Why do people get so upset when they see a Standing O?

The always Smart ‘N Snarky John Simon wrote a blog a couple of weeks ago airing his disgust about the ubiquitous standing ovation.  (If you don’t know JS, the quick intro is that he was quite a respected critic for a whole bunch of publications until he was fired from his Bloomberg post in 2010.  The whispers in Shubert Alley were that he was dismissed for being too “mean”.  That’s a subjective opinion, of course.  I always thought his reviews were fun, although I do seem to recall a write-up for Footloose where he he mocked the ensemble for being unattractive.)

In the blog, John hypothesizes that since he sees audiences stand up at almost every show they see that they are A) stupid or B) standing up to try and convince themselves the high price of the ticket was worth it.

Of course, John isn’t the first person, critic or otherwise, to complain about standing ovations at shows that aren’t “worthy”.  I’m sure you’ve been weirded-out when a show has gotten that kind of response when you felt it didn’t deserve it, right?  Kind of makes you mad?   I’ll admit that I’ve seen a couple shows (this season, in fact), that left me shaking my head as to what motivated the audience to get off their bums and on their feet.

But when I read John’s column, I started to wonder . . .

Why do we care what motivates a person to stand up?

A person that stands up at the end of a show has enjoyed their experience.  And when a person enjoys their experience, they are more likely to repeat it.  That = good.

And BTW, if you’ve stood on a stage, you know that a Standing O can mean a heck of a lot to those that devote their life to a career in the theater.

So, while you, or me, or John Simon, may not understand why some people jump to their feet at the end of a specific movie-turned-musical, we shouldn’t be POed that they did.  John says that they are “devaluing the standing ovation”.  Ok, maybe they are.  Maybe the Standing O is less rare and so it’s devalued.

But I’d argue that they are increasing the value of their own personal theatergoing experience.

And I’ll jump to my feet about that, 8 times a week.


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  • Also we gotta remember that the Standing O’s come at the end of the show… Standing up is the next logical step to leaving the theatre.

  • kathleen hochberg says:

    It never hurts to, while perhaps devaluing the standing O(so what!), to show appreciation for and value the hard work of the performers, no matter how head shakingly mediocre the show

  • Ellen says:

    Thanks for saying this.
    The disparagement of audiences for showing their appreciation to hard working performers and/or just because they are moved to show their own pleasure at having had a good experience is, to me, the height of arrogance. I give standing ovations for many reasons (but not for every show); and no matter what that reason, the one I think less of is the one is annoyed by that, not the one who stands for a show for which I didn’t share that love.

    I can understand criticizing audiences for bad behavior (noise, cell phones, etc.) or civilly reminding theater-goers to try and refrain from applauding at every scene change for example; but to criticize people for showing joy and opining as if you are the arbiter of what/who deserves a standing ovation does not garner my respect.

    • B says:

      Thanks for standing up in front of me and getting in my way so I can’t see anything Ellen. I’m glad you’re thinking of all the poor actors because you sure as heck don’t give a crap about anybody sitting behind you.

  • J says:

    My friends from the UK tell me that Standing O’s aren’t as commonplace over there and that it’s generally an American phenomenon.

    Recently I took my friend, in town from LA, to see a show. He’s a “theatre person” but hadn’t been to see a show in some time. The play we saw was okay, but my friend was shocked to see everyone give a standing ovation at the end. I had to tell him that it was the standard custom here to stand at the end of every performance, regardless of the quality of the show.

    It doesn’t really bother me, the performers and crew almost ALWAYS deserve it. A show is hard work regardless of the quality, but I can see why it would annoy some people.

  • Sue says:

    If someone in front of me stands up, I do as well so I can see the rest of the bows.

    Also, I need to stretch my legs after being crammed in the seat since intermission.

    And, many people stand up to speed their exit, even if only by a millisecond.

  • I know after sitting many minutes in the uncomfortable BAM barber chairs upstairs, that I LEAP to my feet at the end of any productions for a standing “ah”.

  • G says:

    It’s now becoming commonplace at high school plays and concerts and even half-time marching band shows. Students are being told to give their peers standing ovations for effort. (Are they allowed to recognize lack of effort by peers?)

    If you want to give an ovation for effort, I can think of a lot of hard-working folks who are never applauded and rarely thanked. You know, like hospital nurses, cops, mothers, special ed teachers, garbage men.

    I want to give an ovation…for effort plus talent plus exceptional quality. If I give an ovation just for effort, what do I do when I am fortunate enough to experience an exceptional performance?

