Stand up, sit down
28 March 2018
Will the real Daniella Harrison please stand up?
I don’t give standing ovations very often. When I first started regularly seeing theatre about four years ago I used to give them quite a lot because I was in awe. I thought every single thing I saw was fantastic and incredible and I would be reeling every time I walked out of the theatre. Over those four years I have seen theatre more often, and developed a taste for what I like and enjoy, as well as seen a range of shows from West End to fringe to emerging companies’ work. Each has its merits, but over time I have begun to give fewer standing Os, not feeling quite as strongly about work as I used to.
When The Search for the Black-browed Albatross by the Backpack Ensemble was performed, each show was given a standing ovation. The show is incredibly sweet and well put-together. The DIY aesthetic of the sheet that acts as a projection screen, a tent and the albatross itself is genius, and the moments of incidental comedy (“hence the lighting change”) are very funny and well-devised.
Although the show has a good heart – I can imagine it working with children who are dealing with bereavement, potentially – I didn’t give it a standing ovation. I was one of the only people who didn’t. This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy the show. However, I felt certain elements of the show were used to emotionally manipulate the audience into crying, or feeling something that may cause the ripple effect of a standing ovation.
The music of the production, played ably by Jordan Shiel on keyboard, is lovely, although it feels as if it exists as a film score; to make you feel the way they want you to (sad, nostalgic, etc.) rather than conjuring those feelings through the story itself. If you take the music out of the show, particularly the last song, I doubt many of us would have felt the way we did. It could be due to the point raised in the opening, that the performers are students who “feel a bit lost” as they are preparing to graduate and have no idea what they’re doing. This is a sentiment, which, at a student drama festival, is probably going to be felt by 99 per cent of us.
I wonder if it’s because the standing ovation is linked with tragedy/emotion. Michael Billington interestingly describes it as a “filthy American habit”. America/American theatre is typically thought of as being “big” and “showy” (you know, the whole idea of the “Great Big Broadway Show”) so standing up to appreciate theatre that is in-your-face stylistically (like in design, not in the Berkoff way) or emotionally would make complete sense. It’s almost like as soon as we cry – even if we have no idea what we are crying about – we just immediately stand. Our brains tell our feet that we must stand and get up and our heads are pulled upwards like little puppets on a string, the other strings forcing our hands together to clap harder than we would for other shows. As soon as one person does it we all do. It’s like dominoes, except that instead of falling down we all stand up. We kind of do this without properly thinking if it’s worth the standing. But then again, if something does hit us emotionally – is that reason enough, even if it was manipulating?
I’m thinking about another show I really enjoyed: Lights Over Tesco Car Park by Poltergeist Theatre. It is, thus far, one of my favourite shows of the festival, and I think this thought is shared by many people, judging by the conversations I’ve had and the reception the company got when they took to the stage for their discussion on Monday. Why does a show like Lights Over not get a standing ovation? I certainly felt emotional at the end, with the alien finally finding a partner to dance with. I got a sort of stab right in my gut as I thought about older people and loneliness and just wanting to have a connection with someone, even for a split second. Maybe it’s because Lights Over is primarily funny, and things that are comic are seen as somewhat “easy” to do. Like, anyone can make people laugh, right? Wrong. This idea was mentioned in the panel discussion on Sunday that comedy deserves way more recognition, because it requires as much skill as tragedy, yet isn’t given that platform. It’s a shame, really, as Lights Over used some incredibly clever devices to make it such a standout show: the language of the audience interaction, the comedy, the structure of the entire piece. Saying that, the audience interaction does make it difficult to know whether to give an ovation, as there are audience members standing onstage with the cast.
Standing ovations are precious; they should be special and reserved for only the shows we think are the best quality. Maybe we should think more about why we are standing – or perhaps why we are not.
Photo credit: Giulia Delprato