08 February 2015

The Cheapening of the Standing O

by Erin Woodward

[I’m posting a new article by a Woodward, but this time it’s not my college buddy Kirk; it’s his daughter, Erin.  Coincidentally, though, I’ve paired Erin’s disapproval of the over-used standing ovation with Kirk’s discussion of the curtain call—not just because the authors are related, but because the topics are.  (The two posts were not composed together, by the way.  That was just serendipitous timing.)  If you haven’t already read “Curtain Calls,” check back to 3 February and give it a read after (or perhaps before) you’ve read “The Cheapening of the Standing O.”

[Like her father, Erin has some standing to comment on theater and its aspects.  She’s not only an actress and director herself, but she’s been teaching theater in the New York City public schools for a number of years.  (She got her degree from the New York University studio program, so her training background is substantial as well.)  I’ve known Kirk since we were in college together in the mid-’60s; I haven’t known Erin quite that many years—but it’s been almost all her life!  As I’ve said of her Dad, Erin knows whereof she speaks . . . or, in this instance, writes.]

It was a high school show. Lots of heart, lots of smiles. No particular emotional connection occurred, nor was there “that kid” that took our breath away. Big numbers received a range of applause, the last number before the end earning the least-the kids were a little worn out, or perhaps it was the choreography. But the performers were working hard, and there was nothing but positive energy flowing to and from us, the audience, as relatives, friends, alumni, etc.

However, while I clapped with vigor during the curtain call, I was utterly dismayed and flummoxed when, after a couple minutes, in drips and drabs, a standing ovation commenced. I looked to my friend, who also clearly thought it was unearned, as he raised his eyebrows, and then got up himself. “I can’t see the stage,” he explained apologetically. Eventually, as nothing else was happening for a few unnecessary minutes filled with the smalls of backs of this audience, I too stood up for what seemed too long and too little.

That show is unfortunately not the only production for which I had it decide if I would insincerely ovate an undeserving show or sit in protest of all the over-exuberant theatergoers. Broadway shows with huge stars, Off-Broadway shows with no stars (nor script of worth), and educational theater with some heart have all within the last year gotten me begrudgingly to my feet mostly due to wanting to see the stage over the head of a standing ovator. Standing ovations are becoming the norm for any show that, well, finished, regardless of its actual impact on an audience.

I believe the ovation is the moment when a performance literally pulled you onto your feet, whether it be the performance by a great star doing what she does brilliantly, or the first time the kid got through the song, with such pure heart that yours is in your throat and you find yourself utterly compelled and stunned by the moment of pure . . . now.

For the ovation is about the NOW of performances; right at this instant, your work changed me, exceeded my expectations, gave me goose bumps on my arms or a metallic taste of adrenaline in my mouth. You did that, just now. Not in that other show you were in, not in sum of all your performances in the Harry Potter films, not in the fact that you tried awfully hard. An ovation is not an Honorable Mention, nor is it a Lifetime Achievement award. It is a rare and precious aurora borealis for that moment. It is perfect 6.0s across the board at Sarajevo, it is the aria no one ever really heard until she sang it, and it is the performance that was pure nuclear energy from start to finish. The audience should be so eager to honor the work that just concluded that it develops a quick bout of stage fright, or the gift of tongues, either crisis propelling it onto its feet in an elevated genuflection to the art witnessed milliseconds prior.

This occurrence is unfortunately not new. In 2003, Jesse McKinley of the New York Times questioned the overabundance of standing ovations: “Go to nearly any Broadway house, any night, and you can catch a crowd jumping up for the curtain call like politicians at a State of the Union address. And, just as in politics, the intensity off the ovation doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality of the performance.”

McKinley goes on to research the proliferation of the standing ovation, noting a long tradition of standing as part of astounding performances of opera and classic drama. For shows on Broadway, however, standing ovations were never the norm until musical icons the likes of Angela Lansbury and Carol Channing, bedecked and bedazzled, took long and glamorous curtain calls, drawing people to their feet. Now, even Broadway icons are unimpressed: “‘It’s gotten totally out of hand,’ said Chita Rivera . . . . ‘It’s become a bit of audience participation. What does it mean anymore?’”

Some theorize that there is a relationship between the increases in ticket prices to the increase in standing ovations, and there are definite moments of engineering an ovation at the end of the show to encourage business, such as the end of Mamma Mia! that encourages the audience to dance-while standing-during the last song. The audience will just stay up for the curtain call, and since it is ABBA, you know they will be clapping along: voila! Standing Ovation! Clock it, critics!

Ben Brantley, the man with the power to kill or crown a Broadway show, urges his readers in a 2012 New York Times article, “Want to Applaud a Broadway Show? Don’t Get Up. Really,” to “think before you stand.” He associates the “reflexive” standing ovation with tourist or irregular theatregoers who attend the more popular shows versus the habitual and therefore more discriminating theatergoers that attend the shows of higher quality versus higher popularity.

Yet I have attended plays at Brooklyn Academy of Music (pre-Barclays Center), attended by mostly locals and tri-state area subscription holders, with the occasional first timer, that both I and critics described as  “fine” or “clear.” Yet they too received standing ovations because, well, that actress, from that Woody Allen movie, she was in it, you know, what’s her name? She was good, and I loved her in that other movie, with Ben Affleck, you know the one! Despite applause during the play maintaining a reserved volume, once those characters turn back into (somewhat) famous actors, Connecticut subscriber and Brooklyn hipster alike lurch onto their feet, as if to push the performance into the realm of “remarkable”.

Like selfies at events, or watching events through a 2 x 4 inch screen despite actually being in the same space as the event itself, the ovation perhaps offers audience members a way to step into the moment more firmly and more egotistically. It is a way to join the cast in that millisecond: I am here with you in this moment! I laud you so that I am part of your memory and moment: I was contributing to the event!

Why is our role as audience not enough? Has the viral video life made us incapable of not being a star in our life at every moment?

As the fifteen minutes of fame has evolved into something of an entitled occurrence, people are hurling themselves against the wall of anonymous and obscure. To be followed on Twitter, now Instagram, is to win Fame merit badges: the more followers one collects, the closer one is to the Eagle Fame Scout.  We are being taught more and more that a talent or special ability is not required-leave that to the circus folk. The slightly less pretty sisters of pretty women make magazine covers now for being lonely, or not lonely, or cranky, or married, then not married. Fame and presence in our modern world need not be earned by skill, achievement, or even notoriety, really.

So stand up for the end of Mountville Middle School’s production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers! Nobody fell down! On your feet for the Broadway show that did not bore you or one of the supporting actresses of Sex and the City two rows in front of you! Jump, audience, jump, so the performers see YOU ovate THEM and you can star in the cast’s memory of this moment. That’s why you’re there, of course . . . for the spotlight, not the show.

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