Why do people give Standing Ovations? We did a SURVEY to find out.

If you’ve seen a show lately, then I’d bet money that you’ve seen a Standing Ovation as well.

They seem to be everywhere these days, don’t they?  I remember seeing them at every high school show I saw when I was a teen, and that trend took over Broadway as well.

To be honest, I don’t really care if every show has a Standing ‘O’, as I wrote about a couple of years ago after John Simon e-screamed that the perfunctory elevated ovation should stop (you can read that original post here).

But does every Broadway show really have a standing ovation?  And why are people standing up?  Do they really think the show deserves it?

We can hypothesize all we want, but there really is only one way to find out . . . Ask The People!

So that’s what we did.  I sent my peeps into the street and we asked a hundred theater going folks the following questions:

  • On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate the last Broadway show you saw?
  • Did that show get a standing ovation?
  • Did YOU stand up?

Here is what we found out:

  • The average show was given a rating of 8.52.
  • 99% of the shows received a standing ovation.
  • Of the 99% of shows that did receive a standing ovation, only 5% of those surveyed did not stand with the rest of the audience.

So it looks like standing ovations really are everywhere.  And just about everyone is participating when they see one.

But wait . . . there’s more to learn from this.  Let’s dig a little deeper.  The shows received an average rating of 8.52.  I wonder what the Standing “O” numbers were like for people who rated their show less than an 8 . . . which would equate to a “so-so” theatrical experience, right?

Let’s see . . .

  • 28% of the people we surveyed rated their show less than an 8!
  • Despite this mediocre (or less) rating, 79% of them stood anyway!

So let’s get this straight . . . people see a show, they think it’s “eh” but they get on their feet anyway.  Why?  Peer pressure?  Get halfway to the door?  Stretch their legs?

We asked the folks who stood up, even though they didn’t love the show, why, and here’s what they said:

  • 41% said, “I liked the actors, just not the show.”
  • 36% said, “Everyone else was standing, so I did too.”
  • 9% said, “I was just trying to get a better view of curtain call.”
  • 5% said, “I’m just nice, and I felt bad not standing.”
  • 5% said, “I stood out of enthusiasm, it was a climactic moment.”
  • 4% said, “I just love theatre in general, so I stood.”
Pretty interesting stuff, isn’t it?  Lots of takeaways about how actors influence audience response, and how Social Proof can get people to do something they aren’t inclined to do on their own.
But my big takeaway, and one that all Producers should remember when they are standing in the back of their house, watching an audience give their show a standing “O” . . .
It’s easy to get people to stand up these days.  It’s not as easy to sell tickets.

(Got a comment? I love ‘em, so comment below! Email Subscribers, click here then scroll down to say what’s on your mind!)
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  • Iris says:

    Interesting this is very different in England. I was at Top Hat last fall and had a front row seat. I was back for the 2nd time because I dearly love that show, shot up to my top 3 all my favorites. At curtain call, I stood up, partially because of general enthusiasm because you’re on such a high after a great show, and partially there is nothing about this show that I didn’t love. Also, I’m used to standing ovations. I’ve been to many Broadway shows, where it is, as you showed, very common, and the same applies here in Germany. However, after 5 seconds or so of standing the woman you sat behind me, grabbed the back of my pants and literally pulled me down. I had been the only one standing, although the crowd was generally enthusiastic about the show. Now, her husband profusely apologized on his wife’s behalf later, and so did a couple other random strangers who approached me afterwards, but I only realized then, that Standing O’s are really not than common in the West End. Which I think is sad, because after a really good show there is no keeping me in my seat. And I do not stand up for every show!

  • David Merrick Jr says:

    What I find happening is that SOME people stand and then you can’t see the curtain call!

    And since that’s a major part of the show, you’ve got to stand just to see it.

    Instant Standing O!

  • roseyv says:

    People stand for the same reason they will form a line behind a sign that says “The Line Starts Here” even if the sign is in the middle of nowhere, with no indication of what the line is for, as long as there’s at least one other person already standing there. The majority of people will just naturally follow the behavior of the one or two who “prime the pump.” So when that chorus kid’s mom and dad jump to their feet, almost everyone else will follow along. And then, if you don’t stand up, you look like a schmuck. I have seen some of the worst Broadway shows ever produced (I saw “Carrie,” back in the ’80s, for pete’s sake) and every one of them got standing O’s.

  • Jared says:

    As a former actor, I feel even more strongly than I would have otherwise about not standing for every show. Because it does devalue the standing ovation, and when you know you were going to get one anyway, it devalues the experience.

    In my opinion, you can tell which shows actually earned their standing ovation by how it happens. If everyone is on their feat almost immediately, then that show actually moved the audience to their feet. If a few people stand, and then a few more, and then more and more until everyone is standing, the audience probably wasn’t as moved.

    I do not begrudge anyone standing after a show they particular enjoyed. But I will not be standing at every performance, and have pointedly remained seated after certain shows. I will always smile and applaud (actors are people to, and even the bad shows involve a lot of hard work on their part), but I will not always stand. It is unnecessary.

