As Thousands Cheer

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.

9 thoughts on “As Thousands Cheer

  1. mryan

    My theory on applause is that it’s most important purpose is to reset our ears. Sort of like at a French restaurant when they give you some kind of paste that’s supposed to ‘clear’ your palette so you can truly savor the freshness of the next dish.

    I agree with what you said also about the audience’s only chance to participate. Depending on the length of the performance, that can be a long time to sit still and be quiet for a lot of people, especially in a world gone wild with busy-ness. On more than one occasion I’ve stood during applause, just so I can stand and stretch out my knees that hurt after about an hour of non-movement.

    I think when the audience starts shouting ‘bravo’ ‘brava’ ‘well done’ etc., then we know there’s been something happening there that night more than a mere entertainment. You can also gauge the level of applause if you want to; people say a lot by how they applaud. Is it fast, furious? Are you worried they are going to hurt themselves or do they bounce a little? You can bet they don’t just need to take a trip to the men’s/ladies’ room.

    In any case, I think there’s nothing wrong with applauding something or even standing for a poor or mediocre performance. I’ve been to community concerts where this was certainly appropriate: these folks did their best, and I want to let them know I appreciate that.

    Frankly, I don’t think anything’s reached a life changing level of appreciation until you’ve sent the performer or composer a letter of appreciation and thanks. There’s a litmus test. I’ve only gotten one letter like that, but it means more to me than any long forgotten applause.

    All the best,
    M. Ryan Taylor

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  2. Colin Holter

    Regardless of how you might feel about new music or “audience practice” more generally, I don’t think common courtesy is too much to ask for. I usually find myself standing after a concert maybe once a year. If I have a strong negative reaction to both the piece and the performance, I withhold applause completely. Typically I just clap more or less vigorously as the occasion seems to demand. I never boo or carry on like the Orange Countians Frank mentions, although I admit I’ve often hoped that one of those vocal new music-haters would shove my chest in the parking lot afterwards.

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  3. Vanessa Lann

    clappy happy
    In The Netherlands people stand up and applause almost as a rule. So the other day after a very clappy concert I kept sitting in my chair as a subtle form of protest. The piece was great, the performer was great, everything was fine. I just think I have this little artisitc right to choose what, for me, should get my bum in the air. People looked down from above as if I were ignorant of clapping policy, but I was just making my little statement. It didn’t hurt anyone. And I think it’s my right to “refuse the stand” – make my statement. I was proud. That next amazing thing, on the other hand, will have my full arsenal of wiggling and jiggling and jumping.

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  4. daddysir

    Standing ovations
    While my criteria may not be quite as stringent as Mr. Oteri’s–I recall, for instance, standing at the end of a ‘farewell’ concert by Leontyne Price, not because her singing had been so transcendant that evening but in acknowledgment of her entire career–on the whole I agree that standing ovations have lost their original meaning through overuse. What is wrong with a seated ovation? An additional irritant is that once the people in the row in front of one rise to their feet, one feels coerced into rising oneself simply to be able to see the stage, which leads to an impression of unanimity of enthusiasm which is not, perhaps warranted.

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  5. sgordon

    My suspicion has been that the “Standing O” is a local / cultural thing. Compare, say, America, where picking your nose could get you one vs. Britain where they “only stand for the Queen” and such. Or Japan, where you’d be lucky to get anything above a “tennis clap” for a star-making turn. It’s been an amusing ongoing issue for Broadway critics – seems every few years or so someone at the Times dredges it up.

    December 21, 2003, Jesse McKinley, “The Tyrrany of the Standing Ovation”:


    A FEW weeks back, just after “Taboo” opened to harsh reviews, lackluster ticket sales and rumors of its imminent demise, a press representative for Rosie O’Donnell, the show’s producer, proudly announced that the production was a success.

    The proof? “We’ve played 21 performances,” the press rep said. “And have received 21 standing ovations.”

    …whatever the motivation, the effect of the rampant increase in standing ovations has been accompanied by — as with any other form of inflation — a decrease in value. If almost every performance receives one, then it ceases to be a meaningful compliment — and actors who don’t get one cease to be able to console themselves.

    And, seven years earlier:
    December 8, 1996, Peter Marks, “Standing Room Only”:


    …when expressing approval lavishly is the rule, not the exception, doesn’t the gesture lose its meaning?

    Michael Gambon, the British star of “Skylight,” who is appearing on a New York stage for the first time, said he was shocked at first to find audiences getting to their feet at the end of the play.

    The practice is nearly unheard of in London. “Occasionally, on a first night, but they would never stand there” as a matter of course, Mr. Gambon said. Although he is not about to file a formal protest — “It’s very nice, isn’t it?” — he said he is mystified as to why it occurs so frequently in theaters here. (He was a little less flattered when he realized how common standing ovations are.)

    And earlier that same year:
    January 28, 1996, Ethan Mordden, “Quick, Name a New Musical Star”:


    Standing ovations are part of the package, like the playbill and souvenir T’s, because America has become a clapping nation. Television, always the bellwether, teaches how: watch as audiences on game and talk shows clap not to express approval but to provide punctuation. They clap before commercials and after commercials, when someone enters and when someone leaves, when they are told to and even when they are not. And, in the theater, they clap for Ms. Channing, Ms. Andrews and Ms. Burnett as if they’d never seen a star before.

