OPINION: Has The 'Standing O' Become The 'Standing, Oh'

Saturday, July 06, 2013

There are many commonly used theatre terms a logical person like myself has trouble understanding. For example, it is often quoted that an exceptional performance is ‘show-stopping’. My first thought is if a show is so good, why would it being stopped be construed as a good thing? I would imagine an event described as show-stopping would be in relief of a bad performance.

All the same, there is a term derived from another culture and used regularly at events around the globe which many claim has lost its integrity.

‘Ovation’ has its origins in Roman celebration when publicly acknowledging minor or insignificant victories, those deemed not worthy of a triumph. In many cases receiving an ovation was an insult as combatants and victors personally believed, as they do, they were worthy of higher honours.

For those who are interested, the origin of the word comes from the Latin ovis, meaning sheep, which were sacrificed after military action, ovatio becoming the act.

So it fails to reason an ovation would last through history, find its interpreted meaning on the path into the common public arena and become one of the highest forms of acclaim. Yet here we are.

However, that is where my research hit a wall. The next evolution of the practice seems lost even in the vast expanses of the inter-web and I am discouraged to declare I have no idea how it came from Romans sacrificing sheep through to the early 1830s where standing applause becomes more socially common.

(If anyone can fill in the blanks, you know where to find me.)

It has almost come full circle and returned to its Roman reluctant-celebration roots and again become frowned-upon. Many performances simply for the act of completion have received rousing standing applause where as exceptional performances often leave satisfied and content patrons inanimate in their seats until the house lights rise.

Marina Prior and David Hobson are two of Australia’s living theatrical treasures. Their performances at DRTCC sold out many weeks in advance and it was widely described as the most anticipated performing arts event of 2013.

The first performance, a Friday, was exceptional and even the frail and elderly were inspired to rise to their feet and applaud as if attempting to disintegrate diamonds with their palms. But as I said, we would not have expected anything less from these two performers.

If at all possible, the Saturday and following performance was even more outstanding. The performers seemed more comfortable in their environment and increased the banter between themselves on stage. Yet this performance by response of the attending audience was not worthy of a standing applause.

On this occasion the applause was deafening but still not a full standing ovation.  Alright, so a quarter of the audience stood and clapped wildly but it just does not have the same impact.  Then follows an awkward moment when those sitting uneasily make a move to stand whilst those few standing casually make a move to sit down.  Either way, the moment is lost.

A common observation at performances receiving standing ovations which I have attended has been the instance of an initiator: someone who feels compelled despite surrounding opinion to physically show their gratitude for their enjoyment of the performance. Once this person has made their intentions clear it can take a moment before another realises they are right in their judgement and joins them above the seated crowd. Many others then tend to follow suit and complete the custom.

Without this initiator there may have been no standing ovation despite the merit of the performance.

However, it is with this initiator and the social conduct that follows which has drawn criticism and perceivably devalued the once rare and deserving standing ovation.

The becoming-far-more-common standing ovation is often seen even at mundane events for run-of-the-mill achievements such as rugby league games and the Grammy Awards.

“A standing ovation used to really mean something, but when you start giving a standing O for just any ol’ Tom, Dick or Harry, at least for me, it tends to cheapen the effect,” remarks Life Is Poetic author Richard Lee King.

Many of those who have followed the lead of the aforementioned initiator can be seen subtly glancing around the audience wondering if the performance really warranted such a response.

Equally, at performances lacking a standing applause similar numbers of attendees can be seen offering the same glances wondering if there should be.

In the end, it seems to be entirely at the will of each individual to give their own satisfied level of acclaim towards the performance.

If you feel the need to stand and ‘yahoo’ in the face of the performers, confident they will receive your message then by all means you should care less about what those around you think. Many performers leave comments regarding the warmth and gracious response of Dubbo audiences, so if a mutual feeling strikes you feel free to audibly oblige.

However, if you have been woken from a lovely nap by the incessant clapping of those around you and their need to jump up from their seats, rattling the bones of the row, there is no need for you to follow convention and include yourself in something you don’t believe appropriate.

Richard Lee King concludes, “I’m left to ponder, ‘Is it disrespectful to not stand and applaud when you don’t feel the urge to do so?’ Restated in another way, ‘Isn’t it a bit of a ‘Cop out’ to stand and applaud when you don’t feel it is warranted and deserved?’”


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