One of the most annoying things about attending mainstream plays at big, mainstream, regional theaters is the tendency for people to give standing ovations on the merest excuse. I know, I know, I’m way more critical of theatre than most people considering I’ve been involved with making and/or studying it for the better part of twenty-six years and my tastes run to more challenging and esoteric styles and structures anyway. But I can guaran-damn-tee you that not a single one of the people who stood up last night and gave a standing ovation to the Public’s production of God of Carnage had their lives altered, had their minds expanded, or had an experience that would stay with them for, if not the rest of their lives, at least for months or years. I don’t care how much they laughed at what the Hollywood Reporter called an “impeccably accessible comedy” and I don’t give a flying fuck that the play won a Tony, the show is facile, crude (and not because of the vomit, but because Reza’s characters and situations have all the humanity and subtly and complexity of a three-year-old child’s attempts at architecture with Toddler Legos), and is rife with shallow observations that pose as witty insights.
All that aside, I would not challenge the fact that many people seemed to enjoy the show. Fine, so you can look past the bad writing and one-dimensional characters and facile jabs at the hypocrisy of “cultured” people. Fine, so you can get beyond the mugging and one note acting that was on display. Fine, you laughed, you enjoyed your night out, you had fun. I’m not saying that people were necessarily wrong to enjoy themselves, that’s not for me to say (even if it is for me to lament). My point is that the standing ovation has become cheapened to the point where it literally means nothing. It no longer means that the audience witnessed extraordinary talent, or that the performance was one that would resonate within the audience member’s memory for a long time, or that what they experienced was important. No. A standing ovation now means nothing more than “I was amused.”
Rewarding mediocrity with standing ovations is ultimately most harmful to the theatre practitioners. It lulls them into believing that their work is more meaningful than it is. It makes them accept their mediocrity instead of striving for excellence. It misleads them into thinking that they don’t earn standing ovations but merely deserve them if they show up and do their job competently.
Theatre practitioners should also lead by example (especially when seeing shows with friends or family who are not theatre people) and never participate in standing ovations for anything less the than sublime and the truly affecting. If a performance is executed perfectly (this is rare) and makes a profound change in your understanding of yourself or the world (even more rare), then a standing ovation might be appropriate. If you “just had a fun time”—and I would bet all of my stipend for next year that nobody in that theatre had anything more profound than just a fun time—applaud all you want, hoot and holler if you must, but please, please, do it from your seat.