Standing O/Standing No: Has The Standing Ovation Lost Its Impact? Nashville Weighs In

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Recently, The New York Times' Ben Brantley penned an essay about the ubiquity of the standing ovation, rhetorically asking if it's become so commonplace that it has been rendered meaningless:

"I would like to make the case, officially and urgently, for the return of the sitting ovation," Brantley wrote. "Because we really have reached the point where a standing ovation doesn't mean a thing. Pretty much every show you attend on Broadway these days ends with people jumping to their feet and beating their flippers together like captive sea lions whose zookeeper has arrived with a bucket of fish. This is true even for doomed stinkers that find the casts taking their curtain calls with the pale, hopeless mien of patients who have just received a terminal diagnosis."

Oh, that Ben Brantley. With his command of the language and his ability to express himself with unparalleled skill, he has given voice to something that people in the theater have known for far longer than they would care to admit: The Standing Ovation has lost its potency.

Audiences throughout the country have fallen into the habit of standing up because they think it's expected, as if it's part of their unwritten contract with the people creating art in darkened theaters night after night. Rather than rewarding a cast and crew for a job truly well done, many people stand up simply because "it's the thing to do." And woe be unto you who remains seated!

In fact, if I had a dollar for every time I've remained seated during a standing O-and endured the sometimes hateful, sometimes pitiable, sometimes outraged stares of those around me-I'd be rich enough to no longer care what anyone else thinks. And when I do stand (usually because I want to see what's happening onstage, since the show doesn't end until you're out of the theater), I stop applauding because it seems rather unseemly to appear insincere and diffident.

Apparently, Brantley's essay touched a nerve. In fact, his piece (you can't really call it a tirade because of his even-handed approach to the issue/problem) has gone viral, in a sense, among  theatrical types. Judging from the comments we read via various social networking sites, the majority of people agree with Brantley, lending their supportive words to his in their multiple postings.

As a critic, it seems somehow unethical to take part in a standing ovation unless I'm really astounded by what I've just seen or so moved that it's the only way to express my appreciation. However, I firmly believe that a critic should maintain a stoic demeanor, trying not to give away his or her opinion until it's set in stone-or posted on the website-for everyone else to read. (That's why I usually mutter some nonsensical phrase or indecipherable words when someone asks me, as I'm hastily beating my retreat, if I liked the show I just saw-frankly, at that moment, I'm probably uncertain what I think. I like to think about it, to consider everything involved, before committing my opinion to print.)

"The s.o. (if I may so refer to a phenomenon that no longer warrants the respect of its full name) has become a reflexive social gesture, like shaking hands with the host at the end of a party," Brantley writes. "Or, to put in cruder and more extreme terms, it's like having sex with someone on the first date, whether you like the person or not, because you think it's expected of you."

To get an idea of how Brantley's essay resonated out in the provinces, I put out a call to friends, neighbors and members of the Nashville theater community, asking them where they fall along the Standing O/Standing No continuum and I received some particularly trenchant and altogether interesting opinions, some funny and some deadly serious, but each is a sincere consideration of the topic. Here they are:

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Ed Amatrudo: Now that the S.O. has become the standard response to everything from the fourth grade skit to the State of the Union Address, I am encouraging audience members to join with me in honoring an extraordinary event with a "Jumping Ovation." At the curtain call, when everyone else is simply standing, we all start jumping up and down as if we've been chosen as the next player on The Price is Right. The Jumping Ovation (or "pogo" as I like to call it) is destined to be the new gold standard for audiences to show their appreciation and recognition of an exceptional performance.  Melissa Bedinger Hade said, "One of my pet peeves is when I feel that kind of awe and a member of the production team prompts clapping." [She is] so right! It's like momentus interruptus. It also happens after a moving musical number when you just want to soak in that moment but there's some penguin in the back of the house that feels he needs to "remind me" to applaud.

Daryl Pike: If the show/performance by an actor that you've just seen is so amazing that you were moved to tears, or made you laugh your ass off, or was so amazing that you really don't have the words to express how wonderful it is, then stand up and applaud your ass off! If you would classify the show/performance as "good," then keep your ass in the seat and give them a polite gold clap. Remember: Whether they are paid or volunteer, moving around the stage and remembering lines is their job. Anyone can do that; but to inhabit a role so profoundly that your mind is blown that is exceptional work that is worthy of the highest praise you can give them.

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Eric Ventress: Anything that is special can lose its allure if it becomes commonplace, and this is exactly what is happening with standing ovations. Perhaps people's sense for what moves them has been dulled over time, but a standing ovation should only happen when you feel truly compelled by what you just watched. I've seen plenty of bad shows where they got a standing ovation, and it boggles my mind every time.

Brian Russell: Not sure totally where I land on the whole Standing O issue. We've all been told ad nauseum that the bows at the end of the show are for our audiences to now give back to us...it's time made and given for them, not for our egos, as the other one to three hours were. Truth be told, my more cynical (and usually more pervasive) self always equated a Standing O with an audience member leaving a seat early to gather purses, coats, programs, etc. and avoid the early rush to the aisle. (and really, we've all been in those shows!) But then there were those productions where the Standing O made me feel like maybe, just maybe, we accomplished something out there that evening-we touched someone, we made someone think, we lightened the burden of this life for someone in our temporal time on an empty stage. To me, I think it rests solely on how I'm internally viewing the show and the work in it. Heck, when I'm in one of those "special" ones and we don't get a Standing O, I get a mite testy and moody!

Carol Clark Porterfield: I've always hated standing Os. If a person is truly moved to stand up and cheer at the end of performance that honestly affected them, then, by all means, stand up and cheer. However, most of the time people stand up because they feel it's what they're "supposed" to do or because they feel peer pressure to do so. It's more often than not a mob mentality and I find it incredibly annoying.

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Pat Street: I very much dislike how overused they are. It used to be a thrilling moment when an audience spontaneously rose because they had been incredibly moved. Now it seems to be often started by a friend or family member of someone in the show, or (I have actually observed this) someone involved with the show such as a director or producer, then the audience feels they are being "pissy" if they don't join in.

Shelton Clark: Sure, many are undeserved, but who cares? Those who are quickest are most likely paying customers who suddenly realize the power of live performance. The jaded amongst us need to welcome them, their ticket money and their fannies in the seats. And by "quickest," I mean those who are quickest to offer the standing ovation.

Rowena Soriano Gonzalez Aldridge: As an artist, I am torn because, of cours, we want crowds to go crazy for our work and yet we also feel it devalues it when they go crazy for everybody's work.  We don't want to be lumped in with the wannabes down the street. But Nashville should be thankful to audiences of such generosity that they will reward effort, which is what most of the Standing Os here amount to. There are some who would reverse the situation and stone everybody instead.  Whenever I have a choice, I always opt for the most charitable view I can muster.

Kenneth Stalsworth: I can't really comment because I will stand for Jell-o if it is any good. But I have wondered why "bravo" is rarely heard here in Nashville. In New York I have heard it often and once, while seeing Ragtime on Broadway, I found myself caught up with Audra MacDonald so that when she took her bow I yelled "bravo!" Then I went red when I realized I should have yelled "brava." I was fortunate enough to meet her afterwards and I apologized for yelling the wrong word. She said, "Honey, as long as they don't shout "get her off the stage, I am happy to hear anything."

 

Pictured (from top): Ed Amatrudo, Eric Ventress and Pat Street

 

 

 

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.


 
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