The Failures of the Diva Paradigm

Yesterday’s post about theater-as-service inspired quite a lively discussion on the 2AM Theatre Twitter stream. Some folks heard what I was saying about audience-centric theater and seemed to connect with the same impulse. In time, most of us settled into a comfortable middle ground, which I tried to summarize in 140 or fewer characters thusly:

1) Make a show FOR people—a show you love. 2) Find the people you made the show for and entice them to come. 3) Repeat.

In other words, think of your audience AND think of your own passions.  They aren’t mutually exclusive.

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to call this the Service-with-a-Smile Paradigm.

There were others in the stream, however, who didn’t agree—people I respect—and their differing opinions have been nagging at me.  They seemed to be clinging quite firmly to a sense of their own autonomy as artists.  One person—whose Twitter handle, appropriately enough, includes the word “diva”—said the following, which was re-tweeted at least a few times (I’m cleaning up the Twitter-speak a bit):

Do the work that invigorates you, and by nature it will be relevant to your audience.

I find this to be a very problematic idea, if certainly understandable, and I need to respond to it.

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to call this the Diva Paradigm.

In the Service-with-a-Smile Paradigm, a playwright studies his or her community—and community can be defined in any way he or she chooses, from “neighborhood” to “people of my gender” to “America” to “left-handed dentists”—then writes stories that will engage that community, inspire it, speak to it, attract it, help it, and so on.  In the Service-with-a-Smile Paradigm, a theater company studies its audience—however it defines that audience—and chooses plays that will engage that audience, inspire it, etc.

Nobody’s trying to be famous, or get heard, or make a splash, or anything like that… though those things might happen, incidentally, along the way.  (Usually not for long, however.)

In the Diva Paradigm, on the other hand, a playwright studies the self—whatever that self might look like—and writes the stories that emerge from that self.  In other words, the playwright writes for a community of one.  The hope is that “by nature”—to use the words in the second tweet I quoted above—the play will find its audience… but what does that actually mean? That people just like the playwright will want to see the play he/she has created? In a similar vein, the Diva Paradigm implies that a theater company programs plays for its own excitement and entertainment… and expects, “by nature,” that  a similar-minded audience will arrive. How insular!

The first failure of the Diva Paradigm is that, well, people change.  The stories that please you and excite you when you’re a young playwright aren’t the same stories when you get older. Do you expect that your audience will simply follow you along? Perhaps, if you’re a genuine genius, this might be the case; Miles Davis did it, for example, leaping from genre to genre with agility and a devil-may-care attitude… but how many other artists have floundered on the rocks, one-hit-wonders who flashed in the pan and disappeared?

Likewise with theater companies: program a season of farces, draw huge crowds, then decide it’s time to do a whole season of Greeks: how long do you think you’d last?

The second failure of the Diva Paradigm is contained in those two words that keep nagging at me: “by nature” the work will find its audience.  “By nature”—the implication is that the playwright or company will be so cool as to be irresistible. This strikes me as at least somewhat naive: I am reminded, I’m sorry to say, of a child imploring a parent to watch it do a cannonball into the pool. We all want to be eminently watchable… but that’s a quality, I believe, that has to be earned… and the way to earn that is to tell stories people want or need to hear.

I fear that part of the reason our entire genre has suffered for audience members in comparison to say, film and television (let alone the internet) is that the Diva Paradigm has infused so much of what we do. If we want to begin attracting new audiences—to bring people into the theater who don’t even know what they’re missing—we really have to think about what they might want to see.

The theaters that survive, over the long haul, do a great job of this. They know their audiences, and they program for those audiences. The new theater companies that will eventually become established theater companies have to have a sense of this as well if they want to survive. If they get founded because somebody wants to do a certain kind of work that isn’t being done… I wouldn’t bet much on their chances of making it. If they get founded because they want to serve an audience that hasn’t been served… now THERE’S an opportunity I believe in.

And I think a similar thing is true for playwrights as well. The most valuable and enduring plays speak to the zeitgeist, to the demands of the culture, to the memes of the day. They ask the questions everybody needs to be asking. They tell the stories we all need to have told to us.

Having said all of that, I do understand the appeal of the Diva Paradigm. As I wrote yesterday (and repeated in the Twitter stream), being a theater professional is taxing, non-monetarily-rewarding work. If you’re going to invest so much of yourself into it, why wouldn’t you want to make yourself happy? To that question, I can only answer that of course you shouldn’t do work that makes you miserable; your passion for your work is a big part of what attracts people to it. But if the work that makes you happy is obscure, experimental, dense, meta-theatrical, symbolic storytelling, for example, don’t be surprised if there’s only a small audience for it.

