The Pervasive Standing Ovation

Photo by Monica Silvestre on

I’m currently in the midst of Culture Fortnight. I’m going to the theatre twice, an evening with Michelle Obama, and an Italian Culture event with food and entertainment, all tucked neatly into 14 days. Later in the fall, I’m going to Cirque du Soleil. I spend more time than the average bear in concert halls and theatres. I like it that way. Most summers for the last almost-dozen, Child and I have gone to the Stratford festival at least twice. I feel that I can speak confidently about the evolution of the tradition of theatre.

Wayback when I started going to the theatre, it was with Auntie V, who got tickets to Annie or Cats. Or The Phantom of the Opera or the Fantasticks. Or Les Miserables. It felt like back then, you got dressed to go to the theatre. There were no Metallica Tshirts in the crowd. You didn’t wear jeans. That’s changed. I guess it’s because theatre is more accessible now. Wear what you want, just come see the show. And I support that… I do. 


I mean, I like that there are people who didn’t know they liked theatre who get to go to shows because they didn’t get stuck on the snobby reputation of theatre goers. But there’s something that this tide of theatre recruits has brought with it that I don’t love: The pervasive standing ovation.

I have not been to the theatre in years where as soon as the first group (usually the supporting chorus type characters) take the stage for their curtain call, half the auditorium is popping up like prairie dogs from their seats. Certainly, some of the performers in some of the performances I’ve seen deserve an ovation. But an ovation is supposed to be a response to a superlative performance. Some performances are good. Definitely deserving of applause. Enthusiastic applause even, but they are not superlative.

I feel like this is an unfortunate carryover from the everyone-gets-a-trophy society that’s now, more than ever before, going to the theatre. I used to be a theatre person. I did one act plays, children’s (panto-style) theatre, and The Big Shows in high school. I danced. I sang. I went to the Theatre Aquarius Summer Theatre Program. I’m a bit of an applause junkie. But I can only think of one performance in one run of one show, in all that time, that was *maybe* ovation-worthy. And I don’t even remember if I got the ovation for that or any other of those performances. We got whoops of support from our friends, and applause from everyone else. And that was great.

My gentleman associate and I went to see Little Shop of Horrors at Stratford last week. I performed in that show twice when I was a teenager. In one of the runs, there was a song that we could not get. None of us could find our starting note, so we were always off-key, and it was in a minor scale, so we struggled to even find our harmonies. It was pretty awful. The rest of the show was fine – never any issues, always strong harmonies. We still got applause at the end of that awful song. When I was listening to it at Stratford, I applauded particularly enthusiastically at the end of that song. I get it – 6 characters were a hot mess in our show, and you got it. Stratford is professional and we were just teenagers, but the point was, I applauded for what I couldn’t do.

Perhaps that’s what’s happened. More people seeing more theatre means that more people with fear of talking in front of a crowd, or singing in public, or performing *anything* are saying “Better you than me, and well done!” I can accept that rationale.

I feel like an idiot if I’m the only bitch in the audience who’s not on her feet during the curtain call. But I feel a little resentful that I bowed to the peer pressure or mob mentality or whatever it is that dragged me to my feet, too.

I wonder if the performers feel cheated by the audience if they don’t prairie-dog to their feet right away? I mean, if you’re freshly graduated into professional theatre, and grew up with the everyone-gets-a-trophy mentality of theatre, would you be crestfallen if everyone wasn’t on their feet? Would that put undue pressure on you to have the Performance Of Your Life every day? Some days, you stick the landing like you never have before, and some days, you perform when you’re not-quite-over the flu, right? I mean, there’s certainly merit to giving it your all in every performance, but some parts in some shows are really just more glorious than others. Yeah, yeah, no small parts… I know…

But really, does everyone on the stage deserve the same degree of accolades? And once you’re on your feet, there’s no where to go from there. You can’t just stand up *more* once the leads step out, right? And if you are the lead who just left it all on the stage, would it bother you that you, who learned eleventy thousand hours more choreography and hundreds more lines of script, got the same thanks for your effort as someone who had 5 lines and 10 minutes of stage time in a 2 hour show?

When my gentleman associate and I started dating, he hadn’t spent much time in dress shoes in a theatre. He was used to arena-culture where you pop to your feet when there’s a skirmish around the net, or it was the last minutes of the third period and the game was heading toward overtime. And you’d certainly applaud and whistle if there’s a great save or any kind of goal. So he didn’t applaud at the theatre. That’s the polar opposite of the insta-ovation. I don’t like that, either.

 I’ve been to some pretty amazing theatre, and I’ve been to some truly awful theatre (Lookin’ at you, Blythe Spirit). If the ovation is the same for good, better, and best, why try to put on your best effort? I mean, I get that there’s satisfaction in a job well done, and you know whether you brought your A game or you called it in. But if you’re a performer with an external locus of identity (which my unscientific mind thinks is the case more often than not in theatre people), maybe the evolution of theatrical gratitude is problematic, and maybe it’s not.

As we’re headed into Canadian Thanksgiving this weekend, the point here is kind of moot. It’s good to be grateful, so be grateful. Whatever that means to you. And thanks, everyone from the script-writer to the stage manager to the light designer to the little-parts people and the big-parts people to the orchestra to the person who wrote the forward in the program. In every show I’ve ever seen. I appreciate you, whether i’m on my feet, or just applauding from my seat. Yes, even you, Blythe Spirit. Because you keep trying, and that’s the best part.

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