The Art of Commissioning
by Brian Quirt
There are few greater pleasures than reading the first draft of
a script youve commissioned. I had that pleasure this morning
and afterward reflected on the commissioning model weve developed
at Nightswimming. I also recalled a session on commissioning at
a LMDA Conference many years ago. Morgan Jenness, a New York-based
dramaturg and now agent, led the session. Her essential message
about commissioning: dont do it. I tend to agree with her.
Heres why I agree, and here is why Nightswimming
does it anyway.
A commission is too often a commercial relationship not an artistic
one. But it frequently wears an artistic disguise thats
what can lead to disappointment, misunderstanding and conflict.
Its a commercial relationship because the context is generally
about product rather than process or content. In fact, most commissioning
contracts are actually about judgement: at this date in the future
we (the theatre) will decide if what you (the creator) have written
is worth what we invested. Is it worth the investment of still more
time, energy and money?
In certain situations, that sort of contractual arrangement works
just fine, particularly if the writer is confident about her work
and clearly understands the gamble the commission actually represents
to both parties.
In too many situations, however, the parties misinterpret the relationship.
The artist believes, or is led to believe, that the theatre (through
the commission) is committing to them and their script. And the
theatre believes it is doing the artist a favour in offering the
commission. In reality, the theatre is gambling a sum of money (a
sum usually too small for the work it applies to) to have the right
to produce the script if they like it.
There may be a lot of talk or even clauses in the contract about
workshops, but what a commission contract really comes down to is
this: 1) the playwright hopes the theatre will like the manuscript
enough to proceed to the next phase of development; and 2) the theatre
hopes they like it enough that they wont have to find a diplomatic
way to drop the project.
The worst case is when it becomes an adversarial relationship in
which the writer struggles to find time to write and meet the deadline
and the theatre tries not to nag too often. And both hope it will
all work out. Sometimes, of course, it does.
Still, its not a very solid artistic basis for a long term
Youd think that I would be completely against commissions.
In fact, all Nightswimming projects begin with a commission. Rather
than reject the idea of commissioning, we have developed a way to
do it that works for us and for the artists we commission.
Why do it at all? Because, quite simply, a commission puts money
where it is most needed: in the playwrights pocket.
But rather than rely on hope, we try to build our commissions on
faith. We believe that the artist will, in time, create a work with
us that we can develop through to a premiere production. We commit
to our commissions for the life of the project, however long that
is, not just to the next option deadline. In doing so, we become
advocates for the project, as eager as the commissioned writer for
it to move forward and partners in all the hurdles to get it there.
Nightswimming became a commissioning company ten years ago. What
I observed during my years at producing theatres was that commissions
rarely work when there is no significant relationship between the
theatre company (or its Artistic Director) and the commissioned
artist. A commission can be an excellent way to launch and codify
the work on a new project between colleagues. But it is a terrible
way to begin an artistic relationship.
Nightswimming is a commissioning company because we want to work
on projects from inception from the idea that precedes the
text or movement. Before we commission any project, we often spend
several years discussing ideas with the artist, getting to know
the writer and giving them time to learn about us and see our work.
Like any company we have a set of artistic preferences and interests
and it is vital that the artists we commission be both aware of
those and present us with ideas that fit within or directly challenge
our artistic desires. This period not only helps evolve the specific
project that we ultimately commission; it also establishes trust
between partners a vital element of any and every commissioning
Our commissions often begin by asking an artist to propose an idea
that because of its form or content or cast size they
would not otherwise be able to pursue. We want them to work on a
dream project that they dont think will fit anywhere else.
We are interested in the idea they are afraid of, or have put aside
for other, more easily sold projects. Conversations about stories,
ideas, form, structure and creative process establish and extend
the relationship, and if the right idea emerges one that
fits both their desire to create, and our desire to explore
we offer a commission.
By the time we commission an artist, we know we want to work together
and our commission contract marks a commitment on our part to work
on the show until its premiere. Only by making a commitment to that
extent can we feel we are equals in the relationship. Its
not a gamble, but an agreement between partners to create a new
work together, over time, and see that it is produced.
Of course, some of our commissions have not resulted in productions,
or even in scripts. In these situations we have mutually agreed
to dissolve the commissions. Awkward, certainly, but an agreement
that occurred following discussion, rather than a unilateral decision
by the all-powerful theatre company.
Our commissions do not include stages at which we decide yes
or no on a project. Drafts that we dont like
arent a reason to drop the commission. Instead, they are a
creative hurdle which we address together. Deadlines are based on
the specific creative process for each project, not arbitrary dates
set out in a contract. And of course money: we pay the commissioning
fee in full at the signing of the contract. Subsequent payments
are based on workshops or readings rather than the delivery of drafts.
We believe that it is important to pay writers for the time they
spend preparing for each workshop and the time spent on subsequent
revisions. As a result, our workshop fees for writers are often
quite large, but they are intended to take into account significant
time for pre-and post-workshop writing.
Does the fact that Nightswimming does not produce these projects
make this approach feasible? Yes. We never have to decide whether
to produce or not. Because of that Nightswimming and the artists
we commission are on the same side, both seeking a premiere production
in order to complete the project. Thats why we have designed
the company to operate in this manner. We never want to be in an
adversarial position with the artists we commission.
Is the play I read this morning what I expected? Not entirely. Is
it what I wanted? Yes. It perfectly captures the playwrights
first round of instincts regarding the story hes telling.
Great ideas, new ideas, old ideas and some less than successful
ideas jostle one another among a mixture of vivid scenes and a few
confusing ones. Thats a great first draft.
But whatever the quality of the first drafts we receive, they are
never end points. They are always about the beginning of
or in truth, an extension of a relationship that began long
before the commission was signed.
Thinking back to Morgans conference session, heres what
Ive retained. Dont commission unless you have a really
good reason to do so. Were very cautious about who and what
we commission. There are many pitfalls to commissioning and many
alternatives that are just as creative, productive and artful. Weve
evolved a model that is specifically designed to serve Nightswimmings
creative interests and those of our artists. Thats why it
This article was first published in The
Works, the journal of
Workshop Montreal. Issue
48, Fall 2006.
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Links of Interest
Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA)
Association for Theatre Research (CATR)
Development Centres of Canada
Guild of Canada
of Canadian Theatres
Atlantic Resource Centre
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