I’m easy to spot in a theater—when it comes time to applaud, I’m that one guy who’s sitting down. (The only person younger than 75, anyway.) It has become customary in this town—in Broadway theaters and off-Broadway theaters, concert halls and opera houses—not only to clap for a job well done, but to do so on one’s feet; the standing ovation is now the default ovation. Of course, this renders the standing ovation meaningless, so I won’t do it; there are times you want a performer to know that what they’ve done is exceptional, that they’ve really knocked your socks off—Pinchas Zukerman after Beethoven’s “Violin Concerto,” or Christian Borle at the end of Peter and the Starcatcher—but as audience members we no longer have a tool for such expression at our disposal. Stand up and you’re just one more tourist “beating their flippers together like captive sea lions when the zookeeper arrives with a bucket of fish.”
So writes the Times‘ senior theater critic Ben Brantley today in an essay against the Standing O, in which he asks audiences to follow what we could call the Brantley Rule: “think before you stand, if you must stand at all.”
His own theory about the ubiquity of the Standing O? People can’t wait to stand after spending hours in those cramped seats. Others blame the phenomenon on the decline of a real New York theater class, which has been replaced by towheaded, corn-fed visitors. “Standing to applaud at the end of a show has become part of the Official Broadway Experience,” Brantley writes. “And if you’ve spent several hundred dollars for that pair of orchestra seats, an S.O. seems to help confirm that the money wasn’t wasted.”
I would add that people no longer use applause to express true admiration; it’s merely an unthinking courtesy. Note the way crowds will cheer for the corporate sponsor’s spokesperson before a corporate-sponsored event, or how they’ll clap for a university president at a graduation. So, if you actually wanted to applaud someone? Well, you’d need to stand, or something, so he or she would know you’re not just being polite. Maybe what we really need in this town is not only a reevaluation of our use of the standing ovation, but our use of any and all applause. Try the Stewart Rule: don’t put your hands together unless you mean it.
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