Monday, October 02, 2006

Do you have an agent? Or a champion?

Do you have an agent?

This is a question I’ve gotten a couple of times in LA. When I say no, I almost always get the same response from the questioner, well, that’s all right, you don’t need one.

Naturally, I wonder about this, but they universally re-assure me: An agent isn’t really helpful unless you’ve already got something.

But that doesn’t make me any less desirous of representation. After all, isn’t having someone saying good things about you better than having no one saying anything about you?

Still, the response is so uniform that it got me to start thinking about my relationship with agents in New York’s theatre world.


When it comes to writers – especially in theatre - it’s very tempting to divide them into two general classes: Those with agents and those without agents.

I always thought that I would be in the first class, the class with an agent.

I am not. And I have always made up a lot of reasons why I didn’t have one – or more accurately - couldn’t get one.

They simply weren’t taking on new clients. They didn’t want to take a risk. They didn’t know a good thing when they saw one.

Please notice all the “they” in those sentences.

When I offered “I” reasons, it was usually a reflection of them, too.

I am writing things that are too difficult for them. I am not a hack. I am not cool enough. I don’t hang around people who can do that for me.

Yep, agents sucked. I didn’t.

And yet I had good reason to believe this might be true. For one, I was a reader at a major non-profit theatre in New York and I saw, firsthand, what agents were sending out. In fact, I regularly plowed through scripts that were often undercooked, occasionally terrible and sometimes downright bad with letters attached from “agents”. The letters themselves were often breezy but business-like and almost always had a tone of superiority to them, a sense that the writer was “in the know” and putting the reader onto something they “needed to know.”

The scripts they accompanied were, themselves, different from the scripts that had simply been sent to the theatre from the unagented after an initial synopsis and 10-page sample. They were bound in good shiny cardstock with bright colors and logos from William Morris, ICM and elsewhere. And they were always in the proper format.

In a weird way, this all could work to a script’s disadvantage because after all that build-up, well, it was so disappointing to realize that the pages between those glossy covers weren’t any better than any other script you might have read at random from the unsolicited piles already littering the literary office.

On the other hand, if a script was not very good, but it was agented, I was, at certain times, prone to push it laterally, suggesting it was not for me, but maybe some other reader would see its value. It should be noted, however, that, to my knowledge, none of these scripts ever saw production, much less further development.

Still, overall, reading scripts, it became clear to me that agents certainly didn’t seem to know anything special.

Sometimes, I’d tell myself that the agent was involved in a larger strategy with the theatre and that the script I was reading was what I’ll call “a builder” for the agent. That is, the agent knew the script sucked or wasn’t ready, but sent it because they wanted to remind the theatre that they existed. Or, they sent it in a package of scripts in which one of the others, the one that I wasn’t reading, was the plum to be picked.

I also reasoned that I had no idea what the deal was between either the theatre and the agent, or, the agent and their client. It could’ve been that over the phone the agent said, hey, I’ve got a script by someone new and it’s not right for you, but you should look at it anyway. Then, too, a client may have bullied an agent into sending something that wasn’t ready. Hell, I’d read several scripts by big name writers - including Pulitzer winners - that were complete train wrecks, so I figured this had to be the reason the agent sent it.

But the conclusions about agents that I was drawing from reading scripts were being supported by what I was hearing from the agented people I knew.

So what were my agented buddies saying?

Here are some quotes:

“I don’t really know what she does, I don’t even know how she makes money.”

“I found all my productions myself. She even almost screwed those up because she was negotiating with the director and was always slow to get back to him.”

“I do all the Xeroxing myself.”

“I still have to send out stuff on my own.”

“I guess it’s easier to submit things. I don’t know. She only likes the one play.”

“I never really talk to her. She’s never around.”

What was most obvious about all this – beyond the fact that most of my friends are represented by women – is that nobody knew what the agent was really doing for their career besides slowing it down.

A well-known artistic director who ran a prominent regional theatre built on a reputation for doing new work expounded on this very issue once during a lit committee meeting at a theatre I was working at several years ago.

“It used to be” {this is a paraphrase} “that agents really got writers jobs. They were powerful and could actually do that. Then we entered a phase where it became all about writers in residence with power laying in the collaborative relationship between writers and producer-directors {like Shepard and Woodruff}. Writers had a home then. Now that’s broken down and no one knows what’s next. Maybe house writers.”

Whatever you think of his thumbnail assessment of American theatre’s producing architecture in regard to new work (and oddly telescoped timeline), it’s clear that agents were on the outs. And had been for a long, long time - though this did not stop him from calling George Lane directly to apologize for sending a form letter rejection to Eric Bogosian. (Boy, was Lane pissed - after recieving the letter he faxed the theatre a stinging single-page document about how he felt completely condescended to by the theatre and would never send anything to us again: He would've been the first kind of agent the Artistic Director described.)

