Not long ago, Bonnie and I went to see a concert by the Omaha Symphony. I didn’t think it was a bad concert, in fact, I thought it was quite good. But, I have to admit that my knowledge of “serious” music (and the performance thereof) is pretty limited. Anyway, at the end of the concert, most of the audience leapt to its feet to give the performance a standing ovation.
Now, I suppose that it is possible that the vast majority of the audience was more knowledgeable than I about things musical, but I tend to doubt it. My reasoning is that a sizeable number of those audience members felt the need/desire to provide a round of applause between movements of a piano concerto which was played early in this presentation.
Since I was taught that this was not proper, and, in fact, it was suggested in the program that the usual practice was not to applaud between movements of a piece, but to save it until the end. Thus, I came away with the idea that a good many audience members were probably no better educated in the traditions of serious music than I. And some, perhaps, were even less familiar with them.
That made me suspect that a good many of the people present probably weren’t really any more capable than I of judging the actual quality of the performance. It MAY have been brilliant! They may have just “…gotten through it somehow.” I’m not sure that I could tell and I’m even less sure that all of the others in attendance could, either.
Anyway, this got me to thinking about past performances of all sorts which I have attended, both of concerts and of plays and musicals. I ultimately reached the conclusion that a standing ovation has, essentially, become the standard (and therefore expected) response to live performance, at least in many places. If that is the case, I think it’s too bad.
Now Wikipedia (Okay, it may not be the most authoritative source, but it is available and the dictionaries I looked at seem to agree.) suggests; “A standing ovation is a form of applause where members of a seated audience stand up while applauding after extraordinary performances of particularly high acclaim.” It also suggests that “Standing ovations are considered to be a special honor.”
This conforms with the way I learned about them. That is, a standing ovation, at least following a performance, is a special honor given for an unusually high-quality performance, either by the entire ensemble or by an individual, usually the leading performer(s).
It is true that the President is traditionally greeted with a standing ovation at the beginning of, for example, the State of the Union Address, but in this instance that ovation is defined as being given to the office, rather than the office-holder. Note: in this case the President is NOT introduced by name. There are other, formal uses, I suspect, which should probably be viewed in much the same way. An example might be the tradition of standing for the entrance of the prospective graduates, the faculty and the platform party for a commencement ceremony or the entrance of the clergy and choir for a church service. Those don’t include applause, but they are formal recognitions of the status of these individuals, not a reward for an unusually good performance. I only wish to address the idea of a standing ovation following a performance situation.
My suspicion is that sometime (during the 80’s?) when our society was starting its “we have to reward everyone for everything they do” kick, was when standing ovations started to lose much of their previous meaning. After all, if no one can be permitted to be “special,” because it might hurt the feelings of someone who was not singled out for a special reward, then the reward for excellence has been replaced with a participation “award.”
Now, I think I understand the desire not to make children feel inferior, however I have seen and/or heard of too many cases where parents were allowed to provide flowers (for example) to be presented to their child (almost always a daughter, of course) during the curtain call for the local dance class recital (what Steve Ayers used to refer to as “Miss Suzy’s School of Toe, Tap and Fire Baton”). I have watched the face of those kids whose parents may have struggled to provide such classes and costumes for their child and either didn’t get the memo or couldn’t afford a dozen roses. Don’t you think those children might feel singled out as somehow lesser than the others who were so rewarded? Judging from their reactions, I suspect so,
There is also the fact that I firmly believe that we are not fooling our children by insisting that, “You were the best one there.” I’m not too old to remember the fact that fairly early on in elementary school I was aware that some of my peers had strengths in various things which I didn’t have. Yes, other children were “better” at some things than I was. I suppose that I should have felt traumatized because Jimmie was a better ball player than I was, but I don’t think I was. I was aware that there were things I did to reasonably high standard and I didn’t feel “put down” because I wasn’t the “best” at everything. Do we honestly think that our children aren’t aware of these facts? I really doubt it. Yes, we should support our children, students, etc., and assist them to improve in those skills which are important to them, but to teach them that they have to “be best” in everything seems silly, superficial and counter-productive. And that’s not saying anything about the fact that we would be lying.
When I worked for the Children’s Theatre of Evanston, IL, I know that there was a Creative Drama professor at Northwestern (which had co-founded the Children’s Theatre with the local school system) who believed that the theatre should be abolished because not every child (We used school kids as talent in many roles.) could be the in the cast, so the kid who wasn’t cast would be emotionally traumatized. Somehow, though, when I took a class from her (I was slowly working towards getting a permanent certification in Creative Drama, while working at the theatre.), she had no problem with assigning grades for her students. Is there really all that much difference?
