Sunday 12 May 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

The recent news of the ticking-off British actress Helen Mirren gave to agroup of drummers making a hell of racket outside London’s Gielgud Theatre had me in stitches. The percussionists were promoting a gay and transgender festival but, without meaning to, were also causing distress amongst the audience watching The Audience, the play that had just earned Dame Mirren an Olivier Award the week before. Elenita came out during the interval dressed in full royal regalia and had a stern word with the musicians.

Humourous as this news was, it also made me think about theatre protocol. Especially those other instances when uncertainty gets the better of us. For example, when to applaud.

A few years ago I went to a Saturday morning classical concert at a church near where I live. This was part of a series of events organised by the local community in conjunction with the religious authorities based in the building. On this beautiful summer morning we were treated to works by Beethoven, Mozart and Liszt by a highly professional and successful quartet of strings and piano. I enjoyed almost the whole concert. The key word here is “almost”. What stopped me from getting lost completely in the music was the applause given by some members of the audience after each movement had been played.

Honestly I felt at a loss then. I had always believed that at a classical concert one clapped only after the whole piece had been performed and not in between movements. Plus, the “happy-clappers” were of one or two generations before mine. They were the same ones who had given me the “what is he doing here?” stare minutes before (let’s not go there, shall we? I’ll leave that one for another post) and therefore I assumed that they would have been well versed in the arts of when to applaud and when not to.

Another theory that sprung up in my head was that this was a British custom. I dismissed that one quickly, though. Neither my mother-in-law, nor my wife had put their hands together.

Applause in theatres is one of those areas I am never sure about. Take ballet, for instance. From the moment I became a fan in my mid-teens, I knew exactly when to clap and when to keep quiet. Not that it was always that orthodox. With a soloist or a pas de deux it was easier; once he/she/they finished doing their turns and the man and woman alternated showing off their prowess, it was the audience’s turn to reciprocate. Occasionally, though, a dancer performed an amazing move and the public broke into spontaneous applause. There were other times when we did it to show sympathy. Many years ago, my favourite ballerina ever, Lorna Feijóo, slipped calamitously during a performance of the Swan Lake. Suddenly there was a sharp intake of breath amongst the attending public. Lorna got up, dusted herself off - literally, by the way, oh, yes that was my girl! - and performed the thirty-two fouettés of the Black Swan as if nothing had happened. Well, we all went wild at the Grand Theatre of Havana.

Another time, if my memory serves me right, it was a play, not a dance, that got the audience on their feet and clapping like mad. It was during the premiere of Manteca (Lard), to me, the most radical play of 90s Cuba. Jorge Cao, one of the three actors on stage, turned towards the audience and delivered what seemed to me at the time a very clear and unsubtle message: He’s always there, wherever I go, he’s always there. We have to do something. If you (turning to the actor playing his brother) don’t do it, I’ll do it. I’ll have to... The public didn’t let him finish. In the small space that the Café Teatro Bertolt Brecht afforded us we all rose in unison and put our hands together in a compact and solid applause for what we thought naively was a critique of the then president Fidel Castro (spoiler alert! It wasn’t, the play centred on a pig the family was torn between killing and not killing for New Year’s Eve). The three actors (two men and one woman playing their sister) froze mid-action until the applause died down.

Was it good etiquette? I’ve no idea. And neither have I any about the half dozen elderly citizens who clapped after each movement at that Sunday morning concert I mentioned before. On that occasion, however, I felt inconvenienced. Maybe I should have worn my royal clothes, including crown and sceptre.

© 2013

Photo taken from

Next Post: Killer Opening Songs”, to be published on Wednesday 15th May at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. The etiquette of applause is a tricky area. Just the same, I suspect that it is a rare performer who doesn't like to receive acknowledgement (however mistimed) that they have pleased their audience.

  2. You're quite right, Elephant's Child. Another instance is when the applause is not forthcoming. I'm thinking mainly of stand-up comedians who deliver a killer punchline, or what they think it's a killer punchline only to face an unimpressed and at times heckling audience. Go figure! :-)

    Greetings from London.

  3. i hear you on the clapping..sometimes it seems to disturb the piece but i love when applause just comes out of the blue, unexpected like in the events you describe cause then it feels really honest...happy sunday to you

  4. Gosh I never knew there was a certain time you must applaud and not applaud when at theater. I did hear about Dame Mirren's rebuke though. Thought it amusing.

  5. Applause is a tricky one, but you don't usually applaud at classical concert until the end. When my daughter sings in such concerts, the director/conductor often asks the audience NOT to clap until the end.

  6. I'd be the one waiting for the audience to cue me in, in fear of making a mistake. Yes, it is tricky, especially listening to a modern piece.

  7. Yeah it can be a pain at any old lane as the clap train begins to rain but then it can be nice too, a tricky situation indeed brought up at your zoo.

  8. i hear man...i never really know when to clap...i know when my wife was a dancer it was saved to breaks...though an occassional big moment did elicit a clap waterfall...and i can understand those when you are so moved....

  9. It's the same with poetry... some poets tell audiences not to clap each poem... or not to feel that they have to anyway but to wait till the end of the set instead. For myself I take any applause happily and prefer to leave the audience to find their own level. It partly depends on the poems of course!

  10. My friend Gine told me once that she knew a dancer who never heard a standing ovation he didn't like...unless it wasn't for him, in that case, it was always too long & too loud ;o.

    I'm always certain that these kind of things have cultural, educational, & genealogical differences, but I never quite know how to navigate all those differences. I do find on Broadway that when you have BIG STARS on stage(at least when I have been present in the audience) people overclap due to obsession, not passion or appreciation for the craft. ~Mary

  11. sometimes in theatre the people claps and sonetimes syrprise to me because Im not sure if is the.moment...
    in classic music isc more serious you have to wait.
    and in ballet....many times I dont go I studied ballet when I was little but...I dont like so much.

  12. I prefer spanish dance I loved especially.flamenco:)

  13. I guess we've all been caught out some time, clapping in the wrong place and feeling a right dick.

  14. Ooops! THAT is so embarrassing...I know, I've been there too!!

  15. Quite seriously I believe that if you HAD worn ermine, crown and sceptre, everyone else would have done what you did. :) They sound to be an unsophisticated audience, but what the heck. Without wanting to sound as if I am generalising, (even though I am) I usually find that you simply cannot praise most performers enough! And I can well understand why this is, actually - since they have put such immense effort into connecting with others in their professional lives (or even their spare time)

    My main problem about applause happens when occasionally a performer does something that is so absolutely wonderful I WANT to clap but nobody else does, so I don't. I am always so sorry for the performer then, that they didn't get the public appreciation they deserved.

    I am a blog follower of yours but your posts haven't come up in my reader. I will investigate.

  16. fun I heard a story about clapping recently on npr "-)



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