In The Spotlight

It feels like all I’ve done this week is drive to and from my son’s school. He’s been involved backstage in the school play and I’m writing this having just got home from sports day which is the kind of event that nowadays involves parents taking picnics and folding chairs as if it were Glyndebourne opera. But it’s the school play that I really want to talk about because it was a delight. I was amazed by the quality of the production and the talent of the children and the palpable sense in the air that these kids were having just THE best time up there on the stage. What I really loved, though, was the way the cast and backstage crew took their bows. They’d gathered everyone together in massed ranks, and then two by two to a disco beat the children walked down to the front, and in the moment before they jumped off the stage to exit through the audience, they struck a pose. It was interesting to see how physical development and self-confidence arrive at very different times in different children. Some were tiny, some huge, some slung themselves a little awkwardly into a sketchy gesture and hastily shuffled off, some posed crisply and dramatically, some raised a cheer, others a laugh, but they were all fizzing with excitement and exuberance and that glorious adrenaline high that comes from successfully performing before the most appreciative audience in the world: a collected army of mums and dads.

‘It was really strange how different it was doing the play for the parents,’ my son commented afterwards. ‘When we did it for the school no one dared laugh much because they knew they had to sit there being good and quiet. But parents laugh at everything.’ I actually find I want to cry from start to finish and it’s only the thought of being an embarrassment and not being allowed to show up at future events that keeps me reined in. There’s something so overwhelmingly touching in the openness with which children perform and the bursting delight of parents watching them. I used to find the Christmas carol concerts that my son took part in during his early schooling years almost unbearable. Time and again the children would pause in their representation of a whirling snowflake or a dancing fairy (the kind of part that only those under five can pull off flawlessly and with utter conviction) to scan the audience for their mummies, and somewhere in the undulating rows of parents someone would be yelling ‘I’m here, darling! I’m over here!’, practically scrambling over the heads of the row in front to be more visible. It was like sitting amongst the paparazzi as the flash bulbs popped and video cameras whirred. And often, under these incubating conditions, something rather special did actually happen. At thirteen, my son and his classmates have more resources at their disposal now; they can act with some conviction, they can organize themselves in to a slick team, they can feel the mood of the crowd and let it lift them up. I watched my own shy and retiring son, having left the dark regions backstage for the curtain call, blinking like a woodland creature in the sudden blaze of lights, not knowing what to do with his face and his hands, holding himself in, but letting that applause wash its magic through him. He was very excited when he came out.

I remembered that feeling all too well. It’s strange because for so much of my life I absolutely adored applause. I loved acting as a teenager at university, and I got an undeniable kick out of giving conference papers when I was a young academic. But just lately the desire for it has dissolved and I feel a contrary urge not to perform, not to put myself under the spotlight again, but to work quietly and alone at a craft. I wonder if it’s finally a sign of maturity, or whether it’s just a phase I’m going through. I know what my husband would say, but it wouldn’t be polite so I won’t include it here. I do think that applause is an intoxicating drug and one that can make you indulge in all kinds of foolishness for the sake of its pursuit. But I also think that it is a transformational motivating force, that it can encourage artists in whatever field to soar above their limitations, to do things and reach places they’d never dreamt of before.

All of this makes me think about the conditions which foster creativity and bring the best out in people. It may be that creativity comes only under specific circumstances for everyone and one of the things we need to do developmentally as adults (and it’s easy to forget that adult development also requires nurture and thought) is experiment until we find the right context for our art to flourish. But watching the children, I felt that they had prepared hard for their performance, that they were wholly in the moment, and that they were particularly enjoying the teamwork of acting. And I thought that wasn’t a bad recipe for artistic success. I think that’s why blogging is so good for aspiring writers because it adds that element of teamwork to an otherwise solitary occupation and can offer a much needed burst of applause on occasion. It’s that little bit of addictive sweetness that makes the business of creativity so much more rewarding.


18 thoughts on “In The Spotlight

  1. How very appropriate this post is today, for I’m involved in an end of year music program tonight with the high school students I work with. This particular concert involves just the kind of curtain call you describe, with each one coming out to music when their name is called. I have often found it so touching to see the different reactions, and how they are so like the personalities of the children involved -some shy, some rambunctious, some very confident.

    I was just the opposite of you as a young person – I despised the spotlight, and none of my music teachers could ever get me to perform without a great deal of coaxing and wheedling. However, I came to love the limelight as an adult, after starting to perform on a regular basis, and found the applause quite addictive. But I’m starting to come full circle a bit, feeling a desire to “work quietly and alone at my craft.”

    And you are quite right, the business of teamwork is a marvelous incentive to the creative spirit. That’s why being part of a musical or theatrical group is so beneficial to people (of all ages!)

    Sorry, I have gone on and on here, but this subject is all quite close to my heart 🙂

  2. I am applauding at this very moment — your son, you, and whatever it was your lovely husband was going to say!

    It’s wonderful to watch children come into themselves. The trick is to hold on to whatever it is that’s working right now and getting them to be so joyfully creative, and make sure that nobody tramples it too much.