Then, too, I had several good friends who, despite being excellent writers with careers I felt were enviable, had been dropped by agents.

None of this argued for the necessity of – or anything positive about - having an agent.

Nonetheless, somehow, I still had the nagging feeling that having an agent was another form of accreditation, like my MFA. And I wanted it. Yes, I did.

My literary manager friends suggested I was being foolish about this, often complaining themselves about the way agents dealt with them. Still, I thought, if my friends have agents, I should have one, too. And, then, I also reasoned, if I’m reading scripts that suck from agents, surely they could use something better.

Having been unable to get an agent in 2004 following a star studded reading of a play that turned out to be a two time semi-finalist for the Princess Grace and a winner of the John Golden award, I thought I should strike again when I had another play short-listed for New Work NOW!

So, I put together a packet of info on myself, a list of my plays synopsized in the New Dramatist form, and sent off query letters to a list of agents that had been drawn up by a lit dept. friend familiar with my work, and the tastes of almost every agent in NY.

Out of twelve agents, 2 wrote emails back saying that they weren’t taking on new clients. They were flattered that I’d knocked on their doors, but not-interested. One of these two agents actually suggested my work was too commercial for her, that my art wasn’t sufficiently arty - eventhough she'd only read a synopsis of my plays.

3 agents had me send plays to their assistants. Having been an assistant to a Broadway producer, I knew this was the kiss of death, but did what I was told.

One of these agents never got back to me.

One of these agents said, thank you, but no thanks, end of communication.

One of these agents said, thank you and then gave me notes on the play they’d read. Disappointing as it was to hear, it was good, because it was obvious we would’ve been wrong for each other. Nonetheless, this agent's response earned her a lot of respect from me: she provided reasons based on the work and her own tastes.

I did not hear from the other 7 agents.

And I did not get an agent.

The clincher in all this was that I began to ask people who had agents how they got them: there were two answers I heard most often: I interned for one; I had a show that went up and got one out of that.

Neither of these answers suggests that agents are very good at “discovering” and “developing” people.

Ultimately, it’s been 2 years since I received my MFA at Columbia. Though I wish that my work were getting done (it’s not), I have to say, not having an agent does not seem to have had any real impact on whether or not people will read my work.

In fact, a recent script, sent with a synopsis and a sample first, was asked for by CTG, Steppenwolf, the Public, South Coast and the Magic, to name a few.

I don’t think that an agent would’ve sent it to anyone.

On the other hand, I’ve had to re-examine what I’m really looking for when I feel myself wishing for someone to represent me.

What is that?

First and foremost, I’m looking for someone I trust, someone I can talk to reasonably about a script.

Second, I’m looking for someone who believes that what I’m doing has to be seen so much that they’re willing to put themselves on the line for it.

These people turn out to be people I already know. And the only contract I have to sign to do business with them is a contract of loyalty.

They are directors and producers and actors and dramaturges I’ve already spent hours with working on, well, work.

And I know when they put one of my scripts in an artistic directors hands, they aren’t putting it there with a bunch of other scripts, or just to build a relationship (though it may help do that). Nor are they doing it to remind a literary department that they exist.

They’re putting it there because they believe in me.

They are championing me.

So much better than an agent, don’t you think?


Eros Paradise said...

I'm working with an editor now polishing up The Shaman and the Rose. I spent 18 months trying to move out of an agent's slush pile to active status. I'm not certain if I'll try the agent route again. I do wish you success without or with an agent.

Malachy Walsh said...

Best of luck to you too. And keep checking in. This blog is all about what happens next.

Adam said...

I think the route to an agent is through these people who believe in your work and are workinging with you on your work. They might have agents or get agents or know an agent.

Keep doing work and putting stuff up and the agent thing will just happen.

You're already ahead of the game because you know what you want from an agent, which is important so when you do get one, you won't end up witht he wrong one.

D said...

What an excellent post, Malachy.

Further comments reserved for our forthcoming hang time.

Michael Manafette said...

I feel your pain.

Malachy Walsh said...

Adam - you're right, of course. Though I'm also not sure an agent actually exists for me, since, it turns out, I need a lot of help with my work (and, in fact, this social aspect of theatre is one of the things that draws me to it) and I think agents generally need things that are ready-made sellers. Ie, they aren't ultimately creative, they're, well, agents.

The trick of course is to realize the absurdity of it all, own up to the truth of my desires and realize some of the folly of all that.

As Michael, says, I think hilariously, "I feel your pain."

So you put your head down and do what you gotta do.