  • Surveys about standing ovations. Someone has a lot of free time on their hands…

    Perhaps it’s just an American thing. Is that bad? The Brits may not go for it, but they subsidize the arts, we don’t. Maybe that’s a Brit thing.

    If we could subsidize vital “non-commercial” theater, we could then give up the standing o’s. Until then, let’s get back to navel gazing.

  • Michael DiGaetano says:

    Last month I saw All The Way and Buyer and Cellar on the same day. Bryan Cranston is a great actor and dida fine job, but the show was pretty average to me. Yet the second the lights went out, everybody stood up. Buyer and Cellar on the other hand deserved a S.O. Michael Urie owned us for 90 minutes. Oh well, i guess them all standing is better than them not.

  • When you spend a few hundred bucks on a night at the theatre with your family, friends or evening companion – standing up and clapping makes you feel like you really got your money’s worth. I think you clap for the cast and crew but you also applaud yourself for feeling like a part of it all. Then you can go home and say that the show was well worth the price of admission. So good, it even got a standing-O.

    • Michael says:

      I believe Stu heard the same interview I did of Stephen Sondheim explaining this phenomenon. People spend usually a sizable amount to go to the theater. Not only on the tickets, but the dinner out, the drinks at intermission, parking, etc. So at the end of this night, in order to justify the $300 – $500 they just dropped on one evening they have to stand. AS an artist, I find it frustrating. Often I don’t stand because I didn’t like the production. I support the performers and the organization/theater by purchasing my ticket. But I am more apt to be turned off by a bad performance that I spent way too much money on seeing then try to make myself feel better by standing and saying it was “amazing!”

  • Brenda Chapman says:

    As a High school teacher, I’m fighting a losing battle in trying to teach the kids a standing O is for OUTSTANDING work. The kids see it on TV in fiction shows. They think that’s what they’re SUPPOSED to do. Recently attended a local community theatre show that was “ok.” The ONLY ones NOT standing were fellow teachers!

  • polo says:

    When I used to study musical theater with Lehman Engel back in the 1970’s, this was a pet peeve of his. He hated it. He said they were too easily given and most recipients didn’t warrant or deserve the hoops and hollers that were displayed. And that was way back in the 70’s.

  • Nancy says:

    Perhaps this is old news but a local promoter of touring shows used to say when everybody stands because they can no longer see the curtain call that it was a “sitting ovation”.

  • Kay says:

    Hate, hate, the stage blocking that a standing o causes. When one is “brought to their feet”… it has nothing to do with seeing the curtain calls.
    As iris said “there is no keeping me in my seat”

  • Even a horrid show seems to get a standing O, it no longer signifies something very special…. and the reasons cited above are all good ones.
    Primarily, people cannot see so you are forced to get up;the enthusiasm is there because you understand how hard the performers work up there; you feel like a jerk if you DON’T stand up as everyone else is standing.
    I miss the days when people threw flowers on stage. No THAT meant something!!

  • Seth Duerr says:

    Quite simply, this is about ticket pricing. If you want an honest reaction, make the ticket prices on Broadway more accessible. When folks pay hundreds of dollars for a show, the act of admitting it was poor would, in their minds, reveal them to be fools. So, better to stand and pretend they made a wise investment than sit and be judged by their peers.

  • Ron Emerick says:

    I see the phenomenon you are describing at every single performance of Pittsburgh Public Theater–the outstanding ones as well as the mediocre ones.
    A few folks jump up and within ten seconds more than half the audience are on their feet. It’s partly mob behavior–and in my case I want to see the curtain call so I have no choice but to get up.

  • LA Producer says:

    Do people who give standing O’s tip their waiters 50%? Or clap when their kids use a napkin properly? Maybe give the mailman a gift every week instead of just at the Holidays?

    My gf and I see a lot of theatre and watch WAY too many standing ovations. A show gets a standing O when it’s an eleven on a one to ten scale. I can only think of four shows in past memory that earned one. Drives us both nuts! Have theatre audiences really become less sophisticated?

  • Thomas Heath says:

    As a playwright, a director, an actor… EARNING a standing ovation is very special. We just closed a two week run of our show “Perfectly Normel People” in Charleston, SC and though we got S.O.’s for most of the shows, the fact that we didn’t get them for EVERY show added so much more value for the creative team, especially the actors (they worked so hard every show to make sure the audience got their money’s worth)… If a show or the performances BLOW YOU AWAY, then stand up! If not, then it’s alright to stay seated and applaud… Just my 2 cents.

  • Emily says:

    Is it bad that I usually give a standing ovation because I can’t wait to stand up and stretch a little bit? I love theater enough to take the back pain it gives me (no leg room!!!!), so the moment it’s appropriate, I NEED to stand up!

  • Andrew says:

    One word: Lemmings.

