Ann Arbor Theater Vixen: Jenn McKee's Blog











{February 16, 2010}   Who’s that jerk sitting through the standing ovation?! Oh, that’s just me.

Here’s something weird that I just instinctively knew to do when I started working regularly as a critic: no matter how terrific what I just witnessed on a stage was, I always sit out the standing ovation afterward.

Why? Because as a critic, you have to play your cards close to the vest. There are all kinds of things that might have you buzzing and hyped at the end of a show, despite its flaws overall: the play may “nail the dismount,” so to speak; it may have a single performance that knocked you out; it may have a highly supportive crowd that nearly sweeps you up in its enthusiasm, despite your own misgivings; or the show may just be a pretty damn near perfect show all-around.

But even if it is, joining in the standing ovation is dangerous ground for critics. From early on, I feared that theater community folks in the crowd who spotted me standing and cheering would report back to the cast and crew, “Done deal! Four star review coming your way!” when the truth of the matter is, I never know completely what I’m feeling and going to say about a show until I go through the process of writing about it.

We touched on this at Encore Michigan’s recent panel discussion, “The Critics Speak,” actually. The process of writing the review, for me, happens late at night, when most of the world is sleeping. It’s this private, intellectually rigorous and intense process, whereby I’m wrestling with my thoughts and emotions to articulate my take on a show only hours after watching it. 

For this reason, I need absolute freedom to do this thinking – and if I’ve just stood for an ovation, I’ve either handed over some of that freedom, or set myself up to look like a hypocrite.

I won’t lie. It’s really, really hard to paste myself to that theater seat sometimes. There are shows and performances that make me want to jump up and down like one of the girls in Ed Sullivan’s audience on the night the Beatles debuted in America. But I make myself stay put, reminding myself that this job is challenging enough without publicly painting myself into a corner before writing a word.

None of my peers clued me in to this, and indeed, not all critics follow this policy. But personally, I feel it’s one I have to follow. (Of course, we could venture into the question, “Why does nearly every show get a standing ovation now?” but that’s for another post.)

Similarly, I often have the uncomfortable experience of patrons asking me, during intermission as well as after the show, what my thoughts on the show are. I try to say something vanilla and neutral, or tell them they’ll have to read my review to find out (though this always sounds kind of jerky to me).

Again, this is about playing it close to the vest. Not for the sake of secrecy, or out of any inflated sense of my own opinion; but rather for the sake of the uncluttered silence and space necessary to sculpt out my opinion from an unwieldy solid block of thought and emotion.

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I do the same thing…as do most critics I know – and for the very same reasons.

If I DO stand, it’s after the entire cast has taken their bows and they’re now doing something else on stage that I can’t see because everyone in front of me is blocking my view.

To the best of my wobbly knowledge, the one exception I’ve made in recent years was for “Jersey Boys” – yes, it was THAT good!

(But man-oh-man: It can sure get uncomfortable being the lone guy still sitting in his seat when everyone else around you is glaring at you like you’re a freak!)



Bridgette says:

I agree–you feel like a complete grump sitting when everyone else is standing. That said, I’ll sometimes stand for an ovation, but only rarely and usually it’s if I’m not reviewing the show.

Some day, Don, I’ll have to see the second half of Jersey Boys.



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