10/07/2011 05:28 pm ET | Updated Dec 07, 2011

What's Missing Is Sitting

When a play has just ended, and the lights come up for the actors to take their bow, I always wait for it to happen. I like to guess who will be first. Should I bet on the enthusiastic, student-looking man sitting on the extreme left of the house or the middle aged, bejeweled woman to my right?

This time it is a white-haired gentleman sitting near the front. He begins the trend, proudly rising, his applauding hands raised in front of his face in appreciation. This is what I see from my seat. That's right, I'm sitting down.

I know that I have just written about some great theatre today that specializes in getting us on our feet, but I neglected to say that there is another kind of standing that tends to occur in mainstream, commercial theatre. I started to notice this phenomenon several years ago though I think it has become more prevalent lately. When I was younger, I remember the electric feeling that used to accompany my realization that the audience was preparing for this ultimate honor known the standing ovation. This feeling has been replaced by a vague sense of dread and a rather bemused game of "guess who?" that I play.

Yet the obligatory standing ovation does exactly the opposite of what a standing ovation is supposed to do. Whereas the extra effort of standing up while applauding is designed to show our extra enthusiasm at this particular performance, the effect of the social pressure to do so means that we now have no credibility as an audience. This allows for the possibility that performers might be upset at a night filled with the loud applause and cheers of a seated, but appreciative group of people.

What is happening in the moment when a standing ovation begins? As I began to think more about this, I started asking some of my friends and colleagues about their thoughts. The first answers came from a place of pure practicality. If the person in front of you stands up, now your view of the stage is most likely blocked, which forces you to stand up in turn. (I find it especially interesting that we still want to watch the stage, even though the play proper is finished... but that's another story.)

But there is another force at work here, one that might not come to mind as easily, but is obvious in the physical behavior of the audience. It is the same thing that your parents and teachers warned you against in high school: peer-pressure. Of course, in more psychological terms, this can be called "groupthink," which is the phenomenon in which people in a group begin to make decisions that create the most unity with the group, without really evaluating those choices on an individual level.

While the pressure to give a standing ovation might seem like a relatively innocent instance of groupthink, it is nonetheless impactful. Live performance is arguably the only medium through which the audience has the potential to affect the performer. They can see our smile and our grimace, and hear our laughs or sobs. When we see a painting or a movie that doesn't speak to us, we don't feel the need to go and congratulate the artists responsible. The balance of honesty and good manners is more easily managed in a museum or fixed art viewing situations, but with live performance, the immediacy of the artist challenges this relationship.

Because of this live proximity (sometimes referred to as "embodied copresence"), politeness tends to have a greater effect. Most people don't want to appear rude, and if they remain sitting while their fellow audience members are standing, then they are perhaps, pardon the pun, standing out more than they'd like. As more and more of the audience stands up, a seated person's behavior contains a different message. Their position no longer shows average pleasure or even indifference, but now implies a negative reaction trending towards disapproval.

I don't think this is entirely fair. I remain seated unless I am moved to stand, in which case I am one of the first people on my feet. But each time I stand up, trying desperately to communicate my deep appreciation to the performers, I have to wonder what it would take to show that I am standing because I want to rather than because I think I should. If the standing ovation becomes the new applause, what is the next equivalent of the standing ovation? Will we jump up and down, climb on top of our seats, install apps on our phones that will shoot off streamers?

All this goes through my mind as I remain seated at the end of this good, but not earth-shattering play, looking around to watch what others will do. The white-haired gentleman moves a few to action, but most applaud loudly from their seats. It has been a well-done show, but I want to make sure that when I see a fantastic piece of performance I am able to give them a meaningful gesture of their greatness. If more people think about their own power as performers, actors in this play of appreciation and affirmation, then maybe theatre will be able to trust its audience to keep both the theatre, and themselves, honest.