Ultimately, I suggest that all theater practitioners need to learn to be made happy by service—to be pleased by helping one’s audience members live bigger and more meaningful lives, enriched by art that addresses the questions raised by modernity. It’s a difficult trick to pull off—goodness knows I’m still trying to figure it out—but I believe it to be important not only for our own individual growth, but also for the resurgence of our art form as well.

15 thoughts on “The Failures of the Diva Paradigm”

  1. Gwydion,

    It’s a difficult task for sure.

    For me it’s less about creating the work and more about actually marketing it. (Caveat: of course we’ll assume the work is at least ‘good.’ whatever that means because it’s so subjective.)

    The real problem here from my perspective as a marketer is that not enough goes into marketing, whatever the show may be. And by marketing I mean what will the audience find of value in the work.

    Whether you’re doing a show written for the community or one you wrote for yourself, if you don’t do the work to find the common human emotion people can relate to, no one’s really going to care much anyway.

    That’s why regardless of which show produce, you need to focus on your audience so you know what’s important to them and what they respond to. Too many times this turns into a ‘that’s not my job’ argument. But the truth remains if you don’t know how to get people excited about the work you do. You can’t very well expect them to be excited.

    From an artist perspective, when I write songs they’re written from a very personal place. I’m not consciously trying to write for anyone but rather just trying to get something out that’s going on inside. In the end I hope others can relate to the song. But again I don’t create with that in mind.

    Yep, this is tough. I’m not even sure if I added anything here or just rambled. =)

    In either case thanks for the post.

  2. I managed to miss the entirety of yesterday’s #2amt discussion, being swamped with dayjob things during daylight hours. A few things you say here, though, I find… problematic. This may stem from the fact that I come from the quote unquote art world, only having really entered the theater world in the last 5 or 6 years (ish).

    The suggestion of creating work specifically to please an audience is heresy in the art world. And I feel the same way about theater. I definitely believe that one must consider one’s audience, be aware of who that audience might be…

    but it’s a fine line between that and churning out crowd-pleasing but empty drek… like so much of what is already out there–on TV, in movies, and in theater. Too much emphasis on the assumptions of what your audience will or won’t like can very easily devolve into risk-avoidance and safe choices. This is why I strive to not let marketing concerns drive artistic discussions.

    Not to put meaning into other people’s words, but the tweet you quoted (the one from which you’ve extrapolated the “diva paradigm) seems to be saying not “only people like me will like the things I create” but rather “I can toil and labor and wring my hands trying to determine what an audience will like or respond to… and possibly still not find success… or I can create the work that excites, invigorates, fulfills me–knowing that somewhere out there is an audience who will also be excited, fulfilled, invograted by the work.” The “by nature” in my eyes being more a shortened for Twitter version of “due to the nature of the world and the varied tastes existing therein” or something akin to that.

    ramble, ramble.

    The trick then is to figure out who that audience is, where to find them, and how to get them to come: you know, everyone’s favorite thing… marketing.

  3. I think that a really honest writer will by necessity be speaking to a community of more than one because we are all a part of a community of more than one. There are certainly plenty of egocentric sociopaths in every branch of the arts who may truly create works that only speak to themselves, but I believe that good writing, writing worth publishing or producing is the result of one person asking and maybe answering questions that speak to the human condition at large and will reflect the zeitgeist. It seems pretty organic to me.
    I could be wrong– I am neither a published nor produced writer.
    That said, I think this question is more important to theatre companies than to individual writers. Write from your heart, tell your story, and if it connects with people then it will be produced by theatre companies that serve the audience that would enjoy the work.

  4. There’s only a fine line between meeting audience wants and needs vs. producing “crowd-pleasing drek” if you don’t really respect the audience in the first place.

    The person who would rather produce for him/herself alone, but then forces him/herself to work for the audience, probably will produce drek because s/he really despises the audience for making him/her “compromise.”

    But the person who actually respects the audience and desires an authentic connection won’t have to fight against crowd-pleasing drek. This kind of artist will be just as motivated to pursue excellence on behalf of the audience as the traditional, romanticized, non-heretical artist is motivated to please him or herself.

  5. Dave, you know I’m with you when you put better connection with the audience into the marketing category. And you know I agree that not enough theaters try hard enough to find the audiences they can connect with. However, those theater companies (and other artists, for that matter) who are integrated into their communities won’t have to try so hard.

