Theatre's not-so-secret agents
Talent is nothing without the right exposure – so how does the new blood get from keen wannabe to star of stage and screen? Time Out meets the people who help make it all happen
Given the phenomenal success of TV programmes like ‘How Do You Solve a Problem like Maria?’ and ‘Any Dream will Do’, you could be forgiven for thinking that the professional talent-seekers should be handing in their BlackBerries. Why bother humiliating yourself in front of a casting director when you can do it in front of the whole country? To be sure, these talent shows have so far concentrated on musical theatre.
There are, as far as I know, no plans for the RSC to cast its next Ophelia via Saturday night TV, with scores of young hopefuls squeaking their way through ‘O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!’ to be followed by trenchant comments from Jade Goody, Gregory Doran and Peter Hall and a watery ducking for the failures. In any case, with David Tennant playing Hamlet, the company hardly needs to worry about the box office.
Tennant was first seen by Time Out when he played Touchstone in the RSC’s ‘As You Like It’ in 1996. The nine or so years it took him to become a star is about average for ‘overnight success’. He was old-fashioned in that he had a solid grounding in regional theatre, at Dundee, Manchester and Edinburgh, before he joined the RSC. These days, actors are reluctant to bury themselves in the regions for any great length of time. Instead, they have careers that flit between TV, film and theatre – if they are lucky enough to be employed at all. They need agents to push them before the casting directors and to strike a handsome deal.
Yet actors apparently survived for hundreds of years without agents’ help – although there have surely always been wheelers and dealers who have promised gullible young actresses an introduction to the likes of Edmund Kean in return for a favour. If not born in a trunk like the Crummles family in ‘Nicholas Nickleby’, the young hopefuls would worm their way into a job by looking after the horses (traditionally Shakespeare’s route), flogging oranges (like Nell Gwynne), or hanging around theatrical haunts (like Garrick). The earliest agencies in the nineteenth century were more like labour exchanges, the most famous being Blackmore’s in Garrick Street. Actors in search of work would put on their best clothes and trawl round the offices.
Agents and telephones go together like stars and their egos, so it’s hardly surprising that the rise of agencies as we now know them coincided with the proliferation of the phone. Hollywood changed everything, breaking open the small, tight world of theatre, attracting thousands of wannabes. Today, directors cannot possibly see everyone who might be suitable for a role and rely on casting directors to do the initial sorting for them, and the casting directors depend on the agents who make it their business to have the next new talent on their books.
Patrick Marber’s only unsuccessful play, ‘Howard Katz’, describes an agent having a breakdown. Its failure may have been due to audiences’ inability to sympathise with a man who describes his job as ‘squelching around in this… this infantile morass, holding the clients’ hands and wiping their chins through every piddling crisis in their so-called “lives”.’ If the relationship between actor and agent is said to be the second most important of an actor’s life, Katz was clearly after a divorce. It’s a relationship that can go disastrously wrong. In 1998, Sharon Hamper was convicted of defrauding her clients of an estimated £700,000 and banned from practising as an agent for ten years. A forthcoming instalment of the BBC’s ‘Inside Out’ programme will investigate those agents who charge upfront fees without providing anything in return.
Theatre directors accuse agents of dissuading clients from taking lowly-paid theatre work that might help their careers more than a lucrative appearance in ‘Holby City’. Actors can resent the fact that even if they get their jobs through their own connections, the agents still get their commission.
But according to Toby Whale, once casting director at the National Theatre and now with his own casting agency, the job is an important one. ‘It’s very all-consuming and the good ones are passionate about their clients.’ The ability to spot latent talent is essential whether at the National Youth Theatre, the 24-hour plays at the Old Vic, or Oxbridge. Duncan Millership at Covent Garden-based PFD is particularly proud of the size of their trawl. ‘Oxford and Cambridge have always been very good for us. The people there might be a little more worldly. The business is such now that it really helps to have a little more life experience.’
Given the number of beautiful actresses, and cheesy young actors, it seems obvious that looks are vital if you want to get on in the business. But the agents are adamant that being photogenic is not a priority – at least not with them. Kate Bryden, who works for Gordon & French, says ‘A lot of people are going to be after a really beautiful girl who can obviously act. It makes an agent’s life easier, but unfortunately that doesn’t interest me at all.’ Bryden, who never takes on more than one new person a year, relies on her gut feelings. ‘I feel a little burning in my belly and that’s who I want to look after.’ Millership, who belongs to an agency representing Kate Winslet, Rosamund Pike and James McAvoy, insists improbably that good looks can actually be a deterrent. ‘Often the actors with longevity aren’t necessarily the most striking looking. Beautiful actors can be seen as all looks and nothing else.’
