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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Theatre Thursday: Why I Hate Curtain Calls

Now, I know that I am immediately going to ruffle some feathers with this, but I do believe that sometimes it’s not such a bad thing for feathers to get ruffled.
Today, I want to talk about curtain calls – you know, the bit of business after the end of a play or musical or ballet in which the performers return to the stage (in order of least important to starring role) to receive accolades in the form of applause from their audience and occasionally to direct the applause toward an unseen orchestra or stage technicians. I loathe curtain calls. I don’t like them as an actor, I’m not crazy about them as an audience member, and I hate them as a director.
I can already hear your objections sprinkled with words like “tradition” and “appreciation” and “synergy,” but that doesn’t change how I feel about the monster that is the curtain call.
I can distill my distaste for this traditional exercise down to three basic reasons:

Reason #1: They’re insincere.

Have you ever been to a show that wasn’t terrific, but you applauded anyway out of politeness? Have you ever joined in a standing ovation that you felt was undeserved because you didn’t want to be the only person not standing? I’m not saying that all applause is insincere or that all standing ovations are undeserved. I’m saying that enough of them are so, and that diminishes the impact of the rest.
I knew someone who told me that she would “always stand after a show” to show her appreciation for the performers’ efforts, regardless of the quality of the production. I asked her how she showed her appreciation for an exceptional show. Did she stand on top of her chair? Did she applaud with her entire forearms instead of just her hands?
Sometimes I feel that a standing ovation is motivated less by an actual appreciation of a show and more by a desire on the part of audience members to be seen as enthusiastic appreciators.
Applause has become a courtesy – almost an obligation.
Again, I’m not saying that all ovations are suspect, I’m just saying that if some are, it kind of defeats the purpose of them all.

Reason #2: They’re vain.
Get out a piece of paper and pencil and make a list of all of the professions that you can think of that receive applause for a job well done, and I don’t mean just at the annual holiday party or during the monthly sales meeting – I’m talking every time.
Take a minute and do this now. I’ll wait . . .
. . .Okay, pencils down.
Now, cross off “actor”, “singer”, and “dancer.” What’s left? Golfer?
I’m not trying to downplay the skill or effort that goes into putting on a show; it’s not easy. I’m just trying to look at this in a larger context. Do you applaud when the bagger at the grocery store remembers not to smash the bread under the soup cans? (I do, but then I use the self check-out lane.)
I realize, too, that - for many performers - applause is part of the reward of the job. However, see “Reason #1” above for what may be the real value of that reward.

Reason #3: It kills the moment.
This is my biggest gripe with the curtain call. As an actor or as a director or as a playwright, my goal is to effectively tell an affecting story. I have labored to move my audience and leave them with a powerful and lasting impression. I have sought to stir their emotions, to provoke their prejudices, to challenge their comfort zones, culminating in the final, stirring moment just before the stage goes black. This is my gift to them for their drive home, for the quiet moments after their heads hit the pillow but before they drift off to sleep. Whether the final moment is dramatically poignant, riotously comic, or rousingly musical, it is the raison d'être for the entire artistic endeavor: the feeling the audience is left with at . . . the end.
Only, that’s not the end. We still have to parade out all of the costumed characters, though now out of character even if still in costume: heroes and villains now standing together and smiling, Juliet and Romeo alive again and waving happily to the upper balcony, Helen Keller pointing in acknowledgement of spotting an old friend in attendance in the front row. (Oh please, please, let it not be the stage manager’s birthday tonight. I don’t wanna sing. I don’t wanna sing . . .)
Naturally, the impact is lessened somewhat if the show is light-hearted musical or comedy, but, nevertheless, a distinct wedge of reality has been driven into the magical fiction that was created. A bit of sensory “distance” has been placed between that final moment of the story and the audience’s drive home, and, in my opinion, no proselytizing about a "synergistic exchange of artistic appreciation" can excuse that.
However, that is just my opinion. This is called “Why I Hate Curtain Calls,” not “Why You Should Hate Curtain Calls,” and I know that the phenomena of the curtain call/standing ovation is not something that will be going away anytime soon.
I just happen to think that sometimes it’s worth raising the questions from time to time of why we do something and whether doing that something still serves us as it once did.
You may not agree.
Feel free to chime in below.


cdt said...

I think the lack of a curtain call is insensitive and arrogant.

For the experimental plays I've seen that didn't have one, I didn't know when the play was over. The director just didn't give a damn about giving the audience a transition, and since the play was disjointed, as it was, it was uncomfortable to sit there in the dark and hope against hope we would be released. That made me feel worse about that performance than the content warranted.

And, should a performance be moving, how will applause be solicited? A bump-up from blackout to house lights makes an audience self-conscious, to the point of diminishing their response -- *they* wanted to be anonymous in their opinion, and now they're exposed. Psychologically, it's bunk. If directors actually did their job and gave audiences a way to respond that didn't stink either of applause-pandering or arrogant audience-rejection, then I'd be glad to clap and wait to praise actors after the show.

But then, that brings up one more issue -- some actors *don't* want to run a gantlet of fans when they're out of costume. In fact, try to hang out at a stage door at a professional production -- the only guy to talk to is security, and they discourage fans, period.

A curtain call is a cast's safe, brief means of acknowledging its audience, face to face. What would be its substitute, and still leave positive enough a memory to stimulate word-of-mouth recommendations?

Brady Darnell said...

Good points all, cdt. Just not enough, in my opinion, to justify the "need" for a curtain call. Or perhaps, more accurately, not enough to justify a need that goes beyond tradition or vanity.
As to a solution, we go to performances all of the time that have no curtain call but do not preclude a show of appreciation if the audience wants to give one: the movies.
And if you really want to let Megan Fox know that you appreciated her performance, you can send her an e-mail on her website, or mention her in a tweet.
But, again, I know that my dislike for curtain calls is not necessarily shared by others.