Imagine going to an elegant restaurant for a gourmet meal. Instead of a lovely evening out, however, your experience turns out to be a disastrous affair complete with long waits, rude servers and undercooked salmon. Of course, like any wholesome, polite, moral-lovin’ American, you will take this all with a smile and tip your waiter 15 percent — maybe even 20. Right?

Of course you won’t! You’ll complain and ask to see managers and take down names and refuse to tip, damn it. If you’re paying premium prices for a meal, you expect to get the best possible service and the best quality food.

Then why, pray tell, do the same boisterous Americans who stand up for themselves during an unpleasant dining experience suddenly wimp out when faced with an equally disappointing night at the theater? While performance-goers may not have the option of going backstage and complaining to the house manager about the quality of the performance, there is one way in which they can stand up for themselves and make some noise — or rather, not make some noise. It goes against everything civilized society has ingrained into us: refusing to clap.

It’s that easy — don’t clap. If the ballerina tripped and you didn’t think she was particularly graceful, then don’t applaud for her. If the singer’s voice cracked and he was flat the entire evening, then sit on your hands during the curtain call.

Audiences, however, have it in their heads that it’s polite to clap — that they’re supposed to give a big hand, no matter how poor the performance. But professional theater isn’t some fourth-grade pageant during which you applaud to make the kids feel good. These performers are being paid to do their jobs correctly, and it’s your money they’re getting. If a doctor gives the wrong diagnosis, you sure as hell won’t give him a pat on the back. So why give an undeserved ovation to a less-than-satisfactory performance?

The same goes for the now-meaningless standing ovation. What should be reserved for only the most illuminating and virtuosic performances is wasted over and over again on the likes of community theater. Take, for instance, the time a friend and I went to see a high school performance of “Les Misérables.” After the final curtain, while the rest of the audience rose to their feet, my friend and I remained seated. A scandalized audience member in the row behind us made sure we heard her when she remarked to her companion, “Some people are so rude!” That she found it such an offense in the first place reveals how deeply rooted this philosophy is in our society.

We must keep in mind that the act of bowing is one of humility — the performer humbly comes forward to receive the audience’s appreciation through a bow, as if to say, “I don’t deserve this.” The irony is, many performers don’t deserve it, making the whole process a sham.

I’m sure there will be those who deem me a boorish, tomato-flinging philistine. These critics may be surprised to learn that in Europe — especially in Italy — honesty reigns supreme during curtain calls. In fact, our more “civilized” European cousins engage in such behaviors as booing and whistling when they are displeased. In 2006, superstar tenor Roberto Alagna was booed at La Scala following his opening aria in “Aida.” Enraged, the divo stormed off the stage and had to be replaced by an un-costumed understudy.

Did Alagna deserve it? Probably not, but the situation proves refusing to clap may not be quite the faux pas that it appears.

With a new theater season here, it’s time American audiences start to recognize their rights as patrons, including the right to get one’s money’s worth. If the performers don’t come through with their end of the deal, then it’s not your place to pretend like they did. When it all boils down, the decision to clap means staying honest to oneself: Are you clapping because you actually enjoyed it, or are you clapping because everyone else is? Remember that the next time you make a move to “put your hands together.”

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