Bows and Arrows

On clapping, standing and other curtain call conventions

By Michael Douglas Hall

Michael Douglas Hall

I started a Facebook flame war.

These happen often for Facebook users, as if a pile of brush is just waiting for a spark on every status update. Even the supposedly innocuous status updates are not safe, which is what prompted this particular flame war. Here is what I posted that started a fervor amongst my theater friends:

“Curtain calls. How do you feel about them? Are they needed?”

With these simple questions, I apparently spat directly in the face of Dionysus himself. My question came from a very real place, however.

I had just debuted a piece that I had penned for the Cincinnati Fringe Festival called “SUMATRAN RHINO.” The director, Greg Proccacino, and I decided that leaving the show without a curtain call was the way to go. The show’s final moments weren’t very kind, and we didn’t want anyone leaving the theater feeling good about anything they just saw.

Curtain calls are a sort of catharsis for both the audience and the actors on stage. They allow a reset back into the normalcy of life, and also allow the actors to thank the audience for their part in the performance. For “SUMATRAN RHINO,” we wanted there to be a continued sense of how messed up the world was for the two characters.

Essentially, we didn’t want the pain the characters felt to be washed away by applause.
I thought this to be a fair reason, and was not just avoiding the curtain call to be “artsy” or “edgy.” Little did I know, there are theatricians who definitely have strong opinions about its place in this world. I watched my friends give impassioned diatribes, such as, “They are my favorite part of any show,” or “Appreciated as a performer. Not needed,” or my favorite, from my mom, “I need them so I know it’s over…I gotta pee, you know. I need permission…”

Without question, the most controversial subtopic to emerge in this conversation was the standing ovation. There is a general consensus that, in Cincinnati, we’re a little too ovation happy. If we’ve just enjoyed a good two hours of acting, singing, and dancing – it doesn’t matter if it was DREADFUL acting, singing, and dancing – the tendency is to stand, or, perhaps better to say, the ritual. “I recently went to a performance where everyone stood for the ovation,” said one friend. “Listening in on the audience exit conversations I was amazed at how many people commented it was one of the worst things they had ever seen.”

I thought I was simply making an artistic choice by refusing to give an audience a curtain call, when in reality it seems I was giving some grand insult. Through the grapevine, I heard that some folks thought I was being pretentious. This might be true. But I still question the necessity of such ritual.

Another friend posted the following quote from filmmaker/actor Frank Oz: “I learned a lesson: In a stage play, you kill the leads and they come out for a bow – in a movie, they don’t come out for a bow, they’re dead. They’re gone and so the audience lost the people they loved, as opposed to the theater audience where they knew the two people who played Audrey and Seymour were still alive. They loved those people, and they hated us for it.”

Well, lesson learned. The curtain call isn’t going anywhere. It’s bigger than just one person who wants a theater audience to “feel” a certain way. That was definitely pretentious on my part.

But if I really wanted to burn things down again, I could ask this: Do we have to clap for every single person who walked onstage during an opera?

Michael Douglas Hall is a local actor and playwright. He has appeared with Know Theatre, New Edgecliff Theatre and Falcon Theatre, among others. He and writing partner Joshua Steele have penned four Cincinnati Fringe Festival shows in recent years.

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