The Ivey Essay: To Stand or Not To Stand? One of Those Questions . . .

Steven LaVigne writes the first in our series of American Express Ivey Awards essays. Interested? Read on to find out more—and catch the interview with Scott Mayer elsewhere on the site.

Steven LaVigne

It’s easy to leave a theater experience with more questions than answers. Why was that particular music used? What was the director trying to convey to the audience? Or even more basic: Why did that show get a standing ovation?
Over the course of the next four months, six different Twin Cities theater writers will write essays designed to enrich your theater experience. Steve LaVigne (Living Out); Quintin Skinner (City Pages); Anna Pratt (Skyway News); Dominic Papatola (Pioneer Press & MPR); Graydon Royce (Star Tribune); and Jaime Kleiman (Mpls.St.Paul Magazine and will be presenting insights to educate, entertain, and amuse you. Prepared exclusively for and, the essays will appear approximately every two weeks online on both websites. Enjoy!

Oops, they did it again. It was the final matinee for the Broadway-bound revival of “Sweet Charity” starring Christina Applegate. The Orpheum Theatre was half-empty; indeed, the entire center section on both floors was vacant. The performance was nowhere near professional standards, yet when the curtain fell, people were on their feet, giving it something it certainly didn’t deserve, the usual Twin Cities Standing Ovation.

Traveling performers (as well as local artists), must love playing local venues, because Minnesotans will stand for just about anything. “Sweet Charity” is just one recent example. But that doesn’t mean many things don’t deserve this honor. This winter, the area premiere of “The Wild Party,” Brenda Harris’s performance in the Minnesota Opera’s premiere of “Maria Padilla,” and Theatre Latte Da’s imaginative revision of “La Boheme” were all worthy of this ultimate compliment from an appreciative audience.

The issue at hand, however, is that, if everything gets audiences on their feet, how does one differentiate good theatre from bad?

Exemplary question; this is how I answer it. Good theater should somehow affect your senses, take them over. Writers, producers, and directors, trying to create “new” experiences, are looking for ways to make their product look innovative, but sometimes these efforts fail, producing only distraction.
if something onstage causes your mind to wander, taking your attention away from the playwright’s words, your sensory investment into the experience is broken. The play isn’t going to be successful at creating a fully lived experience.

It’s a good idea to know something about what you’re seeing before you fork over your hard-earned money for a ticket. You may not have time to read the script (it may not be available), but with a little internet research, it’s not difficult to learn about the show. With the knowledge you gain, you’ll be both better able to fully experience the play and better able to judge if what you’re experiencing fulfills its own intentions. With this in mind, let’s set some criteria for standing ovations:

Sometimes a standing ovation is part of the show.

Audiences sit patiently for two hours listening to ABBA’s music as the plot for “Mamma Mia!” unfolds. When the mini-concert after the curtain calls arrives, it’s only natural to be up singing and dancing to “Waterloo,” “Dancing Queen” and the title tune. Thiis is an exception, but one found this season as well: the finale for “Monty Python’s Spamalot” is designed to have audiences stand, following the bouncing cocoanut, as they sing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”

Sometimes a standing ovation is part of the norm.

At the Metropolitan Opera, the principals always take a genuine curtain call, receiving their ovation in front of the Met’s golden show curtain (while the remainder of the ensemble, even though they, too, worked hard, are offstage, getting ready to go home). Recently, though, I witnessed the opposite, when across the plaza at Lincoln Center, audiences for New York City Opera’s “Fanculla del West” stayed in their seats, even though this was an outstanding production. Customs vary by house.

There will almost always be a few diehards who feel they must stand.

The above-mentioned “Sweet Charity” is one example, and a few people stood for Natasha Richardson, John C. Reilly and the ensemble for the revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” a production so misguided that it didn’t deserve this recognition.

Often just a recognized name, a television or movie personality, appearing onstage, elicits a standing ovation, deserved or not.

Too often, no matter how good their publicity machine, the star’s suffering a career setback and there are others in the ensemble whose performances will be better. The star will get recognition applause upon their first entrance, and that should be sufficient.

Don’t just follow the audience.

Chances are, audiences are feeling compelled to stand, because, after two or three hours, they need a change—creating a standing ovation driven not by artistic merit but by aching bottoms. This can be annoying, because, say, you think one performer honestly deserves your special praise. Feel free to assert individuality and stand when that person takes his or her bow. I do this frequently. One example was for Helen Goldsby, whose Sharon Graham outshone Patti Lupone’s Maria Callas in “Master Class.” Only once in recent memory has a play moved me to stand before the curtain fell, and that was Tony Kushner’s brilliant “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches,” on Broadway.

Other criteria should be part of your decision whether or not to stand. Is the show innovative? Does it include outstanding writing, acting, design or direction? Is it different from most everything else you see? If so, then, by all means, stand. If, however, you paid a small fortune for tickets to a mediocre creation, don’t praise it. Instead, tell everyone how bad it was, send an email to the producers and complain. As a modern theatergoer, you deserve better.