Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Standing Ovation Should Stand For Excellence

by Matthew Falduto

I sat entranced leaning forward in my seat, following the journey of a traumatized little boy who finds solace in a pinball world all his own. The music was amazing, the emotional performances were overwhelming, and as the show reached its climax, I found myself pulled to my feet almost unconsciously as my hands enthusiastically clapped to let those performers know that I was truly and completely moved by the experience.  

The standing ovation. It is the greatest honor an audience can bestow up on a live theatre performance. Audiences love giving it; actors love receiving it. 

But as I reflect on the theatre scene in our little neck of the woods, I have to wonder – does it really mean all the much anymore? It seems to me that we give the standing-o way too easily these days. One of my friends, who is an editor, said that standing for every show is like putting an exclamation point at the end of every sentence. After a while, the exclamation points don't mean very much. I have attended many shows in the last few years that received standing ovations while I was sitting there thinking, “Really? I mean, it was a good show, sure, but it wasn’t that good.” 

I guess that’s where the disconnect comes in. For me, a standing ovation should only go to a show that is so completely moving and overwhelming that I feel utterly compelled to stand. Perhaps it’s a power of the community thing. When we go to shows in our area, most often the people on stage are people we know – our friends and neighbors. So are we standing out of a sense of support for our community? Steven Sondheim once said, “Every show now gets a standing ovation, but I think if you’re really moved, you don’t stand. They want to remind themselves that it’s an occasion – they’re applauding themselves.” Is that what has happened? Are we applauding ourselves? 

To get an idea of what our community thinks on this issue, I created a survey and sent it to a number of my theatre friends who were encouraged to send it out to their friends. (And of course, I also posted the link on Facebook. Because nothing actually happens if it's not posted on Facebook, right?) I had over 100 responses, which surprised me. The overwhelming majority didn't just answer the two multiple choice questions, but also responded to my open ended essay question. The comments were enlightening. 

Eighty-three percent of those who responded felt that standing ovations are given more often than they feel is warranted. Many of those who responded said they felt guilted into standing because "you don't want to be the jerk not standing", as one responder noted. Peer pressure was another phrase used over and over again in the responses. Lots of responses in that vein: 

"Most times, when I stand, it's because I don't want to look bad." 

"...[S]ometimes, even if I don't feel a connection, and everyone else is standing, I will still stand. I don't want to be rude." 

"I find myself joining a standing ovation, even when I don't feel it is warranted, simply because I don't not want to be the only one left seated and, therefore, viewed as not in support of the performance." 

"I don't know how many shows I've had to reluctantly stand up for, just because I look like a sourpuss if I don't." 

"Once the other audience members stood up at these shows, I and many others around me felt obligated to stand up with them though a number of people didn't feel the performance deserved it. Many (well over 70%) of the standing ovations I give are not because I feel that the ovation is warranted." 

"If any part of the audience stands up, remaining in your seat is like an insult, not just to the production, but to the audience." 

That last comment really bugs me. Because I didn't stand, I'm insulting everyone else who did? We need to feel free to express our opinions (politely, of course). I'll admit to having stood during a standing ovation for a show that I didn't think deserved it. Mostly that's because I want to see what's happening on stage and I can't if everyone in front of me is standing. I have also remained sitting during a standing ovation. I do not feel guilty about that at all. I think we can all agree that if I'm clapping and sitting, that just means I didn't like it quite as much as the guy who is clapping and standing. It's not that I thought the show was bad. If I think it's bad, I'm probably gone at intermission and you won't see me there at all. Or perhaps I just clapped a couple of times and then stopped and started looking for the exit. But sitting and clapping should not be considered an insult or suggestive of a lack of appreciation for all the creative effort that went into creating the show. 

I want to share some of the 17% who don't feel we give too many standing ovations. 

"It used to bother me more, but I now understand that people feel an obligation, especially at community theater shows, to show appreciation to the volunteer actors. I've decided to let my snobbery about the situation go and enjoy the fact that people enjoyed the show." 

This particular response is really insightful: 

"As theatre makers I don't see any reason to try and curb S.O. If an audience is moved to respond in that way - then great! They are they audience - they get to decide how they react to what we put on stage. Not everyone in the audience has to feel the same way. Maybe some are standing up to be able to get out of the theatre sooner, maybe some are standing cause everybody else is, maybe some are standing cause their ass is asleep. Who are we to judge the purity of their response? If people want to respond enthusiastically let's not try to bottle that up or require that they explain. If we want only Pure Applause, should then the audience expect that the theatre makers are only doing it for Pure reasons, the love of the craft, not the love of your scene partner, or the ego strokes or a good reason to get out of the house at night. I can be very enthusiastic and appreciative of theatre work even if what i just saw wasn't the greatest piece of American Theatre Ever. I may think it was a bit silly, or maybe the lead actor was miscast, but maybe I love the way they forged ahead when part of the set broke, or maybe I know that it took a lot of guts for some of them to get up on that stage, or maybe I saw that they loved what they were doing and tried their very best to put on a great show." 

