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.
As Alan Thicke and George Hamilton appear in two different Toronto theatres this fall, the veteran actors will be offered an instant measure of their fame: If they have still got it, audiences will applaud the moment they walk out on stage.
The worst case I have ever seen of entrance applause occurred on the stage of what is now the Sony Centre in Toronto more than 10 years ago. An American touring company was presenting a stage adaptation of The Wizard of Oz with Eartha Kitt playing the Wicked Witch of the West and Mickey Rooney playing the wizard. As Rooney entered, the house broke into loud applause. He stopped in his tracks and waved at the folks, as though he were a costumed elf riding a float in the Santa Claus Parade.
"Why are you applauding?" I whisper from behind my clenched teeth on such occasions. "He hasn't done anything yet."
I don't object to entrance applause on the grounds it isn't proper etiquette: In the 19th-century people used to call out "Bis, bis" to opera singers to hear a beloved aria repeated. Etiquette is ever shifting.
I don't object on the grounds it breaks the illusion of theatre. What illusion of what reality could one possibly sustain in a musical that includes a talking lion and a living scarecrow? If the characters in the current revival of La Cage aux Folles or the new Canadian production Queen for a Day are going to break into song at key moments in their respective shows, I don't think anyone in the audience is going to believe that Hamilton is actually the owner of a drag club and Thicke is really a 1950s game-show host. The form itself is joyfully artificial.
Instead, I object to entrance applause because it is a nasty manifestation of a celebrity-obsessed culture that, tautologically, takes an actor's fame as a measure of his achievement rather than judging his current performance. It is kind of a consumer issue: It suggests that audiences, long accustomed to the virtual versions of stars they know from television and the movies, can be billed simply for the privilege of seeing them live and in person, like animals in a zoo. Are you really willing to pay for that mere appearance – or are you paying the performer to entertain you? And if we all applaud the fame, what currency do we have left to reward an actor's hard work or brilliant artistry?
In Rooney's case, there wasn't much artistry: That night, the actor kept flubbing his lines. Of course, Thicke and Hamilton are going to offer far superior performances. Try holding your applause until they do.