Thursday, February 11, 2010

Backstage, Center Stage

When I was in high school, all of my best friends were in theater. The boy I went to prom with Junior year and the boy I didn't go to prom with Senior year and the boy I went with instead of that other boy I didn't go with were all actors, who had taken more than one turn under the bright lights on our battered school stage. My friends went to acting workshops out of school, and sang musical theater songs at the tops of their lungs while driving with all the windows open down the highway, and worked at The Muny or The Fox in the summertime just to be near the stage.

I was never an actress. As a teenager, I had terrible stage fright. I took Drama one year in eighth grade as an elective, and I would freeze up so badly just acting in front of a twenty-person class of my friends — stammering my lines out, my whole body shaking — that my teacher took pity on me and found an excuse to declare me her "Assistant Director" for the rest of the year so that I could hide in a corner with a binder and a pen, taking notes on blocking and lighting and whispering my friends' forgotten lines.

Later, in high school, I worked backstage. I learned how to saw wood and paint shadows and hang lights and program a sound board and make an empty black box look like castle courtyard or a Manhattan living room or a submarine or a one-room schoolhouse or a forest in June. While my friends took the spotlight, and the applause, I dressed in black to better blend in with the shadows and made sure their cues came on time.

And I liked it that way.

These days, I don't stammer or shake when speaking in public. I can give a presentation to a room of 50 bloggers without breaking a sweat. I can meet famous people I admire without swooning (okay, except for Alice Bradley). I can speak on TV or a radio show without butterflies. I can interview members of Congress without blinking an eye.

But I still don't like the spotlight. I'll stand under it when I need to, because it helps me meet people I need to meet, or reach people I need to reach, or get the word out on issues that are important to me. I'll take center stage, because it helps me get things done. But I don't seek it for its own sake.

What can I say? I'm still an introvert. An introvert who has learned to play extrovert fairly effectively when need be, but still feels an uncomfortable twinge at the idea of seeing her name in lights.

After all these years, I find I still prefer to be the one behind the scenes.

Last week I learned my son's school will be having a talent show. I asked him if he'd signed up to be in it. He said no.

"I had a choice to be on stage or in the audience, and said I would just be in the audience," he explained. "I couldn't really think of any talents I have."

No talents? My child? No talents?

No way.

"Everyone has talents," I responded. "Everyone has something special they are good at. There is not a person in this world who is not talented at at least one thing. And you are talented at many things. I've seen you show lots of talent. Don't tell me you don't have any talents!"

But then, mid-stage-mother-encouragement speech, I suddenly wondered: What if he didn't want to be in the talent show? Not because he thought he was not talented, but because he had no interest in performing in front of a crowd? I mean, I want to encourage my kid to believe he can achieve great things in life and all that, but he is five years old.

What if the idea of performing in front of the whole school made him nervous? What if he was just genuinely excited at the idea of watching his friends?

It's not like there could even actually be a talent show if every kid in the school were fighting for a spot on stage.

In every theater, someone has to be in the audience.

And someone has to work backstage.

So I said, "I want you to know, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be in the audience — the audience is just as important as the people on stage. Without an audience there would be no one to see a performance. So if you want to be in the audience this time, so you can watch and support your friends, I think that's a very good and very kind thing to do. Or if you would like to help your friends get ready for their performances, that would be a good thing to do, too. But I want you to remember that you do have talent, and you do know how to do lots of things that other people might like to see. So I'm happy that you want to watch your friends perform this year. And maybe next year, if you feel like it, you can take your own turn on stage . . ."

"Oh, wait!" he suddenly shouted, interrupting what was surely about to turn into a very exciting lecture from his mother on dramatic theory, "I forgot. I can play the piano!"

(He forgot he can play the piano? Seriously? How much money have I spent in the past two years on those weekly piano lessons?)

"I will play a song on the piano!" he continued. "I'll play it and everyone will watch me and it will be great."

And every day since he has been talking excitedly about how he will play the piano, in front of the whole school, and they will all see how good he is at playing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." Is he nervous? No. Not a whit.

Just excited as all get-out that he'll be in the spotlight.

I get the feeling this may be the only first of several performances in his future.

And I'll be so proud to support my little performer, as usual, from backstage.


JJ said...

The world is obsessed with talent, to the extent that it's becoming meaningless. I think the greatest talent of all is to accept who you are. It disturbs me that pushy parents condemn their kids to so much pain.

Farrell said...

good for him, and good for you. I can't believe he's been taking lessons for two years. Wow!

Celeste said...

Awesome story! I'm with you--let me shine as a support person. That's my gift and to pretend any otherwise is dumb.

sugaredharpy said...

My son is the backstage guy now, he goes once a week to a performing arts center and builds, paints, and wears the black. He loves it! The other one? Total band kid, loves to perform!

Yay for finding his talent :)