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New Ways to Commission New Plays

07.11.11 | 6 Comments


CATEGORIES conversation starter, funding and support, ideas, playwrights, rabble rousing, theatrical ecosystem

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?

Theatergoers.

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.

 

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  • Well, I feel that I have to chime in after our company (Forum) was mentioned!

    To that specific point, ” Wouldn’t both Forum Theatre and A. Rey Pamatmat be unwise to ignore the message?,” I’d say yeah, sure—-that would certainly get our attention and would make me really want to take a long, hard look at that play. Hell, we struggle enough with the ever-changing “what is a Forum play?” question and am always open to hearing from our audience as to what about our aesthetic excites them.

    I think the larger scope of these ideas really hit on a notion that I’ve been spinning over in my brain for a few months, now (probably due to #newplay conversations, to be honest) and that is the fine balance of being an artist (producer ARE artists) and being a service organization and where decisions come down with those two definitions of what I do. Now, I’m in no way saying they are opposites—in fact, they are the same in my head, but the terminology always sparks a semantic debate when I bring it up. What I self-debate over is the concept season-selection decisions and the notion of that being outsourced. How do we best “serve” our audience: by opening up the selection of scripts to the public or by choosing what speaks most directly to us, the company (which we believe will then speak to an audience member because of the heart-felt focus of the work)? In the most extreme example, would Picasso ever open a Twitter election for which animal his followers would most like to see in GUERNICA? Now, I know that’s a horrible example, but hope it demonstrates the reaches of the debate I’ve been having with myself.

    In no way do I think you are advocating for a popular-opinion-run theatre, Gwydion. I just know that whenever the idea of creating a poll to decide on whether a show should be produced or not, my mind goes to all the messy, complicated, and wonderful plays that only saw the light of day because an artistic director or producer or company member trusted it and championed it against all common sense. A sense that an audience member had that made them think they wouldn’t want to see that show. 

    I love me some Kickstarter. I’m all for people getting out there and making their work. While not a playwright, that was a big part of what led us to start Forum—we felt that the work we wanted to see wasn’t being done or in a way that we thought it should be done. By no means an original idea, but I love it when playwrights produce their own work. We get to see it EXATLY as they envisioned it and especially with very unique voices, this gets me excited. I think Young Jean Lee and her company is such a great example of this.

    I hadn’t planned to write so much and probably should better organize my thoughts. It’s a blog post I’ve been planning to write for a while 🙂 So, excuse my ramble……

    • Thanks, Michael, for these thoughts! And go, Forum!

      I am definitely *not* arguing for a popular-opinion-run theater to be sure. That would be, from one perspective, a complete abdication of artistic direction. I mean… it might be nice if somebody tried it somewhere, as an experiment, but to run most theaters that way as a matter of course? No, sir.

      Were an AD to try this sort of thing, furthermore, we’d undoubtedly need to hold on to some method by which that AD could still champion all those “messy, complicated, and wonderful plays” you refer to. That is, you are quite right, an invaluable service.

      Speaking of service… I want to challenge the way you frame your question just a bit. You seem to suggest that it’s a choice between programming plays that your audience members might want to see OR doing the work you believe in and feel passionate about. But why can’t it be both? I would argue–I have argued, in fact–that it needs to be both. Without the former, the work is simply egocentric; without the latter, it’s lifeless. So… produce plays people are going to want or need to see that you’re also passionate about. Find a way to bridge the gap. No?

      As for your example about Picasso: I’ve heard so many similar challenges on this front, and none of them really hold water for me. A few different ways of looking at it:

      1) Instead of asking how paying attention to his audience might have affected Picasso in the past, ask how it might affect a new painter in the future. Can you imagine a painter who might get excited by painting various people’s visions of hell? Or sadness? Or devotion? (Or any other subject?) Think of a painter asking people “What does faith mean to you?”, then painting people’s responses. That might be cool, might it not?

      2) We have this nostalgic notion that artists in the past were always following their own visions… but artists with patrons have historically made art on command. It didn’t stop anyone from being brilliant. This way, at least, the people doing the commanding would be, well, the people, rather than some rich white guy. That strikes me as an improvement.

      Of course, I really don’t want to minimize the difficulties here. Creatively, it’s a challenge… but I think it might be one that’s worth exploring…

  • Anonymous

    Really interesting ideas Gwydion.  For me, I’m always wanting to put the power into the hands of the playwright.  I always thought an exciting notion would be a “write the play you’ve always wanted to write but were never able” commission.  Allow the playwright plenty of opportunities to interact with the theater’s audience and bring them into the process where they are comfortable – a panel prior to writing (why do you want to write this and why haven’t you been able?); a presentation before rehearsal about the writing process; etc.

    Over here at New Dramatists we’re exploring new models of commissioning with our Full Stage USA (http://bit.ly/nJbgRL) program and partnerships.  The playwright, in essence, brings the idea and the money to the table giving them a much more defined leadership role.  We need playwrights as leaders in the field.

    Thanks for sharing your ideas here.

    • Oh, I do love the Full Stage USA program. You deserve major kudos for that.

      I also love the way you’ve extended my core idea… and you’ve inspired me to take it further. Why not include, in the “crowd-sourced commissioning” process, a separate production fund? Maybe not the full $50,000 that New Dramatists is ponying up, but $5,000? $8,000? Enough to impact the ability of a small theater to produce the play, or to serve as a pot-sweetener for a larger theater. That way, when the script is drafted, the playwright has only a story to tell, but the means to help tell it. I have to believe that would put the playwright in an enviable position… and give us more of an ownership stake in any eventual production. Because I agree with you, we need playwrights as leaders in the field. Big time.

      Thanks!

  • Dwgregory

    Some theatres already do this to a degree, through readings that they use to gauge audience response to a work under consideration. I know I had at least one production because the audience response to the reading was so strong.

    I don’t quite understand why more theatres don’t do this — if you have 10 or 12 plays you are thinking of for your next season, why not do a series of public readings and see what kind of response you get to the writer or the work? That’s one way to involve an audience in building your season; and if you can’t or won’t do a particular play for whatever reason, you can ask the audience if they would like to see more work from this writer in the future. And that could be a basis for a commission. 

    • Although, to play devil’s advocate… if the play has already been written, does the commission then have to be retroactive in somehow?


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