When Standing Ovations are Meaningless

Rebekah Dare Guin

  • North Carolina Columnist

When each unique snowflake of a student receives a gold star for every mediocre score, students stop learning, and the institution fails. When each performance brings an audience to their feet night after night, artists stop creating, and the institution fails. 

Standing ovations have become the participation ribbons of live performance. In every school auditorium, local theater and national venue, audience members end every showing on their feet cheering as if their favorite team just scored the winning touchdown. 

Jesse Mckinley of the New York Times referred to standing ovations as a “tyrant.” Audiences feel obligated to rise to their feet even when the performance does not justify it. 

An educational theater director used to tell his students not to sing because it was time for a song, but to sing because you could no longer simply talk. Likewise, he said not to stand because you were told to, but to stand when you could no longer sit. This was designed to get his students to understand motivation and economy of movement and sound. However, these lessons can be brought to the other side of the curtain. 

As an actor, if you stand all the time, sing all the time or repeat any movement over and over, that movement loses its meaning. It is no longer special. It has become mundane and uneventful. You have nowhere to build. The performance will reach a plateau.

As an audience member, if you jump to your feet regardless of the spectacularity of the night, that movement loses its meaning. It is no longer special. It has become mundane and uneventful. You have nowhere to build.

With no way to distinguish sub-par work from creative genius, there is less motivation to push forward and create something worthwhile. We are handing every performer, designer and dreamer a fifty-cent blue ribbon and are telling them “we are all winners here.”

Even shows that remained closed after only a few weeks have received standing ovations night after night. 

A local college performed an excerpt of its upcoming performance of “Distracted” at a nearby retirement community. Although many members of the audience did not stand due to physical limitations, one gentleman did rise.  The group cheered and praised the students for their work. Yet, not two minutes later during a talk-back, 50 percent of the audience complained that the students had been mumbling, and they had not understood a word of the story. 

This is not to say that every audience member should become an unsatisfied critic and be stingier than Scrooge with their praise. The goal is to preserve and save those special actions for work that is truly special. 

If you make students work for academic honors, not only are you encouraging them to dig deeper and work harder, but you are also making that victory much more meaningful and satisfying. The arts are no different. 

We are telling artists that they have done enough. We are not asking them to dig deeper or work harder. We are taking away the glory of the effort already put in. We are handicapping artists by treating the average like it is excellent, and we are disrespecting the excellent by treating it like it is average.  

Until the human population grows wings and learns to fly, standing is all we can do. It is the highest praise. We should not stand because it is what we are told to do. We should stand because we are so overcome that we can no longer sit.