03 February 2015

Curtain Calls

by Kirk Woodward

[Readers of ROT will be familiar with the writing of my friend Kirk Woodward by now: he’s contributed nearly 50 posts to the blog since I started it (at Kirk’s urging) in 2009.  This piece is slightly different, not so much because of its topic or its writing approach, but because of its “companion” post.  I’ve paired Kirk’s take on curtain calls at a theatrical performance with another discussion on the increasing prevalence of standing ovations, posted on 8 February, which was composed by his daughter, Erin.  (I recommend coming back to ROT for “The Cheapening of the Standing O” after reading “Curtain Calls.”  They weren’t written to go together—that was a coincidence of timing—but they compliment one another thematically.)  As usual, I know you’ll find Kirk’s discussion of this common part of a theater presentation revealing and interesting.]

Talking with friends about theater experiences not long ago, I realized that one aspect of theater I’ve never seen an article about is the curtain call, that episode after the end of the play when the actors line up on stage to receive the audience’s applause, acknowledge various other members of the production who may have contributed something to it, and generally bask in what one hopes will be a general aura of triumph.

I would like to quote the results of a great deal of research on the subject, but unfortunately I don’t have any. I can find nothing on the Internet on the subject, and next to nothing in books. This is odd, since research indicates that our last impressions are our lasting impressions; one study I remember seeing estimated that 60% of what an audience remembers about a show is its end.

A snappy curtain call can do a great deal to convince an audience that it’s had a good time at a show. Conversely, a slow or sloppy curtain call can cause an audience to forget a good deal of the excellent work that preceded it. A good director will know this, and try ingeniously to make the curtain call a treat. Sometimes this effort succeeds, sometimes it doesn’t.

A typical, straightforward curtain call of a show with a moderate sized cast brings out, first, the actors who are hardly in the show at all (the Policeman who enters at the last moment, the Maid, the couple who appeared briefly at the top of Act Two); then the actors of middle-range roles; and finally the handful of performers that the play is basically about.

Variations on this theme are endless. One gambit is to have the actors enter “in character,” that is, still pretending they are the people they portrayed in the show. This approach works well for comedy; it would be obnoxious for tragedy, I would think, with Oedipus or Lear staggering out to receive their ovations blind, or mad, or even dead.

But inventive curtain call routines for comedies can be fun. For example, actors whose characters dislike each other in the play can carry on their fight in the curtain call. What is not fun is for these “bits” to be carried on longer than a moment or so – for example, for the fight to spill all over the stage. The audience wants to applaud the actors; but, after all, the play is over, and they also want to get out of there eventually.

The worst vice of a curtain call is for it to be simply too long. Sometimes this happens for professional reasons. I recall my parents telling me about a trip they made to New York in the 1950s to see Der Rosenkavalier at the old Metropolitan Opera House. My father reported that there were something like fourteen curtain calls, and that from about the sixth on, there was not a single hint of applause in the house, just the sounds of people leaving, and the rustle of the curtain going up and down.

I would bet the large number of curtain calls had a contractual basis – any number of singers were guaranteed any number of bows. In Broadway-level shows the number of individual curtain calls can be a negotiated item.

Often a curtain call is too long because it is under rehearsed, or not rehearsed at all.  I assume this is unlikely to happen with Broadway shows, but you never know. It certainly happens in community theater, as I and many others have witnessed. I have been in a production or two where the director literally did not remember that there was supposed to be a curtain call at all, until the last dress rehearsal, or even the first performance. I may even have been that director myself of one of those.

To be fair, a curtain call may legitimately be the last thing in mind for a director struggling valiantly to get a production to work on some meaningful level. But it has to be done.

There has always been controversy in the theater about whether applause during – or after – a play is appropriate at all, or whether a play – usually a tragedy or something particularly solemn - should simply be received in respectful silence. This controversy, I may add, is seldom stoked by actors, who usually feel that they deserve applause and are entitled to have it.

Occasionally, a director will insist that a play end with no curtain call. I have never known this approach to succeed, and usually it is filed away as a bright but rejected idea well before opening night. The tradition of the curtain call is too strong; audiences that don’t get a chance to acknowledge what they’ve seen resent the omission.

However, traditions can change. In the theater up to modern times, as in opera up to, well, now, major speeches might be followed by applause, with the actor breaking character to bow and acknowledge the cheers. As the movement in theater known as “realism” took hold, audiences began to realize how peculiar it was for a scene presumably meant to represent “real life” to be interrupted by applause, something that seldom happens within the reality of most of us, or at least at my house.