Actor Samuel Barnett played Posner in ‘The History Boys’. After a show in his third year at LAMDA, he found nine notes in his pigeon hole from different agents inviting him to come and see them. ‘I was so green, I had no idea what it was all about and I didn’t know what I was supposed to look out for. I went with John Grant at Conway Van Gelder Grant Ltd because he talked about career longevity and that seemed to make sense.’ At their first meeting agent and actor size each other up. The serious agents are keen to weed out those who are only interested in fame. ‘Do you want to be an actor or do you want to be a star?’ Rebecca Blond demands bluntly. She has her own small agency and sees her job as ‘introducing the actor to the world. Actor and agent map out a possible career, as balanced as possible.’ Actors who are whisked off into films and never exercise their theatrical muscles can find themselves floundering later. Barnett’s agency was keen to get him some low-key experience first. ‘Under my agent’s watchful eye, the things I have gone for have gradually got bigger and bigger.’ Barnett was playing a very small part in ‘His Dark Materials’ at the National Theatre when Nicholas Hytner told him that there was a new play by Alan Bennett that they wanted him to audition for. ‘The History Boys’ has proved to be as good for him as it has for the rest of his ‘classmates’. For Barnett, it led to nominations and awards, a part in ‘Mrs Henderson Presents’ and in Tom Hooper’s forthcoming TV mini-series ‘John Adams’. Now he’s rehearsing ‘Dealer’s Choice’ at the Menier Chocolate Factory.
Blond has watched clients she passionately believes in fail to get jobs, while others she’s equally keen on soar away and then grind to a sudden halt. ‘Often there’s a moment when they say “Is this how it is?” And you have to go “Yes, it is”. I had a client who had 25 interviews before he got a job. And he was saying “Clearly I should be opening a small bookshop in Hove, this is not to be.” And I said “No, listen. I don’t care how long it takes because I know how good you are, but someone has to take the leap to give you that first job. Once you get it, the chances are that it will be fine.” And in fact it’s been more than fine.’
Agents deplore the amount of reality TV edging drama out of the schedules, but they are confident enough to be relaxed about the talent shows. As Bryden says ‘I loved watching “Grease is the Word”. I think the two people they ended up with were great. But I could have told them they were the best on the very first day.’
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I agree with james G. I left the toppest of top drama schools in the mid 1980's. I was lucky in that I got my Equity card (Equity had power back then and didn't want new actors - unlike now) by holding a spear for the RSC for a couple of years. An agent 'took me on' in Stratford, but dumped me near the end of the London stint (they do take a lot of people on and concentrate on the ones who do well). So, I did theatre and some TV without an agent, but no-one will see you. I gave it up and generated my own work for almost 20 years. But I wanted to return to theatre. I am now in a very good play (transferred to the West End for a short run), playing a very good part. But agents still only send out the photocopied, "No" replies. Yet, people in my year at drama school who have become famous and work all the time, managed to get taken up early. They are not better actors than many others but they work all the time because of their names. So, if you want to get on, get in early. Give it a few years. Work hard and do anything to get noticed in that time. If it hasn't happened - get out and do something sensible.
Hi, I disagree with the first reader. I don't agree that it's plain sailing once you get an agent. I know that life is FAR more difficult without one, but once you get one you are then faced with the dilemma of actually getting the work. I am an actress who has a so called 'big' agent, but it's still tough. I still get a lot of my own work, do T.I.E, community theatre, commercials a lot (and am delighted when I am even working). I think the acting profession is quite simply tough and takes a lot of determination and perseverance. Whether you have an agent or not you're always trying to get onto the next rung, whether that's finding a good agent, or getting a first job, or even continuing to get jobs.
Unfortunately the agents dictate who gets work and has a career. If you leave drama school without an agent (they are looking for "commercial" actors, which is very differnt to "good" actors) you're stuffed because it is very difficult to get decent auditions on your own. So the rot sets in immediately. I left a top drama school in the early nineties without an agent and was only able to get a succession of community theatre and TIE (Theatre in Education) jobs, while contemporaries with agents got prestige and challenging theatre work, plus TV and film work which paid the rent. I quickly found myself temping in offices to pay the bills and quit altogether within a few years. The only way to the top is to create a buzz from the moment you leave drama school - don't know how that happens - it's a mixture of talent plus having a few influential casting directors (and an agent) who thinks you're hot property. You get a couple of high-profile jobs and so long as you don't screw it up through ill-discipline, you're set up for the rest of your career. It may take you fifteen years before you become a household name commanding a silly salary, but in the interim you will have been doing top roles at the National and RSC etc.
Just a warning to all those wannabee actors... If an agent promises you a step up the ladder to success... but wants a fee up-front; do NOT pay it... Any legitimate agency will take a fee out of work they have found you. You have been warned! :)