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Bow wow: is there an art to the curtain call?

Curtain call for Peter Pan at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, London, running until June 15. Photo: David Jensen Curtain call for Peter Pan at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, London, running until June 15. Photo: David Jensen
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They might seem simply a way for actors to bask in audience appreciation, but is there something more going on at the close-of-show line-up? Actors and directors tell Matt Trueman how a bow can be beautiful

The curtain has come down and the show’s over, folks, there’s nothing to see here. Except it’s not. What may be true after a kerfuffle in the streets is not true in theatre. We’re so accustomed to the ritual of the curtain call, we don’t always clock them. We stop watching and just start clapping. Yet they’re still part of a show, half-in, half-out, and a bad one sticks out. Is there, then, an art to a curtain call?

To answer that, you first have to ask what a curtain call is. Most obviously, it’s a chance for an audience to express appreciation (or the opposite) for the actors on stage. Only, it’s not so straightforwardly one-way. In accepting our appreciation with a bow, actors are effectively also returning the appreciation. The feeling, in other words, is mutual. “It’s a chance for a company to say thanks to the audience,” artistic director of Theatr Clwyd Tamara Harvey says. More than anything else, a good curtain call has to be “heartfelt”.

Read our interview with Tamara Harvey

Curtain calls, as we know them, came to prominence in the early 1800s. Theatre has always had ritual endings: the Greeks had exodus processions, the Elizabethans used jigs. But as crowd-pleasers became fashionable, audiences demanded acknowledgement – perhaps with the advent of proper stage lighting. Dickens describes one crowd “calling” for a star’s return in Nicholas Nickleby. What started as a spontaneous call and response has long since been codified.

Where there’s a code, there are choices. Conform to convention or change things up? How many bows do you choreograph? Do you bow as a company, all together as one, or have your stars step forwards alone? Every show demands something different but they all need attention.

A curtain call gives you a glimpse of what’s really going on backstage. As producer Richard Jordan wrote in The Stage earlier this year: “If you want to see how a cast really connects and works with each other, study the curtain call closely. It’s the moment when the actors’ behaviour – now out of character – tells you if they are part of a happy company.”

Richard Jordan: Forget star names, it’s time to celebrate the company men

It’s why, whatever the formation and however actors bow, Harvey insists a curtain call has to be “tight – not drilled to within an inch of its life, but energised and as well constructed as the show itself”. It’s almost a paradox: how to be heartfelt and disciplined at the same time, authentic and in step all at once?

Perhaps that’s why curtain calls are created last minute – almost as an afterthought. Tech time tends to disappear, and bows are usually “sketched in” after a dress rehearsal.

“They’re rather grim affairs,” director Joe Hill-Gibbins confides. “Everyone’s tired, grumpy and nervous, and dress rehearsals invariably feel pretty awful.”

Bowing to an empty house isn’t exactly ideal prep for a first preview, but the artifice does leave room for real reactions to come later.

“It always feels weird,” actor Shane Zaza admits. “Black-out, lights on and you’re back to Shane again – but it’s not as simple as that. It’s a halfway house. I’m partially Shane and partly still in character; still in costume. You’re almost acting. It’s part performance, part you; part cringey, but also part of the job.”

Zaza gives a really good bow. At the end of Frankenstein, at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, he looked up at the audience and around the room, before folding himself almost in two. It’s poised, but straightforward; gracious, but assured.

“I’ve never practised it,” he assures me. “So far no one’s told me: ‘That bow’s ridiculous. Sort your bow out.’ I just do what I do.”

Other actors are more calculated applause-hunters. David Garrick built bows in after every scene, and Donald Wolfit shook the stage curtains to build up a roar. Sarah Bernhardt stood still, hands under her chin, then stretched out her arms to a rapturous crowd. It echoes the bow people hold up as the best: that of Yul Brynner. After The King and I, Brynner would stand still upstage until his audience stood themselves, then surge forwards, arms held aloft.

It takes a star to land such focus-pulling stuff, and today, you’re more like to see modest gestures: a nod of the head, an arm around a co-star, even a brief clap back. Too much modesty, however, can be as damaging as too little. Academic Nicholas Ridout writes about the embarrassment of actors applauding audiences: it breaks the illusion of mutual thanks. Deep down, we know actors do the work. Maybe it’s not mutual, after all.

But what if a curtain call does something else? Forced Entertainment’s artistic director Tim Etchells sees them, like Ridout, as a ritual return to reality.

The curtain call acts as ‘a decompression chamber between the depths of art and the thin air of reality

“Performers, even those playing themselves and acknowledging the audience, have been in another space or another logic,” he says. “The moment of stepping back is about saying, ‘Okay, we’re here and you’re here. What’s just happened? Where have we been?’ ” The American academic Bert O States describes “a decompression chamber between the depths of art and the thin air of reality”.

As such, when Forced Entertainment cast members bow, they aim for informality – something natural. “It’s very un-strategised,” Etchells explains. “There’s no talk of a sequence or how many bows. Everyone does it in their own way. Someone will wave at the sound box – that’s as much as we’ve set. There’s no drill-sergeant approach. It’s about as real as it gets.”

That might explain the oddity of shows that forgo a curtain call – an artistic choice usually rooted in respect for reality. As States says, it happens “in any play in which virtuosity is upstaged by mission, as in committed political drama”. So maybe actors don’t want thanks, but reflection or action. The audience does not return to reality because it never really left. But it’s jarring: you’re left applauding an absence as the realisation dawns that the performers are not returning. The performance remains incomplete, open, bleeding into reality.

Hill-Gibbins isn’t convinced: “If you don’t have a curtain call, you don’t acknowledge the ‘let’s pretend’ of it all. You don’t say: ‘But this wasn’t real, we’re not the real people.’ That might be more important when you’re pretending to be people who have suffered appallingly.”

Shobna Gulati, Sara Poyzer and Sue Devaney during the curtain call at the tour gala night for Mamma Mia! in Liverpool. Photo: Brian Slater
Shobna Gulati, Sara Poyzer and Sue Devaney during the curtain call at the tour gala night for Mamma Mia! in Liverpool. Photo: Brian Slater

Musicals, on the other hand, demand the opposite – curtain calls are almost a show of their own. Think of Mamma Mia!’s last-gasp Abba-tastic costume change. Harvey, who directed From Here to Eternity in the West End, considered something more demure given the show’s subject matter was Pearl Harbor, before going all-out with an encore. “You’re hoping that it will make them feel even more positive about the show, and get them going out singing the tunes,” she says.

It’s almost another refusal to return to reality – only this time stretching the show out into the world. It’s about extending the escapism.

For Harvey, curtain-call rehearsals are a moment of directorial “dread” – one that involves arranging actors into an order, almost by rank. Even full company calls contain some sense of hierarchy: Who’s centre? Who leads? She likens it to sorting out film credits, only whereas producers and agents negotiate in private, theatre directors “have to do it all live”.

For all that, Harvey uses curtain-call rehearsals for a hidden purpose. “It’s an opportunity as a director to implicitly tell your actors that the show’s okay and it’s theirs now. The only thing you could possibly find to do is get the curtain call right.” Her job, really, is to “applaud harder than you ever thought possible. You sit there and cheer your company – that’s rather beautiful.”

That word says a lot: if a bow can be beautiful, there must be an art to it.

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