The Opposite of Dying on the Vine: Gregg Curtis on the Creative Process

  • Brian Ferguson
  • November 12, 2020

A gymnast on the US National Team and acrobatic performer engaged in Cirque du Soleil‘s earliest days, Gregg is a leading creative director and designer of experiences. A dedicated artist with a knack for unlocking the creative in all of us, Greg has built some of the world’s most renowned shows, from Cirque in Las Vegas to the Golden State Warriors’ new stadium ground-breaking ceremony to serving as Aerial Director for Beyonce’s Formation tour.  A facilitator for Red Bull High Performance, Gregg works with the world’s top action sports athletes to push to higher levels of performance. He lives in Ventura, California, where he runs The Aerial Studio and is a surfer, husband, and father.

Article Contents

  1. Gregg’s experience at Cleveland Clinic: Takeaways and feedback given
  2. Gregg on humanity as an essential ingredient to leadership in the OR
  3. Integrity and the real gold medals
  4. Gregg’s path to mastery
  5. Creativity as an antidote to burnout

You’ve had a particularly multi-faceted evolution: Gymnastics, Cirque du Soleil performance, acting, directing theater, leading aerial teams, and experience design. What keeps you advancing?

Art and creativity sustain me. Whatever I’m doing is creatively inspired. If there is no creativity, there is no life.

At any moment, we are overlaying our creativity on top of our expertise base and finding new ways to apply it, so that it never becomes taken for granted. That’s how we innovate. That’s how we paint on the canvas that is the 78 years or so that we have. All things we do are arts: raising a child is an art, running a business is an art, running a business during COVID is definitely an art. If we are not innovating, we are going to perish. We die on the vine. I am constantly trying to find new ways to perceive things.

To truly and critically affect your chosen endeavors, first you have to find your passion. Then you have to master it. Then you can forget it all and be creative with it. You search, you find what fills the hole in you. Then you master it. Until you master it, you have to stick with the basics and get it and get it and get it. Spending those years with the repetition; there is no way to go around that. But once you do, that’s when you can forget it all and do whatever else is out there for you. Then the world opens up in front of you.

Curtis with the US National Team, 1993

You spent time at the Cleveland Clinic working with surgical teams in partnership with Arena Labs. What was that like?

It was a potent experience. I saw these experts—master surgeons and nurses—and the critical work that they do. People’s hearts in their hands, staring at the last moments of life, every day, all the time…and they were open and willing to take the time to hear a circus clown come in and talk to them about creativity. And to me that was like, there’s hope. They’re looking around to see how they can make things better for everybody. That means that they are not being dogmatic. They’re still searching for a better way. As long as they are still thinking of it as a journey, then that’s remarkable. We can continue to work. We can stay on the path of making things closer to their ideal. To adhere more closely to their integrity.

Everyone was so willing to engage and listen. We talked about performance—their mastery in surgery, mine across gymnastics and performing arts. It was like standing in the watershed where things make sense and do not make sense. Each discipline is so far out of the world of the other, and as such can guide us all to a place that is critical, and catalyze thinking about familiar things in new ways.

They were extremely confident people—they had to be, in order to come and listen and look me in the eyes and hear what I had to say. And… they’re just humans, right? Like me. I felt an incredible responsibility to be precise with what I was saying, and also to let it fly. To look those doctors in the eye and mean it 100% and know it is relevant.

Based on what you saw and experienced there, what was it you saw that you felt people most needed to hear from you? 

There was a moment when I knew I had to truth-tell about the God complex. I had to say: although you are this confident person, going in this direction, doing this thing, you have to accept the emotional state of everybody that is involved: the nurses and the other doctors and the intern and the people waiting out in the waiting room.

For me, it was hard. Probably for them it was what they talk about every day, but for me, I had to balance my expertise and confidence with my humility and gentle insecurities. I had to put focus on their human humanness, their own God complex, and the fact that people are going to die. I had to relate to them that I’m just a guy who has this ability to theatrically connect to emotions and to temper my emotional states. I’ve developed this switch so that if I need a piece of emotional energy at any given moment, I can go there, control it, and then and if I need to go and switch it to something else.

I had to say it because I understand how critical the work is. It is so important to manage emotions in high stakes scenarios with teams. If you don’t, people get hurt both emotionally and physically. I had to be bold enough to confront them with their own. It was extremely sensitive and nuanced.

What did you hope they would do differently?

I wanted them to be able to provide the compassion in a moment that’s necessary to tell somebody that somebody who they love has just died, and then be able to turn around and go do another operation. I hoped they could gain access to the emotions needed for that. The on-off switch, with a lot of compassion. I hope they are more aware of that ability, so that they can focus on the job that they need to do and perform at their highest every time, and not let the emotions get in the way.

Yes. Medical training does not focus on the bodies and emotions of caregivers. Detachment is of course important to do the job and go home. And yet… 

Yes. Be human. Somebody’s got to manage the energies, the egos, the sensitivities of what’s happening. They create the conditions that allow for better work to get done… or worse work. They dictate that. If you’re not acknowledging another’s state, then that will be the primary thing that’s getting in the way of work that day. We have to break bread together. We have to accept what we’re dealing with. We have to get through this moment and then on the break, we deal. We can’t just keep covering it up, because then we will break. We’ll have depression and anxiety and all these other things that are not being dealt with.

Instead, what if we had our becoming, our growth? That’s why we need art. The function of art is in inspiring us, inspiring life.

It’s very real for frontline medical teams in US healthcare. They are looking at the very practical cases and doing the best they can do while working in systems that they may or may not believe in. They must have an outlet for the stresses that come when there are incongruencies between our values as people and the systems we work in. It’s the same in all fields, but its expressed so blatantly in the medical field.

