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The Beat


Sit down, unless you're dazzled

Lawrence Toppman
Lawrence Toppman
Lawrence Toppman is a theater critic and culture writer with The Charlotte Observer.

I've been on the theater beat for only five weeks or so, and I'm already sick of one thing about it: standing ovations.

Every play I've attended, whether extraordinary (the national tour of “Avenue Q”) or merely enjoyable, has brought the audience to its feet – and usually not leaping up with ecstasy but lumbering to a vertical position with mild approval. In fact, I've sung in more than 50 productions with Opera Carolina over the last quarter-century, and I can't recall the last time our shows didn't get a standing ovation. (Some of us call those “leaving ovations,” as people stand halfheartedly and clap while collecting their coats.)

What on Earth is going on here?

Do theatergoers think they'll hurt performers' feelings if they don't rise? That's not true: Most actors know whether they've merited a standing O, and they're not falsely flattered when people struggle up lackadaisically.

Have ovations become so commonplace that not to rise would be construed as an insult? Or is it possible that Charlotteans don't know the difference between a rivetingly accomplished performance and mere hard-working competence? In their minds, do we live in a Lake Wobegon of Drama, where every actor is above average and perhaps in reach of magnificence?

Responding this way shows not enthusiasm – especially if accompanied by polite faces and ritual applause – but complacence. Clap lustily to show approval, but stand only for greatness.

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