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Mark Shenton: Are standing ovations getting out of hand?

An audience giving a standing ovation – could they be the future of criticism? Photo: Christian Bertrand/Shutterstock An audience giving a standing ovation – could they be the future of criticism? Photo: Christian Bertrand/Shutterstock
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I go to a lot of first nights as part of my job. And inevitably, whatever the show and regardless of how good what we’ve just seen is, there’s now a standing ovation. This shows a generosity of spirit, perhaps, towards the actors on what is inevitably a stressful night, but it is also partly a mass demonstration of investor support from those who’ve helped finance the production. So there’s always an underlying sense of anxiety to the fact that everyone leaps to their feet.

When this happens, the critics, many of whom typically don’t join them except to make a hasty exit, become doubly conspicuous by remaining seated, amplifying their apparently adversarial role.

But, if first nights are ‘fake news’ nights and those manufactured responses are not to be entirely trusted, I’ve increasingly taken to going to shows on non-first nights – either by invitation to earlier press previews (which could equally be papered to ensure a positive reaction) or later in the run, when the audience is more likely to be made up of ‘real’ punters.

But here’s an interesting thing: the standing ovation is now standard across most performances I attend.

I’ve even noticed that it’s not confined to the end of a show anymore, but might happen mid-performance: when I saw Dreamgirls in an early preview before it even opened, the audience spontaneously leapt to its feet, X Factor-style, at least three times during the evening.

Mark Shenton’s week: The rise of the mid-show ovation is a worrying trend

I wonder if it’s a self-validating act; audiences have paid a lot of money to be there, and they need to tell themselves it has been worth it. But also audiences are, of course, never merely passive observers; their energy contributes to the success of the show. A comment I saw posted on one blog summed it up: “People want to engage with performers and performances. Interactive experiences of all sorts are now an expected norm. And thus perhaps the humble, spontaneous, standing ovation. Isn’t it rather like standing to cheer at a sporting event?”

Performers can manipulate and openly solicit, or even demand, an ovation. The US solo performer Anna Deavere Smith has said that when she bows and rises with arms spread out and up, it prompts the audience to rise, too. Meanwhile, one of my favourite curtain-call stories came from a British theatre director who attended a Broadway show and he and his companion didn’t stand at the curtain calls. The leading lady spotted them and fixed them with an icy stare – and didn’t bow until they, too, stood up.

It hasn’t ever been thus here in London. The tendency towards mass standing ovations has been catching on only in the last few years, perhaps tied in with rising ticket prices, but also the example of TV shows such as The X-Factor that have taught audiences this behaviour.

When Dustin Hoffman made his West End debut as Shylock for Peter Hall in The Merchant of Venice back in 1989, he had to be warned that audiences would be unlikely to give standing ovations. Then one night he announced the death of Laurence Olivier to the audience, whereupon they rose to their feet. He is reported to have commented afterwards: “You have to fucking die to get a standing ovation here.”

In Kathleen Turner’s autobiography, the actor reports of appearing in the West End in 2006 in a transfer of a revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. She writes: “Fortunately, nobody had to die for us to get the London audiences to stand for us. As thrilled as we were about the critics’ reactions, the four of us in the cast still tried to appreciate our own worth first and foremost and to give ourselves some rewards for our very hard work.”

Yes, the show should always be its own reward, and self-worth should never be defined by others. Daily Telegraph columnist Michael Henderson wrote a column about the standing ovation phenomenon in 2014: “They applaud, even when it is good, said Artur Schnabel, the great Austrian pianist. These days, they stand to cheer, even when it is poor.”

Henderson suggests: “This canker in our theatregoing is also rooted in a narcissism that has spread through all parts of life. In the theatre it takes the form of people arriving late and leaving early, talking throughout the show, leaving their phones on, and even eating.”

To the increasingly wide list of bad audience behaviour, do we now need to add the standing ovation?