Realizing your story: Four steps of commissioning a
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.
WHAT IS USUALLY COMMISSIONED?
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.
WHAT IS THE PROCESS?
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
email@example.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.