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.