Somber Silence The New Standing Ovation?

I saw an article on the NBC News site questioning the value of standing ovations with a subtitle suggesting the seeming default occurrence of the act was a symptom of “‘everyone gets a trophy’ culture.” I almost passed it by because it didn’t sound like it was going to say anything new on the subject.

I am glad I didn’t because along with observations about standing ovations being meaningless if you do them all the time and suggesting that audiences can be manipulated into giving standing ovations, the writer Maggie Mulqueen, says they can also represent demands audiences expect to be met:

At a classical music concert I attended recently, the soloist left his violin backstage during his bows as a clear sign that there would be no encore despite the demands of the audience. As we headed out of the theater, I overheard grumblings of disappointment that he had not acquiesced to the call for more. We don’t expect every sporting event to go into overtime in return for giving the teams a standing ovation, so I am not sure where this sense of entitlement comes from for the performing arts.

Later, she provides an anecdote illustrating how lack of applause can be a greater testament of the power of a performance than a standing ovation—while admitting concerns that the performers might read it the wrong way.

The play ended suddenly, the stage went dark, and the audience, stunned by the power of the play, was silent for several seconds. Then, as the weight of the experience sank in, hands began to clap, tears were dried, and actors took their bows. The audience filed out quietly as we tried to regain our bearings.

Ironically, the absence of a standing ovation that night added to how memorable an event it was. Because the content of the play is sober and dark, such a gesture would have felt like a celebration and been in poor taste. As I made my way back to my hotel, I wanted to tell everyone I saw on the Tube to go see it. But mostly, I wanted to reassure the actors. “You were great,” I wanted to tell them. “Please understand it was your forceful performance that kept us in our seats.”

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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