BACK Playwright, Author, Screenwriter Tom DeTitta      

Realizing your story: Four steps of commissioning a writer.

Commissions are a way of ensuring that my world always expands beyond what I know or think I want to know. Some of the places and people I love most have come to me through being commissioned to come to an altogether new place and write about it.

One of the greatest misconceptions in writing surrounds the adage, "write what you know." In fact, it is often difficult to write what you know unless time or some other distance has afforded you the perspective to actually see the significance of things that have otherwise become familiar.

Commissions allow a writer to come into a situation and offer a fresh, probing insight. It requires a writer to listen carefully and to open up his writing process to others in the hope that their reaction to his work will ensure the accuracy and authenticity of the product. A writer who is commissioned must allow himself to stand corrected by the people who have lived or otherwise know the story themselves. He must know the limitations of his knowledge and create important links to those who can provide him with the information he needs. He must fully understand the hopes of those who have confided in him, and he must do all he can to realize their story.

Although I wrote "Reach of Song," for the Appalachian Mountains, I was about as far from being an Appalachian as anyone could be. But I listened, I learned, I cared, I shared my product with those who could help me to learn even more and I ultimately produced something about the culture that has resonated for fourteen years as the State Historic Drama of Georgia.

If you or your community has a story to tell, and if you think you are interested in having me attempt to tell it, feel free to contact me to begin a discussion. If it is a story that I feel I can do justice while learning something beyond what I might otherwise know, what will ensue is a step-by step process whereby we will each get to know more about the other while figuring out what is involved in the story and what it will take to bring it to life. Each stage has a cost associated with it, and that cost progresses as we continue and know more about what we are doing. But to begin the dialogue is free.

This process ensures that you do not spent a lot of money on something for which you are ultimately not satisfied, and it also ensures that I do not spend a lot of time on something that is ultimately not going to succeed. Because many people or communities who commission work are not artists or are not familiar with the artistic process, this also allows them to learn more about the process through a step-by-step procedure so that they know what they are paying for before they actually have to pay for it.


Usually, communities commission plays or books that celebrate their history or culture. In the case of plays, there is often the hope that the product will be part of the body of American works and thus calls attention to that which is compelling, or that an ongoing performance of the play will become an area attraction and generate tourist revenue for the community. This latter scenario is the typical path of historic dramas such as "The Reach of Song."

In the case of historic dramas, I am increasingly interested in developing works that are site-specific and perhaps performed only on occasion for special events. While historic dramas usually require a significant investment in infrastructure, the type of work I am proposing develops portable seating and a stage at a historic site, or along the docksides of a city, or in abandoned buildings of historic significance –anywhere where the performance in that particular place is unique and significant. Live performance has the potential to take these places and brings out its story in a unique and vibrant manner.

Also, I have become increasingly interested in working with communities or individuals to developing main stage productions that come out of a regional story. This has the effect of grounding the theatrical work in an authenticity that translates well through the intimacy that live theater affords.

Books can be commissioned as can be screenplays. In either case, I am more likely to be involved in a situation where a vibrant work can be inspired from a particular history or circumstance rather than being asked to record the history of a particular place.


I have structured a contractual relationship that allows for graduated levels of commitment, so that each party can better see the process and product as we continue. Each stage offers some form of product that can be used by either party for future endeavors, so that if the final goal of creating a play or a book is not completed for whatever reason, there is at least something to show for the effort which may later be used in other ways

The process involves four steps:

STEP ONE: Write me.

If you have a basic query, please write me at tdetitta@earthlink.com  and tell me what you are thinking about. Remember not to try and end at the beginning. It takes a whole process to transform an idea into a finished product. What is suggested at the initial stages can be vague, non-specific, rambling, and not completely thought out. But if there is a thread of something worth writing about, it will eventually be discovered. Nine times out of ten, however, the best stories emerge through time.

STEP TWO: Initial meeting.

If it seems like there is cause to continue the discussion beyond an initial contact, I will then travel to visit the place, take a look around, and work with you to further hash out the ideas. Ability to pay travel expenses is usually a pretty good indication of professional intent, so you will pay my way and I, in exchange, will volunteer my time. Neither of us is under any obligation to proceed beyond this point and in a sense, this is a mutual interview. I will offer whatever thoughts I have through conversation and if we decide to continue, this is where the writing process and the contractual relationship will begin.

STEP THREE: Consultation and proposal.

If you are interested in continuing, you will hire me to write a proposal for what may ultimately be developed. We will discuss what will be in the proposal, which can include story ideas and production scenarios. We will also agree to a price to execute the proposal, which will be paid in two parts, the first upon signing the agreement and the second upon executing the contract. In essence, step three is taking the first step in researching and realizing the vision that will carry the project. It involves trips to the area and consultations and interviews, as well as my reading and researching the subject matter. While I am obligated to complete the work and continue through step four if you agree to it, you are not obligated to have me continue if you don't like the idea. You are also free to use the material I have generated in any way you see fit. It is important to note that the product generated from step three will be written in such a way so that it can be an important document for future fund raising.

STEP FOUR: Writing the work: Independent contract or work for hire.

Once you have decided to proceed based on the information from the other three steps, we will draw up a contract for the writing of the play. Prior to doing so, we will discuss the different ways in which you can contract the work –as in an independent contract or as a work-for-hire.

Most plays are written as independent contracts, which means the writer maintains the copyright to the play and is ultimately in charge of what is written. These are generally less expensive because you are commissioning an artist in the same way that most artists are usually commissioned: you are providing a subject matter but you are allowing the artist the freedom to create according to his own inspiration. While your input and reactions will be solicited throughout the writing process, and while your satisfaction with the production shall always be a primary goal of the project, the final say of what goes on the paper as well as the ownership of the copyright are ultimately the domain of the writer.

Production rights -the rights to produce the play -are another matter and have nothing to do with the issue of copyright. The contract may stipulate that you have full production rights to the show while the writer can still own the copyright. This, too, will be discussed prior to the execution of the contract.

A work for hire contract allows you to own the copyright of the work and you have the ultimate say in what appears on the page. This is the type of arrangement typical to most film contracts, where the studio owns the rights to the work and can change it as they see fit. These are more expensive contracts because they are not usually as satisfying to the writer. The problem, too, as can be evidenced by most films today, is that too many chefs in the kitchen don't always come up with the best product. If you trust the writer with the story, you may want to express that trust in an independent contract. Also discussed would be a plan for public readings and reactions as the script develops. As I had written earlier, regardless of the nature of the contract, any good writer of commissions will not attempt to write in isolation, but will actively solicit input and ideas from the people who have commissioned him and will be open with his script and responsive to feedback.

Typically, the contract is made in two payments: half upon signing of the contract, and half on completion of the work. Expenses are paid as agreed upon by both parties and a timetable for completion is clearly laid out.

While these relationships can be fruitful and lead to the creation of great things, they can also be riddled with angst, conflict and misunderstanding. The most important thing is to talk and ask all questions as you think about them. What I have provided is a basic outline to a more involved process. Feel free, then to write me if this has inspired any questions thus far.


© 2003 Tom DeTitta