Curtain calls are meant to be happy occasions, so they become notable when off-stage tensions burst out. In Second Act Trouble, a book on short running musicals, the book’s editor, Steven Suskin, reports how in the musical Rex (1976) the late Nicol Williamson, playing the lead role of King Henry VIII, “bashed a chorus boy in the face during the curtain calls [sic]. (The lad whispered to another actor “It’s a wrap,” but the hypersensitive Nicol heard “It’s crap.”)”

I’m sure theater people try to remember the number of curtain calls they’ve received for various shows, and I’m also sure that those numbers tend to expand in the telling, like the length of a fish somebody caught. Someone on the web claims that Placido Domingo (or maybe it was Luciano Pavorotti) once received 102 curtain calls (or maybe it was 165) in Vienna (or maybe it was Berlin).

As I said above, I can find little on curtain calls, even in books of theater lore. I invite others to assemble the information if they can. Meanwhile, here are accounts of four memorable curtain calls that I saw or heard about. Theater isn’t the only kind of performance that has a curtain call; one of these stories is about a comedian on Broadway, one about a dance company at Lincoln Center, and two about musicians.

I saw the famous Danish pianist and comedian Victor Borge perform a number of times, but the show I remember best was one on Broadway in the 1970s. I had something like fifth-row seats, and Borge was at his best. When the intermission arrived, I stood up, stretched, read the program for a while, and finally made my way slowly to the aisle, passing as I did so a woman who was still laughing at what she’d seen in the first act.

Anyway, at the end of the first act, Borge bowed, the curtain fell, and it kept on falling until it landed in a heap at his feet, with Borge smiling and bowing behind it.

This was so funny that I wondered how Borge could possibly “top” it at the end of the show – set off pyrotechnics? Burst into flame?

What he did was even better. For the curtain call, he took out his handkerchief, held it in front of his face, and rolled it up like a curtain rising. He bowed, and then unrolled the handkerchief again so it covered his face. He repeated the procedure several times, while we laughed helplessly.

In 1978, enjoying a revival of her company and her choreography, the great Martha Graham, then eighty-four years old, presented a program at Lincoln Center that included the delightful ballet The Owl and the Pussycat and was enthusiastically received and reviewed.

At the end of the program, the bows went something like this: the company bowed, and the curtain closed; it opened again, the principal dancers bowed, and the curtain closed; it opened again, the company bowed, and the curtain closed; it opened again, and Martha Graham was standing stock-still in the center of the stage. The audience roared, and the curtain closed; it opened, the company bowed, and so on. We cheered and yelled furiously, demanding that Ms. Graham return; but she didn’t.

I saw a performance by the great blues guitarist and singer in Montclair, New Jersey, a year or so ago. King has health issues and performs from a chair these days; he tells long, outrageous stories that lead into blues verses, and when the words of the songs won’t express the feelings of the song enough, he plays his guitar and takes the song straight up to heaven.

At the end of the show, he slowly got to his feet and bowed. For what seemed about ten minutes he bowed, waved, shook hands, signed autographs, and basically milked the experience for all it was worth. Finally a man came out carrying a hat and coat. King put them on, made his way slowly to the side of the stage, tipped his hat to us, and disappeared into the night.

To my deep regret, I never saw the greatest of all American musicians in concert. I had my chances, I suppose, but I missed them, and he died in 1970. On YouTube.com you can see a full-length video of a concert (an excellent one) that Armstrong and his All Stars gave in Berlin in 1965 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y5O-oIUXIjo).

At the end, after several bows for the band, the curtain closes, and then Armstrong comes out through the curtain, with his tie loose and holding his jacket. He bows, waves good bye, and goes back through the curtain. The applause continues, and Armstrong comes out through the curtain again, this time in a bathrobe. He bows, acknowledges the cheers, and leaves again. That’s it.

[And then there are the famous James Brown endings, with his series of capes and false exits.  “The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business,” indeed!

[I once did a Chekhov play in which the curtain call was a simple pose.  The cast reentered in singles and small groups and assembled around the furniture in the center of the set for the last scene.  When everybody was on stage, we froze in poses resembling a 19th-century photograph.  The lights dimmed and the curtain closed.  No bows.  The end.  The play didn’t go on beyond the final scene, but the world of the play was extended a little.  I don’t know how satisfying this was for the audience, but the actors all thought it was clever and appropriate.  And fun.]

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