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sit down and clap
(performing arts)
by stephen van esch

I love a good performance. Dance, opera, theater, any kind of entertainment that I have to get somewhat dressed up for interests me. I've been to many performances of each genre and there is one disturbing trend I've noticed over the last several years.

It has nothing to do with the performances themselves. Most of what I attend is reasonably well done and professional. The real problem lies with the audience.

Way back when, performing arts where an indulgence of the reasonably educated and somewhat well off. Reasonably educated in the sense that they had a deep appreciation for the performance they were attending. Some study had gone into the genre and years of attending performances had honed the audience's knowledge of the art.

Now, however, going to a performance of any kind is not necessarily reserved for the genteel performing art connoisseur. Anyone with a full wallet (or space on their credit card) can attend a performance. The performing arts retain some of their upscale flavor making it a popular choice among those making their first pass at cultural enrichment. Going to a movie, after all, doesn't sound as good as going to an opera.

This shift toward performing arts for the masses is not a problem. Several dance, opera, and theater companies have enjoyed record revenues in the last 5 years. The coffers swell and the arts earn more respect. I see no problem with that.

One of the small problems, however, is that the new inductees into the world of performing arts can't seem to differentiate between what is merely mediocre and what is truly exceptional. This is can be seen clearly at the end of every performance I have attended over the last 2 years.

Every performance, good, bad, or ugly received a standing ovation from the audience. Every one.

A standing ovation means one thing and one thing only; the performance was well beyond what is normally seen in that particular genre. The performers moved the audience through the sheer mastery of their art.

Most people would agree that this is a rare event. Many performances fall under the "very good" category. Very few fall under the "exceptional" category. From my own observations over the last 2 years indicate that either I am an artistic dunce or that people will award a standing ovation for any old thing.

I lean toward the latter. I suspect that many of the new people attending the performing arts have little background in art, literature, music or theater. The weekend getaway, the before performance dinner, and the after performance drinks are what are really appealing. The performance they see is the best they've ever seen because they have seen only a few plays or operas or simply haven't the wherewithal to dissect what is being presented to them. It's all good! The tap dancers danced quickly (never mind that the steps were simple and quick rather than difficult and slow), the singers sang beautifully (never mind that the musical was not particularly challenging, the actors acted beautifully (never mind that the lines fell flat at certain points). It's all good so stand up and clap!

Ultimately, this cheapens the performance. This does not personally affect me (except for the fact that I rarely see the entire cast on the stage taking their bows; I can only see the backs of people at that point). It does, I think, rob the performers of something truly special. A standing ovation is an indication that they had done exceptionally well. It's a reward from an audience that they seek to please.

If every performance you do, whether good, bad, or ugly, is awarded a standing ovation you either get a swelled head or become insecure because you're never sure if you did really well or not.

So next time you attend a performance, really ask yourself whether or not it is really worth standing for. If it is, then by all means, present the performers with what they deserve. If not, clap with enthusiasm but stay firmly seated.

Copyright © 2000 Stephen Van Esch. All Rights Reserved

Stephen Van Esch is a writer and instructional designer living near Toronto, Canada. He is the owner and CEO of the Text Pound.

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