There are rules when at concerts and plays

Published 9:19 am Friday, September 20, 2013

Column: Notes from Home, by David Behling

Many years of sitting in darkened theaters and being up on stage as a singer or actor have taught me that the behavior of audiences at live concerts and plays is important. What people do while sitting in the darkened seats in auditoriums and theaters effects the quality of the performance for everybody else.

Many of these behaviors are pretty obvious. Yelling out the names of our kids or friends the first time they walk out on stage often distracts them and thus interferes with more than just the ability of the rest of the audience to enjoy what’s taking place. Talking on mobiles is also pretty obvious. And very obnoxious, too, along with flash photography.

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While it’s not as obnoxious or noisy, using an iPad or camera phone to film a show also distracts. Unless the family members — it’s usually parents, but not always — are sitting or standing in the very last row (or behind it), the screens of their devices draw the eyes of everyone sitting in the seats behind them. Instead of watching or listening to the performance, we watch the filming of it, as fascinated by the glowing screen as magpies are by shiny bits of glass. The attention of the audience should be focused on what’s happening on stage, not on technologies employed by amateur filmmakers.

There’s something beyond all these distractions and petty annoyances, however, that bothers me even more. It’s right at the end of the show or concert, the final notes linger in the hall, and I cringe, waiting for it. The audience begins to applaud as the musicians or actors bow, and then those sitting in the darkness begin to rise to their feet. Slowly, clump by clump or row by row, the people clapping stand up.

And I cringe. Oh, I stand up along with the rest, but reluctantly, without enthusiasm.

Why do I cringe, you ask? Why am I so reluctant to join in this ultimate form of applause? Isn’t this all a wonderful part of life today? Don’t the performers deserve it?

Bah, humbug, I say. I have been in the audience for many outstanding performances in my life, including many in theaters and auditoriums here in Freeborn County. But writing as a performer, standing ovations that aren’t earned have no meaning to me, or to many other experienced actors, singers or musicians. Robotic, compelled, automatic standing ovations are not genuine.

These make me cringe because, too often, they actually mask the audience’s desire to get ready to leave. I have seen many people, while standing up for the “ovation” for the performers, pause first to retrieve purses from floors or jackets from the backs of chairs. Some of them don’t even keep clapping. They just stand there waiting for everybody else to settle down so they can make their quick exits to the parking lot.

There’s something else following performances — especially at plays and musicals locally — that is equally icky: the performers disappear from the stage only to reappear in the lobby or by the exit, still in makeup and costumes, standing in a receiving line, waiting for handshakes and parental hugs. The only way to leave the building is to exit right past them, as if we were at a wedding … or more distressing, at a wake, and we’re in line greeting the family of the deceased.

If we want to congratulate someone directly (which I admit I find meaningful as an actor), it doesn’t have to happen right at the exit. There’s almost always space off to the side or a “green room” where audience and cast can talk. But to appear in costume while not in character and give the appearance of demanding congratulatory handshakes? That just doesn’t feel kosher to me.

I’m not just being grumpy and judgemental. The reward of applause is important to performers; a standing ovation can bring true joy . . . it’s better than money, as far as I’m concerned. But only if it’s genuine, when what we’ve done deserves that ultimate compliment. Polite applause should be a given at any performance, perhaps automatic at one featuring children (even when we are not related to them), but standing ovations should be earned regardless of who is performing.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.