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The Sickness of the Standing O

ART TIMES March 2009

The standing O. The ultimate seal of approval, greater even than Good Housekeeping. The actorís dream, worth all those actorís nightmares. The solidarity of joining in with the group that has been around you all evening and speaking with one emphatic voice.

It should be a rare thing, the standing O. A precious and unusual thing, one that sticks in the memory as an instant of true beauty, a moment to be kept and cherished in the memory, perhaps even embellished a bit—after all, standing ovations do tend to get longer as they live on in remembrance.

Itís getting cheap. In recent years I have learned that audiences would rather stand than sit while they applaud. I wonder—does it make getting out the door a little quicker? Have we suffered from approval inflation, such that the currency of praise is no longer worth what it was, and we must now pay out more of it to deliver the same quantum of adulation? If itís true that work is still work, and beer is still beer, but the money has definitely gone to hell, is it also true that art is still art, and quality is still quality, but the way we express admiration has gone a bit off, like cheese kept too long?

I have been seeing standing ovations for performances that were not rare champagne, or even good wine, that were really not even beer. I have seen seeing standing ovations that I think were led by informal claques — such things develop in the small and incestuous world of theater. I think I have seen standing ovations that were done by audiences that wanted to plant the thought in their own minds of having seen something very special even if they hadnít. Having invested the time and money in coming to the show, they find the way to give themselves their moneyís worth. The slight self-deception is essentially bullet-proof — whoís going to tell them theyíre wrong?

The giveaway is the tempo. The real thing happens two ways—instantaneously, like an explosion, or slowly, with a gathering force like a cloudburst. The phony version is always the same—lackadaisical lumbering to the feet, followed by slightly puzzled awkwardness—OK, weíve stood and clapped, can we go home now? I hate it from both sides of the footlights.      When Iím performing, I would rather have the solid, warm, lasting, thoughtful applause of a genuine crowd than the perfunctory, soggy, shuffling rise and clap and go of the insincere one. When Iím in the audience, Iíve taking to planting my tush solidly in my seat until the nasty display dies out, and then getting out of there at a decent pace while I mentally wash out my ears.

The audience is, after all, the ultimate arbiter, the final judge. Judges have a great responsibility, and so do audiences. If theater matters, then audiences matter as part of the package. The highest accolades need to be sincere, in good earnest, and rare. Have we reformed it indifferently? O, reform it altogether!

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