Let us all resolve to murder something together in 2014. No, not a person—it’s funny your mind went there so quickly—but a tradition of arts life in the Midwest. Let’s kill off (or at least brutally maim) obligatory, universal, and meaningless standing ovations.
At present, we in the Midwest (and perhaps throughout much of the United States) stand and clap at the end of virtually any performance. From the most extravagant Broadway musicals to touching minimalist one-woman shows to your child’s school holiday pageant. The performers come out for a bow and slowly but surely, the entire house rises to their feet, clapping all the while. It’s to the point where if something doesn’t receive a standing-o at the end, it was likely a disaster on stage, with performers forgetting their lines, wardrobe malfunctions, and possibly the first three rows of the audience getting wet (though that wasn’t planned).
We can stop this. We can kneecap this insidious institution without necessarily kneecapping audience members themselves.
“This seems like a rather cruel goal for the New Year,” I can hear my mother’s gentle voice saying in the back of my mind. “Why kill anything? Why stifle theatergoers expressing their love of some great show? And why deprive those on stage of such a positive and affirming response?”
Oh, mother’s voice in my head, it’s a good thing you’re pretty.
By giving everything a standing ovation, we diminish the act to near uselessness. If a train-wreck like Elf: the Musical gets the same praise as the Jungle Theater’s critically-acclaimed production of Driving Miss Daisy, then what’s the point? Are we standing because we were actually so moved we couldn’t remain sitting, or because we’re hoping to shorten the time until we get out of the theater by a few seconds?
Plus, if we stand for everything, what is left to do when something truly is remarkable? If the standing-O has been diminished in significance, what can we do to show special admiration, short of throwing personal undergarments onto the Guthrie stage?
Our penchant for standing ovations is not helpful for performers or theater producers either. Most folks creating art are looking for sincere feedback – critical when necessary so the artist can sharpen and grow, and positive and praising when well-deserved. Standing ovations at the end of every performance muddy the water and plant doubts in performers’ minds whether they were truly deserved. Was it actually a great show, or is it just like grandma’s fruitcake: something we all have to gush over no matter how crusty and dense?
Unlike most resolutions, this one requires no action on anyone’s part. Rather, we just need to agree, jointly, to resist the urge to give a standing ovation at the end of anything less than a mind-blowingly stellar performance.
Often it seems that audiences end up giving an ovation after a single person (who may or may not be a direct blood relative of a cast member) stands up and everyone else feels obliged to follow suit. Instead of giving in to this herd mentality, we could all use the opportunity to indulge another favorite Midwestern pastime: the disapproving glare. When that one person or row stands up and at the end of a so-so performance, calmly continue clapping, while scowling and disappointedly shaking your head in the general direction of the offenders.
Lest I be labeled an icy theater revolutionary, I would not demand eliminating the standing ovation altogether. There are some performances which really do rise above the rest and deserve a rise out of the audience. We simply do it too much. As easy shorthand, I propose that amongst all the shows we view in a calendar year, we individually limit ourselves to no more than two standing ovations in that time. (Rising during the National Anthem and Hallelujah Chorus don’t count against your tally).
This cultural shift won’t be easy. It demands self-restraint and bent knees of steel. Yet if we can succeed in ending this bad community habit, audiences and artists will be served in equal measure.