Do you ever feel peer pressured to rise to your feet and applaud with great enthusiasm in response to a production that you found entertaining, but that did not rock your theatre world?
While the Greeks gave us theatre, the Romans taught us that victories (in past battle, at present stage) are to be ceremonially met with ovatio, rejoicing. Although happiness is a state of mind, you don’t exult triumph and rejoice about everything in life as a victory, no matter how happy a person you are.
This year I vowed to myself to only get up for a standing ovation if a production really moved me. I've kept my promise and sometimes during a curtain call I have even only gotten up to salute one particular performer that really stood out for me in an already very talented cast.
But is it easy to stay seated while everyone else is rejoicing in a ‘victorious’ performance? No, not really. There is something very intimidating about staying seated while the majority of audience members are towering over you, and glancing down somewhat judgmentally every now and then. I've even had one writer's friend tap me on the shoulder at the end of the show and ask "Didn't you think that was just so funny?" in what I suspect was an attempt to get me to go "Oh yes!" and jump up. I didn't and actually that made me keep my bum in my seat even more. My standing ovation is not for sale.
Don’t get me wrong, I mean no disrespect by staying seated. I still applaud as a token of admiration for hard working cast and crew, as well as gratitude for a fun theatre night out. Personally, I just feel that a standing ovation used to be something special, something reserved for that moment of utter amazement. In chocoholic terms, it is like Cadbury versus Lindt: One you eat every day, the other one is that special occasion treat.
Throughout the year I did however start to wonder if I am alone in my thinking, so to the Internet archives I took my googling fingers in search of theatre clarity.
In 2003 already, Jesse McKinley of The New York Times wrote (in response to a ‘successful’ production that received harsh reviews but also standing ovations every night) that the standing ovation has decreased in value, because in the words of columnist Liz Smith, “[n]ow the standing ovation is de rigeuer”.
In 2008, Michael Billington of The Guardian took it a step further, declaring that a standing ovation is an American habit that should be discouraged:
“In New York the standing ovation is now a meaningless nightly ritual. Unless the show is a real stinker a Broadway audience will leap to its feet almost before the curtain has fallen. I've always assumed this had two explanations. One is that, if you've paid 100 bucks or more for a ticket, you have to justify to yourself the worth of your investment.
The other is that Americans like to feel they themselves are all in showbusiness. And what better way to advertise one's enthusiasm than by shooting out of one's stall, as if an electric current has passed up one's bum, and letting out those peculiar war-whoops that in the States betoken excitement.”
I found myself nodding in agreement as I pondered Billington’s words. I don’t want to be the theatre equivalent of a 'Whoohoo' girl that describes everything as #Awesome or #Blessed. Much like my twitter hashtags, I want my standing ovations to actually mean something. Also, Billington may be onto something calling a standing ovation an American to-do, as McKinley points out that Shakespeare practically never got a standing ovation, because his general audience stood throughout the whole of the play. If any historic theatre trendsetter deserved a Standing O, surely The Bard qualified?!
In 2014, the Tony Award-winning Broadway Producer, Ken Davenport, also did some research on why people give a standing ovation. His survey revealed that:
41% said, “I liked the actors, just not the show.”
36% said, “Everyone else was standing, so I did too.”
9% said, “I was just trying to get a better view of curtain call.”
5% said, “I’m just nice, and I felt bad not standing.”
5% said, “I stood out of enthusiasm, it was a climactic moment.”
4% said, “I just love theatre in general, so I stood.”
At opening nights, I can understand if family and friends of the actors involved jump for joy because they are proud of their kin. They should be. However, I more frequently these days find critics, bloggers and other unassociated patrons joining in, even if afterwards I hear them say “that was not too bad”. 'Not too bad' has become the ‘rejoicing’ benchmark? How is ‘not too bad’ a victory?
I would feel insulted as a performer if my actual victories were downplayed just because everyone now required a ceremonial pat on the back. Actors put in blood, sweat and tears and deserve your honest feedback, otherwise you are just making a mockery of the industry they so diligently serve with their creative skills.
Would an Oscar be such a sought after form of talent recognition if they just handed it out to everyone who ever got a role in a movie? Would a Laurence Olivier or a Tony Award be the dream of every young theatre performer if it was to be found standing in every second actor’s living room? No, because praise, recognition and awards give a person a buzz because it is special, given with sincerity and most importantly truly spontaneous when bestowed in the form of a standing ovation.
So when then is it appropriate to give a standing ovation?
When the production …
exceeds your expectations and leaves you jaw-droppingly spellbound… so legendary as in your grand kids will be listening to stories about it;
has real depth, worth, and theatrical value, basically can make the Grinch grow a heart and cause the toughest tough guy to wipe away a tear, whether the ticket price be R30 or R300;
is the 'He Is Just Not That Into You' theatre equivalent of the exception rather than the rule, calling for a sign of preference as an indication that for you this play is it, better than any other play in town;
calls for a sincere token of appreciation of extreme talent, not merely the audience member’s need to partake or pursue a sense of belonging; or
is an award-worthy triumph and simply worthy of your praise.
In short, a standing ovation should signify the intensity of preference. You should want to take out a second mortgage to go see it 5 times again!
If you are a true theatre lover who respects the art, as well as the artistic creative minds behind it, don’t be a ‘claque’. Your sign of approval should not be cheapened. Own your enthusiasm, don’t give it away freely, or do it just because everyone else acts like paid professional audience members.
Respect the performance, the performer and yourself, because you #lovetheatre.
J McKinley, “The Tyranny of the Standing Ovation”, 21 December 2003, http://www.nytimes.com/2003/12/21/theater/theater-the-tyranny-of-the-standing-ovation.html
M Billington, “The standing ovation is a filthy American habit”, 31 July 2008, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2008/jul/31/standingovation
K Davenport, “Why Do People Give Standing Ovations? We Did A Survey to Find Out”, 9 April 2014, https://www.theproducersperspective.com/my_weblog/2014/04/why-do-people-give-standing-ovations-we-did-a-survey-to-find-out.html
WM Downs, LA Wright & E Ramsey, The Art of Theatre: A Concise Introduction (2013), p 85.
C Heim, Audience as Performer: The Changing Role of Theatre Audiences in the Twenty-first Century , (2015), p 32.
OG Brockett & RJ Ball, The Essential Theatre (2014), p 28.