Ways to Avoid Being a Diva and How to Deal with One

Anthony Cornatzer

- OnStage New Jersey Columnist

There he was--a college freshman and theatre major just breaking himself into the program at his college. It was opening night. It was an original musical written by a faculty member of the college. Pressure was on. The cast worked themselves especially hard with this show; trying to get little things right, and dealing with last minute changes in songs and scenes that just weren’t working out. But everyone was, overall, ready for this show…well, almost everyone.

He’s on stage with his first scene in the show. It’s going well; the honesty in character is there, the chemistry with the other leading actress in the show is solid, the interaction is going well, the scene is flowing effortlessly, and then—it happens. The leading actress flubs her lines and the scene takes a brief pause; within that split second, though, this young actor—a college freshman—improvises, and practically spoon-feeds lines to the leading lady, and things get right back on track to where they need to be, and the scene continues. Chances were that the majority of the audience would never guess that the mistake even happened.

But all the while, this young actor couldn’t help wondering in the back of his head for the remainder of the production run—“Here I am, a college freshman, working alongside what is supposed to be a ‘professional’ actress who actually flubbed on her lines, and for a split-second nearly left the scene to ruins. What the heck?”

Now, granted, he wasn’t personally criticizing her for just flubbing on lines, because really, as actors, it’s all happened to us from time to time. He was really criticizing her because this was just one out of numerous things that this actress has consistently messed up. From rehearsals to now, even during the show run, this actress would drop lines, show up late for entrances in key moments in the show, show up late for rehearsals, and even give everyone from the cast to the director a really, overall nasty attitude. She was what he hated to admit to see in theatre. She was: a diva.

Though this particular show is now months in the past, this particular person (without mentioning any names) still burns in the back of my mind when I recollect my own experiences in acting in my first college production. The show, itself, was fine; I personally had an incredible amount of fun and triumph in honing everything I had learned in all of my experiences in acting to really own the moments I had on stage with what was a good, exceptional show to be a part of in immersing myself within the theatre program at my college. As a production, though—it was a living nightmare to put up with simply because of this self-centered diva. And here was the rub with this which is what really infuriated me and everyone else involved with the show—she wasn’t just a professional actress, she was an Equity actress (which, for those who don’t know, translates as her being a member of the actor’s union, Actors’ Equity Association.

Supposedly, those who are accredited as this are not only deserving of respect and admiration, they are also someone for young actors to emulate. They are supposed to be the epitome of professionalism, which clearly this actress was not).

Unfortunately, more often than not in theatre, everyone—especially actors—have to deal with these infamous groups of people, divas, at any level; regardless of whether or not it’s in high school, college, or even professional. Understandably, it’s very easy for all actors to fall into that hole under the stress and pressure that theatre naturally brings and, oddly enough, a diva may not even know he/she is one or behaving like it. So, here’s some advice on how, at the very least, to avoid being categorized as such before you jeopardize and ruin relationships, both personally and professionally:

    1.) Always be respectful.

Theatre is a tough business. There is no getting around it. Regardless of whether or not you’re getting paid, it’s still something to take seriously and be accountable for on a personal level. However, that doesn’t warrant thinking and behaving as if no one else is going through similar struggles and hardships in a show,whatever they may be in the cast, crew, or production team. So, the obvious thing is to be courteous to that. Everyone is an equal in theatre and should be treated as such. If need be, go the extra mile to be that much more courteous and polite to everyone involved in the production even if they don’t treat you as fairly. The success of a show is solely dependent on the ensemble and teamwork that builds and makes it; if there’s disharmony in that, the show falls apart.

    2.) Always give your best, professional attitude.

At any angle, from any position or part in a show, there is one assumption that should go into a production from the first rehearsal to the final curtain call: that “you” are going to give your best effort and your best attitude with everything you do for the show, simply because you want to be there. That being said, be consistent with that effort; always try to be on time, be off-book on your lines by when your asked to be (or maybe even before), always say, “Hi, how are you?” and “Please,” and “Thank you” to everyone, often. And even go so far as to owe up to your mistakes when they happen, because things inevitably do happen from time to time.

