BY THOMAS MILLS
Acting First, Con Ways
I'm an avid reader of your column and always appreciate your straightforward, no-nonsense advice and your proactive approach to the business. To an extent, however, I must disagree with the bulk of your advice to E.C. of Newbury Park, who had a "40-hour office suit" job and considered himself an "on-again, off-again" actor (10/23/97). You chastised him for "wanting to have his cake and eat it, too." You also said that actors must be willing to live on "a few thousand dollars a year," with any necessary supplemental income derived from working part-time or in the evenings.
Of course, vigilant attention to one's craft and career are crucial. The reality is, however, that even simple survival is not possible on such meager earnings. It is high irony that such a financially unrewarding profession is centered in one of the most expensive cities in the world.
Building a career can also be a terribly costly undertaking. To make all of the purchases an actor needs (classes, pictures, etc.), some actors must work--at least initially--in 9-to-5 positions. There have been several occasions when I have taken a 9-to-5 job (as a long-term temp) because I was doing Equity 99-Seat Theatre and still needed to make the rent.
It is possible to keep a good day job while vigorously pursuing an acting career. The key is to have an employer who understands that your first priority is acting.
I think you missed the point in my response to E.C.'s letter. I was not knocking the need to work many hours on a survival job as a way to support an acting career, but E.C. was a guy working a full-time career and on-again, off-again as an actor. I didn't get the impression from his letter that he was prioritizing his acting over his income job. He admitted himself that he wasn't putting as much effort into his acting career as was needed. I merely made some suggestions which might aid him in making the transition should he decide once and for all to give the better part of his life to acting.
Indeed, nighttime and part-time jobs are what keep many actors going. I think it's great that you've managed to work 9-to-5 jobs and still be a working actor, but even you note that these were temp positions. The mentality of a temp is far different than that of a career person who is flirting with acting. E.C. was not working as a temp. He has a permanent position--and if he walks away from it, there won't be another one waiting for him in the wings. Do you see the difference?
When I lived in New York, I had every part-time job imaginable to keep paying the rent. Then I made the short-term mistake of taking a full-time job. The acting went south until I came to my senses. Yes, there are a few actors who have full-time jobs and great bosses who let them leave for auditions, but these lucky situations are few and far between. I still believe there is no way an actor can have two careers without one of them suffering greatly.
I just started a non-paying internship with a personal manager in town. I thought this might be a good way to learn the business, since I'm new to town. Eventually I'd like to become an agent.
Here is the conflict: The personal manager I'm working for charges talent an upfront fee for representation. I've been told that the practice is illegal and that you should never have to pay an agent or manager up front for anything. The manager in question does make submissions but does little else. Am I working for a con artist or just a wily business person?
Let me put it this way: Quit! I don't care what your boss calls himself. If he's taking money up front from clients, then he isn't a manager. You must be particularly wary of those who call themselves managers but charge fees for such things as publicity work or career guidance. If you want to be an agent, you should be interning with an agency. Get a list of the franchised agents around town and start sending out your resumƒ. I'd do it quickly before your manager friend gets shut down.
I am writing in reference to the letter from Anonymous about an unscrupulous agent/photographer deal (10/9/97). When I read it, I knew exactly who the agent was, and who the photographer was, about whom Anonymous complained. I had the same horrible experience with this agent last year. I was excited to be called in and thrilled when she told me she wanted to represent me. She then suggested I get new pictures and that I should use her favorite photographer. She told me the same story about how I would get a discount because I was one of her clients.
I had the pictures taken and brought them back to the agency. I guess I should have been more skeptical about her, because when I walked back into her office she did not even recognize me from the week before. She then proceeded to tell me I needed to get prints, not lithographs. I did that, too, and gave them to her in about a week.
A few weeks later, I phoned the agent to see if she'd gotten any feedback on my pictures. She didn't recognize my name, then said she hadn't submitted me yet. I called again several weeks later and got the same story. I know in my heart that there is some sort of scam going on here.
Maybe yes, maybe no. Believe me, there are more than a few talent representatives pulling this kind of scam. Some of the things you mention do sound suspiciously familiar--most notably the request for prints, not lithos.
J.B., please contact Back Stage West with your phone number so that we can talk. We will be investigating the agency you wrote about over the next weeks. And readers: If this sounds like something that happened to you, we'd like to here from you, too, as we build this case. Anonymous didn't name the perpetrator, but it's likely the agent you mentioned could be one and the same.
Here are the rules regarding photos and agents: Most new agents will suggest new photos for new clients. That's fine. Your agent may even suggest one or two photographers' names, but they will never make you go to that shooter, or make it a condition of representation ("I'll represent if you go to this photographer"). Go check out the shooter's book and make up your own mind. Personally, if I feel any photo pressure from an agent, I look elsewhere, even if I do need new headshots.
Trust that little voice inside you. It never fails. I was especially disgusted to hear that she didn't even recognize you when you returned a week later. This place sounds like a talent mill instead of an agency.
NOTE TO ATMOSPHERE PLAYERS: A book was recently sent to Tombudsman's attention, titled Extra Work for Brain Surgeons. It looks like a winner. Publishers Angela Bertolino and Carla Lewis do the genre one better by having updated, no-holds-barred information for the aspiring and veteran background performer. I particularly liked that the book isn't afraid to identify those extra registration companies which are suspect but still manage to operate. Tombudsman enjoys anyone who is making an effort to point out scammers in this tough town.
Aside from that, the book's timely listings are easy enough to read and the author obviously has a sense of humor that savvy actors will appreciate. If the writers stay on top of things, this monthly book will be a welcome and much-needed addition to the extra scene. The monthly update of $20 (at newsstands) might be a bit steep for some, but I put a call in to the publisher's office and was told that there are discounts for regular customers, so you might save a few bucks that way. If you can't afford a regular serving, one month alone is still an informative read for Southern California backgrounders.
Happy holidays, everyone