Will the real ovation please stand up?

Posted in Duff 'n Stuff, Theater and Dance

Duff ’n Stuff

March 25, 2013

Dear Whidbey Islanders, I’d like to take this time to ponder something that might offend some of you, while others will applaud from their seats. I’m stuck on what has developed into the languid inevitability of the standing ovation.

A standing “o” used to be special; reserved for the excellent and exceptional performance. This once emotional and passionate show of appreciation has somehow turned into a reflex – a quixotic gesture that now means about as much as a polite handshake. What happened?

I first noticed the phenomenon when I moved from Chicago to the Northwest. An avid theater and concert goer, I began to notice the tendency of folks to spring to their feet at a curtain call, even if the performance wasn’t worthy. By the time I moved to Whidbey Island and reinserted my previous actor self onstage, while also participating as an audience member in double digit numbers of performances each month for my work, I realized the ovation had become commonplace, a compulsion, and was now the standard for each and every show.

I know, I know, folks around these parts are generally large-hearted, and their inclination to jump from their seats after every single performance they attend is merely a reflection of their good-natured wish to show the performers how much they applaud the effort (excuse the pun). I realize that parents or friends who attend the shows of their children or neighbors are standing up to show endearment and pride. But what about those performances that are exceptional? Alas, dear reader, the standing ovation means nothing anymore on Whidbey Island and, from what I’ve read in the theater section of the New York Times, apparently everywhere else in this country.

This quandary had been on my mind for some time and my ears perked up when a recent segment of a radio talk-show took up the topic.  One caller, who had watched his teenaged son perform through years of school theater productions, said he was fed up with having to give a standing ovation to plays that were truly terrible.

“Why should I have to stand up for something that I thought was really bad, even if it is kids? I will sit there and applaud politely, but why should I stand up?” this man asked. This same fellow said he was tired of parents coddling their children and telling them that, no matter what performance they gave, they deserved to be hailed as number one, applauded like Ethel Merman at the final performance of “Annie Get Your Gun” on Broadway. The disc jockey said he saw the guy’s point and compared it to the dilemma of kids in sports.

A custom has developed in the American school system and in recreational sports programs to give trophies to not just the first place winner, but also for second, third and even fourth place. By the time some kids leave school they have boxes full of trophies for any and every sport they ever attempted, even if they didn’t excel at it. How is that beneficial, the DJ asked?  He said he would rather his child cherish that one first place trophy he worked his tail off to receive once, than to have him receive umpteen trophies that are basically meaningless because everybody on the team got one no matter how sloppy their performance. I have to agree.

The man with the theater-loving son said his wife stands up because it’s the polite thing to do and if everyone else is standing, it’s hard to stay seated. I find this to be the case for me, too. Staying seated makes one seem impolite, or worse, makes a stronger statement than intended, especially if you are a local reporter. If everybody is standing and you don’t get on your feet, the performers might think you hated the show; but that may not be true. It may be that you just didn’t think it deserved a standing ovation, and maybe you remain seated in protest because you are trying desperately to preserve the custom. Alas, dear reader, I’m afraid that train left the station long ago and that disappoints me. It reveals a society that has become milk-toast, where it used to be flambé. But, people just don’t care that much about theater anymore, not as much as we care about going with the flow of the crowd. It seems people  just want to stand up and show “support” for the lovely folks who worked so hard to memorize all those lines!

The theater used to be a place where people could boo and throw stuff and show any manner of reaction to a performance. Henrik Ibsen, the great 19th-century Norwegian playwright and theater director, incited riots in the theater with his plays. When the Ballets Russes first performed choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris in 1913, the audience erupted and a riot was only narrowly avoided. How exciting! How utterly participatory! Wouldn’t it be great if people cared that much about art to actually show something other than a lemming-like stretch of the legs, while flapping their hands and heading toward the exit?

Maybe I expect too much. If so, it’s only because I respect art too much to allow amateurs to be lauded as exceptional. Don’t let this happen, Whidbey Island. If it’s the best damn show you’ve ever seen in your life, give it a standing ovation.  If you hate it, you may not feel compelled to boo or scream, throw a tomato or get up and walk out, but you don’t do anybody any favors by being a lemming. Just try to stay seated and clap.

From the heart,
Patricia Duff


Upcoming theatrical events on the island:

  • “Ain’t Misbehavin,” the Fats Waller musical, plays three more performances Thursday, Friday and Saturday March 28,29, and 30 at 7:30 p.m. at the Black Box Theater at the fairgrounds in Langley. Get tickets at Brown Paper Tickets or email ocp@whidbey.com to arrange tickets at the door.
  • “The Full Monty,” the musical directed by Elizabeth Herbert, opens April 5 and runs through April 20 at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts. Show times are 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays with 2 p.m. Sunday matinees. Purchase tickets at wicaonline.com, or by phone at (360) 221-8268(800) 638-7631.
  • “The Little Prince,”  directed by Ahna Dunn-Wilder, opens at Whidbey Children’s Theater April 26 and runs through May 5.  Get tickets at (360)221-2282, or visit the WCT website
  • William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” opens Friday, April 26 and runs through May 19 at Whidbey Playhouse in Oak Harbor.  Tickets go on sale March 26, with special offers for Military members and groups of ten or more. Call (360) 679 -2237 or visit www.whidbeyplayhouse.com for more info. 

Patricia Duff is an award-winning journalist, freelance writer and the editor of this magazine.

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