Why we should embrace standing ovations

  • Sadia Nowshin, The Boar

As the cast re-entered the stage at the end of Hamilton, the whole crowd – including me – rose to their feet in eager applause. I had waited seven months to see the musical. It had surpassed my (very) high expectations and, in that moment, I was genuinely full of joy. I felt, as did the rest of the audience, that the performance deserved the appreciation of a standing ovation: a mark of thanks to the cast for their hard work and a recognition of the sheer talent they had displayed.

I looked over to my mum who had come along with me only to see, to my horror, that she was somewhat begrudgingly getting to her feet and clearly didn’t share my enthusiasm. Unlike me, she didn’t enter the theatre with excitement to see the show and didn’t really ‘get’ the crowd’s response to it. She stood up anyway, mostly to avoid being the odd one out in a theatre of 1,500 people. This, as David Lister suggests in an article for The Independent, could be seen as the standing ovation becoming a form of “tyranny”, forcing people to their feet regardless of whether or not they enjoyed the show. Quite frankly, I don’t think it’s that deep.

In my theatregoing experience, the shows for which I have been a part of a standing ovation were Les Misérables and Hamilton, two musicals that I felt were more than worthy of that reaction. The cast had moved the audience to emotions strong enough that we wanted to return the favour in some way, and our standing ovation was a sign of that thanks.

However, traditionalists are becoming increasingly appalled that the once-elusive standing ovation is now becoming a commonplace reaction to what they deem to be ‘mediocre’ theatre. Michael Billington recently argued in The Guardian that “it is turning into a hollow gesture in which audiences seek to transform perfectly decent plays and musicals into earth-shattering occasions” and went as far as to suggest that “the standing ovation is a filthy American habit that I think should be discouraged”. Whilst I can appreciate Billington’s emotions here, in that the standing ovation being overused may lead to it being seen as ‘valueless’, I think the underlying issue is that this reveals a culture of snobbery. Critics think they are solely qualified to be judge and jury on the quality of a show, as if they can conclusively decide which binary of ‘good vs bad’ it fits into.

This view of standing ovations as an esteemed, be-all-or-end-all judgement of a show feeds a culture where art, such as theatre, is seen as something to be judged only by experts. That rhetoric is exactly what makes the theatre feel inaccessible to many members of the public. If we stop seeing ovations as some kind of revered reaction that the cast will be crushed without, and more like an appreciation for the talent and an expression of happiness caused by the performance, then more people will start to enjoy shows for what they are, rather than perhaps using them to show how cultured or highbrow they want to seem.

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