The cast knows damn good and well the difference between a courtesy ovation and a genuine one. And courtesy ovations are humiliating and dreadful when you’re standing up there knowing this wasn’t your best work but pretending you’re just as delighted as the audience is pretending to be, so I don’t do them. If I’m not so moved that I’m literally leaping to my feet, not caring that my Playbill just slid off my lap and under the seat in front of me, then I’m staying respectfully in my seat.
While it’s possible that in some areas, especially for community or college theater, the audience members may have a high proportion of friends and family, that’s not the case in professional theater. Most of them come either to the previews or to the last week of performances. I do agree that family and friends have a lower threshhold for an acceptable courtesy ovation, but courtesy ovations still happen without a large number of friends and family present.
I saw more courtesy ovations 10 years ago than I do now, at least in the theaters in Chicago and environs. Nowadays I see them more at performances when the single ticket holders outnumber the subscription ticket holders. I think they mark the audience members as rubes, to be honest. They don’t spend much time actually in the theater; they’ve only seen ovations in movies and done them to make the band finish the show at concerts, so they think it’s part of the tradition in live theater.
And some day, it probably will be, but I’m still going to fight it.
If we allow the courtesy ovation to take over, then what are we left with to show our enthusiasm and genuine excitement for the really great performances? Applause is courtesy. Ovations are not.