Sometimes we need a Tomato

There’s a trend moving across the nation. It’s been noted in theatres from New York to Los Angeles.  It’s pernicious and growing and now needs to be addressed so that a halt can be brought to this outlandish practice.  No, it’s not the smuggling of food and drink into theatres, though there is something to be said on that subject. And it is not the growing occurrence of strange glowing lights often accompanied by muted musical tones and occasional hushed conversation — that too needs to be addressed. But something that is tearing at the very fundamental fabric of theatre is the insistence of audiences to provide a standing ovation for every performance.

First of all, let’s start with what an audience should do, pay attention. Give over enough of ourselves so that we are willing to embark upon the journey offered to us by the production. Second, realize we are having a communal experience and while we may have more urgent matters in our lives than what is going on stage, respect those around us who may be there to see the show and not become a show ourselves.  Third, follow the story.  Be willing to be engaged and let ourselves move with the flow, leaving judgment and opinion to be thought of later.  And finally respond appropriately to whatever we witness.

The first of these is to follow an ancient principal of theatre, suspension of disbelief. The reality is that no matter the show, we always know that we are entering a theatre and we are about to see a play. What is required is that we willingly say, “I am sitting in the scene, and I am witnessing these events as if they were my life.” Though simple in concept, this can be difficult.  But without this step we are not engaged.

The second is that we are having a communal experience; everyone around us is at the theatre to experience the event of the show. Each moment of a play is theoretically crafted to have a salient point.  If it doesn’t resonate with us, it may do so with the person next to us. So just as we were taught as children, it’s not polite to interrupt, don’t break the focus of those around you by making noise (or illuminating the space around you with the glow of your cell phone) . Let the show be the show.

The third, follow the show, is really a matter of saying yes to what is happening on stage. Rather than saying how do they do that, or that could never happen, or why would someone say that, accept the premise. This is much like the first directive above, but requires a sustained commitment. I can see that, or wish I’d said that, or, wow, never thought of that, are ways to look at moment we don’t recognize. After all, one of the functions of theatre is to do precisely that, have an experience different than our own lives.

And finally, respond appropriately. Laugh when you feel the urge, shed a tear when you need to cry, cheer for the hero and boo the villain. Remember that theatre is an interactive event, the cast feels your presence, and your energy is a crucial ingredient to creating a unique moment. While plays are rehearsed and prepared each performance is unique and our input is an essential ingredient.

And when all this has happened, and the curtain closes, we as an audience have the awesome responsibility to judge what we have just seen. So, don’t jump up and rush out of the theatre before the curtain call because you want to get to your car first. It’s called a curtain call so that each performer steps out from the curtain line for a moment and you may comment on each, and the on the performance as a whole.  Cheers and applause are the usual response, but there was a time, when rotten vegetables were also used.

This does not mean that you are obliged to stand and cheer. A standing ovation should be reserved for those moments when you are truly transformed, when you have witnessed a life changing moment. When used in that fashion, it rewards the cast, it encourages them and expresses the warmth and appreciation we have for their effort. But if you haven’t had the epiphany, if you haven’t been transformed, stay put, remain in your seat, clap if you feel it, boo if you must. The first guy to stand may be doing so because he wants to put on his coat. The rest of us seem to follow as if to say, “I don’t get it, but they stood, I should too.” Don’t stand up because you think you should, jump up from exuberance, not because your rear is tired.

If we follow these simple tasks, we will be participating in creating better theatre. And that is our responsibility.

About Peter Finlayson

Peter Finlayson is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of FootLights magazine and While working on a prelaw program at the University of Michigan, he happily got involved with the theatre program. Much to his mother’s chagrin, law school never happened, but in a career spanning more than 4 decades, Peter has performed, directed or designed more than 150 productions. In his spare time, he is working on a new play. You can follow him on Twitter @Thtrdog .

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