On Commissions

On Commissions

by Daniel Keene

A commission is an invitation to respond, to consider a point of view or a set of circumstances other than my own or of my own invention. It is an invitation to travel along an intellectual and/or emotional path that may be unfamiliar to me. It is an invitation to discover something new, to think outside my usual parameters.

Of course, I don’t accept all invitations. There must be some point of connection, some point at which the invitation intersects with my own concerns, both private and artistic. In other words, the invitation cannot run parallel with my own interests and obsessions. It must differ from them sufficiently enough for me to feel as if I am stepping onto foreign soil; that I am a visitor in an unfamiliar country, recognizing only enough to help me find my way but not enough to allow me to feel comfortable.

You could say that a commission is an invitation to feel displaced, to be uncertain. But it must also be an invitation that stimulates my curiosity. The first step in allowing my curiosity to be my guide is to admit my ignorance. It’s a little like setting out on a journey without a map.

So I set out on my journey and make my map as I go.

Writing a commission often feels like being a guest in a stranger’s house. I have been given the keys to the house and I have been left alone. I must find out where things are and how things work. I must find a way to inhabit the house, to get used to its dimensions, to discover its shadows, its light, its sounds.

A commission can be presented in any number of ways, with particular requirements: to use certain characters in a given situation, to explore certain themes, to write for a certain number of actors etc. etc. No matter how detailed or simple the terms of the commission are, I am always dealing with the same situation: the foundations of what I will write, the initial ideas informing my work, are not my own.

Writing a commission often feels like meeting a stranger with whom I will have to spend a certain amount of time, with whom I hope to establish a relationship, or at least have an interesting conversation. Beginnings, of course, are always difficult. To progress beyond those awkward first moments requires patience, questions and answers and a certain kind of generosity.

Yes, that’s what a commission is. It is a generous invitation that requires an equally generous response.

Writing a commission, if all goes well, is like finding my way through a foreign country, walking into a stranger’s house and meeting, face to face, the person who first offered me the invitation to travel.

I was commissioned to write this piece.

Daniel Keene
October 2012

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