Commentary: Is it okay for artists to be difficult to work with?

Levi Weinhagen,, 4/3/12

Last week I asked the following question on Facebook and on Twitter: "Have you ever chosen to work with someone despite knowing they're difficult to work with because of their talent?" There was a wide array of responses. Obviously, this isn't a scientific study but there seems to be a high degree of willingness on the part of people working in the performing arts to work with people they know are difficult to work with. This makes me sad. I think the reason a lot of people continue to be difficult to work with is because they are allowed to get away with being difficult. There seems to be some calculation that if a person has a certain amount of talent they are allowed a certain amount of being difficult. For me, a significant part of the joy of making theater comes in the producing, rehearsing, and getting ready for the stage. There's no artist who is good enough on stage to offset their souring the theater-making process. Certainly, there [are] difficult and challenging moments in the rehearsal process even when everyone involved is lovely to work with and there are inevitably personality clashes that don't necessarily mean one involved personality is always difficult to work with. But if you are a director or producer who has complained many times about a particular artist because of how unpleasant they are to work with but find yourself casting him or her again and again because you think there is no one else who can do the role justice, think about whether your encouraging that difficult behavior from that actor and also showing other artists it's an okay way to behave.


Downton producer on Maggie Smith: "very difficult...but she delivers"

Anita Singh, The Telegraph [UK], 4/6/12

With her acid one-liners and imperious air, Downton Abbey's Dowager Countess is one of Dame Maggie Smith's most glorious creations. But an executive behind the [television] show claimed the 77-year-old actress has a similarly terrifying reputation on set. Rebecca Eaton, who is responsible for broadcasting the costume drama in the US, reportedly made a series of indiscreet comments during a screening for American audiences. "Maggie Smith is a handful, it's true. She's very difficult," Eaton said. "She knows her worth, and she's tricky on the set, but she delivers when the time comes." Initially, [Eaton] turned down Downton Abbey. "Then I heard that Maggie Smith had been cast to be in it and I thought, 'We have to do it'. Because she, like Judi Dench, like Eileen Atkins -- there are a few British actors, if they're in, I want it because I just think they're going to be good." Miss Eaton's remarks about Dame Maggie's "tricky" nature do not reflect the views of other cast members. Hugh Bonneville, who plays the Earl of Grantham, said: "Off camera, she's naughty, funny and is the mistress of the flinty stare delicately edged with twinkle". His view was echoed by Michelle Dockery, who plays Lady Mary: "She is wonderful to work with. We have a lot of fun with her, she has an incredibly witty sense of humour and she sometimes has us in stitches right before the take."


Commentary: The end of the diva paradox

Seth Godin on his blog, 4/12/12

Great surgeons don't need to be respectful or have a talented, kind or alert front desk staff. They're great at the surgery part, and you're not here for the service, you're here to get well (if you believe that the surgery part is what matters). In fact, gruffness might be a clue to their skill for some. Great opera singers don't have to be reasonable or kind. They sing like no one else, that's why you hired them, and why they get to (are expected to) act like divas. Get over it. So the thinking goes. The traditional scarcity model implied some sort of inverse relationship between service and quality. Not for service businesses like hotels, of course, but for the other stuff. If someone was truly gifted, of course they didn't have the time or focus to also be kind or reasonable or good at understanding your needs. A diva was great partly because, we decided, she was a jerk. I think that's changing, possibly forever, for a bunch of reasons:

  • The state of the art is now easier to find.
  • Customers quickly become aware of what a raw deal they're getting.
  • It's so much easier to deliver better service that we're far less forgiving.
  • We start to wonder whether that diva provider actually is intelligent and caring.
  • With fewer great gigs available (even in opera), it's not so easy act like a jerk (or be insulated and uncaring) and still get work.


No divas here: One woman's tireless mission to help emerging opera singers

Fern Glazer,, 3/23/12

The world of opera is filled with divas, high-drama and some very unhappy endings. Today's voice students hoping to become professional opera singers [are] setting out on a difficult, sometimes near impossible, journey. More universities have begun offering voice degrees and the number of people who believe they have talent has grown exponentially. The number of opportunities however remains small, making the world of opera more unforgiving than ever. For more than a decade Diana Borgia-Petro has been trying to lessen the pain and suffering and give emerging artists a leg up with ConcertOPERA, Philadelphia, (COPA). "It's rough out there. Singers are not embraced," said Diana. "We are highly friendly to the artist." Singers routinely swap warstories of audition conditions that are less than ideal and sometimes even demeaning. Auditioners who are rude, aloof and pay little attention, companies that lack an appropriate space for singers to warm up, situations where singers have been herded like cattle into narrow hallways to perform, or audition rooms with such poor sound quality that singers can not hear themselves sing. Which is why Diana works hard to create an encouraging environment at COPA. She has been able to help more than 150 up-and-comers bridge the gap between training and a professional career since she founded the organization in 1996. Since then, many COPA performers have gone on to leading roles with New York City Opera, Opera Colorado, Opera Company Philadelphia, among others.


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FROM TC: This last article is not specifically about the arts, but relevant to today's topic...


Bullies in the office? They could be more common than you might think

Leonor Vivanco, Red Eye Chicago, 4/8/12
Bullying -- certainly the buzzword of the moment -- happens not only to students at school but to adults at work. In fact, bullying in all its forms has become a flashpoint in the national conversation. The "It Gets Better" video project to prevent gay bullying has resulted in more than 3.3 million page views since its 2010 launch. Meanwhile, the documentary "Bully" garnered national media attention as producers fought to get its R rating changed to PG-13 so it could be shown in schools. A CareerBuilder survey last year showed 29% of American workers ages 24 or younger said they were bullied at work. Another survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute in 2010, put the number even higher among adults, with 35% saying they have been bullied on the job. "We are where we were with sexual harassment 10 to 15 years ago," said Judy Skorek, associate professor at Concordia University Chicago. "We know it's wrong. We know we need to address it, and it's been out there for a long time." The problem doesn't seem to be getting better given the challenging economy, said Suzy Fox, a professor at Loyola University. "Companies are less likely to put in resources that are healthy workplace employee benefit-type policies because no one has any money and people are really stressed and fearful for their job," she said. "This kind of environment is really fertile for bullying behavior." Workplace experts say employers need to issue corporate statements against bullying, define it as unacceptable, and create a policy for reporting it and a system to prevent it.

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