  • George says:

    More often than anything else – just to see because everyone else is standing…

    I think this phenomenon has taken off precisely because MOST of do NOT go to the Theater that often… and their impression – at a LIVE performance – is that you STAND at the end!

    We can’t stand at the movies – one almost feels silly clapping – you get NO satisfaction in registering your enthusiasm for the artists at the end of a movie… so – when You attend LIVE Theatre – even the most mediocre shows (where the Actors, nevertheless, persevere…) seems to demand reciprocation…

    You might want to also consider that people are STANDING throughout many Rock/Pop Concerts… and those are LIVE… so the practice has been re-enforced by Live Concerts.


  • David says:

    I hardly think this survey is a scientific one. It is anecdotal and any real examination of this phenomenon would have to include surveying audiences at all kinds of theatre. I would venture to say that more people stand at musicals where there is a rousing orchestration to accompany the bows than they would for a family drama. Also, is the act more likely to be found at the big commercial Broadway shows and tours than in small regional theatre? Again, I would venture to say yes because patrons of “Cats” are more likely to be the lemmings who have little sophistication or artistic taste than those sitting in the audience for an original play in a 125 seat theatre. Audiences for smaller theatrical companies, regional theatres and dramatic works tend to be smarter in general, I believe. Yes, that statement is a value judgment and perhaps a generalization, but I stand by it. And with that sophistication, I think, comes the savvy knowledge of the traditions of the theatre. Patrons of “Legally Blonde,” not so much. And lest you think I am anti-musical, I am not. It is actually my favorite art form. But, a lot of the recent mediocre musical rehashings of movies in no way deserve the standing O. My first standing ovations were in 1974 when I saw Angela Lansbury in “Gypsy.” That performance deserved a standing ovation … as did “Sweeney Todd” years later. Likewise, Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst in anything O’Neill. But, only a small percentage of the work I see is of this caliber and yet it all gets standing ovations. And it diminishes the deserved standing O every time one is offered by rote or for something less than extraordinary. It makes me sad. And I think it is also an indication of the cultural dumbing down of our society.

  • Ray Renati says:

    I am an actor. I have acted on stage regionally for 25 years and I have friend on Broadway. Here’s the deal. First of all, most people who go to New York to see a Broadway show have spent an arm and a leg to do so. So, they are predisposed to make sure the are head over heals about the experience in order to justify the trip and because they are just excited to be there. Secondly, people are star struck in the U.S. We all are familiar with the show that has the Diva in the cast and the moment she appears on stage everyone goes ape shit. That person is pretty much guaranteed a standing ovation at curtain call even if she were to deliver her lines from the booth with her mouth full of pizza. Thirdly, there is a little trick that a lot of Broadway actors employ that subconsciously directs people to stand. Watch for it and you will see. When the lead actor comes out at the end of the curtain call.. slowly with a big ole smile.. he or she will place their hands at their wastes, palms up, and slowly raise them. This action in and of itself will cause a good number of people to stand.. then it’s the domino effect after that. Eventually, they are all standing. 🙂

  • Bruce Brown says:

    I rarely stand for a performance. The usual applause is enough for most. If the performance really was extraordinary and I was moved or touched beyond what is expected I will. But to be honest that rarely happens.

  • I’ve accepted that a standing O is the norm, and doesn’t mean anything anymore. So what does one do to show their appreciation when a show is really extraordinary?

  • Ralph Hickok says:

    I recently attended a concert at which much of the audience gave the orchestra and guest soloists a standing ovation after the FIRST MOVEMENT of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto. I think it was sheer ignorance, and I also think that ignorance is the main reason for most standing ovations.

  • I only give standing O’s to performers over 80, sort of a lifetime achievement award. So the only people I stand for are Barbara Cook and Willie Nelson.

  • Sam Daniel says:

    Well this is about human nature when you like an you clap and when you are very impressed by an act or show then you give standing O.

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  • Elizabeth says:

    The ubiquitous standing ovation is a product of our modern society and the constant reminder that we are all winners. Once reserved for the extraordinary, it has become an automatic gesture; its special meaning all but lost.

    It happens at preschool recitals, after 3 yr olds perform their favorite nursery rhymes, all singing in different keys, at middle school orchestra concerts, squeak, squeak, squeak; in that case, the standing ovation might be part of a quick exit strategy, and now, unfortunately, at every Broadway play and Lincoln Center performance.

    The automatic standing ovation diminishes the great and elevates the average. We are all equal in our greatness. Well, Bravo!

    I don’t participate in this activity; I view it as condescending to those who don’t deserve it and insulting to those who do. It is extremely annoying, though, to have people blocking my view, and difficult to resist the burning urge to scream, “DOWN IN FRONT”.

    I just sit, staring at the rear ends in front of me, some are quite large these days, remembering, when, as a child, my mother took me to the final performance of Helen Hayes. When the applauding audience stood, she leaned down and said, “You’ll remember this night for the rest of your life; a standing ovation is rare.”

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