On your feet (or not)

April 6, 2012
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I used to rarely give standing ovations, reserving them for performers and performances that truly knocked me out.

Derek Jacobi in "Breaking the Code." Warren Zevon at Philly's Tower Theatre. The original cast of "Sweeney Todd."  Richie Havens at a tiny bar in Sea Isle City, NJ. John Cullum and company in "You Never Can Tell." Isaac Stern with the Philadelphia Orchestra...

But for the rest,  including many perfectly respectable presentations, I stayed seated, politely clapping during the curtain calls. Standing up for the good, I felt, would give me nothing to do when I ran into the truly exceptional. And standing up for the shoddy would encourage more of the same.

Lately, though, I've changed by habits.

These days, I'm now more likely to join the on-the-feeters. That's not because my standards have dropped or because the productions and concerts have improved, but because 1.) with all around me standing, I can't see what's happening on stage and, 2.) staying in my seat while all else stand would make me seem like a grump.

But am I compromising by doing that?

On the blog Uncensored John Simon, the noted grump/critic comments: 

"Are audiences particularly stupid? Or did they spend so much on their tickets that they must resort to this device to prove to themselves that the money was well worth it? Or are they lusting for some sort of participation in the creative process and deluding themselves that this is it? Or are they just trying to show off with how much smarter they are than their still sedentary neighbors? What they certainly don’t realize is that they are devaluing the standing ovation, and often adding insult to injury by their shrieks or howls, or whatever you call the throat complementing the feet."

I think it's all of the above...plus a healthy dose of honest appreciation for the hard work of those onstage.

Still, I get a bit of a thrill when an okay production gets an appropriate, seated reaction. We don't complain about good-enough TV or good-enough movies. What's wrong with acknowledging that we've witnessed a good-but-not-great play or a good-but-not-great concert.

And I'll still stay seated if the work is below okay.

Your thoughts? (I'd also like to hear from performers. My question: Are you take it as an insult these days if you don't get a standing ovation?)

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  • Me too
    My wife and I have been to several performances at several venues over the last several years (Indy Opera, Dance Kaleidescope, Indianapolis Symphony, IRT, ...) and I can't recall the last time there wasn't a standing ovation. We will usually sit through it if we feel it was okay but not great. But, as you pointed out, sometimes you can't see and you don't want to insult the performers. We do think the standing O has lost it's meaning though.
  • Standing too often
    Yes, I do think audiences tend to be very generous, unknowingly so, with standing ovations for all the reasons the grump/critic mentioned. In my experience anyway. Call me a grump or cynic, but as a performer, I appreciate a discerning audience. I Know when the show is only ok - most of the time - so it feels like pandering if we get a standing O. On the other hand, it does hurt when you feel you're a part of something outstanding that is met with an audience comfortable in their seats during curtain call. Or worse yet, tepid applause.

    I think, occasionally, audiences aren't meaning to give standing ovations, they're just preparing to leave - beat the traffic out of the parking lot. Then, I gd annoyed with performers who misinterpret and feel their show was fantastic.

    Give me an educated, tough-to-please audience any day; make me earn that standing O.
  • overkill
    Actors can tell the difference. When an audience leaps to their feet at curtain call, it is a different feeling than when, bit by bit, everyone stands in dull compliance. I do think the overly common practice of standing ovations has to do with the price of tickets and a need to support one's choice of paying a high price for attendance. There may also be unfamiliarity about live performance and its associated traditions. Actors appreciate earned ovations.
  • Standing O's
    Lou, your standards may not have changed, but everyone else's seem to have. I am usually one of the last to stand, reluctantly, for an okay performance. I'm sure actors are embarrassed at some of the ovations they receive.
  • Raise the Roof
    Here's how you tell something is really terrific: the audience leaps to its feet and shouts, clapping hands held above their heads and whistling. A great performance can't be denied when the audience erupts instantly. The performers know it, the audience knows it, and management knows it. The ponderous ripple of people unfolding themselves from their seats---that's not standing O. That's a mandatory ovation.
  • standing ovation
    I think the standing ovation - in both live theater and other instances - has largely because a standard practice and is now expected at certain times. If you don't stand up like everyone else, you do feel as though you are being the lone grump among the happy masses.
  • Peer Pressure
    So far I have refused to give in to the peer pressure of everyone standing at the end of every performance. But I do feel like maybe my genuine standing ovations are not worth as much. I went to the trouble last year of writing the head of an arts organization about a performance that moved me. I felt like in the ocean of standing ovations I wasn't getting heard.
  • Ovations
    Yes, this has gotten out of hand. Like you said, one feels like a jerk when all around me stand. This happens at every IRT and DK performance and some of them are not worthy.
    Let's create a rule that, unless the cast is brought back for ovations, then stay seated and applaud politely.
    Now all we need is the Ovation Police.
  • Back in the 80s/90s
    I remember a Late Night with David Letterman show with Madeline Kahn as a guest; she was lamenting to David about a show she did in Indy and didn't get the standing ovations or a 3rd curtain call for her performance. Basically she berated the midwest audiences for not knowing how to behave like the east coast audiences. Dave didn't show much sympathy for her.
  • YES! Too many
    Funny you should write about this. I attend many theater events and adore musical theater. After attending a production of the truly awful "Happy Days" musical when it cam through Indianapolis, I was appalled that the audience gave a standing ovation. I mean this play was horrible. I remembering feeling sorry for the cast for having to be in a a play that never should have hit Broadway let alone be allowed to tour the country.

