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  • MatthewFace.jpgI sat in horror this week as I was watching a show. A house seating over 500 that gave standing ovations time and time again—too many to count—over the course of a 75-minute performance. The person everyone was there to see kept trying to go on, but simply couldn't get past the crowd that was absolutely intent on showing its love and admiration as often and as expansively as possible.

    What play was this, you might ask? It wasn't a play. It was the State of the Union address.

    Watching the gross spectacle of more than half the audience seemingly leaping to its feet after every 13th word or so (after the first occurrence, six minutes into the speech), while the remainder either clapped politely or not so politely, or sat on their hands altogether, I found it impossible to believe that I was watching politics and not a carefully choreographed piece of theatre. And, if we're being honest, one that is essentially repeated time after time in theaters on Broadway and across the country.

    I don't want this to be seen as my criticizing any particular person or party, which is why I'm avoiding mentioning names. This is hardly new. It happened frequently with the previous president's State of the Union remarks, as well, just with the sides of the aisle (generally) reversed. And it seems to predate him, as well, though my perception is that the overall number has increased exponentially during my lifetime.

    I think this does point up the much larger problem of American culture wanting to be a show rather than just watch one. It's been frequently stated that the proliferation of standing ovations is due at least in part to theatre's high ticket prices—people can only afford to go once in a while, and when they do, they want the experience to be spectacular at any cost, by God! And standing at the end, regardless of what they truly think of the show, lets that be possible. This has become so commonplace that now it's more telling to see shows not receive standing ovations—I was stunned last week when a performance I attended of the largely exemplary Manhattan Theatre Club production of Donald Margulies's thoughtful and engaging play Time Stands Still didn't get one, and it seemed to me to be essentially good enough to justify the honor.

    But the State of the Union response signals that the problem may indeed run even deeper. Representatives and Senators who hoist themselves out of their seats whenever the president makes a certain point or promise aren't doing it because they're passionately compelled by the Orator in Chief's words. They're doing it to send a message: to their constituents, to the American people in general, and to each other. This automatically makes the members of the opposition party who don't stand at the same time send a message, too—although not as strong a one as when they stand at something the president and his party probably would prefer got as little notice as possible.

    Both happen all the time at these events, and are a disgraceful spectacle not just because it's our elected officials playing election games but because it cheapens the already 99-cent-store standing ovation even further. It sends the message to audiences that you're not supposed to rise from your seat because you've witnessed something extraordinary or legendary or unique—what standing ovations meant until relatively recently in theatre history—but because you've witnessed something and want to make sure everyone knows you were there for it.

    Clapping alone used to be enough to communicate this idea, but no longer. Now, clapping is merely an intermediary, what you give when, well, when something fails to be good enough to earn a standing ovation. Applause should be its own reward, for the giver and receiver, and it shouldn't be overdone, either. But a show that won't go on because its audience won't stop clapping somehow seems more authentic and more powerful than a show that can't go on because its audience just won't sit down.

    Standing ovations have been defanged to such a degree that the fact that so many were given on Wednesday night isn't news—but what one Supreme Court justice mouthed makes headlines. Had that justice not been caught by a camera, no one's experience of the State of the Union would have been affected one way or another. But all those standing ovations disrupted the delivery and the meaning of the speech.

    This presumes, perhaps, that they were intended to enhance or respond to the delivery or meaning in the first place, which of course they weren't. I understand that. But behavior such as this is still shameful from elected officials, all of whom should know, demand, and display better.

    The next time you're at a show that receives a standing ovation it doesn't deserve, you'll undoubtedly be annoyed and perhaps even offended. But don't blame it on the declining sense of propriety in the theatre. In Washington, D.C., a much more influential group needs to learn and prove to others that sometimes the best way to show your approval and respect is just to stay seated.

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