Standing Ovations Should Be Reserved for Productions That Deserve It

Skip Maloney

What began as a casual thought about standing ovations these days, became, as I sat down to write, something of a tricky process, because standing ovations are a highly subjective response to theatrical stimuli; individual to the person on their feet. I watched a performance recently which, in my opinion, was very well done, although the script (again, in my opinion) did not lend itself to a standing ovation. Heartfelt, though seated applause, and quiet reflection on what's just been seen, perhaps. Yet all around me, people were getting to their feet to applaud in what seems these days to have become a meaningless, borderline trivial gesture. Something you're expected to do when a show is over.

It's understood that some people are more easily entertained than others, and it's unjust to criticize a given audience member, or group of them, or question the sincerity of their applause, standing or sitting. We theater people tend to be our own harshest critics, in this regard, because after years of doing this sort of thing, we see the 'machinery,' human and technical, at work. This has a way of dampening the tendency to leap to one's feet just because the curtain goes down or the light fades to black at the end of Act Two.

It does not, however, eradicate that tendency. I've never really engaged in a conversation with other theater people about the number of times they are actually motivated to leap to their feet at the end of a performance, but I suspect that our ability to see the 'machinery,' also offers us the opportunity to appreciate how that 'machinery' worked in unison to engage, and excite us in some way. A recent performance of Memphis here in Wilmington, NC brought me to my feet, as did the original on Broadway.  

Every play has potential. Some more than others. And some are just not cut out for standing ovations.  Doesn't mean they aren't entertaining in some way, but at its best, live theater, worthy of a standing ovation, should be a production that has left you literally breathless. Stunned. So moved by whatever combination of writing, producing, directing, and acting that you've been watching, that at the end of it, you spontaneously leap to those feet of yours and applaud the hell out of it. The most recent Broadway revival of Hair took this a step further, and led to my being onstage, dancing with the cast at the end. I can't remember the last time I went to a show, after which someone didn't get to their feet (sometimes, it was me), and pretty soon, were joined by others. All those shows can't all have been that good. And in my opinion, many of them weren't.

There's no way to legislate this. It's not as though you can have someone in a curtain speech request that an audience please not stand at the end unless they do so spontaneously and have experienced some hypothetical level of dramatic excitement. Someone would stand anyway, and when they did, others would surely follow, the curtain speech be damned.

As I understand it, people expressing this particular point of view about standing ovations, and the quality of theater necessary to invoke them, are generally referred to as "theater snobs." I was accused of this myself, here, when I expressed my opinion about local theater reviews.

Not all theater has to be of standing-ovation quality in order to qualify as entertainment. Think of The Housewives of New Jersey, which, granted, isn't being done live, on a stage, but does have performers, performing for an audience. Apparently,  as reflected in ratings, instead of standing ovations, people are entertained by this. We theater snobs should just shut the hell up and leave these people alone to be entertained by whatever floats their individual entertainment boats. Let 'em stand to applaud, if that's what they feel like doing.

But I'll tell you something. The gratuitous, standing ovation phenomenon is being noticed, pretty much every time, by the performers who come out for a curtain call. They see the audience machinery at work, and know better than anyone in the space whether the standing ovation is heartfelt or gratuitous. They'll know within seconds of getting out there whether the people getting to their feet have, in fact, been feeding off the energy of their performances for the last couple of hours. If it's spontaneous and heartfelt, a standing ovation feeds back to the stage. If it's just people standing to be nice, that feedback loop is severed.

Watch it sometime. Notice how quickly and with what level of energy people are standing to applaud. Does anybody look or act especially excited? If you've got a very enthusiastic crowd, and the production has been extraordinarily effective, you'll see the performers on the stage bring to what's left of the curtain call a certain buoyant energy, drawn from the energy of those standing to applaud. Their smiles are broader. They may wave more at the end of the official bow. And if they've got a song to sing after the bows, they'll be out there having a better time singing it than they did the first time. They like that you liked it a lot. They'd like it even if it was gratuitous, but they would for sure, know the difference.

The odds of finding that sort of special, leap-to-your-feet, cry-your-eyes-out (which I do) connection with a stage play, musical or any artful combination thereof, are small, because first of all, a lot of plays just don't have that kind of potential. Musicals have it much more than straight plays, because musicals demand levels of energy that, by their very nature, get an audience's energy levels pumped up. It's a breeding atmosphere for the energy burst an audience will hopefully exhibit by leaping to their feet later. A certain amount of energy is expected in both genres, of course, and even at low levels, performer energy is transmitted beyond the stage to an audience whether the performer is singing, or dancing, or just talking. The singing and dancing just creates buckets more stage energy than a performance of, say, A Long Day's Journey into Night.

By the same token, I remember leaping to my feet after watching David Suchet play Salieri in the straight play, Amadeus, which artfully blended live performances and recorded music, a soundtrack. Amadeus has standing ovation potential because of the myriad of elements at work in the 'machinery' of it. Acting performances are an important component of that potential, but really, only one piece of the dramatic puzzle. The script itself is arguably a more significant component of that play's potential to get you out of your seat at the end.

The 'leap to your feet' instinct comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, prompted by a dizzying array of potential viewers with all manner of varied tastes, personal history, and how well their day went at the office. Standing ovations shouldn't be discouraged by some "theater snob's" insistence that only the shows that earn it, deserve a standing ovation. By the same token, it appears (and I stress, appears), from time to time, as though a large percentage of people engaged in any standing ovation are doing so because other people are already standing, or they think that it's what you're supposed to do at the end of a show.

Just remember, the cast knows the difference. They always know.