    Consider urban liberal churches in, say, a majority LGBT neighborhood. Those that embrace their community and believe in the community and support it won’t have to resort to market research to build a following. If there is a more conservative church nearby that wants to “save” these LGBT folks, however, they will obsess about stylistic relevance, because they haven’t got the real thing.

  6. Gwydion, you could rename the “diva” paradigm the “purist” paradigm, I think. It’s a hard one to shake, because the myths of artistic purity are so resonant and hallowed. We make a fetish of the fact that many great artists weren’t recognized in their own time, while forgetting how many of the greats were.

    However, as somebody who sees more value in a beloved community than in an artistic artifact, I’m on your side. Keep it up!

  7. This is the only thing I regret about this post, and I regret it a lot. My use of the word “diva” — which has positive associations for some, negative for most — may have prejudiced some against my larger argument. I tried to be charitable toward the point of view I don’t hold, but my language betrayed my own biases. I’d rather argue more fairly than that. Ah, well.

    In any event, I thank you for the suggestion, and for the moral support.

  8. I hear you.

    My conflict with your argument is that you equate creating work with an audience in mind to creating work “specifically to PLEASE an audience.” (My emphasis.)

    First… what’s so wrong with pleasing an audience? Isn’t it a nice thing to entertain people from time to time and make them happy? If your audience is young children, isn’t pleasing them among the primary goals?

    Second (and more importantly), pleasing is only one way of engaging or being of service to an audience. I can think of unnumbered others: scaring the hell out of them, pissing them off, educating them, listening to them, haunting them, teasing them, daring them, challenging them, telling them to go to hell, and confusing the hell out of them. All of those are ways in which we can be of service. The important thing, I think, is to do them with intent and clarity. And the other important thing is not to ignore the audience entirely, as if they don’t exist.

    Finally, let me be clear again that I’m not saying we shouldn’t make work that pleases us — I’d be a hypocrite and a fool if I did. I’m saying we should think about whether what pleases us is also of any use — use being the opposite of drek — to anyone else. If not, we should let it go.

  9. You’re welcome!

    There’s the story (the play), and then there’s the story about the story (the marketing), and both are critical. I want to work with marketers who know how to entice the audiences I’ve written for into the theater — to help them see the value in what I’ve created. As soon as they see that value, I believe, and as soon as they realize I haven’t pandered to them or talked down to them — that, in Aaron’s words, I’ve taken them seriously — they will come in droves.

  10. I would have had no problem whatsoever with this post if it had been written as an explanation of your Code of Art. I think there’s a lot to be lauded in it’s intent – for you, and as an explanation of how you go about it.

    As a pronouncement for The Right Way to Make Art it is wrong.

    You know the vocab problem, but in choosing the style of naming for the Non-Gwydion paradigm you made it about selfishness vs. altruism and this is art not food.

    As with the recent pricing posts we apparently have to deal in binaries. SELFISH CREATION OR COMMUNITY CREATION. Which is of course not the case. There is a lot of ground to be covered between Cornerstone and a Shubert.

    But even the %100 “selfish” creation of an audience blind piece has value. It is the R&D wing of our field – it’s where The Berliner Ensemble would have lived It will probably never be commercially successful and indeed audiences may hate it. But that doesn’t make it simply a call for attention… And a creation that is for audience may not have any effect on either the creators or the viewers, There is benefit on both ends and The Truly Great Theatre is found where the tension between the two poles is heightened to whatever degree resonates in that moment.

    1. My short response? You’re right, on all counts.

      I have been trying, since this post — not consistently yet, mind you, but trying — to re-frame my blog posts as questions, rather than statements. (See my post today, for example.) Because what I’ve done here is sound a lot more didactic than I should have — even if I like the lesson.

      This is my code of art. And I do think that we’d benefit, as a culture of theater practitioners, from more people subscribing to a similar code; I think an emphasis on personal expression, rather than community stories, is what has contributed to the alienation of artists. But I don’t really believe — not even close — that THIS IS THE ONLY WAY. It’s not, and it shouldn’t be, and the exceptions you note are important ones. So… thank you for making me smarter.

      1. Like I could make you smarter…. I think it’s an excellent code of art.

        The questions framing is a great way to create engagement. I think the other way to avoid the toe stomping is to make the statements personal and let others sign on.
        All of which leads to too much thinking and much less fun in blogging… all that being careful makes the writing much more tedious. HULK SMASH is a lot more fun 😉

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