Dave Sikula ponders Standing Ovations and other ways we tell the artists that we like their work.
Like many of you, I’ve seen “No Man’s Land” at Berkeley Rep. Unlike many of you, I’ll be seeing it again this week. My wife and I were originally scheduled to see it for her birthday, but family matters took her out of town early. She was able to catch it last week, though, and of course, once she’d seen it, I had to go.
I was struck by a few things about the performance. The first was, while it’s a fine, fine production of an enigmatic play, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “revelatory” as have some. Years ago, I was lucky enough to see Pinter himself (with Liv Ullmann, of all people) in a production of “Old Times.” That production was revelatory. After years of reading how Pinter should be played, it was fascinating to watch the man himself practice what he preached. It was a superb production – and would have been so even if he hadn’t been Harold Pinter. Pauses were just that; brief hiatuses just calling attention to themselves before moving on, rather than import-filled breaks in the dialogue. As with so much of Pinter, it was creepy and atmospheric, but in just the right amounts. (And let me hasten to add, so is the current offering. It’s just I’ve already been there …)
But the two things that interested me most were these:
As the curtain rose with both Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen on stage, there was no entrance applause. I don’t know if it was because the former was wearing a toupe and the latter was facing upstage (and by the time they were more or less recognizable, the show was well underway) or if the Berkeley audience has just achieved a gratifying level of sophistication. Regardless, I was glad to not be met with that most interruptive of rituals.
In my time (he said, sounding like his grandfather – who never talked like that anyway), I’ve been lucky enough to see a goodly number of important stage actors – Katharine Hepburn (even met her backstage), Christopher Plummer, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Rex Harrison, Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera, Jerry Orbach, Ben Kingsley, Vanessa Redgrave, Jason Robards, Alan Bates, Frank Langella, Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline – but I can’t think of more than a handful of people I’d want to give entrance applause to. Why people do it at all puzzles me. Sure, they’re great artists, but you’re basically applauding them because you recognize them and they’ve shown up for work. Unless directors and writers have anticipated the situation, you’ve placed everyone on stage in the awkward position of stopping the show cold, holding, and waiting until things die down. (In a way, it strikes me as the same thing as people applauding a singer when they hear a hit song they recognize. I’m reminded of a story I heard about Tony Bennett rehearsing in an empty auditorium. He started singing the verse of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and it went like this: “The loveliness of Pari – thank you for remembering.” He knew that’s where the inexplicable applause would come.)
Now here’s where I make sure you realize I think all of these people are more than deserving of applause, accolades, and any laurels that come their way. It just strikes me as an odd ritual that, in America at least (I hear they don’t do it in London), people start clapping the second they see a big name on stage.
Similarly, at the end of the show, people leaped to their feet to give the show a standing ovation. (That is, most everyone; the older woman next to me could barely wait for the lights to come down before bounding from her seat and getting out of the theatre.) Now, I understand how, when people are profoundly moved, they want to give a standing O. I’ve done it on many occasions, but I’m more interested in the peer pressure of the act – not to mention the unintentional standing ovation. In the former case, as with “No Man’s Land,” while I felt it was an excellent production, I wasn’t moved by it. As much as I enjoyed it (which was significantly), I didn’t feel compelled to stand to show that enjoyment. A good portion of that, though, can be chalked up to my having a seat that was in an inconspicuous location. No one would see if I stood or sat. On my next viewing, though, I’ll be in the front row, visible to both the cast and the house as a whole, and will feel the need to stand, whether I feel the performance deserved it or not. I’ll admit it will neither be a strain nor a compromise to do so, but the impetus will come more from a desire to avoid “what’s wrong with him?” than a genuine expression of being deeply touched. Actually, last week, I was nearly forced into standing by the latter occurrence, the unintentional standing O; that is to say, when during the applause, poor sightlines force one to stand simply to see who’s on stage. I may not have even liked the show, but circumstances have made me stand just so I can find out what’s happening up there.
Stephen Sondheim (for whom I have given both entrance applause and a standing ovation) has speculated that it’s high ticket prices that have created the automatic standing O; that audiences have spent so much money on tickets, parking, babysitters, meals, souvenirs, etc., that standing at the end of the performance is a way to convince themselves that the expense was worth it. “I may have spent a lot, but look at what I got!” There may be something in that, but I’ve seen shows in venues ranging from community theatres to some of our better-known professional houses that got standers even when the results were neither particularly expensive nor good. Even when I’ve been on the receiving end of them, I’m grateful, but (more often than not) think “We were good, but we weren’t that good.” Conversely, I’ve seen shows that were deeply moving and/or entertaining that no one has risen for. (And on one occasion on Broadway – “The Pirates of Penzance” – I was the only one standing. One of the single-most entertaining evenings of my life, and I was determined to show it.)
Ultimately, I don’t know what my point in raising this is. Maybe it’s just an expression of my observation; maybe it’s just my contrary psychology. All I know is, come Saturday, I will rise to my feet at the end of the performance, but it may not be because I want to, but just because I ought to.
Dave Sikula has been acting and directing in Los Angeles and the Bay Area for more than 30 years. He’s worked with such companies as American Conservatory Theatre, South Coast Repertory, the Grove Shakespeare Festival, Dragon Productions, Palo Alto Players, and 42nd Street Moon. As a writer and dramaturg, he’s translated the plays of Anton Chekhov and had work produced by ANTA West.