Towards the end of your training and in the early stages of your career as a performer, your thoughts will, at some point, turn to the question of getting representation from an agent. This might happen through links your training organisation is likely to have or if you'll seek an agent on your own initiative.
We asked Morwenna Preston of Morwenna Preston Management what this means in real terms and what you can expect from the client/agent relationship.
Having set up her company after several years as a performer herself, Morwenna is well aware of the ups and downs, the pitfalls and potential of life as a performer. As well as being a businesswoman, she believes that being an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on is an important part of being an agent and hopes that this personal touch makes Morwenna Preston Management what it is. to submit the performer for suitable work;
What is the role of an agent?
"Performers tend to say that an agent 'gets them work'. This is not the case. The performer 'gets' the work - they are the one in the casting session wowing the casting director with his/her wonderful, charismatic personality and skilful performance (we hope!).
The agent has four main roles:
to act as a mediator between the performer and the production company / casting director both before, during and after the casting process;
to act as a negotiator - aiming to get the best deal they can for the client and to make sure that the contract is in order;
to receive payment for the actor and to pay the actor the money due.
The agent can't guarantee an audition nor can they 'get you a job'. In fact, many established actors who are constantly in demand would say that their agent only comes into their own once the job is actually in the bag, as the job has probably come off the back of other work they have done or through contacts they have made. At the beginning of your career particularly, however, the agent does play an important part in getting you known in the market-place."
At what stage in their career should someone start looking for an agent?
"I would say immediately. There is no getting away from the fact that an agent has access to information most performers can't get. The agent can also provide you with invaluable advice at the start of your career and help you to work on your marketability. He/she can help you with contracts and negotiations in a minefield of dodgy deals and people wanting to employ actors for as little as possible (often nothing at all!).
However, having said all that, it is not the end of the world if you do not have an agent. This is something really important to remember. As a performer, I myself got two West End jobs without an agent. However, you have to keep your wits about you. Ask Equity for advice about contracts, ask other performers you know for advice too. And, in order to get seen for things, you need to be prepared to put in a lot of time, energy and some money into marketing yourself. I would advise you to get as many subscription casting breakdowns as you can afford - Castweb is excellent for this. Also try Castingcall Pro, Castnet and PCR, and buy The Stage. Make notes of the names of casting directors you have met or would like to meet, see as much theatre, film and TV as you can. Treat yourself as a business and set aside some time each day or each week to work on your career."
How do you find an agent and how can you tell if an agent is right for you?
"All agents' details are listed in Contacts. Some people simply write to everyone but I would try to be more targeted. Talk to people - who has an agent who they think is excellent? If you are in a show, has anyone's agent been to see you? Perhaps you could write to them as, if an agent has seen you in show, they know what they are dealing with. Make a list of actors whose work you admire and who are doing the sort of work you think might suit you, then look them up on the Spotlight website and see who represents them. These agents may not be the right people for someone at the start of their career, but it never hurts to do as much research as you can.
You may also find yourself languishing on their books while all their time and effort is put into their star name. Perhaps you would prefer someone working on their own, someone who is putting time and energy into a small number of clients who are their absolute priority. Ask questions, and remember: nothing is for ever. You may not have a lot of choice at first. Give someone a chance for a year or two and see whether this is a relationship you want to pursue."
Are there any pitfalls and how should these be avoided?
"Don't pay up-front fees - actor's agents take a percentage of your earnings and nothing in advance.
Don't pay to have your photo put into their 'book' - this is usually the practice of a modelling, children's or extras agency.
Keep your wits about you - many agents work from home and hold meetings in their house (as I do). Tell someone where you've gone and how long you expect to be there.
Do your research to make sure you don't hear any negative reactions to your potential agent. Ask Spotlight if they are registered on the Spotlight Link. Do they advertise in Contacts?
Don't take your clothes off for anyone - yes, it does still happen!"
Can you describe a typical agent/client working relationship?
"A typical working arrangement covers so many things in its day-to-day existence. I would expect to have a meeting with a client perhaps a couple of times a year, either to discuss where their career is going or for more practical reasons - to hand over photos or to go through a contract together. I find that most of my clients have a fairly active relationship with me and we either speak or e-mail at least every couple of weeks. Those who receive a good number of castings will evidently be in regular touch about details of meetings and feeding back on auditions and castings. Then, hopefully, we will be dealing with negotiations and the aftermath of being offered a job. With clients who are less easy to market, I would still expect to talk to them reasonably often - perhaps to discuss new marketing tactics or to reassure them they are being submitted for work! Also to discuss whether a client is happy to be submitted for some particular job or thinks their skills are right for it. Where this does not happen is, to me, cause for concern, or may suggest that the client has other priorities.
I would then have expectations from the performer - that he/she is available at all times (even at short notice) for castings, unless an official holiday has been booked. I would expect him/her to act swiftly on any advice given and work on any constructive feedback. I would expect them to be punctual and professional and to represent the agency to the best of their ability and to respond quickly and efficiently to messages."
Does having an agent mean you can sit back and wait for the work to come to you?
"No, absolutely not! Your agent has maybe 20, 30, 50 or more clients to think about. You are responsible for yourself and should use your time to keep in contact with people you've met and worked with, research possible job opportunities for yourself or invite people to see you perform. On top of that it is your responsibility to keep practising and learning your trade. Sometimes it is easy for an actor, particularly, to get lazy. A dancer has to be able to get his or her leg up above their head and turn triple pirouettes; a musician has to be able to play the fast arpeggios in a piece of music or nobody will consider employing him/her. But an actor's skill is more subtle, less easy to define. Therefore it is really important to keep up your voice work, keep turning over new audition pieces, keep in the physical shape that best suits your casting, learn new songs for those who sing, go to regular class for those who dance. So that when the audition comes, you are totally ready to be your absolute best. As an agent, I cannot stress how deeply frustrating it is when a client doesn't have these basics in place and has allowed themselves to get lazy."
Are there different agents for different genres?
"Yes, some agents do choose to specialise, but I'd say the majority of agents work across the board. This is something you would need to ask in a meeting and would need to decide how much you want to focus on a particular area. Personally, I believe that a performer should aim to have as many strings to his/her bow as possible. However, if you are destined to become jack-of-all-trades and master of none, then perhaps you need to think about where you should focus. The area where there are very specialised agents is voice-over, and many agents don't object to their client having a voice agent too. Some performers also have a modelling agent for photographic work or a presenter's agent - but you would need to discuss how this would work within a sole-representation agreement with any agent who represents you."
Do you have any personal advice to give?
"My advice is very personal to the way I work, and that is to stay positive! Positive, happy, dedicated, committed clients are the easiest and most pleasant to work with and are consequently the ones who, as an agent, you are more inclined to go that extra mile for. Remember that this is a two-way relationship and that your agent is on your side. They have chosen you over a vast amount of competition and they want you to do well. Remember that this is also a business arrangement - both you and the agent need to pay the mortgage! Develop a mutually respectful and dedicated relationship with your agent. Try to trust that they are doing their best for you and that together you should be able to develop the career that you deserve."
Morwenna Preston Management represents actors, singers, dancers, presenters and choreographers for work including straight theatre, musical theatre, television, film, commercials, corporate work, photographic work and presenting work.