A standing ovation is not a standing ovation

Who doesn’t love a standing ovation?

We all know this beautiful tradition to show our appreciation in the theatre. It is a special honor for all actors as well as the teams backstage: On exceptional occasions, guests rise from their seats to reinforce the applause. Typically, this happens at the end of a performance, in rare cases even after a certain scene or an exceptional part of the presentation. This form of recognition is usually perceived as the highest achievement a show can accomplish. Therefore, we also like to mention it in newspaper articles, reviews, or private posts for underlining our success: “Standing ovations at the premiere of XY’s new show!”

Yes, we made it!

As this is a valuable stamp of quality, directors have found various ways to produce this moment intentionally. The way a finale is arranged gives spectators “the opportunity” to stand up in a given moment, hoping that they do as it is planned. It is a fine art to produce a standing ovation while still keeping it voluntary. But there are more obvious cases, as well: In one of our shows, the host mentioned: “If you like to give us a standing ovation: now is the moment!” In another case, our principal performer waited literally for minutes during the final bow until a handful of people stood up – maybe to leave? He then fell on his knees and thanked them intensively by pointing at them and sending kisses. He made a big scene until the rest of the audience realized what he was aiming for. So, they stood up, too. Standing ovation. Big success, right?

Did we really make it?

A similar, yet very different example happened in France when we were invited to perform at one of the world’s most prestigious TV shows for circus and variety acts. It was a big day for me. Nervously, I watched all other acts from backstage while we waited for our own appearance. The first performer went on stage and received a spontaneous, full standing ovation. I was in awe. This guy must have really touched them. However, the same happened for the second, third and fourth presentation, too. The audience had merely developed the tradition to stand up after each piece of performance. By the time we were on, a standing ovation had become difficult to be appreciated as such. Being number 12 in the running order, the impact of this (usually) rare fondness had already faded. (However, the audience on their feet still turned out great for our promo video!)

I feel it!

A standing ovation, just as much as any other communication with the audience, highly depends on the cultural setting. Tendentiously, Germans rarely stand up – but if they do, it means a lot. Americans, in comparison, are usually a lot more outgoing and appreciative. Having a standing audience here seems more common. But even within one country, these habits vary. In an Austrian opera, for example, you will see fewer standing ovations than during a musical theatre performance in the same region. Ultimately, it depends on the artform, the social habits, the involved people, as well as the particular exchange within the room. It is not easy to analyze all these different factors, but the beauty is: When a standing ovation is honest and real, we can feel it!