Are standing ovations becoming meaningless?
This article previously stated that Ari Roth recorded audience reactions. That is the duty of Theater J's stage manager. The article also misspelled the name of actor Theodore Bikel.
Years ago, New York actors who took roles at Signature Theatre would walk off of the stage each night feeling offended, says Eric Schaeffer, Signature’s artistic director. Washington-area audiences may have enjoyed the performance and clapped enthusiastically, but they sparingly generated the highest gesture of appreciation: the standing ovation.
“I remember actors saying, ‘Oh my God, they don’t stand,’” says Schaeffer. “I would say, ‘They never stand.’” In Signature’s old theater, he says, the shows got ovations “in our ninth or 10th year, but it was very rare.”
Signature’s new space in Shirlington Village is just as intimate, but Schaeffer doesn’t hear actors complaining anymore. He estimates that 60 percent of all shows at Signature get a standing ovation. At Theater J, Artistic Director Ari Roth estimates that 95 percent of the performances of its most recent show, New Jerusalem, ended with more than 80 percent of the audience standing. Longtime stage manager for Arena Stage Martha Knight says response varies by show but that musicals in particular were conducive to a grand response from the audience. Once awarded to only the most exceptional performances, rising to applaud has become the standard for audiences in New York — a trend that has made its way to Washington theater patrons as well.
Euan Morton, a Scottish actor appearing in Signature’s new production of Chess, blames the naivete of audiences on the age-old nemesis of live theater: television. People spend so much time watching reality TV that when they get the opportunity to connect with a live performer, they can be overwhelmed by the experience.
“Audiences are hungry for entertainment because they watch crappy television,” says Morton. “Live art feels amazing because it’s live — it’s not Desperate Housewives of Orange County. It’s live art, and that prompts people to get up to their feet.”
Audiences also mimic what they see on television, which may be why younger patrons are more likely to stand than seasoned theater-goers, says Roth, who cites the popular musical theater show Glee as contributing to the phenomenon.
“Invariably, we’re seeing in all forms of media that the expected response of an audience that sees a winning performance is to leap to its feet,” says Roth. “The media is contributing it, especially for young people. They even leap to their feet after a reading.”
Competing forms of entertainment have also compelled more applause-worthy theater. “The work has gotten better over the years,” says Schaeffer. “The standards are higher and people are paying more money.”
That’s another reason people are likely to stand up, theorizes Morton.
“A Broadway show is $100 or more a seat, and they feel like they have to stand up because they paid that much a seat, even if it was rubbish,” says Morton. “I think that’s what keeps people from the theater. For a family of five to park the car and have dinner and see the show, that’s more than $500 for the tickets alone. [At that price] I’d stand and tell my kids to stand up, too.”
But none of these factors may be as influential as the behavior of others in the audience. Dr. Karl Scheibe, a professor of psychology at Wesleyan University, has researched the dramaturgical approach to psychology — “the drama of everyday life,” he says. He and his wife are also frequent theatergoers, and they’ve noticed an increase in standing ovations over the past decade, which he attributes to peer pressure.
“Often you’ll witness that creeping standing ovation, started by a few people who enthusiastically stand up,” says Scheibe. “There is a flat-out conformity effect. People who may not have done that on their own follow [the audience’s] example.”
“It’s very catching. Sort of like yawning, but thank God in the reverse,” says Roth, who relies on a stage manager to record the audience’s response to each show in a report.
Schaeffer, like Morton, wonders if American audiences are less discerning because they have fewer connections to live theater.
“I don’t want to reinforce the notion that Americans are philistines, but I expect that that may be the case,” he says. “I often wonder about opera audiences. The performance is very long. The language is often unintelligible if there’s no translation screen. It may be quite boring because the plot is difficult to follow. But people stay in their seats and give a huge ovation even if they may have fallen asleep. People suspend their critical faculties when they’re invested in a performance.”
Audiences also rapidly lose their ability to tell whether or not a standing ovation is deserved in the presence of a big star, says Roth. “We were a theater that historically only had standing ovations for celebrities. Every time we had Theodore Bikel, who played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof for many years, he’d get one for every show,” says Roth. Nowadays, audiences are less discerning. “It has to do with the cult of personality,” he says.
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