Outside of the show, if you’re normally a jerk-weed (which really doesn’t make sense if you’re into theatre, anyway), fine; but at rehearsal and during a show, be at your best in spirit and attitude. Obviously, don’t be so much of this in being a stiff, because that’s just as equally as bad. But the point is, whatever spirit you carry into the show, is what you contribute directly to the show itself; and that’s true for everyone.

3.) Be helpful, if you can.

This also goes hand in hand in being a part of a show as well as a team. Everyone is as strong as their weakest link. For example, it can be something as little and trivial as offering to help your stage manager or assistant stage manager set up chairs for all actors called for a rehearsal if you happen to show up early, or to offer to help put them away at the end of rehearsal, and so many other little things like that. Maybe even go so much to the extent of coming to crew calls or helping with a load-in week for a set. Speaking from experience, you really don’t have to be the most knowledgeable person in technical theatre to just come in and, say, paint, or putting flats together. What really matters is just the fact that you’re there. And really, in the grand scheme of things, it only adds on to the show camaraderie in a production.

Believe it or not, it’s all those little things that really make you stand out to those around you; not so much in talent, but more specifically that you’re a good, decent person who cares about the show and wanting to do what it takes to make it look good both technically as well as in performance. In the end, it’s fair to say that those you know and work with in theatre will remember you more for how much you cared and contributed everything you could to each show you worked on rather than how good you were on stage.

    4.) Acknowledge the talents in others (and everyone) around you.

All throughout an actor’s experience and career, he/she will find themselves working alongside other actors from various age groups, ethnicities and backgrounds. When you ultimately find yourself within a position of experience and posing as a role model for others in a cast to look towards (and it always happens and changes, sooner than anyone expects), interact and engage with those looking to fill in the shoes that you now occupy; encourage them, tell them specific things they’re doing right with a show. In general, with everyone who is a part of any given production—encourage and acknowledge them, their talents, and everything they bring into a show. And, under no circumstances—especially with actors—find it appropriate, let alone permissible, to give your fellow actors notes or criticism.

That is one of the most important, unspoken cardinal rules in acting, and actually a very tell-tale sign of distinguishing a professional from a diva. Leave the notes and constructive criticism to the director and stage manager, and anyone else on the production team, because you as an actor chiming in with your own personal opinions about an actor to his/her face is just as irritating as it is rude. Don’t think of it as being helpful, because whatever the intentions may be it’ll always be read as being condescending and unprofessional, and it never sits well with anyone involved with a production, let alone make them want to work with you either in the present or in the future.

As for the rest of us who have to deal with said divas for the duration of a production from beginning to end, needless to say it isn’t easy. There is indeed a fine balance that needs to be kept for the sake of harmony amongst the cast and production team as a whole, as well as for the sake of the show itself which obviously takes the highest priority. That being said, it is best to still remain professional and courteous to everyone—even when, more than likely, you may not be treated with the same respect from a diva in your own midst. Another great course of action that goes hand-in-hand with your own professionalism, is not engaging with any divas; both in friendship as well as in frustration with their behavior. Remember that the most important thing, as an actor especially, is to give the best creative effort you can from your very soul in bringing your character and your show to life for each performance for a paying audience.

Do yourself a favor and don’t get hung up on drama-within-drama trivialities that these divas create—they’ll all pass, one way or another. However, if things start to become so chaotic and unbearable, talk to your director or stage manager; but keep in mind it does run the risk of creating disharmony amongst the cast and production team. The same could equally be said for venting about divas; though it can be effective and healthy in putting things in perspective with a show, it can also be all that an actor thinks and talks about if it isn’t tamed. It does seem to make more sense to get really good and angry about particular divas after a show has finished its production run. Speaking from experience, it makes the triumph at the end of a show to be all the more rich in satisfaction…if for anything else, you may never have to deal with that person again once the show is done.

At the end of it all, though, dealing with divas isn’t a matter of being a better person. It’s simply a matter of realizing and understanding what’s more important in theatre: the story, itself, and the whole eclectic process and teamwork and artistry that brings it into fruition…not the spotlight, or the glamour, or the praise and the applause that so many talented performing artists cling to more so than what they’re actually doing.

That being said, be a true artist and be true to yourself and the work you create and the effect it has on all those who see it—never lose sight of what’s most important.