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Is It Curtains For The Curtain Call?

July 19, 2007

In a blog posting on the Guardian website, theatre critic Matt Wolf bemoans the demise of the curtain call in London.

"More recent curtain calls have merely tended towards the frustrating," writes Wolf. "It's surely unfair to the labors of a cast, not least on press night, for them to come out for a third call amidst darkness, as was the case last night at In Celebration until someone somewhere was generous enough to illuminate the stage. At the opening night of Marianne Elliott's blistering production of Saint Joan, a rapt audience was clearly ready to prolong applause that seemed curtailed - the British tendency towards self-denial, perhaps, extending itself to such theatrical niceties."

The British have never been the kind of people to wear their feelings on their sleeves, and in my years of going to see productions in the U.K. I haven't notice much of a change in the length and ardor of curtain calls. Other nations, like the Russians, on the other hand, will allow a curtain call to go on for 15 - 20 minutes given half a chance.

Curtain calls in the U.S., in my experience, are extremely curt, though I think American audiences are among the most appreciative around. Standing ovations are extremely common, even when the product on stage hardly merits a watered-down clap. Yet they'll stand and whoop for about 20 seconds. After that, it's time to rescue the car from the valet and beat the traffic.

Much though the cast and crew deserve acknowledgment, I don't think the absence of applause is something to complain about. Ending on a euphoric note and/or breaking the spell of a performance just doesn't feel right sometimes. Take Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom, which came to Brava Theater Center in San Francisco a couple of years ago. The production ended without applause. The lights went up. We left, feeling, quite rightly, deeply disturbed by the story we'd experienced on stage. To have introduced a curtain call at this point would have seemed facile.

Finally, actors don't always look to the final applause for feedback about their performance. They can "feel" the vibe of the house throughout the performance. The audience's reactions are not something that make themselves felt just at the end when the curtain comes down. The actors get a sense of how things are going over right from the start. Last night at Kiki & Herb's show at A.C.T., the crowd went wild. Then again, they made their pleasure felt from the very start, and I'm sure the performers knew it.

Different cultures show their appreciation for theatrical performances in different ways. And different kinds of productions merit different reactions. I don't think prescribing standards about how people should react from the stalls makes much sense.

6 Comments:

  • While it's true that having joyously-staged curtain calls for somber work can seem a bit out of place, it is 100 percent necessary for every play to offer the audience that opportunity to show their appreciation afterwards. To do otherwise is to deny the audience a part of the experience that is important to them, a part of the experience that they PAID for. (Skipping the curtain call because one thinks one's work is too disturbing for the audience is the height of narcissism.)

    By Blogger Mark, At July 19, 2007 at 11:32 AM  

  • Mark - you have a good point. I agree that audiences should be given the opportunity to applaud at the end of a show. It's not like I've ever seen a production where the director has prohibited applause. I mean, even at the end of Guantanamo, we could have clapped, despite the fact that there was no actual curtain call. But we didn't. Everyone in the audience was too stunned, I guess. Sometimes, however, a formal curtain call isn't the best way of ending a play. I don't think directors should make the call, in other words. isn't it up to the audience?

    By Blogger Chloe, At July 19, 2007 at 11:39 AM  

  • But the curtain call is a chance for the performers (and by extension the entire creative team) and the audience to show their appreciation for one another. That is made difficult if one of the parties just up and leaves. The audience wants an opportunity to appreciate the artists, but by just walking off, the artists have indicate that the appreciation is not mutual. (This is why applauding after movies isn't nearly as popular--there's no one to show appeciation to.)

    I saw a production a few years ago that deemed itself so important that the actors did not come out for a curtain call. When the lights came up, the audience looked around, stunned. It was very clear that someone (the director) had just told us to fuck off. It was an unpleasant, but unforgettable moment in the theater.

    Conversely, I was involved in a production that wrestled with this issue because of the somber nature of the material. In the end, the director decided to simply leave the full cast onstage standing in a tableau where the lights came back up. Despite the fact that the show was intense, the applause was strong and sustained. There is a HUGE difference in tailoring a curtain call to the mood of a show and eliminating it all together. (Namely, that the latter is ALWAYS an insult.)

    Finally, this also extends to sending the actors out for a second bow. Some of us have long felt uncomfortable with this, as it seems gluttonous. But the audience, by their sustained applause, lets us know that they would like further opportunity to thank the artists, because they liked the show that much. Not acknowledging this request is disrespectful too, though much less so than the previous example.

    By Blogger Mark, At July 19, 2007 at 1:05 PM  

  • Mark
    Applause is a mutual thing and I agree that both parties need to stay behind after curtain for the appreciation to be mutual. But I don't necessarily think the absence of a formal curtain call means that the director deems his or her work too "important" to merit applause. There can be numerous ways of celebrating the end of a performance, as you suggest with your example of the tableau when the lights came up at the end of that show you saw. I went to a performance once where the actors didn't actually bow at the end, but simply came and stood at the back of the theatre and thanked audience members as they filed out. People were able to show their appreciation to actors individually and quietly. It was an unconventional but quite lovely way to end a performance in its own way.

    By Blogger Chloe, At July 19, 2007 at 4:55 PM  

  • If we're only talking about the difference between "formal" and "informal" curtain calls here, then I agree completely. There are many ways for the artists to acknowledge the audience (and, in turn, invite them to do the same), but I lump them all under the term "curtain call". The only thing I consider to be not-a-curtain-call is the artists up and leaving without that moment of acknowlegement--that's a diss.

    By Blogger Mark, At July 20, 2007 at 10:04 AM  

  • i don`t think its the end,atleast not right now.Afterall the that it has had,have been completely stupendous.That cannot be sidelined
    =================================george
    drapery Toronto

    By Blogger george, At November 18, 2009 at 9:54 AM  

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