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To Rise, or Not to Rise: A critical analysis of standing ovations

It seems that almost every live performance I attend ends with a standing ovation. My British friends, with a tinge of cultural imperialism, are quick to point out that this is a uniquely American phenomenon (another hypothesis to refute). I propose to mount video cameras in theatres and concert halls over the course of a year, and capture on video (for slow-motion time-lapse analysis) exactly what happens starting from the moment the program ends. A cross-disciplinary, stratified sampling approach would allow for comparisons across opera, musical theatre, dance and classical music audiences in the US and UK. This would allow for careful analysis of who stands up first (including their precise seat number), and then follow the patterns of who rises next, and next, and so forth. Is it random, or do they fall like dominos? Do balcony people, who paid less, stand up at the same rate as big-spending main floor people? Can one discern patterns of social influence (i.e., those who stand up because the people around them have already stood up)? Is the “snowball effect” (i.e., when audiences rise in a cascading pattern from front to back) a spontaneous outpouring of admiration or a collective act of frustration over obstructed views? How many patrons remain seated, against all odds, in what surely must be one of the bravest acts of defiance known to man? Follow-up interviews with both standers and non-standers would shed light on whether the standers are applauding the artists or actually applauding themselves for spending so much money on tickets. At the bottom of the barrel is a somewhat dark hypothesis that more and more people can’t tell the difference between a good performance and a great performance, and therefore choose to stand regardless so as not to appear uncultured. We should all know better than to ask questions we really don’t want the answers to. Then again, the “urge to know” can be overpowering.

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11 Responses to To Rise, or Not to Rise: A critical analysis of standing ovations

  1. A standing ovation for this idea!

  2. Don Roth says:

    A couple of slants on this. It is very interesting that audiences which give a “standing O” often don’t applaud for very long – in fact some “standing O” participants are also involved in the famous “moving O” or last bus to Jersey phenomenon – moving toward the door while standing in awe! The reaction I most prize (and the one which artists do also) is that which is an unforced response to the music – quiet when a piece ends quietly, loud and raucous when a piece ends forte and triumphant. Most of us, if we trust our instincts, left to our own devices will respond spontaneously in concert with what we’ve heard (or with Dance and Theater have seen) – even applauding between movements (heaven forfend) when a movement (such as the 1st movement of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto) cries out for a response! As artists and presenters, encouraging audiences to trust their responses is one of the best things we can do for the arts!

  3. margyartgrrl says:

    We’ve observed this too! We know it’s a really mediocre show when there is NO standing O. :-)

  4. Susan Blackman says:

    I love that you see in all phenomena–natural or man-made–something that can be quantified AND from which we, as presenters and arts managers, can learn from and act upon.

  5. Ann McQueen says:

    Cool proposal! Here are couple of other phenomena to look at.

    What role do the performers play in the Standing O? Anna Deavere Smith says that when she bows and rises with arms spread out and up, it prompts the audience to rise, too. Does this mean more Standing O’s in theater than in orchestral concerts when the players must clutch their violins?

    And what about outdoor performances? Is it a real Standing O or is the audience just suffering from tired butts from sitting on the ground?

    So much to learn, so little time.

  6. Brian Jose says:

    Or, as we Americans have become more overweight, is the “standing O” a Darwinian response to tight underwear? On second thought, you’re right, Alan – let’s not ask the questions we do not want the answers to!

  7. Jerry Yoshitomi says:

    Several years ago, there was a website in Canada to which groups could post videos of the standing ovations from their theatres.

  8. Joanne Toft says:

    This was a discussion at a book group last weekend. I wonder if maybe the audience is having more trouble telling the difference between good and great because we are pulling in new people to listen and learn. Are the audiences just so excited to hear and see music they might not have been able to ever see/hear live before? Are they not musicians themselves but are there to learn? Maybe the question how to we teach what is good and great when viewing a concert?

  9. Eric Booth says:

    I confess to a certain perverse pleasure at being the only person not standing in response to a less than stellar performance. I coach myself with “do not compromise standards” as I get buried among a forest of standees. The difference between an organic unison standing O and an uncertain cobbled together O is palpable and is as close to a judgment of quality as we get these days in many settings.

    Perhaps we could re-introduce boo-ing?

  10. Anne Parsons says:

    What would our world look like if we regularly celebrated the joy our audiences feel (regardless of why) when they come to concerts, and support their manner of expressing it? (Like standing when they applaud, for whatever reason, because they feel like it. It could be they do it for themselves, not for anyone else. They follow an impluse, and if they are standing to satisfy their own need to do so, rather than for anyone else, let’s be happy they are participating!) What role does judgement play in this question? People naturally want to be allowed to act on their own impulses, and yes, they can be inhibited by their surroundings, and “rules” and what others think…I say, let’s acknowledge and celebrate the individuality of our audiences, and encourage them to express themselves as they continue to engage in the concert experience!

  11. Mary Trudel says:

    Hello Alan and WolfBrown friends –

    As an arts omnivore, I’ve been pondering this question of standing ovations and think your brilliant new report — “Getting In On the Act” — may be tracing some of the reasons why. People want to engage with performers and performances. As you say, quoting a New Zealand report — “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?

    I know no performance of Handel’s Messiah — a must to “make” my Christmas complete — would be the same without standing tall with the rest of the audience for the Alleluia Chorus. We are standing in community — combining our energy and good will, honoring the performance and the tradition — and becoming part of the event we love. Happy New Year to all arts omnivores left standing.

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