  • Douglas Hicton says:

    Of course, if one has enjoyed one’s evening in the theatre, then it is important to show appreciation, and society’s convention is that we show it by applauding. But if everything gets a STANDING ovation, then standing ovations become meaningless. And then performers will become jaded about them and expect them every time out, because a REGULAR ovation just won’t give them the same high. It’s like heroin, where the body becomes addicted and needs progressively bigger hits just to keep the pain of “coming down” at bay.

    So once even standing ovations aren’t high enough praise, what’s next? Dinner invitations? Blowjobs?

  • “Why do we care what motivates a person to stand up?”

    Exactly! I’ve seen people stand at shows and performances that didn’t move me, but you can tell it really moved them. I’ve also been the leader in standing ovations in shows that snobs probably wouldn’t like. But I like it.

    If all you have to complain about is people standing at the end of shows, you probably need a health crisis to give you something serious to ponder.

  • Julia F says:

    I disagree. I think when audiences don’t or can’t discriminate between really objectively excellent theater experiences, it lowers the overall quality of what we get produced. Especially in previews or tryouts, when the creative team is looking for feedback and audience reception, standing ovations without the proper motivation can be misleading as to how much work needs to be done. Of course, if someone truly exceptionally enjoys something that I find standard, they are welcome to stand and cheer their approval; but to expect everyone to do so always, simply because, is ridiculous. I’ve actually gotten stinkeye for remaining in my seat and *merely* applauding during Broadway and amateur curtain calls when standing ovations are the assumed default. And it’s frustrating when you can’t see the bows because everyone stands up just to see over the rows of people standing in front of them.

    Some of the other commenters here mention that it’s uncalled for to criticize audiences for showing their enthusiasm, but standing ovations should be the exception and not the rule. It’s a little like the Participant ribbons handed out just so no kid goes home empty handed- there should still be a distinction between first place and finishing.

  • Ellen says:

    To those who are commenting that standing ovations should “mean” something and should be reserved for only the best, here’s the problem: who decides what’s the best or what deserves it? You? Me? The New York Times? Theater isn’t a timed race – ticket sales are objective measures, but who’s to say that the someone giving that standing ovation with which you don’t agree isn’t standing because it’s the best show they’ve ever seen and they freakin’ loved it…you didn’t and that’s ok, but it’s not up to one person or a critic to tell the person sitting next to them what deserves a standing ovation. I do agree that once people start to stand, others feel compelled or just want to see better, etc. If that’s the case for me, I stay seated as long as I’m comfortable and then I may stand as well. There are times when I will wait to stand until a particular performer bows because I wanted to send a message to them; or because I genuinely didn’t think the entire show deserved it from me.

    I have been at plenty of shows where only a small portion of the audience stood. If they felt the show earned their standing ovation, that’s all that matters. And I’ve been at shows where I did not stand and was in the minority. That’s ok too.

  • Kile Ozier says:

    Sure, just like the special olympics and t-ball for entitled children, everyone should get a medal, just for trying…


    imho, a Standing Ovation is something that should be virtually unstoppable, irresistable; an audience that leaps to their feet as a result of inspiration, almost before they even realize they are standing. These are for STELLAR, Breathtaking performances…not because someone “worked hard.”

    “Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs. Worthington…” Not every performance, no matter how hard someone works to deliver it, deserves a Standing O.

    I don’t get “PO’d,” I just think is sad, sort of pathetic…

    Handing out Standing O’s like Hallowe’en Candy not only illustrates an inexperienced and indiscriminate audience; it does a terrible disservice to the talent on the stage…

    One or both of two things happen:
    1) They believe they are worth it and become afflicted with Premature Diva, and/or
    2) They realize that they are being given charity, and the specialness of being acknowledged for a spectacular piece of work disappears from their lives due to the overdose.

    Just as a sex addict loses the experience of the specialness of sex between two who love one another deeply, versus the brilliantly wonderful experience of sex for the very first time with one which whom one is deeply in love… Common standing o’s deplete the experience.

    Those audiences should be at the Circus.

    My dear granny said, “You are born with one dozen standing ovations to give away; use them wisely…”

  • Lorenzo says:

    If you were moved, then jump up. Amen I say to that.

    ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

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  • Bea says:

    I could see what you are talking baout some weeks ago when i went to NY to attend CT.
    Based on my experiencie in Spain( I´m from Spain) is very difficult to see standing ovations ,for that, the show must be brilliant, perfect…. but what I saw in NY in the 2 shows I went people did it all the theater everybody, so I was very inpress I´m not used to see it , less do it…
    Maybe is something about culture because here in Spain is quite difficult standing ovation and sometimes is a pity, when you guess that a show deserve a standing ovation and you see nobody doing it here, sometimes you feel uncomfortable if you do it.
    In my opinion if you liked the show, cover your expections and the work is well done why not? Is a great job what happens in the shows even when the show is not good if the actors makes a great job is something it must be recognised, they are on the stage commiting itself with us, so I think standing O is a good way to recognise this job…. ( sorry for my english 🙂 )

  • Matthew says:

    What I find curious is that at our local community theater, musicals almost ALWAYS get a standing O, but plays almost NEVER do.

  • Gordon says:

    Thought I would share with you a perspective on applause people may not have considered. My older brother was a concert pianist, extremely well read and about the kindest person you would ever meet. We were talking with each other one night after a performance – I am a Director/Choreographer and had a ballet company at the time – and we got going on the artist’s journey and what-not, and he told me something that has stuck with me ever since. He said that the artist/performer opens a window in time to the audience – to see the eternal – the audience claps to bring us all back home. After ecstasy – the laundry.
    The audience claps for the return trip, not the artist. The deeper the artist sees into the window – the greater the need for the audience to establish a physical presence – to clap harder to tie in the physical to the quantum field.

    I don’t know if he read this somewhere, or whether he was explaining a self-realization, but I often recall that conversation when I am presented with a universal ahha moment.

  • The actors work so hard and applause is there currency. That said, I rarely give into peer pressure. I will give a standing ovation for a show even if I’m the only one. On the other hand, I won’t stand up just because everyone else does. I don’t want to cheapen the value of an ovation. A standing ovation is for excellence (even more than any prejudice awards that nominate style over substance). If I give a standing ovation, it’s because I saw an outstanding performance that deserves extra appreciation. I don’t even stand up at all of my friends’ performance. My reactions are genuine. While I appreciate the courage it takes to get on stage, I have higher standards for professional vs community theatre. Professionals get paid and I pay a lot for their shows. I’m willing to be supportive and applaud, but I’m not going to say you’re awesome (which is pretty much what the standing o does) simply because they did their job. I guess I could also compare it to a bonus in the business. You’re not even likely to get any feedback for doing what you’re supposed to do. You’ll get a bonus if you go above snd beyond.

  • KW says:

    I’m totally with John Simon on this. Standing O’s used to be a spontaneous expression of enthusiasm and delight to reward an exceptional play, production, performance, etc. Now they are the audience’s version of the curtain call.

    It’s the equivalent of everyone in a class getting an A for just showing up. With everything receiving a Standing O, how can we signal our appreciation for the truly great theater experience?

  • Callie says:

    The only thing that bugs me about Standing Os is when the audience waits for “the star” to come out before standing. The star wouldn’t have a show without the performers who bowed first.

  • Meg says:

    I stand when I want, and so do other people, because of the way theatre makes us feel. This has nothing to do with anyone else in the audience. (Yet everything, because there we are experiencing it together, live and fleeting.)

    Just because that guy goes to AWESOME theatre all the time, doesn’t mean every show gets a standing O. Not every show gets a standing O.

    They shouldn’t be a competition. It’s a celebratory act. How wonderful.

  • David Merrick Jr says:

    As others have noted, what I see happening is:

    1. Some people stand, blocking the views of others, who now stand just so they can see the curtain call. Instant Standing O.

  • Jackie says:

    If I am truly disappointed in a show, I will stay in my seat. Because chances are (as several noted above) those around me will not stand, either, and I can comfortably watch the bows without needing to stand to see.

    I must say, though, that I am a quick person to stand. Usually for at least one of the following reasons:
    1) I won the lottery for the show and think that it’s almost rude to the actors who have spent the past 2 and a half hours in your face working their a**es off to not stand (especially for a show that can be defined as anything better than “horrible”)
    2) The show was mediocre but the actors did a fantastic job trying to make it less so. (Most of my recent standing ovations have been because I am impressed with the performances, not the show itself)
    3) I enjoyed myself. Some shows are not great theatre, but are entertaining and I think that anything that entertains deserves applause.
    4) I genuinely enjoyed the show.

  • subduedjoy says:

    I stand up and clap to be polite. I feel like I’m being rude if others are standing up and clapping and I’m not.

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