    Have a wonderful weekend, and many congratulations to the thespian. xoxo

  3. I would have been tearing up through the whole performance too — probably even if I didn’t know a single person there. I love your take on blogging — yes, it’s a great way to bring some community into a very solitary pursuit.

  4. Funny, before I even got to the end of your post, I was thinking, “She’s right. She’s right. I hate to be in the spotlight in person, but I think I continue blogging, because I get ‘virtual applause’ to keep going, and there’s a community feel to it.” Then I read on to find you so eloquently put it better than I.

    And do you want to know something really sad? You at least have a right to tear up, because you’re a mother. I have no right, but that doesn’t keep me from getting choked up every single time some young friend invites me to watch him or her perform in a play/orchestra/sporting event, etc. (as a matter of fact, the invitation alone is enough to get me teary), and I spend the whole event holding back tears not only for that special invitee but also for complete strangers. (At least it sounds as though I’m not alone, since Dorr seems to think she’d be the same way.) Youth Sunday, when we let the teenagers run the whole service, and which we just had for the first time in our new church, is a devastating day for me. I think next year, I’m going to have to figure out some way not to be around for it.

  5. As always, your keenly observed posts on everyday events give the lie to the notion that personal notes, entries in our diary are somehow antithetical to ‘high serious commentary’ on ‘literature.’ Proof of the frivolity of blogs and bloggers.

    Your little essays inform… not only about your life, but how you see, feel, think and… read. How you manage, in writing a response to some classical old chestnut, to infuse it with a breath of new life. You experience this school play the way you seem to experience a book. It’s a joy to read your accounts.

    No one should be intimidated into believing–because some book has already had oceans of critical ink spilled on its pages, that one’s own response is of no value–unless chopped, sliced, folded and blended into academic pastry.

    You demonstrate what it means to read, to read well, and to read for oneself: a gift and a talent that is inseparable from the reading of life as we live it.

  6. I, too, as I have grown older, have become less interested in the spotlight. It just does not matter. Yet, you are right, blogging give just enough to keep us going.

  7. Oh, I love this post. Your description of your reaction took me back to when my son was small and I watched him through my tears as the Sorceror’s Apprentice – and everything else he did including the school assemblies and concerts. Later it was football matches, the joy when he scored a goal and the agony when his team lost. I was so glad he didn’t like playing rugby, even so he got knocked out in one match. And now I have his children to watch with my heart trembling in case his daughter forgets the ballet routine – she never does.

    As a child I adored applause too, but I was never given the acting roles – I was always the narrator. Later I was overcome with shyness and reluctant to be in the spotlight for anything. Appreciation for whatever we can do is motivating and it was only when I was given a job where I had to speak in public and had good feedback that I found I did enjoy it. And I agree that blogging widens the writing experience – and the ‘virtual applause’ is good.

  8. Here’s a big virtual applause at your post for your ability to make me (us?) smile, laugh, remember and have a small serious thought on the impact of blogging! Have a nice weekend!

  9. What a fun post! Watching children perform is such a delight. I get teary too and I don’t have children.

    I acted in school plays in high school and loved it. My family was so surprised since I have always been and still am a shy person. But I always managed it because the person performing is not me. The person waiting to perform is me and she is terrified. I still enjoy applause and I don’t get the chance to perform very much, though once in a while I get to do a presentation at a staff meeting in front of 70 people and somehow I manage to turn into a stand up comic, making IT policy or some other boring thing funny. Afterwards I hardly remember a thing I said and so when people tell me how funny I was I am surprised. This makes me sound like I have some weird dissociative disorder or something 🙂

  10. Having been involved in amateur theatricals, from the safety of the Bio-box, I can empathise with the excitement of your son. My children didn’t have the theatrical bent so I watched a nephew develop his acting abilities and am now watching my grand-children develop performing talents, both musical and dramatic. Is it acceptable for a male to admit to tearing-up at these events? As for blogging, I had not thought of it before as a spectator sport but as you point out, it is more than that. The collaboration and the applause which is contained within the comments is such an encouragement and such a joy. Future students of the creative will need to mine the blogipelago in a way hard-copy diaries have been mined in the past. Imagine if Mozart, Constable or Virginia Woolf had had blogs.

  11. Well, thank you for reminding me of one of the reasons I blog–that little bit of applause that keeps you going, which is a part of the bigger feeling of community I get from blogging. I have never thought about it as “applause” before, but you’re right, it is. I’ve never been comfortable performing onstage or even public speaking, but my kids go to a school where they get onstage often, and they don’t suffer from stage fright the way I did as a child. I love watching my kids perform, but I always get teary, no matter what they’re doing 🙂 Thanks for the post!

  12. I’m glad to discover I’m not the only one who tears up at every occasion. I am always moved by the sincerity and sweetness with which kids perform.

    I was an enthusiastic amateur actress at school, but my glittering career drew to a close when I was studying drama at university and was cast as an Oompa-Loompa in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. That was kind of telling. However I do find my kids an appreciative audience for my comedic talents. Between them and the wonderful world of blogging, I get all the applause I require!

