Representation – Secure an Agent That’s Right for You.

Words by JBR

Advice, as I tell my clients, is only worth the price of the coffee you had to pay for to hear it (mine’s an extra-hot soya latte if you’re interested). Everyone has their own opinions, prejudices, tastes, and just about every book or industry blog you read presents those opinions as cast-iron, irrefutable fact. I’d love to tell you there’s a science to the business of presenting yourself (there isn’t), I’d love to be able to give you rules to follow (there are none). All I can do is sip my £3.40 coffee (expensive but my office is in Hoxton) and offer you some suggestions I’ve taken from conversations with directors, casting directors and producers over the last year.

What is the secret to a long and successful career? “Survive.” Not talent, not hard-work, not having a clear career plan – the secret most people offered, looking back on their career, was just to keep going, keep surviving. Having drinks with an acclaimed RSC director one night I challenged this. “You’re incredibly talented,” I argued. “Surely that helped you get where you are?”  “Not really,” they replied.  “There were more talented people around when I started out. Far more talented people. I’m successful because I’m still going. The secret to surviving is surviving. Eventually you’ve been around so long everyone thinks you have to be talented. I’m here because I’m the last one standing.”

When working with clients I often advise them ‘One job for money, one job for art’ – if the secret to surviving is just to survive, then I need to make sure they have enough money to pay their bills and have a standard of living that suits them. However, as a former actor myself, I know that nothing kills your passion for this career sooner than a series of mindless, uninspiring jobs. Sometimes the job that offers you the most development as an actor might only pay you expenses, or nothing at all, but those may be the jobs that make you feel more like an actor than carrying a spear around at the back of a stage – even if that’s paying Equity minimum. Doing one job for money enables you to take another class, pay your rent for another month, send some letters, get new headshots, save money for that unpaid workshop which might lead somewhere. Sometimes survival is a balancing act.

I get to meet a lot of people in a number of different social settings. Like a lot of people I find networking difficult and soul-destroying so I asked a casting director what was the best way to go about it. “Most actors do it wrong,” they answered,  “and that’s why they get scared of it. There’s nothing worse, for me, than being networked at by an actor. Just talk like a normal human being. If I’m at a party, or out at the theatre, I don’t want a run down of your CV, I don’t want to be asked if there’s ‘anything coming up I’m right for’, I don’t want to be pitched at. I just want to meet nice people. Don’t act! Don’t play coquettish and mysterious, don’t be snide and arch. Just treat me like a normal person and behave like one yourself. There’s nothing less interesting than someone trying to be interesting. So just talk about normal things like a normal person. If we have a nice time, if I laugh, if I think you’re alright, I’m more likely to remember you than if you spend twenty minutes trying to demonstrate how much you know about Shakespeare, or how much you know about my CV, or how great you’d be for my next project. I don’t want to feel bullied, I want to meet – and work with – normal, nice people.”

I took a client to the theatre recently and we ran into a director who happens to be a friend and we got talking about the horror of networking. The client mentioned they hated writing to people as they felt like they were begging. ”Don’t be so bloody British about it,” the director answered. “Yes directors and CDs receive hundreds of emails a day, and yes they’re all the same, but if you’re not in it, you can’t win it. Just remind us every so often that you exist – particularly if we’ve worked with you before. If you were nice and normal and a pleasure to work with we’ll LOVE hearing what you’re up to. The thing with this industry is, you make brief friendships and then move on to something else. It’s always lovely to be reminded of a lovely time we had working with particular actors on a particular show. Talk like a normal human being, remind me what a nice person you are. Tell me some news about a mutual friend from the show, tell me what you’ve been up to in your personal life. Just get in touch and let that open the door to getting in touch more frequently when I might actually be able to use you.”

I spend a lot of my day looking at CV’s. I read them in a particular way, trying to build up a picture of the actor from their CV. I can’t meet everyone who applies to me, so I try to work out if they are the type of person I would be interested in – what type of work do they do, what type of people do they work with? I look for directors whose work I know, venues I know, companies I know, and only once I’ve done that do I actually look at roles played. I mentioned my process to a Casting Director over dinner and he had this advice to add.  ”Don’t clog CV’s up. Don’t fill it with everything. It’s better to only have the best work on there, even if it’s only five credits, than to fill it with people and venues and shows I’ve never heard of. I don’t have time to pick through everything to find the diamonds; give me the diamonds and only the diamonds. It’s not necessarily the roles played that are interesting, it’s where an actor has played them that tell us more about them. A CV should tell a story; working in big companies with great people is a better story than playing lots of huge Shakespeare leads in tiny fringe venues with directors I’ve never heard of. That only tells me you’ve got a good memory.”

