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Everything is Awesome
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
It's always an embarrassing situation when a local theatre audience rises to its feet at the end of a bad production and treats the community performers onstage as if they were the original cast members of Show Boat or The Glass Menagerie or Long Day's Journey Into Night. If you're one of those mildly critical sorts who hates to reward mediocrity, you'll find yourself in a real ethical conundrum, for once people start to stand up around you, you know that you'll look like a jerk if you refuse to move, yet you know that you can't in good conscience signify approval for something you despised. Plus, if you remain seated you won't be able to see the curtain call, which is a part of the performance, and you never want to miss that, even if you didn't care for the production.
So either you sit still, like a stone, missing the play's final moments and getting unpleasant looks from those around you, or you grudgingly join the rest of the crowd and stand up, galling yourself by acting in such bad faith and tacitly giving the performers praise that you're convinced they didn't earn.
To say that Fort Wayne theatre audiences are friendly and supportive is a bit of a wild understatement — a cynical friend of mine once declared that theatre audiences here were just as likely to give a standing ovation to an Easter Egg hunt or a Spelling Bee as any production of Nunsense. I'm not sure exactly what the ratio is of Fort Wayne standing ovations/theatrical product, but I bet it has to be absurdly high, like 75%. It's that damned Midwestern decency of ours — we recognize, collectively, all the hard work and time and energy involved by the volunteers onstage and we want to be good citizens and applaud them for their efforts, even if the end result is a classic that's been butchered beyond recognition or a popular, contemporary "dramedy" that barely hits its cliche-filled mark. "They did a good job," someone will say afterward, already pondering in their head that first after-show drink that's been beguiling them since shortly after the first act began.
None of this would be too troubling, I guess, unless you happen to be one of those tiresome folks who values honesty and integrity in the arts above all and hates to lie to himself. For those people, the standing ovation thing is like chewing on tin foil. And performers, too, probably recognize the mild insult that the constant standing ovations inevitably provoke — all performers like applause, to be sure, but later, upon reflection, it becomes painfully clear to them that what they do onstage — their passion, their commitment — doesn't really matter to an audience who will applaud anything. When a local theatre does manage to produce an aesthetic triumph, it's a shame that the audience seemingly doesn't notice, for they give it the same thunderous applause that they give any half-assed production.
As a theatre director I've learned a few of the Dark Arts of the trade, and one of the most profane ones is that it's not too hard to "goose" a standing ovation out of an audience at the curtain call. All it takes is a little finesse and timing, a few well-placed blackouts, some upbeat music, and a bit of hesitation before bringing the house lights up on the actors onstage. Add to the mix a forgiving environment — i.e., any Fort Wayne audience — and the task is about as difficult as shooting fish in a barrel. If that's what you want.
Of course, being a perverse so-and-so I usually go out of my way to ensure that any production I've directed doesn't receive a standing ovation. One sure way to do this is to have the actors take a "company" bow at the close of the performance — lights come on, the actors are in place, two quick bows and bam, off the stage they go. It's usually so quick that the audience doesn't have time to climb to its feet. I've gotten some blowback from actors who miss the individual adulation that a traditional curtain call provides, but that doesn't bother me too much; when it comes down to it, I'll take the audience's needs over the actors' needs every time, and if I feel that the audience needs a quick getaway I'm not going to burden them with an endless call. And besides, if the actors are good, they'll hear about it later, from the folks who count. Sometimes, an extended call is necessary, of course--in a production I directed of Shadowlands, for instance, I thought that the audience wanted to reward my lead actor for his outstanding performance and so I let it play out — but in general I like to relieve the audience of the duty of the obligatory standing ovation.
Of course, there are a lot of folks who would say that nothing I've directed deserves a standing ovation, and that my hustling the actors offstage is a preemptive strike and nothing more. And to them I would say: You're probably right. Of the six shows I've directed, I'd say three were pretty good, 2 were flawed with some striking moments, and one was. . . well, one was something that I hope most people forgot I was a part of. Sometimes, no matter how hard you work at it, the plays just aren't any good. (It always astonishes me how much blood, sweat, and tears it takes to make a really, really, really bad production.) I don't mind admitting to my relatively low batting average in theatre, by the way--much easier to acknowledge the misses than to pretend that everything I touch is awesome, amazing. For if everything is awesome, then nothing is.