Returning to the theater after a pandemic-induced hiatus was something I wanted to stand up and applaud — until the very end of the performance, when all I wanted was the right to remain seated. Unfortunately, I soon discovered that the Covid-19 hiatus had done nothing to stop the wild proliferation of the standing ovation. As the rooms reopen for the fall season, I hope others will join me in resisting social pressure by staying seated.
Over the course of my lifetime, the cultural norm for standing ovations has changed from rare to common, making it difficult to recognize a true masterpiece.
Over the course of my lifetime, the cultural norm for standing ovations has changed from rare to common, making it difficult to recognize a true masterpiece. The now ubiquitous standing ovation seems to be part of the performance rather than a mark of appreciation for it. Was there a single “Hamilton” show that didn’t get a standing ovation? At the performance I attended in Chicago, we were up when the last note sounded. It was a good performance, but not a great one.
Indeed, it often feels like the standing ovation is anticipated before the first line is spoken or the first note is sung. Maybe it’s the high ticket prices that create a self-fulfilling prophecy; a performance has to be excellent to justify spending a week’s salary on a night out. Maybe it just makes for a better selfie if you’re standing at the end of a performance. Or it’s done in a thoughtless way because performances can be staged to manipulate that response. It’s also possible that this phenomenon is an extension of the “everyone gets a trophy” culture. And if today’s audiences grew up knowing only standing ovations, then that behavior may feel as appropriate to them as knowing how not to clap between movements of the symphony felt to my generation. .
Whatever the cause, this creates another problem: the necessary recall. Rarely does an encore feel spontaneous these days. Instead, it is often provided as part of the program. At a classical music concert I recently attended, the soloist left his violin backstage during his bows as a clear sign that there would be no encore despite the audience’s requests. As we walked out of the theater, I heard grunts of disappointment that he hadn’t heeded the call for more. We don’t expect every sporting event to work overtime in exchange for a standing ovation for the teams, so I don’t know where that sense of entitlement for the performing arts comes from.
I am aware that by remaining seated, I feel like I am making a statement of displeasure or disappointment. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I didn’t enjoy the performance or even find it well done. It just didn’t meet my personal criteria for a standing ovation: an unforgettable experience of the highest caliber. I’m afraid my behavior may come across as snobbish or unappreciated, perhaps even, dare I say, outdated.
But from my (perhaps old-fashioned) perspective, the unexpected is part of the mystique of live performance. I prefer to let the performance move me rather than knowing upfront that a standing ovation is expected. And I worry about how it affects the performers themselves. How does the audience’s response affect their self-evaluation? Do they enjoy knowing they will receive a standing ovation from the start, or are the audience perceived as less demanding? Are performers less motivated to perform? Would the lack of a standing ovation serve as a wake-up call that the performance was slipping or would it just be written off as a commentary on the audience?
When I traveled to London in February 2020, moments before the pandemic put us all in front of our screens every night, I had hope that the post-performance ritualistic exuberance might not have crossed the pond. But at the first performance I saw there, a heartfelt production of the musical “The Prince of Egypt,” the crowd was on its feet when the last chord ended. Reluctantly, I participated so I could see the final arcs, which were choreographed as part of the show.
Two nights later, however, I unexpectedly found myself surrounded by a theater full of people who, like me, remained seated after a performance. I was attending one of the first performances of Tom Stoppard’s “Leopoldstadt”, based on the British playwright’s family experience in Vienna from 1899 to 1955. The play ended suddenly, the stage faded and the audience, stunned by the power of the piece, was silent for several seconds. Then, as the weight of the experience sank, the hands began to clap, the tears dried, and the actors bowed. The audience filed past quietly as we tried to find our bearings.
Ironically, the lack of a standing ovation that night added to how memorable this event was. Because the play’s content is understated and dark, such a gesture would have felt like a celebration and would have been in bad taste. When I got back to my hotel, I wanted to tell everyone I saw on the subway to go see it. But above all, I wanted to reassure the actors. “You were wonderful,” I wanted to tell them. “Please understand that it was your energetic performance that kept us in our seats.”
When I saw a recent ad for the opening of “Leopoldstadt” in New York in early September, it gave me hope that maybe Broadway would import a more discriminating approach to appreciating a performance. Until then, I remain in public purgatory.