For many actors, the curtain call makes all of the stressful auditions, tedious rehearsals, and manic performance schedules worth the experience. Most actors crave audience approval. In fact, I have yet to meet a thespian who has told me, "You know what? I can't stand applause."
But how does one accept the standing ovations? Is there an etiquette to curtain calls? Not exactly. Each show may have its own way of presenting the actors after the conclusion of a play or musical. Generally, the director decides which actors bow first, second, third, and all the way up until the starring members of the cast take their final bows. It's up to each individual actor as to how one behaves during the curtain call.
Over the years, I have collected advice from both performers and audience members about what makes a good (and bad) curtain call.
DO: Rehearse the Curtain Call
Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Even if the director does not seem to care about it. Practice a few times so that the curtain call is a smooth process and everyone knows their entrances. A sloppy curtain call with confused actors bumping into one another is not how you want to conclude your opening night.
DON'T: Take Too Long
Nothing sullies a good show like an excessively long curtain call. If the show consists of six or fewer actors, it's fine for everyone to take an individual bow. But for medium to large casts, send out groups of actors based on the size of their role. The actors don't need to run, but they do need to be quick. They should bow, acknowledge the audience, and then make way for the next set of performers.
DO: Connect with the Audience
Normally, when an actor is performing they avoid "breaking the fourth wall." Even when they look off stage, they do not look directly at the audience. Yet, during the curtain call, the actor is free to be him/herself. Make eye contact. Show your genuine feelings. Be yourself.
DON'T: Stay in Character
Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Some actors feel more comfortable remaining in character while on stage. When I perform in a comedy, I often walk to center stage in character. But once I reach the center stage and take my bow, I shed my character and become myself. Generally, audiences appreciate getting a glimpse of the artist behind the character.
DO: Acknowledge the Crew / Orchestra
After the cast bows as a group, they should then gesture towards the orchestra pit (for musicals) or the lighting/sound operators at the back of the house (for stage plays). Some professional theaters forgo offering applause to the technical crew (perhaps because a steady paycheck is their reward). However, I highly recommend that non-profit theaters give their voluntary crew members their own taste of applause.
DON'T: Deliver Speeches after the Curtain Call
Producers and directors might be tempted to thank the audience and discuss the creative process. Theater owners might seek a chance to plug season tickets. Don't give into that temptation. One: it spoils the theatrical experience. And two: Most of the audience wants to use the restroom and perhaps buy a souvenir. Let them.
DO: Give the Audience a Chance to Meet the Cast Members
Depending on the venue, it can be thrilling for audience members to meet the actors after the performance. During the original run of Into the Woods, audience members could enter a side-curtain and shake hands with their favorite performers. I fondly remember meeting the cast of the Los Angeles production of The Phantom of the Opera at the stage door. Giving fans an extra glimpse, a spare moment or even an autograph will add to the show's publicity.