Standing Ovation Overuse – Yes

Few things in life have become as cheap and as commoditized as the standing ovation. Like you, I haven’t been to a theater event in the past 25 years where, due to the overall national decline, dare we say ignorance, this hasn’t been expected, obligatory or required. It’s the theater equivalent of Slouching towards Gomorrah.

In the faded past of global cultural standards there seems to still be a dim collective memory of rewarding only the exceptional, but as in all things American, making people feel good and rewarding the mundane seems to trump actual talent and performance standards in every venue nowadays.  If I was an actor, I would be really steamed.

They say you can’t ever criticize motherhood or apple pie, but let’s be honest.  This phenomenon starts with Moms in grade schools with the vibrant effusive celebration of mediocrity for every child, in every event, in every grade, just to make sure no one feels bad. Teachers then encourage it and reinforce it under every performance scenario, again so no one feels bad.  It then carries over to organized sports, and from there to the workplace.  Fortune 500 employers right now are struggling mightily with the problems of an entire generation – Generation Y employees – the current crop of 16 to 29 year olds who are the most praise-addicted group of Americans to ever walk the earth. They automatically assume everyone else should get and expect praise all the time too.  Clearly, our theater audiences are increasingly cut from this same cloth.  Unfortunately, this has now migrated to every live performing art event everywhere, regardless of merit.

Yet the truly educated and well traveled still know the real standard for the standing ovation. The standing ovation is special. It is specifically reserved for special occasions and meritorious performances only. It is always supposed to be the exception, never the rule.

On many occasions, standing ovations in the theater are well earned of course. These types of standing ovations are heartfelt and genuine, and also easy to recognize. Folks leap to their feet quickly, with sincere earnestness and more or less in unison. There is a crackling tension and energy to the applause. The actors know it too, and very much appreciate it.  Outside of America, an even higher standard is used. The genuine international standing ovation begins only when a ranking leader in the audience, typically a prominent member of royalty, government or society, rises first. Only then, is it proper to rise from one’s seat and follow the lead. This is the standing ovation as it was originally intended, done in a deferential manner, yet denoting a clear aura of quasi-official approval. A heartfelt, genuine reward for a fine performance well executed.

More commonly found just about everywhere in America however, is the grudging ragged rise of the lesser-educated and undiscriminating Pavlovian clappers. Entire cattle-car airlines seem to cater now to a group of people who can best be described as guests of the Jerry Springer show. One of these folks on one of these airlines sat next to me on a recent flight.  By his smell and the way he was dressed, he gave every appearance of having slept in a cardboard box under a freeway the night before (which convinced me for all time that there is indeed such a thing as too low an airfare).  It shouldn’t be surprising some of these same folks now show up in theater audiences clapping like seals, texting, and dressed in jeans. These folks will stand up and clap at anything because, well, they simply never received enough education or training to know they’re not supposed to. As many have noticed, this type of ovation doesn’t start out standing at all. A polite and proper sitting ovation will start to get underway, one that is commensurate with the merit demonstrated. Then, a few clusters of folks start to get up, and for the most part these clusters are composed of females. Usually those same mother-types who clapped effusively at everything everywhere for their children. This starts to make other people nervous, especially the husbands and male companions. Not wanting to look like Nazi’s or have a long icy car ride home, they sluggishly rise too. Eventually more of Pavlov’s dogs grudgingly rise, and slowly the critical mass starts to be achieved. The last group (those like myself) only rise out of desperation because we are staring squarely at the butt-crack of the person in the row ahead of us, and can no longer see the stage – (the butt-crack block being the most powerful form of theater coercion imaginable). For most of these forced and fake standing ovations, you don’t get that feeling of genuine heartfelt gusto and an energy of conviction. It’s more like shaky stalks of wheat, or wavering Whack-a-Moles, gratefully looking for the slightest tap to be pounded down again.

In recent years, I’ve started to simply refuse to get up on many of these ovations. Refreshingly, I’ve started to notice others with me. We all tend to look around and spot each other sitting there, exchanging secret glances that lets each other know we aren’t invalids or anarchists, just fellow audience members who finally had the courage of their convictions.  For the sake of the theater, and paying meaningful differentiated homage to the actors, and also to contribute to the proper training of the next generation, I ask you to consider doing the same.  In the name of standards everywhere, I invite you to join us on an occasion as appropriate, and at the end of your next performance event, just take that spring out of your butt, and make your own contribution to the thwarting of The Great Decline.