I understand where this person is coming from. Should we judge other people's reactions to theatre? Is that right? I don't think so - if you believe the show deserved a standing ovation, by all means stand for it. However, from my survey it seems like a lot of people are not standing because they believe the show deserved the standing-o, but because of peer pressure. Why is that a big deal? Well, some of my other respondents addressed that. 

"My personal belief is that a standing ovation is warranted when the quality of a specific performance goes above and beyond what is typically expected. I often feel that audiences now give standing ovations because they had a good time at the performance - they are applauding their overall experience rather than a stellar performance. I also witness standing ovations at school and community based performances. These ovations, I believe, are in support of the performers themselves rather than the quality of the performance. As a school music director, I have mixed feelings about the "support the performer" ovations. I'm also concerned with the message these "support ovations" may send to developing musicians and actors. I would hate to think that a student musician might begin to believe that it's not necessary to continue to work and improve when, apparently, the level he/she is currently performing at is good enough to garner a standing ovation on a regular basis." 

And this one also addressed this concern. 

"I feel that too often the audience is quick to provide the highest accolade. This is not to say that there are not excellent performances, but that the standing ovation should be reserved for monumental successes. If most (or every!) performance receives a standing O, what can then be given to recognize the best of the best? A standing O with a flip? A half-gainer? As an actor, I appreciate the audience's feedback on my performance. But if every time I perform I receive the same acknowledgment of excellence par none, I begin to doubt the worth - the validity - of the ovation." 

A number of other people wrote about this as well. If everyone gets a standing-o, did anyone really get one? Remember how there was a big push to help kids' self esteem by making sure everyone "wins." (It's still happening in some schools.) Of course, kids know what that means - no one really won at all and the game didn't really matter. There is nothing wrong with winning or being recognized for really good work. Competition is healthy - it pushes us to do better. I am thrilled that there are so many theatre options in our area. It pushes all theatre companies to strive to provide really excellent work. But I do know there's a strong sentiment in our community that theatre is art and shouldn't be judged. After the last couple of All in a Day Play festivals, we received the feedback that we should do away with awards that talked about "Best Play" or "Best Ensemble". Frankly, I think that's hogwash. We should all aim for excellence and be recognized when we reach it. One way an audience can let us know that we have achieved excellence is through the standing ovation. That's why I am disappointed when I see my fellow theatergoers standing for a show that they don't believe deserved it. 

So here is my challenge for the 83%. Stand only when you feel the show deserves it. Be proud to sit and clap. Don't bow down to peer pressure and stand just because everyone else is doing it. Find the courage to follow your heart. I am pledging right now to never stand for a show that I feel does not deserve a standing ovation (even if it means I miss some of the curtain call). If we all do this, standing ovations will really begin to mean something again. 

After all, like one person wrote, "Standing Os are like the Big O: better when you don't fake it."

(This opinion piece does not reflect the opinion of the Iowa Theatre Blog as a whole. It's just the opinion of the author.)


Matt said...

I am guessing there might be some comments to this post since I had such a strong response to my survey. Here's my request - do not refer to any particular shows or theatre companies. As one of my survey responders noted, this can be a touchy subject - so let's keep any conversation general, not specific.



Kenneth Van Egdon said...

I will start my disclosing that I was one of the people that received the survey from the author. However, it got buried in my in-box and the link had expried by the time I got to it. So this is my chance to put my two cents in.

As an audience member, I have occasionally felt that "peer-pressure" to join the big O, but I have no problem with staying seated, still clapping enthusiastically, through the bows. If someone next to me wants to judge me for it, so be it. I can't judge if they have a family member in the cast or if a scene was particularly touching to them on a personal level.

As an actor on stage, I have witnessed stanging ovations that make me think "isn't that sweet of you" and ovations that make me think "thank you for that." Speaking for myself, I can tell if the "O" is for effort, or if it's truly deserved.

All that being said, I agree with the Sondheim quote mentioned. The highest honor to a show is, when all is done, that moment or moments of stunned silence and reflection before rapturous applause. That's when both audience and performers know that they shared something special that will never be forgotten.

Ken Van Egdon