5 things you didn’t know about… commissioned performances
What does it mean to commission a performance? To the artist(s), it means a chance to showcase their work to a broader audience or stretch their creative wings. To the company or individual commissioning the piece, it can mean a bespoke performance which highlights their sophistication to clients or a pleasant interlude during a company dinner.
Freddy Tan, who assistant directed KLPAC’s recent acclaimed show Thunderstorm, is an old hat at producing commissioned pieces and gives five important points for artists interested in pursuing this direction.
1. Understand the organisation(s) issuing the commission
Freddy has produced commissioned work for various clients, including governmental affiliates, KLPAC, Yayasan Sime Darby Arts Festival, CausewayEXchange Singapore, and private corporate functions for annual dinner and/or product launch.
He says, “Every organisation has their own agenda, be it for the greater good of the arts or something more aligned to their business goals and branding strategies.” Therefore, it becomes crucial for the artist(s) to understand the nature of the commissioning body, their objective(s) for the piece, as well as what they expect and want in return for their investment.
“Every organisation has their own agenda, be it for the greater good of the arts or something more aligned to their business goals and branding strategies.” – Freddy Tan
Tip: Freddy says, “Always be sure to clarify expectations and KPI (if any) with all parties involved, or else the commissioned project may turn sour.”
2. Determine the degree of Creative Freedom from the outset
Every commissioning process is different and depending on the commissioning body, the amount of creative license they are comfortable with may vary as well. Freddy relates an experience he had producing a commissioned piece for JKKN.
“…in 2015, my company SIFU Production got looped in to produce an original work commissioned by JKKN, the playwright is new, and they have to find a company willing to pick up the script. Thing is, though the script got approved by JKKN, there are elements in the text that might spark controversies and ultimately prompt JKKN to cease the project (i.e., alcohol, religious inference, crimes, etc). So, as a production house, we had the choice of staying true to the script and hope that the authority and the commission provider closed one eye and let us go, or to work with the playwright further and adapt accordingly. We went with the latter.”
For commissioned piece Fifteen SIFU worked with playwright to clear any elements that might cause JKKN to withdraw from the project.
3. Look before you leap; and even then, think it through
Most companies in Malaysia do not know much about the theatre industry, and may overestimate what the artist is capable of delivering while underestimating the costs.
When such a client meets an untested artist, the results can be underwhelming and unhappy for both. Quite often, this industry is filled with very optimistic people who are full of great ideas; but, a great idea doesn’t translate without good production.
Commissioned work for Yayasan Sime Darby Arts Fest (YSDAF). Photo credit YSDAF
Freddy says, “I feel like this is a grey area…whose fault is it if the project turned out to be a failure, but I strongly believe that as creators we take more responsibilities than the funders that invested their trust in us.”
4. Depending on the contract, it’s perfectly fine to abort halfway
If any clause within the commission agreement goes against truths you hold as an artist or your creative vision, then pull out. Freddy says, “a commissioned work is like a job in any profession, if you feel like you can’t fulfill the criteria or do not want to for any reasons, be frank and voice out.”
Zak Zebra Korea Cultural Exchange. Image credit Nick Choo
If you find at any point that you cannot give the client what they paid for, its best to be upfront. The worst that may happen is having to return the funds. This is understandable and may even be a contractual clause. At the end of the day, you are richer for the experience of having learned a valuable lesson about your limits and capabilities.
5. Timeline, timeline, timeline
Freddy repeats the age old phrase, “Time is money”. If the commissioned work requires far more time than you and your team can reasonably give then this is a problem. Unless the client is paying enough to cover all costs, you will have other clients to consider.
NETMBR CausewayEXchange. Photo credit CausewayEXchange
Another way to handle the same situation is to request for more funding. Freddy says that you can use this extra money to, “hire the best personnel and services in the industry to account for the lack of time.”
If this is not an option, and the deadline cant be moved, then re-evaluate if it’s realistic or possible before agreeing to the job.
For more expert advice on what it takes to succeed in the performing arts, visit Arteri’s how-to pages.