When Enough Is Enough
by Roy Sander
I’m delighted to have been asked to comment on encores. If I can help put an end to this silly convention, my life—or at least this afternoon—will have been worthwhile.
I long to return to the days when encores were reserved for those very special occasions when audience applause is so extraordinary that it would be ungracious for performers not to give their adoring public yet one more. I remember a concert many years ago in which Beverly Sills told an audience that would not stop cheering that she honestly did not have another number, then proceeded to repeat an aria from the first half of her program. Now, that was an encore. Over the last several years, alas, the encore has become an all-too-predictable ritual devoid of any meaning.
First, please realize that encores are not obligatory—any more than are the tedious litany of thank you’s and those annoying exhortations to tip the wait staff that have become commonplace. Julie Wilson, the greatest cabaret artist I have ever seen, does not do scheduled encores. When her show is over, she has the good grace to leave the stage and not play foolish games.
In addition to showing a lack of imagination and thought, the device of exiting and coming back places your audience in the uncomfortable position of feeling obliged to applaud until you return. Worse, you risk the embarrassment of their not applauding long enough. I witnessed such an awkward moment only recently. The singer re-entered to the palpable sound of silence and sheepishly asked the audience whether they wanted to hear one more number. It wasn’t that the audience had not enjoyed her performance; on the contrary, they were quite enthusiastic during the show. It was simply that when she introduced the “final” song by saying, “For my last number,…” they took her at her word”
The lesson here is that you must (1) not lie to the audience, and (2) guide and be led by them. Do not say, “I’d like to leave you with…” or “To close,…”, etc. unless you mean it. (This becomes especially idiotic when you’ve distributed programs with a song list that clearly shows that another song is coming.) If you insist on planning a false exit, be prepared to read your audience and eschew the exit altogether, or to rush back to the stage straight away. Another suggestion is that you discuss this with the tech director ahead of time, and have him/her announce, only moments after you’ve exited, “Once again, ladies and gentlemen, (your name)!”
Encores can serve a purpose. For example, if you end with a rousing number, you might want to use a sweeter, gentler song as an encore so that the audience will leave with a warm feeling. Sort of a one-two punch, with kid gloves replacing boxing gloves for the second hit. But you can accomplish this without leaving the stage. To continue with the example I cited, after your big number, you can remain on stage, acknowledge the musicians and the tech director and thank the audience for coming, then close with the ballad. You can even have the tech director announce your name after your big “ending,” while you stay put. And if the audience continues applauding after you have made your true exit (whether because they really loved your show that much or because they’ve been trained to expect an encore), come back on stage and graciously thank them for their enthusiastic response and wish them a good night.
One other thing: Remember that the various cute things that performers say at encore time have all been said many, many times before. They include—but are by no means limited to—”Make believe that at this point I’m leaving the stage and coming back after your tumultuous applause”; “I’m too tired to go off and come back”; “Yes, we do know one more number”; and “What shall we do? I know, let’s do what we rehearsed.” So, don’t even think of it.
I realize that this issue is not quite black and white, that it is to a large extent colored by local stage traditions and practices. For example, shows in Germany typically include on the order of five planned encores, each with a full exit (the singer as well as all of the musicians). Grrrrrr. And I left one recital in St. Petersburg (Russia) at the end of the ninth encore; I have no idea whether it was the final one. However, rituals and practices can change, and we need not slavishly follow convention. I have been encouraged to see that in the years since I began writing on the subject, an increasing number of performers have cut the false exits from their shows. God love ’em.