On Theatre

An Idea to Remedy the Compulsory Standing Ovation

“To help us better understand your level of satisfaction with our presentation please: give us a standing ovation if you are incredibly satisfied, a seated applause if you are satisfied, and complete silence if you are rather indifferent… and (dare I say…) a vocal ‘boo’ if you were unsatisfied.”

standing-ovation-e1360222815730I’ve recently been enjoying a twitter conversation between theatre reviewers in Toronto. Sparked by my post CANADIAN THEATRE CAN DO BETTER, I of course, wanted to take a peek and see what these individuals thought.

They seemed most interested in talking about Canadian theatre goers tendency to reward just about any performance with a standing ovation. Now, the standing ovation is about the highest form of respect an audience member can give a performance, so then: Why do standing ovations happen so regularly? It seems like we’ve somehow, over many decades, convinced our audiences that a standing ovation is the only right way to respond.

I am speaking generally here (as I tend to do), but this doesn’t exactly seem fair to me.  This whole abundance of standing ovations. It makes me question whether the performance I gave, or the production I directed or produced genuinely deserved that ovation or if it was, as @wyl81 calls it, “The Compulsory Canadian Standing O”.

So I got to thinking (as I also tend to do), and I came up with this idea. For my next production (Proof, June 2013), I am going to put an insert into every program that reads something like this: “Mnemonic Theatre Productions values our audience’s true response to our productions.  Your honesty helps us to improve and create better, more effective work.  To help us better understand your level of satisfaction with our presentation please: give us a standing ovation if you are incredibly satisfied, a seated applause if you are satisfied, and complete silence if you are rather indifferent… and (dare I say…) a vocal ‘boo’ if you were unsatisfied.”

A problem I see with this is in potentially offending our audience, being perceived as sanctimoniously informing them how to be good audience members. However, I believe that if I voice the suggestions as a desire for us to improve our work (which it is) I think audiences will respond positively.  The other flaw in this idea is that the ones at the front line of receiving these audience responses are the actors. Thank God I typically employ actors who can check their ego at the door and who understand that theatre, being what it is, is beyond one person’s individual performance. The responses they receive are a collective summation of how the audience members perceived the entirety of the production.

Here’s the thing, I don’t really want to receive a standing ovation if it isn’t earned. I want to be a part of a community that has a stake in what they choose to see.  I realize that the received responses from audience members may not cause rapid change in a production that has taken months to produce and rehearse. I can, however, use those responses, as general as they may be, as data to be used in planning for my next production. This is, of course, how companies test their products.  We, as theatre creators, no longer have the luxury of weeks of previews.  We have to find a way of making audiences a part of our process.  This is the answer I have come up with. I will report back with my findings.

Thanks to @broadwaybabyto @wyl81 @@nestruck and @tinarasmussen for your insightful discussion regarding “The Compulsory Canadian Standing O”.

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Caleb McMullen

Written by Caleb McMullen

Founder and Editor-in-Chief of TheatreisforSuckers.com

There are 4 comments

  • Colette says:

    Hear hear! Brutal/constructive honesty from the public is truly what we need if theatre is to become more relevant in today’s crowded world. Let’s also all vow not to participate in the standing O unless we feel electrically moved to do so. I know nobody really wants to be the only one sitting in standing audience. However, since nobody’s going to stone us to death for not standing, I say why not. Being a liar is worse than being a tad uncomfortable. Yes, the theatre community is a small one blah blah blah, but as an actor is anyone really going to not hire you because they noticed you not standing one time. If so, you probably don’t want to be hired by them anyway. If you’re not an actor, well you have no excuse.

  • Miriam says:

    Absolutely. It’s been driving me crazy for years.
    I agree with you too Colette; once one person stands, everyone stands. If you try to stay seated you start feeling guilty about it.

  • Stevie Jay says:

    There are parts of what you wrote I sort of agree with (I saw a big production at a Big Theatre recently that was not “standing-o” worthy, but of course people stood). However, I had a director/mentor/friend tell me (and the whole cast), “…at the end of each performance, you go out and bow as if it was the best performance of your life “. The reason was: it was not our job to dump our crap on the audience if we didn’t feel like it was our best night or any other reason, giving the audience their uncensored chance to respond; additionally, for some this might be their only trip this year (or in their life), to the theatre and if they get touched by something in the play or simply swept up in the audience emotion of giving a standing-o, then maybe we’ve snagged another theatre-goer (at least they won’t be watching reality television). I think keeping theatre inclusive and non-instructional is the most artistic path. Keep writing. I enjoy your commentaries.

  • Dave says:

    Yes. Absolutely. I’ve lost count of the number of ‘professional’ productions I’ve seen that we’re flat flat flat. There are many reasons that contribute to this–producing non-relevant material, hiring the same tiresome performers, the creative team not understanding the material, etc…, but all the shortcomings of a live show are forgiven when the performer really listens and responds to another person (or themselves) on stage. Then something is really happening. Otherwise the audience is forced to do the performer’s job by pretending something is happening and perhaps has the energy to keep this up all the way to the false standing ovation.
    Dutifully saying your lines, moving through your blocking, and playing false emotions at planned moments is a waste of time and energy for everyone.
    It’s also sad that there seems to be more and more (so-called) plays being written where the characters describe what happened rather than playing it out for the audience, thereby completely avoiding the drama of the experience.
    Is it politeness or a sense of duty that creates stagnant Canadian performance? I don’t think it is a lack of courage, but it does take risk/letting go of control to really listen/take in what’s happening on stage. To really be there. And taking I the audiences’ reaction is part of the power of theatre as well.
    Live performance is first and foremost made for the audience. Audiences should listen and respond truthfully too. It’ll let the performers know something really has to happen to merit the applause.

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