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'Theatre kept my mind so activated': the existential crisis of Sydney's 'standing ovation man' | Stage

Grahame Best keeps a ghost light burning 24/7 in his Wollongong home.

It’s a gesture of solidarity and sympathy with the now darkened auditoriums that are doing likewise, observing the old custom that requires a lamp to be left lit on the stage when a theatre is empty.

Unable to see any live theatre, Best, 73, feels the loss more keenly than most. He is one of the moveable fixtures of Sydney’s theatre scene. Many stage actors and audience members know his face even if they don’t know him by name because he’s “standing ovation man” – the patron who unfailingly gets to his feet to applaud every show he sees.

“The actor Toby Schmitz first called me that,” Best says. “It’s something I’ve done for years. I do it for the performers and for everyone involved – the director, the musicians, the backstage crew, even the admin staff … all the people who bust a gut to get a show on.”

Best also encourages other patrons to get to their feet – often in vain.

“I even get abused by some of them,” he confides to Guardian Australia. “I’ve been told I’m an embarrassment to theatre but it doesn’t stop me. The actors love it.”

He normally sees three to four shows a week, but – like everyone during the coronavirus crisis – has been stuck indoors for a month, and the theatres are all closed.

“My mind has gone black,” he says. “Just like the theatres … Theatre used to keep my mind so activated. I used to think about it all the time and what I’d just witnessed. [My wife] Doris tells me she’s noticed a big change. I’m bored. I’m lonely. I miss it so much. Theatre is a tonic for my brain!”

Last year, Best attended 130 shows. The year before, 128. This year, he has only seen 14 as the theatregoing came to an abrupt halt on 17 March when the government banned gatherings over 100 people (“Doomsday,” Best says).

This year would have marked his 60th year as one of Australia’s most diligent theatre patrons. Until the arrival of Covid-19, nothing kept him from seeing a show: not distance (he catches the train to Sydney from Wollongong and back); not pain (he has endured a serious back condition for 40 years); not the strokes that left him unable to speak or, more recently, the cancer operation that led to half of his tongue being removed.

Graham Best, aka Standing Ovation Man, in an empty theatre.

Grahame Best: ‘Before every show, I still feel the adrenaline pumping through my veins.’ Photograph: Elissa Blake

He sees all the big productions (he subscribes to several theatre company seasons) but he prefers to haunt the independent theatres. “I’d say about 85% of the shows I see are the small ones,” he says.

He has already paid for around $3,000 worth of tickets for 2020 but he won’t take any refunds. “It’s a donation,” he says.

After every production, a musical, play or cabaret, Best writes his impressions and thoughts in a tiny notebook. His reports fill dozens of notebooks dating back to 1960. He names every actor and member of the crew. Every detail from the lighting to the costumes is recorded.

“Before every show, I still feel the adrenaline pumping through my veins. I get excited. It’s something real and alive, you know? I always sit in the front row so I can feel like I’m in the scene with the actors,” Best says. “I’ve never seen a boring show and I’ve never walked out on a play. People say to me, what’s your favourite play? I can never answer because it’s all of them.”

Best with Courtney Act.

Grahame Best with Courtney Act. Photograph: Supplied: Grahame Best

For Best, attending theatre is more than a pleasurable pastime. It’s essential to his wellbeing and sense of self.

“I like to hang around after a show and talk to the actors and thank them but I never force myself on anyone,” he says. “Sometimes I wait an hour or more but sometimes I have to catch the last train back to Wollongong.”

After the strokes that left him partially incapacitated and unable to speak, he credits going to the theatre for his recovery.

“When I was let out of hospital, I went straight to the theatre. I just sat there trying to mouth the words the actors were saying and over time … I got my voice and speech back and eventually I walked again, too. The brain has mysterious ways. It finds new avenues.”

Best is one of thousands across the country for whom the ritual of weekly theatregoing is suspended indefinitely. “Now all I do is go for an early morning walk when no one is around, I go to the supermarket or the chemist, I wash my hands and I don’t touch my face,” he says with a chuckle.

While there is already talk of a limited relaxation of the rules controlling social gathering in areas such as retail and the factory floor, it seems likely that live performance will be among the very last parts of the economy to return to normal.

TV shows and the new plethora of streamed theatre is no substitute, says Best.

“Theatre is people right there, telling you their stories. Streaming is just TV. The atmosphere isn’t there. It’s boring.”

He has just joined Facebook so he can stay in touch with the actors. His wife Doris, whom he met when they both worked at Reader’s Digest, says he is addicted. “I have 160 friends now!” he says. “All of them actors.”

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