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.