I saw "Hello, Dolly!" in Sarasota a couple of weeks ago. After the title song, which is just a few minutes into the second act, a scattered people in the audience gave a standing ovation, thinking the show was over. They stood and clapped for a while then sheepishly sat down when they realized the show had to go on. The actors stood stone-still the whole time.
At a ballet a couple of weeks ago, a mother and her adult daughter sat next to each other. The mother applauded and yelled "Bravo!" often while the performance was going on, and the daughter rolled her eyes and looked embarrassed.
Not long ago I was at a piano recital. When the pianist paused at the end of the measure, one person clapped. The pianist hesitated, then smiled and nodded to acknowledge the applause. Some other people in the audience then assumed it was time to start clapping, and what was meant to be three seconds of silence turned into 30 seconds of self-conscious, half-hearted applause.
That all got me thinking about when we should applaud, and how we're supposed to know. Personally, I always wait until it's abundantly obvious that applause is called for. I generally wait until performers are actually bowing, and the rest of the audience has started applauding.
I know I'm too cautious. So I called some local people in the performing arts. Turns out it's something they've all thought a lot about.
"From the standpoint of a producer of community theater, I always appreciate applause," said Rick Kerby, the producing artistic director of Manatee Players. "The way I look at it, that's (the actors') paycheck. But as a director, I think you have to give the audience signs of when they're expected to applaud, and I think the audience is intelligent enough to pick up on those signs."
Jeffery Kin, Kerby's counterpart at the Players Theatre in Sarasota, agrees.
"If someone stops singing but the lights stay up and the music keeps playing, often there's a reason for that," Kin said. "It often means 'the show's going on so don't applaud here.' "
Still, people will sometimes applaud at unusual moments. Sometimes that means the next lines of
dialogue or lyrics can't be heard, or the actors have to figure out a way to pause until the applause dies. But that, Kin said, is a failing of the artists, not the audience.
"Ultimately, it's up to the director, the artistic director, the music director and the lighting designer to give the audience those signs," he said.
Unexpected applause could be more intrusive at an opera, where it's often difficult to ad lib a pause. But the Sarasota Opera actually has a written policy for its audience on the subject.
"At the opera, unlike the symphony or other classical music concert, you can applaud when the performance moves you," says a note in the opera's program.
"They are so hyper-focused onstage, so hyper-focused in the orchestra, that it's not a distraction," said Sam Lowry the Sarasota Opera's director of audience development and a former opera singer himself.
Sure, he said, sometimes performers have to soldier on and continue singing and acing while the audience applauds, and some lines may go unheard. But it's not that big a deal.
"When the audience realizes that the music is continuing," he said, "they stop applauding."
A lot of people in the performing arts have stories about performances being interrupted by applause that they didn't count on. Kin relates a tale of a production of "A Chorus Line" in which one moment drew explosive applause on opening night, but no reaction at all on other nights. It was years ago and he still remembers it.
It may be annoying when you're in the audience and the person next to you applauds at some weird time, and it may be embarrassing if you break into applause and no one else does. The creative team will usually try to give you signals to let you know when the performers have been counting on your applause, but people often miss those signs, or think the signs are there when they're not.
The bottom line says you ought to just go ahead and clap when feel the urge.
"Unexpected applause" Kerby said, "is still applause."
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.