    It’s odd. The cheaper fame has become, the more dearly the public values the real thing. … In Keeler’s day, the public clapped because stars were wonderful. Now it claps because stars are famous.

    We can go back and back… I’ve read interviews with actors who have actually grown tired of them, and would prefer a short, restrained round and just be on their way to the bar sooner. I don’t know how long it’s been going on, and I’m not sure I agree with Mordden that television is to blame. But it’s definitely on the rise. Back in the days of Johnny Carson, the audience applauded form their seats when Johnny came out. Nowadays, when Oprah hits the stage for a show the crowd goes positively apeshit, tearing their hair out and shrieking. Used to be we reserved that kind of behavior for, like, The Beatles.

    And the increase in the level of applause has caused us to increase what we’ll applaud for. It’s lowered the Applause Bar. Nowadays, people applaud at the end of movies, for god’s sake – when the artists aren’t even there. What, are you showing the projectionist some love?

    As to why we do it? I dunno – I don’t do it. With the exclusion of baseball, I rarely, if ever, get to my feet. I think part of it is that people just don’t go to the theater / opera / concert hall as much as they used to, so when they do it becomes a Big Deal. And they’re predisposed to being bowled over by whatever is presented to them because – let’s be honest, here – most people couldn’t tell the difference between a by-the-numbers performance of a given piece and a truly spectacular balls-to-the-wall one. There’s a certain drama inherent in the music itself, which comes through as long as the performance is serviceable, and everyone hits the right notes in the right places. And most of your audience members probably don’t even own a recording of it. It’s easy to impress a neophyte, is what it comes down to. Which doesn’t make their experience any less – in fact I’d say it’s a bit something to be envied, to still be able to feel the thrill of the new. I’d love to be able to hear Beethoven’s 9th or the Mass In B Minor for the first time again, rather than the 1,000th. But short of a sharp blow to the head, ain’t gonna happen.

    The other reason is, I think, just a simple lack of restraint, egged on by the excitement around you – the same reason I jump out of my seat when David Wright knocks one out of the park. I don’t jump off my couch at home – but in the park, everyone else jumping around, I can’t control it. And curtain calls – in the theater at least – are designed to practically force one to their feet, to give you that “home run feeling” with big upswells of the most dramatic music and all the bit players applauding the leads and confetti falling from the ceiling and cannons going off and marching bands and baton twirlers and dancing elephants and the Mayor comes out to give the leading lady the key to the city and everyone sings a reprise together and it’s just overkill on top of overkill… and this is for a Wednesday matinee. They give themselves such a standing ovation, peer pressure causes us to succumb, even if we know it’s phonier than a Mitt Romney speech.

    But does it matter if we know they’re meaningless? I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with meaninglessness. I like meaningless. I mean, I’ll take meaningless sex over none at all.

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  6. Louise

    My mother had us all join her imaginary organization: SOSO — “Stamp Out Standing Ovations.” She started her chapter back in the 70’s, so overly enthusiastic audiences is not a new phenomenon.

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  7. cyblume

    Of course, there is another way to react to any piece that you have a strong reaction to & that is to send a note (electronic or postal) to the powers that be at the organization & give them feedback as to what you like & don’t like.
    I tend to give positive feedback on new music (assuming I feel it warranted) since my assumption is that most folks want standard canon & new music needs to be encouraged if it is to be continued to be programmed.

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  8. Frank J. Oteri

    The Power of the Pen
    I completely second the coments of “cyblume” above. I once heard that many years ago the managing editor of one of the nation’s major newspapers interpreted a letter as representative of the opinions of at least 10 people. (Kinda like the cockroach analogy: if you see one that means there are 10 underneath your sink.) If enough people write letters in support of things they feel strongly about, rather than just negative letters when something irks them, it can have a tremendous positive impact.

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  9. Banksias

    No restrictions…please!
    The bottom line is that in the equation: audience plus the performer/s, it will always be more important what the audience thinks of us than what we think of them, and their reaction whether forced, sincere or otherwise is their reaction, and we have to embrace it. The only thing an audience does that is unified, is that they arrive and they leave, what happens in between, varies as widely as their opinions, personalities, state of being in the moment etc…It could be the music that moves them, the performance that moves them, their date that moves them, who knows. We get so caught up on a genuine reaction instead of our true purpose, which is to touch their lives with music..any way we can. We celebrate the artist that is the maverick, the strange being, the quirky, the genius, and yet we want our audiences to be bland, “quietly” ecstatic, and to never have any respitory issues to disturb us, oh yeah and to leave quietly. If we have the freedom to interperet a piece of music, then they have the freedom to react to that interpretation, without restriction. We forget that that before the age of recording, no music was written without the expectation of applause or reaction because one could only hear it live, meaning that the audience response was the true ending. Which composer didn’t or doesn’t want a great ending! Lastly, if the reaction in your opinion is not sincere, then just perhaps the performance wasn’t either.

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