audience member has an unanticipated reaction to something, Andy doesn't ignore it, he welcomes it. He acknowledges it. It becomes part of his performance. In this way, story-telling is more like jazz than tight-rope walking. It doesn't pay to improvise on a tightrope, but you can't play Basin Street Blues without it.
Someone said finding your vocation means discovering where your particular set of abilities precisely matches what the world requires from you. Thus it is with Andy. I forgive myself for not imagining how his gifts would come together as a story-teller; how could I have imagined it? But I am grateful they did. The world would not be so bright and lovely a place had Andy not found his vocation. The world would be a sadder place without Aunt Marguerite.