Having had to assign grades (which I never liked very much, but which I accepted as a job requirement), I felt it was my obligation to myself and my students to try to establish a standard of expectation and then evaluate each student’s work as fairly as possible against that standard. I did try to provide encouragement where I felt it was needed, but I expected high quality work and I wasn’t going to just give someone a more desirable grade when I felt they had turned in shoddy work. I didn’t believe that that was going to work in life, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t likely to work too well in the theatre. I was always sorry to assign a less desirable grade, but I felt that it was important to recognize really good work as being of greater value than just “I turned something in!”
The idea that “All men are created equal” refers to the idea that all people are (can/should be) of value to the society at large and should be treated equally (fairly) by society in the legal system, etc. It does NOT mean that we are all carbon copy, cookie cutter shapes which are identical in every way and, hence, must have absolute equality in everything. And I am glad it’s that way. Life is MUCH more interesting because we are not all just alike. Just think, if we were all just alike, NOTHING would be special and we would probably never have any of the arts, or the sciences, or much of anything else.
It’s of real value that some people are good at one thing, while others are good at something else. Just in the “legitimate” theatre (my major field of interest) we need people who are good at playwriting; people who are good at performing; people who can guide the creation of a production, people who can conceive of scenery, lighting, costumes, sound, etc., people who can execute those designs in shops and in performance, people who can deal with the many, complicated business aspects of assembling, promoting and marketing a production and the people who can/will deal with all of the complicated problems of live performance including heating, cooling, seeing to the necessary plumbing, providing whatever seating arrangements are desired (which includes creating the chairs, etc.), and on, and on. Musicals, of course, are even more complicated.
Now I know (because I’ve studied theatre history) that Edward Gordon Craig came up with the idea of establishing a form of theatre which was solely under the control of a “Master-Artist” who would be in complete control of all aspects of the performance from its conception through its execution. This required the creation of Craig’s infamous “Uber-Marionette” which would replace the living actor with an ego-less creation capable of accomplishing whatever the Master-Artist required in performance. However, even Craig couldn’t (to the best of my knowledge) eliminate the need for a janitor to keep the facility fit for human habitation, or someone to sell tickets.
I’ve strayed a bit from standing ovations, but I think my point may still be valid. It’s often considered an honor for the designers when a round of enthusiastic applause greets the revelation of the setting as the curtain rises at the beginning of the performance. Personally, I always found it annoying, as it broke into the timing of the opening which the scenic, lighting, sound and costume designers had worked on with the director to get the performance underway. I always considered that a good, strong, positive response at the conclusion included at least a small portion of consideration for my tech work, and that a standing ovation was, generally, for the production, because we, generally, didn’t emphasize the idea of “stars” in the university theatre.
The devaluation of the standing ovation, I suspect, ultimately comes from the elementary school performance where parents feel some obligation to physically show their “support” for their child’s performance. Of course, since grade school (and many high school) performance audiences are dominated by parents and family, that means that parents, by standing for their own child, are standing for ANY performance (as long as it’s by their child), regardless of whether, or not, it was really deserving by any sort of objective standard. I understand the desire to be proud of your child, but it’s only in Lake Wobegon that “… all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”
Now, I did very much enjoy the tour of Wicked when I saw it (on two different tours). And, I think The Play That Goes Wrong was marvelous. And, I certainly have seen other shows which I felt strongly deserved a standing ovation. Among them was the production of Waiting for Godot which I saw in London in 2009 with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen (which, as I remember it, didn’t get one). I guess that London audiences just aren’t as easily impressed as they are some other places.
To wrap this up, I think it’s sad that we, as a society, have devalued the standing ovation and other traditional means of demonstrating our thanks for unusually fine work. I don’t think I’m alone in this emotion, but people seem reluctant to defy the expectation even when they don’t really think high accolades are deserved. That’s too bad, as it suggests a “we really don’t expect much and that’s okay” sort of attitude. I only wish to see what I think I have a right to expect; the best work capable of being produced by these people in that time and place. This is true in sports, why shouldn’t it be the same for the arts? I also think I have the right to evaluate the work as to whether I think the performance was successful, or not.
And, I refuse to base my judgement on some so-called “expert critic” telling me that I am unqualified to have an opinion. If I’m qualified to pay for my ticket, I’m qualified to decide whether, or not, the experience was worth my money and time. We don’t have to agree on the value of everything, but I refuse to check my judgement at the door.