NOW CURATING: YOMI
s t r e e t a r t i s t
A friend of mine, who was lucky enough to hang out with certain Dutch artists after their stage performances of a certain Swedish film icon’s screenplays, in a certain performance arts festival this September, said that the actors were dismayed at our lackluster applause.
In Amsterdam, I learned, the standing ovation is a serious thing. People do it. If the performance is good, the actors get a standing ovation.
It’s more complicated here. The currency of standing is costlier. A show can be perfectly good and get a seated ovation. This is matter of cultural norms, of trigger points. The Dutch have a lower trigger point of quality for a standing ovation. In Philadelphia, we need to be actually launched out of our seats, practically holding ourselves back from running onto the stage to hug the performers. And even then, we often don’t stand until many others are on their feet. There, it’s simply a matter of expressing admiration for a work.
This performance got a sort-of standing ovation—some people stood, and others didn’t. I didn’t, not because I didn’t like the performance, but because A) I’ve always got a bag with me and this one was sitting in my lap, along with my notebook and pen and water bottle, and I was anxious about losing one or all, and B) I’m a little confused about my own standing ovation currency. I’m a tightass about my personal taste and I get myself into these uncertain situations.
Anyway, these actors had to be mollified a bit. This is a cultural division. Symbols like the standing ovation are important, and even sincere, objective proof that it’s simply a matter of cultural norms and is not personal might not do the trick in easing the emotional blow.
The whole discussion made me think about something far more awkward than the standing ovation. It’s the mid-scene applause. Goddamn. I mean, a scene or a song has got to be amazing for an audience in Philadelphia to unselfconsciously applaud at a blackout that isn’t the end of the night.
If you go to the theater with any regularity, you’ll have been in an audience when a scene ends, there’s a blackout, it was a good scene, there’s an expectant pause, and a little too late someone starts clapping. We do this because televised versions of plays tell us we should, not because we’re inclined.
So there’s one person clapping in the dark, then one or two other people join in, and then suddenly the next scene is starting. At the next scene break, everyone tries to be better about it, and even if the scene wasn’t so good, a fair set doggedly claps on.
Americans are passive viewers, no doubt. We, and probably a growing number of Europeans, learn to watch not in a live format but in a home one. Outside of a ballgame, we don’t go out and get wild with our applause. We enjoy within, not without, and then we politely applaud at the end of the show. Not in the middle.
In Philadelphia, we don’t applaud in mid-scene.
This is not a bad thing, and you know what? Chronologically, it’s directly linked to a decrease in built-in rests in shows. The mid-scene blackout and intermission breaks are built-in rest points for audiences to gather their thoughts, express admiration, and get ready for what’s next. New plays for younger audiences rarely include intermissions, and the trend is away from scene breaks.
Underground Railroad Game was one of the unqualified successes of this year’s FringeArts festival. The play’s been presented in development (read: unfinished) in Philly and across the country over the last year, and when I asked Scott Sheppard what the biggest change was that he and co-creator Jennifer Kidwell had made to get it ready for Fringe, he said, “We rounded off the edges. There was a lot of stopping and starting between scenes, but that didn’t feel right. Our goal was to make it more fluid.”
I’m in my home with my laptop on my lap, writing an article while Spotify plays Ryan Adams covering Taylor Swift and, if my mind begins to drift, I read an article on my cellphone. My TV is on in the background. More and more people consume this way—without breaks, fluid, connected, overlapping—and theater which touches on those tastebuds is what’s going to catch.
So here’s what I have to say about mid-scene applause in Philadelphia, and if you’d just join in with me:
Please, hold your applause to the end.
And if it’s silent in a blackout, and you’re asking yourself the question “Should I start the applause?” Just take a deep breath, remember who you are, realize that you don’t actually want to applaud, and don’t.