Organic Curtain Call Shows Potential Value of Devalued Ovations

By Jay Ménard,

I experienced something special Thursday night — an ovation that meant something.

“But Jay,” you might be saying. “Every show I go to gets an ovation.” And that’s exactly the problem. But at Thursday night’s performance of The Woolgather*, I experienced an ovation that felt organic. It was an ovation that resulted in two curtain calls — something that veteran theatre goers in London suggested hasn’t happened in decades.

It was an ovation that was heartfelt, honest, and mattered. And that’s where the difference lies.

I’ll admit it, I’m that guy. I only give ovations when I feel a show warrants it. As a result, I’m the one who often gets glares or looks of confusion at performances from patrons around me. The thing is, I believe in being 100 per cent honest in my appreciation and interpretation of a show. If it’s really good, I’ll clap heartily. But if a show’s incredible, you’ll see me leave my seat and give an ovation.

But I’m not participating in an ovation just because — it has to be earned. Unfortunately, I’m in the minority seeing value in something that’s been effectively rendered valueless.

I’ve seen hundreds of shows over the years. The vast majority are pleasant — some make you think, some make you feel, and others are just a welcome experience for a couple of hours. There are very few — less than a handful — that have been abhorrent. The worst of the bunch are those — it’s probably about 10 per cent — that are just plain boring.

Then there’s the elite. That upper echelon of shows (maybe five per cent overall) that are truly spectacular.

Invariably: good, bad, ugly, boring, repetitive, derivative… the vast majority get standing ovations from the crowd. And that’s just doing a disservice to everyone involved.

So why the ovation-as-expectation mentality? I think there are three factors:

  • There’s desire to be part of “something.” Much in the same way that we’ve devalued “epic” as a society due to overuse, we’ve done the same for standing ovations. If everything is ovation-worthy, then nothing is truly ovation worthy.
  • Part of it, locally, is the — how do I put it — close-knit nature of the local theatre community. Everyone knows everyone; you see the same faces at the shows; and, as a result, it often seems that this is friend-to-friend support rather than a referendum on the quality of the production; and
  • We’re Canadian. I mean, we’re nice people in general. It’s not a local thing. I’ve seen shows all over and people stand because they feel it’s the right thing to do.

But ovations, like positive reviews, should be earned. They should have some currency.

By doling out either where unwarranted, then you devalue both. I take great care writing my reviews and I’m always conscious about being completely honest with my work. The way I see it, if I give a middling show an overly positive review, I risk my credibility for the next show that truly deserves it. If a reader, who likes my work, takes my recommendation to see Show A and I’ve oversold it just to be “nice,” then any future recommendations are rendered ineffective. And that does a disservice to those really good shows.

The same holds true for ovations. There’s nothing wrong with a good ol’ hearty seated clap. That shows both appreciation and respect. But to stand as a matter of rote does one of two things: it either artificially inflates the impression of the play’s reception by the cast and crew, or it renders the impact of the ovation relatively negligible to the cast and crew — after all, every show gets one, so this was no better or worse.

Years ago, on assignment, I attended a talk show taping in Toronto. The producer came out like a “hype man” and tried to work the crowd into a frenzy of applause and standing ovations, even before the host came to the stage. It was completely forced and inauthentic — and while I understood why it happens, it just didn’t mean anything.

Ovations are, in large part, meaningless now. They’re no different than the artificial encores that bands engage in. You know the ones, where the audience and band engage in that charade of “are they going to come back? I think I see the bassist behind the curtain!” And tepid applause tends to get amped up just to get the whole charade over with.

In reality, the band would rather be packing up, the crowd has had enough but wants to hear that one hit song that the band has specifically held back for its encore, and the club curfew is usually fast approaching, so it’s time to just play themselves off.

It’s not a true encore. It doesn’t come from a crowd so invested in a performance that they can’t bear to see a show end? It’s not an organic desire to hear just “one more song!” It’s a farce and that’s what most ovations have become. It’s an expectation by the crowd of the crowd — and woe be the person who doesn’t participate.

Audience members engage in a transaction. You pay your money to see a show. Your role is to be respectful and attentive; the cast and crew’s role is to put on the best show possible — they can challenge you, they can entertain you, they can make you laugh or cry. That’s the end of the transaction.

But if that performance is truly special — if it’s truly something extraordinary, then that’s where the ovation comes in. It’s supposed to be a recognition of something that goes above and beyond the norm in theatre.

Unfortunately, it’s become the norm and, as a result, it ultimately means nothing.

* Full disclosure: the reason I did not review The Woolgatherer, even though it meets my minimum requirements (must run more than one weekend) is because my wife is its stage manager. Though I would be totally honest in my review, I choose not to review productions in which she has a role to avoid any perceptions of impropriety.

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