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Christopher Plummer in A Word or Two: To applaud or not to applaud when a famous performer takes to the stage – that is the question.

David Hou

When a star walks on it's natural to applaud and doesn't spoil the magic, says J. Kelly Nestruck. Not so, argues Kate Taylor, who finds it intensely annoying and more about an obsession with fame than an acknowledgment of talent.

When it comes to audience behaviour, I'm more interested in observing what theatregoers actually do than prescribing what they should do, because the etiquette varies so much from culture to culture (and even within cultures). Seemingly unearned standing ovations bug many, for instance, but to me standing while you clap seems entirely natural – especially after a long evening sitting in an uncomfortable seat.

Applause, that strange act of loudly banging palms together like a trained seal, is a mystery in its origins. As for its application, in the course of theatre history, you'll find folks clapping at the end of plays, after musical numbers, after a particularly resonant line, or to get Shakespearean actors to repeat a speech they like.

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Complaints about inappropriate applause are hardly new, either. In the early 19th century, when, as cultural-history professor Lawrence Levine suggests, American audiences were more like rowdy sports fans than the polite, quiet observers we now know, one Virginia editor felt the need to instructs readers that it was not necessary "to applaud at the conclusion of every sentence."

Objections to entrance applause today come in two forms: 1) snobbery based on notions of what true theatregoers do; and 2) concern that applauding the arrival of a famous person on stage breaks the narrative spell that is usually called "suspension of disbelief."

I'm more sympathetic to the second objection – but, in truth, the more I go to the theatre and read about the act of reception, the less convinced I am that viewing it is about suspension of disbelief at all. Indeed, what distinguishes live performance from most other art forms is the pleasurable friction that comes from reality and representation rubbing up against each other. Watching it can be like looking at one of those optical illusions that flips back and forth between two faces or a vase – one moment you see the actor, the next you see the character.

From Shakespeare to Brecht to Morris Panych, playwrights have winked at the fact that audiences are both watching something actually happen and watching something pretend to happen. When a famous performer – whether lowbrow like Alan Thicke or highbrow like Christopher Plummer – walks on stage, the waking dreamworld is broken for a moment whether you want to admit it or not. Entrance applause seems to me a natural acknowledgment of that rupture, especially since so many of us really go to the theatre for two reasons: to see a particular actor and to see the show they're in.

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