After college, I worked at a Boston ballet company where my responsibilities included overseeing the matinee Nutcracker performances for schoolchildren. We were as deferential as we could possibly be to the teachers who brought their students to the ballet, but one day, my boss Scott, a manager at the company, drew the line.
The show had just ended, with Clara waving goodbye to the Land of Sweets. The performers were coming out for a curtain call when one teacher decided to dash for it. She and her class jumped up and bolted out into the lobby, planning to be first out to the waiting line of buses. Scott stepped in front of her and raised his hand, stopping the teacher and kids in their tracks.
"Do you know what a terrible lesson you're teaching right now?" he asked the teacher. "This is not a movie. You need to stay and respect the performers."
That moment stuck with me as I moved back to Minnesota and started writing about theater. When I see people jump up at the curtain call and dash out the back, I think of Scott: You need to stay and respect the performers.
I agree. Whether you love the show or hate it, turning your back on the cast as they come out to take their bows is hella rude. Yet, at many performances, I see people doing it.
If audience members see it happening, the performers probably see it too, internally shaking their heads in disbelief. "[It's] pretty terrible," one actor acknowledged when asked about it, "and I think it may be a distinctly Midwest thing."
My Boston experience shows that's not necessarily the case, though New England and the Midwest can be two peas in a pod when it comes to passive-aggression and misplaced pragmatism.
Scott nailed it when it comes to why people think it's okay to beat the rush, niceties be damned: They think they're essentially watching a movie. Just like college students don't think their professors see them snoozing in lecture, some theatergoers think the actors don't see them walking out on a curtain call.
On a few occasions, when I've written a negative review of a play, people associated with the production have told me I must not realize how much work went into the show. In fact, I do — that's why my dashed expectations were so high. Even when I have to give a show a thumbs-down review, though, I stay to applaud the performers, in recognition of all that work.
Staying to recognize the cast — and other members of the creative team, even if you're not always entirely sure who's being indicated by the actors' offstage points and arm-sweeps — is an acknowledgement that you're not watching a movie, that you've just seen a show performed by actual human beings who are right there in the same room as you.
Even though it's the audience who are doing the clapping, curtain calls are also, in a sense, a time for actors to thank us for coming — to show that they also know they weren't making a movie, they were creating a living and breathing theatrical experience for the benefit of a live audience.
When you turn your back on the performers during a curtain call, you're making the show feel like a cold transaction: "We paid you to act and sing and dance for us, and you did, and now we're out of here. Don't spend that giant paycheck all in one place!"
Curtain calls are a core ritual of the theatrical experience not only because they're a chance for performers to be thanked for what's often a thankless job, but because it's important for everyone involved to share that moment when the actors step out of character, when we're all just people inhabiting the same space. Don't be a jerk about it.