Down with applause

MY FOREIGN colleagues are often amused by the way Americans leap to their feet at the end of most evenings at the theatre. The moment a curtain drops, everyone tends to stand–particularly if the cast includes a real-life celebrity. A visiting friend from Russia, who went to see “The Coast of Utopia” at Lincoln Centre, was very impressed by the standing ovation, assuming it was something rare and honourable. I hadn’t the heart to explain that he was in the company of ovation-sluts.

So in the weeks following the frenzy before the Tony awards, when Broadway producers can finally exhale, I was amused by Sunday’s New York Times piece about the tedious American habit of entrance applause. Actors find it disruptive (albeit encouraging, if it’s for them); directors find it a nuisance (“The whole rhythm of the play has to stop”, says one producer). Why do we do it?

Vladimir Konecni, a professor of psychology at University of California, San Diego, who has studied the psychology of theater, noted that while the “joiners” of the entrance applause are most likely engaging in a simple case of imitation, the applause starter is harder to explain. “Elitism is absolutely the issue,” Professor Konecni said. “I have good taste, I have money, I have sensitivity, I am rewarding myself mentally.” One feels a giddy sense of accomplishment, he said, for having made it into the same room as Kevin Spacey.

Another factor is the concept of “impression management,” in this case impressing your date. “You’re telling her, ‘I belong here, I know the rules,’ ” Professor Konecni said.

That sounds about right. There is a certain smug pride in being the first to start or stop clapping, as though the whole experience is old hat. “Look at me,” we seem to say. “I do this all the time. Take notes.”

I was particularly pleased to learn this bit of trivia about Japanese theatre:

In Japan traditional kabuki theater is known for kakegoe: shouting at actors upon their entrance, and throughout the performance. When an actor strikes a traditional pose along the entrance, audiences will shout out his yago — literally “shop name” or theatrical studio — or lines of encouragement like “You’re better than your father!,” referring to the tradition of passing roles down through the generations.

Kakegoe makes up for the nonexistence of curtain calls. “There’s a saying in kabuki theater that if you wait until the end of the performance, it’s too late,” said David Furumoto, who teaches theater at the University of Wisconsin.

Waiting until the end of a show is too late? Does this speak to a larger need for encouragement? Or an unspeakable fear of mortality? Regardless, it makes New Yorkers sound down-right restrained.


Down with applause