I’ve been thinking lately about why, how, and by whom new plays are commissioned.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have earned a few commissions myself, and it won’t surprise anyone to learn that in all of those instances, the commissions have come from theater companies. The companies in question needed plays to produce; they thought their audiences might like the plays an artist like me would write, so they asked me to write some. That’s their job, after all, at some base level: to find artists and pay them to make art that they think their audience members will pay them, in turn, to see.
Well, that’s a capitalist version of their job, anyway.You don’t like the crass commercialism of my last sentence? Fine: try this. It’s a theater’s job to find artists and provide them with the necessary support and resources to create art that the theater thinks its audience members will benefit from seeing and be glad to support. How’s that?
What’s been troubling me lately about commissions is the assumption that, for reasons either commercial or creative, the theater has to act as an intermediary between artist and audience. Why must it be so? I can think of two reasons.
First, because that’s the way we’ve been doing it for a long time now. I think it’s safe to say we can dismiss that one out of hand.
Second, because arts institutions have an important role to play as cultural curators. They serve as experts, determining what art needs to get created. Their imprimatur—the fact that they’ve commissioned the work—automatically makes it “important,” whether in the short term people like it or not. In the long term, more often than not, they are proven correct.
As much as I’d rather not grant this second argument merit, I have to give it some… not too much, but some. There are too many examples of brilliant works of art that exist and survive into posterity only because institutions commissioned them (or in other ways kept them alive) to dismiss the idea out of hand.
And yet… how good are theaters, really, at commissioning work their audiences want to see here and now, rather than in some distant future? Has anyone ever assessed in a large-scale way how well-attended and well-liked and critically-acclaimed commissioned plays usually are? Furthermore, as audiences for theater become more and more challenging to find, shouldn’t we be working harder than ever to figure out what stories they’re interested in experiencing?
So that got me thinking: what if theaters handled the commissioning process in a very different way? What if they stepped to the side a little bit and gave their audience members a direct say in the work they might ask playwrights to make for them? Here’s a rough sketch:
- The theater begins by doing some limited-scale curatorial work: selecting five or ten potential projects they might commission and posting overviews of all of them online.
- Next, the general public is invited to weigh in on the candidates: not only by voting for their favorites, but also by submitting comments.
- Subscribers’ comments might be weighted more heavily; even those people entering a special code on the back of a ticket stub might get more attention for their feedback.
- The theater then chooses to fully commission the project or projects that draw the most interest from their audiences.
Naturally, there are questions about intellectual property and copyright that might need to be addressed… but I feel confident, frankly, that if the Dramatists Guild’s lawyers were put to the test, they could craft the right legal language to keep everybody happy and protected.
Yes, there might be a few egos to assuage. I certainly wouldn’t want to be the playwright whose project didn’t get picked more than a few times… but it definitely wouldn’t stop me from trying, because it sure does feel great to be nominated. Artistic directors would have to give over some part of a season to the vox populi… but if the populi end up loving what gets put on stage, the vox is going to be mighty complimentary, isn’t it? Eminently surmountable problems in both cases, I hope you’ll agree.
Of course, if you don’t agree—and, more importantly, if theaters don’t agree—we playwrights can always just go ahead and get commissions for new plays without them.
What’s that, you say? A commission without a theater? Who, then, will be doing the commissioning?
Bear with me while I take you on a small detour to a website you might not be familiar with called Eventful. With a free Eventful membership, you’re able to “demand” an appearance by your favorite artist in any number of genres at the venue of your choice. You want Lady Gaga to play the Kiwanis Club in Grand Rapids, MI? Demand it. You want to get Jim Gaffigan to do his new routine at the State Theatre in Falls Church, VA – you can say so. Get enough other people to make the same demand, and (assuming Gaga’s manager and Gaffigan’s press agent are paying attention) you can make things happen.
So… what’s to stop audience members from using a similar technology to convince a theater to commission a play by a certain playwright? Let’s say I’m compelled by A. Rey Pamatmat’s oeuvre. (Easy to say because, in fact, I am.) Let’s say I’d like to see one of his plays in my home city of DC (which, again, I would) and that I think Forum Theatre might be a great home for it (because, well, I like what they do with contemporary work). Why couldn’t I “demand” they produce it, and convince other people (using the various and sundry tools offered by social media) to do the same? Wouldn’t both Forum Theatre and A. Rey Pamatmat be unwise to ignore the message?
There are some who would argue that audience members aren’t generally informed well enough to issue demands like that. I’ll grant that perhaps that might be the case: how many typical theatergoers have even heard of A. Rey Pamatmat, for instance? (Author of Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them, a poignant and immensely important play that I was lucky to see at the Humana Festival earlier this year.) Perhaps not enough.
So maybe the “demand” isn’t for a certain author’s work. (How many “demands” would be issued for the same few playwrights with name recognition anyway? Probably too many.) Maybe the demand is for a certain kind of play (a farce for young audiences, for example) or for certain subject matter (plays about neuroscience). We may need to experiment to get it right.
Or maybe the right model to emulate isn’t Eventful, but Kickstarter. (If you’ve been living under a rock, Kickstarter is an online platform that allows both artists and arts institutions to solicit funding for creative projects.) Theater companies are already using Kickstarter to raise money for productions… so why shouldn’t playwrights use the same technology to fund commissions of new plays? Here’s one way it might work:
- The playwright creates a profile for the work in question on Kickstarter, describing it in enough detail to inspire people to fund it and setting a reasonable (not $50,000) but not paltry ($50) funding goal.
- Again, the good folks at the Dramatists Guild might need to be consulted to ensure some measure of legal protection for playwrights putting their ideas out so publicly.
- Those contributing funds to the project might be given a variety of perks, from a chance to read an early draft of the script to having the chance to name a minor character (or choose from a list of names) to a meal or a dinner-and-theater date with the playwright to attendance at an early reading.
- For large donors, accommodations might certainly be made for credit at the play’s first production, should it land one; yes, theaters would need to be willing to do that… but if they wouldn’t be, that would be small-minded, I hope you’ll agree.
This last idea has tremendous appeal to me… and as soon as I finish working on my current commission–which came from a theater–I might very well give it a shot. But I find myself wondering whether there are other models as well… and, honestly, whether any of these have been tried yet. If not, I suggest they should be.