    I may have embarrassed my friends by not joining in on the standing O, but since then I have been very mindful of when I offer a standing ovation. Only when it is truly deserved (a combination of a great piece performed by a great cast) do I stand to honor the performers.
  • Way too much
    I remember when at a classical concert series of visiting artists here the audience remained firmly in their seats unless it was a truly exceptional performance--even for groups they applauded eagerly to play an encore. Standing O's were rare. Now it happens all the time, which is too bad. The overall quality really hasn't changed that much.
    Critical standards in the media deserve scrutiny too. Those I read most often fall in two camps. They either never say anything bad or focus on anything bad they can find and write only about that aspect. Then if anything really great happens you can't always tell the difference as the review makes it sound like a forgettable experience.
  • Audience response
    I agree completely that there are too many standing ovations for just OK performances, which renders the gesture from an audience meaningless. While on the subject of audience decorum, I have noticed a particularly terrible habit developing at high school concerts, when any soloist, even if it is literally one or two words or notes, gets a round of applause. Often at show choir concerts, a soloist begins a ballad that features the best singing of the show right after the solo, and you miss it completely because of the people applauding. Another thing that bugs me, now that bringing drinks into the hall has become tolerated and maybe even encouraged, are the people who choose the softest and most emotional moment to take that last gulp and make a big noise with the ice moving in the glass. It has happened twice recently, most noticeably in the ISO concert with a cello soloist as he was playing his softest spot. It is one thing to applaud for a great jazz solo chorus, but this mandatory applause for every solo moment has got to stop.
  • Standing O
    Yep, you are compromising. When an audience gives a standing ovation to an amature production it only encourages the young to enter into an already overcrouded profession.
  • Hard-working performers
    Saw John Doyle's staging of "Merrily We Roll Along" a few weeks ago at Cincinnati's Playhouse in the Park. No matter how many times they revise and revive this show, it's not going to be a good musical. This particular performance used Doyle's now-standard-for-Sondheim gimmick of having the actors play the musical instruments. When I asked my companion why he stood with the rest for the standing ovation, he said, "I was really impressed that the actors were able to simultaneously do so much so well." I had never thought of using a standing ovation to simply offer encouragement -- to basically say, "Good job -- too bad the show wasn't so hot."
  • Culture Change
    I agree that the standard for a SO has changed...pop and rock music concerts may have begun the lowering of the bar, and over time it has spread to other venues...the standing O is gratis at rock concerts, no doubt affected by the high price of the ticket, the high price of concessions, the cost and associated angst with parking, etc...after all that, people must feel like they have to stand up at the end, whether it was good or not. It has been a gradual decline in standards over the years that has spread to the theater, symphony, etc. American Idol and the like has plenty to do with it also...the cheap, quick and superficial displays of raw talent have supplanted the nuanced and informed performance...many people don't recognize the difference between the two, and won't turn their cell phone off long enough to appreciate a truly inspired and great perfomance. I noted one commenter mentioned show choir competitions, and the standard behavior at those...those observations are spot on, and the people who attend those are friends and family of the performers for the most part. I have noticed these behaviors starting to manifest themselves in theatrical productions I have appeared in over the past few years, and I too have been in productions that have been recognized with an SO that likely should not have been. There are likely many things that contribute to this phenomenon, but I don't see it getting better anytime soon.
  • Ditto, ditto, ditto!
    It sounds as if we are all in agreement! I too think standing ovations have gotten out of hand, although I also am guilty of participating - in my case, it's because I feel terrible sitting there while everyone else is standing. If a performance is truly outstanding there is no way to express that today. Let's all agree to only stand when a performance is truly exceptional
  • I checked with a professional
    To Lou and all the other commenters...I already made one comment here, so I'll make this second one brief. I work with a guy who was in 13 professional company productions as a child and adult, on and off Broadway, touring companies, Gypsy, Cats, Producers, How to Succeed, Damn Yankees, etc...I mentioned your observation about SO's to him to get a professional's insight. He wholeheartedly agreed that a standing ovation is not deserved in most cases where one is given, and says he almost never stands at the end of a performance, even if everyone else is standing. For what it is worth, he agrees completely that the SO should be reserved for the truly exceptional and inspired performance.

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