Published in The New York Times
LAST spring, the cast of “The Drowsy Chaperone” found a mysterious sign taped to a backstage television monitor. The letters “TN” were followed by a series of tally marks that grew by one every night. Later, “TW” appeared, followed by more tally marks.
The actress Beth Leavel eventually learned that the crew had been charting the number of nights the audience applauded her entrance after her Tony nomination and, later, her Tony win. On Nov. 1, after 11 and 99 tallies respectively, she took the sign home as a birthday gift.
Entrance applause, the seemingly obligatory practice of clapping at the first glimpse of movie stars or Tony-honored performers, is an odd thing. While it provides a sense of communion between performer and audience, and an ego boost, it can also be disruptive to the show.
“ ‘That damn, damn entrance hand’ — you hear that much more often than ‘How are we going to get an entrance hand here?’ ” said Doug Hughes, director of the current revival of “Inherit the Wind” with Christopher Plummer and Brian Dennehy. “There’s something wonderful, by the same token, about an audience saying to a performer, ‘We’re thrilled to see you, we’re on your side, we wish you well.’ ”
Frank Langella, fresh from winning a Tony for “Frost/Nixon,” said he had mixed feelings about the phenomenon. “In the best of all possible worlds it really would be wonderful if there were no entrance applause and even no applause within a show,” he said. “But it’s part of the enthusiasm of American audiences.”
Most objections tend to come from directors. “Almost every good director I know doesn’t want it,” the producer Emanuel Azenberg said. “The whole rhythm of the play has to stop.”
Much of the applause goes to Hollywood celebrities, like Julia Roberts or Denzel Washington, when they make a rare foray into live theater, but it is not limited to them. In “Curtains” David Hyde Pierce, best known for his role on “Frasier,” certainly gets it, but so do some of his Broadway veteran castmates, like Debra Monk and Karen Ziemba.
An entrance hand can signal that a performer has finally reached a certain threshold of recognition, as it did for Ms. Leavel, or for Kelli O’Hara, who started tearing up when she first got entrance applause after her 2005 Tony nomination for “The Light in the Piazza.” Ms. O’Hara said she was nervous about leaving that show for “The Pajama Game,” to play opposite Harry Connick Jr., but felt validated when she got entrance applause in previews: “I could do my work instead of having to prove myself.”
Sometimes entrance hands reflect the staging as much as the performer. In “Legally Blonde” the relatively unknown Laura Bell Bundy got applause even before her Tony nomination, partly because she is first seen grandly rising to the stage in a big pink box.
At “Spamalot” Monty Python fans go crazy at the introduction of the French Taunter, the Knights Who Say “Ni” and other characters from the film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” on which the show is based, even props like a puppet killer rabbit.
Sets and images will get applause. Billy Crudup and Ethan Hawke did not usually get it when entering amid an ensemble in “The Coast of Utopia.” But the sweeping opening of the first play in the trilogy — when an ocean effect of swirling curtains is transformed into a stage full of serfs — frequently elicited applause.
Vladimir Konecni, a professor of psychology at University of California, San Diego, who has studied the psychology of theater, noted that while the “joiners” of the entrance applause are most likely engaging in a simple case of imitation, the applause starter is harder to explain. “Elitism is absolutely the issue,” Professor Konecni said. “I have good taste, I have money, I have sensitivity, I am rewarding myself mentally.” One feels a giddy sense of accomplishment, he said, for having made it into the same room as Kevin Spacey.
Another factor is the concept of “impression management,” in this case impressing your date. “You’re telling her, ‘I belong here, I know the rules,’ ” Professor Konecni said.
Those rules vary from place to place. John Mahoney, who played the father on “Frasier,” got an entrance hand regularly at “Prelude to a Kiss” last spring on Broadway, but it rarely happened when he was in “I Never Sang for My Father” in 2004 at the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago, where he is an ensemble member. Martha Lavey, Steppenwolf’s artistic director, said her audiences “would be less inclined to clap, because they feel like they have a conversation with our actors that’s kind of ongoing.”
On the other hand regional audiences are sometimes quick to applaud local favorites. Ever heard of J. Fred Shiffman? They certainly have in Washington. He frequently gets entrance applause at Arena Stage.
Mary Parker, a spokeswoman for the National Theater, said she could not recall having heard entrance applause in more than 10 years with the company, even for Ian McKellen or Michael Gambon. Michael Billington, the chief theater critic of The Guardian since 1971, said he could remember only one recent example of it on the West End: for Nathan Lane, who flew in to replace an ailing Richard Dreyfuss in “The Producers” just before it opened in 2004.
Mr. Billington recently went to see Patricia Routledge, a popular British television star, in “Office Suite” at the Chichester Festival Theater. When she entered, he said, one person clapped, and was promptly shushed.
In Japan traditional kabuki theater is known for kakegoe: shouting at actors upon their entrance, and throughout the performance. When an actor strikes a traditional pose along the entrance, audiences will shout out his yago — literally “shop name” or theatrical studio — or lines of encouragement like “You’re better than your father!,” referring to the tradition of passing roles down through the generations.
Kakegoe makes up for the nonexistence of curtain calls. “There’s a saying in kabuki theater that if you wait until the end of the performance, it’s too late,” said David Furumoto, who teaches theater at the University of Wisconsin.
Early-20th-century comedies were staged to amplify a star’s entrance applause, as supporting characters would discuss the lead character before the star finally entered in a flourish. Even Shakespeare’s actors would take bows as the audience applauded their arrival.
In presentational styles like these, entrance applause is part of the experience. But in more naturalistic works it can be disruptive. The critic and former artistic director Robert Brustein, now a senior research fellow at Harvard, said he could see how adherents of Stanislavsky’s acting system would disapprove. “You can get jolted out of your hypnotic state that helped you in developing a character,” he said.
Richard Thomas, best known as John Boy on “The Waltons” in the 1970s, gets it on tour in the jury drama “Twelve Angry Men.” “It’s easier to enter onstage as a character when they’re not recognizing you as a performer,” he said. “For the actor Richard Thomas, it’s entrance applause. For Juror No. 8, it’s ‘What’s that?’ ”
Mr. Thomas said he savors the handful of performances in recent months in which he didn’t get it. “The play really begins the way it’s supposed to begin,” he said, “which is 12 strangers walking into an absolutely silent room.”
Actors and directors grapple with how to handle entrance applause and sometimes try to manipulate it. In “Julius Caesar” on Broadway the director Daniel Sullivan added a short, silent stroll across the stage by his star, Denzel Washington, so his entrance applause did not disrupt the performance.
“The genius of it,” said Mr. Washington’s co-star Colm Feore, “was being modestly straightforward about the fact that it’s going to happen and preparing for it, so we never got derailed.”