In the past month I’ve witnessed loud cheers and standing ovations at performances in Charleston’s Dock Street Theatre, Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre, the Apollo Theater in Harlem, at a Broadway musical, and at several smaller venues in New York City. Most of these were fabulous performances, but few were life-changing events for me. I would venture to guess that the majority of these performances also weren’t life changing events for most of the other people in the audiences with me.
Please don’t get me wrong. I am not at all upset about witnessing positive audience expressions. They are certainly preferable to the kind of behavior that Timothy Mangan has recounted in his latest Pacific Symphony audience diatribe (“How to Act if You Hate New Music, Orange County Register, June 10, 2007). Yet I still can’t help wondering if over-the-top responses to performances are sincere expressions of aesthetic pleasure or manifestations of emotional states that are far more complex.
Let’s face it: the reaction an audience has to a performance is the audience’s only opportunity—at least within the confines of the staid, concert hall listening experience—to be the performers themselves. And there’s something extremely cathartic about cheering and standing after quietly sitting through something for a relatively long period of time that could have more to do with the need for physical release than the actual performance being reacted to.
Audience acknowledgement, both positive and negative, is a weird form of public communication that is largely guided by acculturation. How often have you clapped at the end of a performance you didn’t like? Why did you? The de rigeur standing ovation at the end of a concert is fast becoming a similar form of groupspeak. But giving every performance a standing ovation totally destroys the impact the ovation once had. If that’s the highest form of expression we allow an audience to give, how can they then express being truly transformed by a performance?
There is a much greater give-and-take between performers and audiences in traditional musical performances in many parts of the world, as well as in the frequently contentious relations between folks onstage and off at certain club-based gigs. By comparison, the opportunity for such an interaction is so circumscribed in the concert hall. All the more reason, perhaps, for a greater variety of acceptable audience responses to evolve. That said, I’ll never warm up to the infuriating chains of nervous coughs at orchestra concerts which many folks have attributed to audience disapproval of challenging repertoire.