by Kimberly Megna Yarnall
For the millions of people who mull these subjects late into the night, commissioning a play isn’t as easy as it seems. You might think that to commission a play means to send an email that says, “Hey, Bob. Can you write us a play? Deadline sometime next June. Thanks!” Aaaand… done.
Well it ain’t that easy. I mean, sure, yes, there is a component of the commissioning process that is exactly that. But there is way more. And there are cookies.
First you have to decide why you want to commission a play. Many more resources and risks are involved with commissioning a new work than just producing a nice Neil Simon comedy. In order to use those resources you need your board’s blessing, so the reasons why had better be well-thought-out and you’d better present them at a board meeting with a polished PowerPoint and warm cookies.
Generally the reason we commission a play are noble. We want to bring a work of art to our audience that has never been seen before. We want that work to be specific to our community’s interests, our theater’s space and artistry, and to say something to the world that needs to be said right now, right here, and preferably without flying by Foy.
Once you’ve got the Board’s approval and secured the line item in the budget, you need to decide who should write the play. So you make a wish list of writers and you review it. Shakespeare: dead. Beckett: too avant-garde; also, dead. JJ Abrams: too much sci-fi; also, lost. Candace Bushnell: too into sex and New York City. Jim DeVita: Local! Smart! Alive!
So you’ve got your playwright. Hooray! And then you need to give the playwright a little guidance. And I use the work delicately. You probably have an idea of what you want this play to discuss and to whom it should speak (remember that “why” section above?). But if you’d like to ever work with living writers again, you can’t tell them exactly what you want them to write, because, well, that’s not fun for them. Pretend the writer is Michelangelo and you are the pope. Except that you’re not. You’re really not the pope. So you need to tone it down a bit. Although you can probably have a conversation about clothing the nudes.
And here is when you get to send that email, probably eating about three cookies while writing and rewriting, and working up the courage to hit Send. It probably says something like: “Hey, Jim! Would you like to write a play for us? The attached contract has all the particulars about dates and money. (Yeah, we’re gonna pay you. Pretty neat, huh?) And actually, we have a pretty amazing book we though you’d like to adapt. The cast should require under 8 actors. And, um, no flying, okay? Think about it and we’ll have a planning meeting in a few weeks. Then we can take a look at a draft of the first act and see where we are. Hopefully we’ll get it in front of a reading audience next October.”
And then you send the writer cookies.
During the planning process you stay in touch with the writer and give feedback. You ask questions about what he wants to say with scene two, and why he chose the setting for scene eight. You praise the awesome job he did with the main character’s journey and encourage further exploration of the secondary characters.
And then you have a reading. And the audience comes and they listen and respond and they ask questions and talk about character development and plot points. And you sit in the back eating a cookie and you think: wow – this is a work of art that has never before been seen. And my community is creating it together to tell the world what we think, right here and right now. Pretty neat.