The Commissioned Play: Good Idea or Bad Idea

Last weekend we saw “Maple and Vine” at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. This isn’t going to be a review of the play. (There is much to admire, there are some things I didn’t like.) This play raised an issue for me, that I now want to think (and write) about.

In the credits at the bottom of the title page of the program it was mentioned that this play was commissioned by a theatre company. Many new works get started that way, and I have worked on a few. Every theatre’s commissioning process is different, and I do not know about the process that led to “Maple and Vine.” Also, many commissioned (and non-commissioned) plays have a few of the problems I see in the creating of new plays that I want to discuss due to “Maple and Vine.” (And I need to say again that while my examples come from “Maple and Vine,” it is part of a much much larger picture.)

Cast Size.
A playwright I know (and many people who read my blog would recognize her name if I mentioned it, but I won’t) complained to me once, “All people ask me is if I have any new three character plays!” Her frustration was that the cast size was the overarching element in play selection. In a professional production a three actor show only requires one stage manager, and probably only 2 understudies (if all the characters are the same type and sex, the union may only require one understudy!). So that makes five or six Equity Members (the union of professional actors and stage managers) required to be on the weekly pay roll. This can lead to anemic casts. “Maple and Vine” was a play set at an experimental community — yet it was a cast of only five. (Due to the racially specificity of the cast, it had 3 understudies). The issue for this play was I really wanted to see the other people in the community (the play actually has seven characters since two actors play two roles each). In my own attempts to write theatre, I have also had the problem of letting the realities of professional casting requirements affect how I structured my play.

While the following is not true of all commissions, it is often true. The theatre is paying the playwright for a play to be delivered on a certain time schedule so the play can be produced. That is a reality of the business, plays need to be produced. While some plays do spring almost fully formed from the playwright’s typewriter, or word processor — Many plays really need to sit in a drawer (or on a hard drive) and stew for a while before the play is ready to be revised and presented to an audience. With a commission, the playwright cannot really say “Hey, it’s not ready yet.” They have to say “Let’s hope I can fix it durring rehearsals.” My example from “Maple and Vine” deals with what story was being told. In many ways, the main plot was (to me) a bit less interesting than what seemed to be the secondary plot. I feel that possibly, had Jordan Harrison (the playwright) had more time he might have either refocussed the story on the main characters, or tightened up the perceived A plot to give more time to the more interesting B plot. (Of course the play may be just what Harrison wanted).

A commissioned play has a financial commitment behind it from the start. And that means that the people that commissioned it are more-than-likely going to actually produce it. (What a waste of money it would be for them to pay for a commission, and then decide not to actually produce the play! — Although I am sure it can and has happened.) The other way a new play gets selected for production is a playwright sending out a completed script and hoping that the theatre wants to do it. (OR sometimes a playwright is able to have produced or self produces a reading or workshop of the script to secure interest for larger producers). In these cases a theatre might opt for several paths — more workshops, development etc. — but won’t actually proceed with a full production until the script is really ready. (Full disclosure — I think that “Maple and Vine” was ready for a full production).

After a first production, playwrights can (and often do) examine what worked and what didn’t — then possibly rewrite. As long as the playwright is still alive, I think plays can be continually reexamined. I worked on two shows in my past where I had read the script before (long before) I had been hired to actually design the show. These shows were at least moderately successful, and had published scripts. After being hired to design them, and being handed the scripts, I discovered that the authors had revised the show since the original publication of the script. Some changes I think were for the better, some were not — but it is the author’s right to do make the script as close as possible to their vision. I fear that plays after their initial commissioned production are treated as “finished.” Here is where I think “Maple and Vine” is at fault. The play feels like a very good script that just needs one or two more passes to make it really great. At the moment it is very good, but in the production we saw, I truly feel with a less stellar cast it would have faltered at several points. And this point is what frustrated me most about the show. . . It was good, it was very good, but it lacked that little edge that would make it fantastic.

So I’ve talked about why commissions can be bad for scripts. Can they be good for theatre? Yes. When a play is being commissioned the commissioning group can request (demand) that the play meet certain criteria — feature a specific performer, deal with certain themes, meet certain production requirements (3 character play), tie in with a certain event etc. Some great plays have come out of this. Some really terrible stuff has emerged as well (and unfortunately gotten on stage). I don’t want to see commissions go away, but after the commission, I hope that writers will take a good hard look at what the wrote, and see if it really is the play they intended to write in the first place.