What would you say to the disillusioned nurse or to the young student who wants to create that system?

Integrity is believing in the ideal of something, and then lining up everything you’re doing to match that ideal and pursue that direction. It’s setting the standard. And, it’s your truth as well. It’s shedding the layers of all the misplaced psychology and misplaced loyalty to find your truth, and then pursuing that to that end. If you simply do things because you believe in them, and you accept that to be the truth, and you continually adapt your vision of what the truth is based on the realities that are in front of you as you learn more, and then you continually adjust slightly your course… that’s it. It’s shifting based on realities of what’s going on. And it’s extremely difficult. But in the end, nobody could take that away from you.

We can’t let we can’t let the Great get in the way of the Good. But, the Great’s out there. We all have to completely strive for what could be the best. If you’re doing your best work and you maintain your integrity, that’s when your path leads you beyond the horizon. But if you take away your integrity, everything else kind of caves behind that, besides the good work that you might do on a micro level.

At the end of every day, what you’re left with are the people you affected in a very personal way.

Those lives you affect are your gold medals.

On set directing a commercial, San Francisco

You mentioned the Musashi quote: “From one thing, know ten thousand things.” What was your path to that “one thing”?

I was intensely independent as a kid. My home life was really not great. I often felt behind. I didn’t have a Dad at home telling me what was right or wrong. I was constantly jumping around in trees, putting myself in intense, risky situations, just being bold on a physical level. And often in the principal’s office.

Once I found gymnastics, that became my singular focus. I fell in love with how there were so many  disciplines to master. It felt like an infinite possibility, and it had originality in it. No two gymnasts have the same strengths— whether it be pommel horse, floor exercise, rings, parallel bars. Everybody has their natural specialties, and at the same time you are all trying to master them all. There was this interplay of okay, I’m going to work really hard at this thing and go past the point of frustration, but then I have another thing to work on afterwards where I can gain some gratification.

After my last competition, I jumped on a plane and the next day I was in Montreal training for performance with a small, new company called Cirque du Soleil. This is when everything in my life changed: it was the absolute seminal moment when I became an artist. We trained in this industrial building, a giant place at the end of the tracks where they used to work on the trains. The openness of the space was just massive. It had these huge curtains 60 or 70 feet high, black boxes, and all these weird things set up which would eventually inform the shows Mystere and Treasure Island. Our training schedule brought us daily from transcendental dynamic meditations to dancing to singing to drumming to acrobatics. All of a sudden, I was changed. It was as if I was seeing the world in two dimensions before, and then I just cracked open and everything was full-color, 3-dimensional.

And from there, I developed a sensibility. Because at that point, I could do the gymnastics. It wasn’t like I was focused on how to master this hard thing I’m trying to do. Instead, I was really focused on like, oh cool, how do we make the music work with this? And how do we find just the right light? How do we give a shape to the dance and make my costume come alive? It was just such a wonderful place to see and respect everything going on around me. Everything was becoming. Everything was fertile.

That’s when it was like, oh. I could do anything. Everything is possible. I was very confident to begin with, and also humble to what everybody else was doing. It was this really interesting mix playing out live;  I was so fortunate to be able to experience that. It was like this kernel that provided this world to just exist in and play in and develop in.

Gregg and Carmen Curtis in creation of La Reve, 2005

That kernel. Can you talk more about what’s important about that?

What’s important is our search for it. To be so attracted to that energy … to identify it, and then head towards it. This is a place where, for me, it becomes a religious experience. For me, religion is creativity. We have creativity inside of us, and we have to search for it. We have to find those kernels and nurture them. Just like Cirque du Soleil nurtured that creativity for me, gave it life and tools. And just like I had to do for myself, after I peaked in that space and performing in shows became less of an art and more of a job. I had to search for the kernel again; that’s when I began directing my own shows.

What do you say to those who search for the kernel, though from a place that may be particularly constrained and painful, such as burnout?

The “great art” always comes from suffering. Unfortunately. You have to redefine and brutally prioritize how you spend your time, and find the right people to lift you up.

When I was in gymnastics, what made me a great gymnast is I was always pushing myself past in search of…what if. What if I do 20 more reps? How much better can this be? I re-applied that later to my schedule and to the conditions I existed in at a particularly low, dark moment in my career and life. I was in Vegas performing in La Reve at the Wynn Hotel. The show itself was magical and artistic, but to do it wasn’t artistic. It was just a job. I did exactly the same thing in the same way. And basically, the lifestyle was that you would perform, then you would party all night, and sleep all day. It was trouble for me, especially because we were doing well financially. It felt dangerous not to have the luxury of the starving artist. Inside I was dying on the vine.

I had to challenge myself to ask, what if I take these hours after my show and do something else with them instead of party? I started organizing my own theater performances. There were so many other performers and artists in Vegas in the position of doing jobs like I was. We started doing theater, off the strip, after work. We were able to transform the energy of the amazing artists doing rote work, and gave them an outlet to do something more. We did highest quality theater with shows like This is Our Youth, the Shape of our Youth in in wild, creative ways like floating sets. All at weird, memorable locations off the strip, at like one in the morning.

What got me out of the dark place and to the next horizon was my willingness to take my leisure time and use it for something that I could feel like it was leisure-ly and it was also creatively productive. And: getting collaborators on board.

You have to get the most inspired people and instead of competing, find a way to collaborate with them and let that energy raise the tide and lift all the boats.

Once you challenge yourself to do it, finding those others is essential. Because you’ll have moments you don’t want to do it. You need someone who inspires you to show up and move in the direction you want to go. The well is endlessly deep. You can keep going as long as you have other people to lift you up. You can’t do it on your own.

Learn more about Gregg’s work here

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