There’s an old saying: the best piece of advice one can give an aspiring actor is tell them ‘If you can think of something you’d rather do, then do it’.  Personally I don’t agree. I know from my own experience there were many things I wanted to do with my life, and I’ve been lucky enough to have found the time to go off and do them, but I’ve always been lured back to the industry sooner or later. If you don’t try, you’ll never know. However, sometimes this industry can become an obsession, it absorbs you and you forget there is more to life. Every couple of months I get together with a group of friends, all industry people, and we have dinner and drinks and put the world to rights. They all agree that the secret to staying happy in this business is to have as rich and fulfilled a life outside of it as you can. “Find something else that makes you happy. Obsessing about your career will only kill you and it. Decisions are made every single day that you have no control over. Your agent makes decisions about what to submit you for based on their knowledge, a CD makes decisions on what to call you in for based on their knowledge, directors make decisions about you based on their thoughts about the show they’ve been planning for months or even years, producers make decisions about you – every single day people are making decisions about you and you have absolutely no control over any of it, so find something else you enjoy doing and don’t stress about it”.

As a born and bred North Londoner I’m very much of the Dr. Johnson school of thought: ‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’ but it is the place to be for the best auditions, the best work, the best opportunities – right? Wrong.  “Get out of London,” a producer told me to tell my clients. “The West End uses the same people over and over and over again and that’s all there is, pretty much, apart from the low-paid – or unpaid – fringe. Get out into the regions, go on tour, do interesting and exciting and different things. Find out where the work that really excites you is and follow it. London isn’t the be all and end all and there’s loads more opportunities out of London than there are in.”

I’m fond of telling my clients ‘if you want things to change, you have to change things’. I’ve been stuck in more ruts for longer than I should have been more times than I dare to remember. I asked a director who has known me for years about the feeling of being stuck. ”Familiarity breeds content,” she replied. “Doing the same thing over and over is safe and comfortable. Of course you’ll get stuck, of course you’ll feel trapped. You need to get out of the comfort zone or else you get sucked into doing the same type of dull work over and over and that doesn’t make you a better actor, it makes you a boring actor, one who’s afraid to take risks.”

I generally shy away from talking about my own work as an agent. I used the line ‘My agent doesn’t do anything for me’ in my own acting career enough times to be pretty terrified that my clients might be saying the same thing about me. I was out with an actor friend and a director just before Christmas when the actor sighed into his beer and said “My agent never gets me any work”.  I was relieved when the director stepped in and answered so I didn’t have to: “Finding work is only part of your agent’s job. It’s not really your agent’s job to find you work. It’s your agent’s job to handle the contracts and sort out the crap. It’s your job to find work, to stay informed, to know what’s happening where and when. You cannot sit back and expect your agent to be finding auditions and work for you – that’s your job, that’s why a personal email is often more effective than an agent’s sub, because we work with actors, we understand them and we want to work with actors who are proactive and forward thinking. We’re not in the rehearsal room with agents, we’re not out on the road with agents, we’re out with you, so we want you to be informed about your career. If you’re sitting back and expecting your agent to find your jobs for you then you’ve fundamentally misunderstood what YOUR role in your own career is.”

As an agent, my responsibility isn’t to one person, one actor. My responsibility is to a number of actors, with diverse skills and experience and ability. My responsibility is to the company I work for and ALL the people I work with – not just actors. So a one-size-fits-all advice column isn’t ever going to be a possibility, but then the industry isn’t one-size-fits-all – it’s as diverse and varied as all those who work in it. Some people like espresso, some cappuccino – some crazy people don’t like coffee at all! If I were to offer one piece of advice, one golden tip that would benefit everyone, that would work for everyone, it would be this “Do one thing for your career every day. One email, one card, one letter, and in a month that’s 30 new leads.”

It’s your career. Take control.- Simon & How Talent Agency, London, UK..