  13. Congratulations to your son and thanks for a lovely post. The enthusiasm is infectious. I was remembering being a teacher and watching the kids I knew and taught coming alive on the stage and doing so well. I’ve never been a great one for performing – I’m too anxious for that – but it is a great feeling when you get applause for it.

  14. My three children went to schools with art based curriculums. Through elementary and middle school, they were forced on stage through their classwork, so I have been in the audience many times. What made me tear up, with a catch in my throat and a smile plastered across my face, was their incredibly, amazing, separateness from me. I didn’t go back to work until the youngest was safely ensconsed in first grade, so I was very much with them 24/7. To see they could stand on their own had a pinch of sadness – they were growing up – but mostly it made me so proud of them. The oldest is now 22, and is very independent. I love standing back, being his friend, and once in a while he is kind enough to let me “mother” him!
    I am new to the blogging community, and find the no-strings-attached camaraderie wonderful and very supportive of my writing. So the applause – which I would call suppportive self-confidence building – is indeed “a transformational motivating force, that can encourage artists in whatever field to soar above their limitations, to do things and reach places they’d never dreamt of before.” Perfect way to describe it!

  15. Ravenous – I love your comments – take as long as you need to write them! How curious that you should have had just the same experience with children this week, and intriguing too that you should come full circle through the different responses to performing. I’m glad to think that one’s reaction to performing can change and then change again. It makes it easier to wave goodbye to it for a while. Bloglily – thank you so much, my friend! I am taking a little bow, on behalf of my son. Not letting anyone trample on his exuberance sounds like just the right thing for a mother to do. Dorothy – I am so reassured to know that! And yes, I find the support of other bloggers absolutely essential to my writing projects now! Emily – oh such a sweet comment, and I feel for you with the prospect of Youth Sunday ahead. I promise you they don’t have to be my children for me to cry over them, and I just wish I had you and Dorothy either side of me on such occasions. Then we could all weep to our heart’s content and not mind a bit! Jacob – this must be one of the loveliest comments I have ever, ever had on this site. Thank you – I will treasure it. And I think a cyber hug may be appropriate. Emily – do you think it’s the natural way of things once we have children to take over that business of seducing the world for us? But as you say, blogging gives us just a little taste – enough not to get nostalgic! Booksplease – it’s lovely to think of you watching your grandchildren now and still getting a bit teary, although the prospect of years of this to come makes me gulp a bit! It’s interesting, isn’t it that in later life, whether at work or blogging, it’s the role of the narrator that suits you right down to the ground. Smithereens – thank you so much! You have all of this ahead of you – it’s a lovely prospect. Stefanie – it’s no surprise to me that you are a wonderful speaker. Anyone who reads your blog knows what an entertaining turn of phrase you have! And I know what you mean about being a different person. I was always fine so long as I had a script, but I loathed improvisation as I always felt it required me to show parts of myself I wanted to keep private. I like all performing that I have tight control over! Archie – it’s more than all right to admit to a manly tear – in fact, everyone reading this will go ‘Ahhhhhh..’ and think you are wonderful to be in touch with your emotions! I love the thought of historians using blogs as archive material. And why not? They’re an intriguing and complex form somewhere between letters and diaries and full of interest. Gentle reader – I confess I hadn’t thought of it that way until I was writing the post, and then it seemed to make sense. So glad to find another blogging friend who wells up at the sight of her children on stage! Charlotte – oh sweetie, an oompa-loompa is just plain unfair! If it’s any consolation, I was a shrimp once, aged 6 or so and can still recall the humiliation. You’re right that children are equally the best audience their parents could ever hope for and you have a huge audience of adoring blogging fans! Pete – you’re welcome. I felt that the way the children worked together on stage made the pressure less on them individually. It might have just been the way the school encouraged them to consider their roles, but the palpable sense of teamwork helped reduce their anxiety, I think. It IS very hard to stand up before an audience and expose yourself that way. Qugrainne – I love what you say about the children’s separateness and know exactly what you mean. So glad your grown up son still allows you to mother him – means he must still really enjoy it! I’m also glad you’re enjoying blogging – it’s good to have you in the community.

  16. How wonderful! “Parents laugh at everything” — ha!

    And blogging does feel like an addictive sweetness in the face of everything else some days, it really does.

  17. How fun–I especially love the idea of the kids leaving but posing first–that must have been great! I have never been comfortable in the ‘limelight’ but I do enjoy watching. Last night my niece shared a video of a short play her class did (and the teacher was nice enough to make all the kids copies!). I always thought she was so tall for her age (and very skinny), but compared to some of the other kids in her class she seems very slight and smaller (she’s in 3rd grade)–they were all different heights and sizes. She seemed quiet as a mouse, but at home she is quite the opposite! 🙂

  18. Nova – hello and thank you for the lovely comment! Blogging keeps me sane, I know 🙂 Danielle – I’m laughing at the thought of your niece! I think she must be related to my son, who is also very shy in public but capable of being completely manic at home! How lovely to have a video of the occasion to keep – I hope my son’s school does the same. I often think a good audience is in really short supply, so you are offering a more valuable service by enjoying watching than if you longed to be on stage 🙂

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