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


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:


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.

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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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