Tane Danger recently posted an op-ed on this website which claimed that audiences are giving too many standing ovations, lessening the value of the gesture. He argued that we should discourage audiences from standing except in recognition of truly exceptional work.
Personally, as an artist and as an audience member, I don’t particularly agree with him on the overabundance of standing O’s. If, as theater-makers, we are judging the value of our work solely on the roused feet of the audience, well, that’s something we need to evaluate as artists. It’s nice, it’s comforting, it’s validating, but it isn’t the end-all-be-all that Danger suggests we’re making it out to be. It’s on us as artists to take what audiences are doing in stride, and make the best of it.
That’s the bigger question in the article, about how we as theater-makers are expecting audiences to react, and how we are encouraging them to participate. I have been thinking about this especially since a particular performance of LEAVES by Savage Umbrella, the collaborative company of which I am a part. LEAVES has a central story line about a veteran returning from Afghanistan, and on one particular night, there was a returning vet in the audience who was not a frequent theater-goer. At one point, when the character of Sam was cracking open a beer and talking about how difficult it was for him to come back, to find work, to feel useful, this audience member got up, crossed into the scene, cracked a beer and wanted to commiserate. He told us afterwards that he recognized what Sam was going through and wanted to share.
In the moment, our first reaction was, “Holy shit, what do we do now?” All credit goes to actors Paul Rutledge and Laura Leffler-McCabe for keeping their cool in the scene, moving along and inviting the audience member back to his seat. But that interaction really catalyzed something that we’ve been working on with our shows for a while: how do we make audience members feel at home and truly feel they are a part of the show? How do we encourage that engagement and use it to get to deeper interactions and meaning? After the initial panic of the moment wore off, the depth of what had happened there sunk in.
If we as artists are co-creators of the experience along with audiences, then we have to be encouraging and accepting of these moments of interaction – from the standing O to the invited comment to the unexpected interruption – and be ready to grow with it.
With Savage Umbrella, we’ve done it with food, artwork, promenade and unusual locations. Not all of it has gotten a standing O, but it’s been worth the experiment. I think of experiences like Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, or Sandbox Theater’s This Is A World To Live In as great examples of artists empowering audiences as co-creators of meaning. Improv relies on the willing participation of strangers to fuel its success and creates new shared rules all the time. Ten Thousand Things co-creates by letting everyone see everything that goes on, and they get deserved standing O’s all the time.
As co-creators of an experience, stifling a response seems troublesome at best, and completely against the point at worst. Better to allow space for a response you don't expect than to keep a vise-grip on what's acceptable, so don’t hold those standing O’s sacred. I believe that theater companies, performers and shows that create new audience habits and change expectations, will be rewarded with new and unexpected feedback and connections. Be strong, give up the disapproving glares, and let the people stand.