Soon after moving to Los Angeles several years ago, Jodi Nelson mailed some 300 résumé-and-headshot packets to potential managers. She received three responses and took three meetings. One was held in a closet-size office full of buzzing flies and jangling phones. Another was at a larger office, with two auditors sitting at the far ends of the room and people walking in and out as Nelson presented her monologue. But at the third, she was lucky.
There Nelson met Ken Kingsbury. Despite an initial mix-up (Kingsbury confused Nelson with another performer with the same name), the two proved a good match, and Kingsbury wound up serving as Nelson's manager until his death in 2007. He helped secure agents for her, she says, and was "out there hustling every day for me and keeping me aware of things that were going on."
But if Nelson were starting out today, she would not use the expensive, antiquated, and ineffective "blanket" mailing strategy she employed before, she says. Instead, she would research talent agencies and managers to narrow the field, then mail queries to a handful of likely candidates.
Agents and managers are, after all, as diverse as the actors they represent. Some, like Kingsbury, are decidedly hands-on; others are more remote. Some are highly selective, representing only a few clients; others maintain a much deeper roster. Fortunately, actors these days can enlighten themselves, at least partially, by doing a little basic online research.
Back Stage recently spoke with four agents whose differences underscore the idea that securing representation is far from a "one size fits all" proposition.
Jordan, Gill & Dornbaum, a talent agency in New York, deals mostly with children and young adults who are new to the business. If you're 30 but say you can pass for 20, owner Jeffrey Gill will not likely be interested in representing you. Gill has discovered clients at seminars he's conducted at such networking outlets as Actors Connection and One on One NYC. Sometimes he'll attend college showcases as well. A large percentage of his clients, though, come to him via referrals from casting directors and other industry professionals.
The best first step for actors wishing to connect with Gill is to send a headshot, résumé, and cover letter. Keep the résumé "as short and succinct as possible," he advises, saying there's no need for a page-long list of credits if you're just out of college or not yet a union member. Include your height and weight, he adds, and be truthful about it: "I might call you in if I knew you were a little overweight, because that's something that's needed. To call in somebody and then have them show up and be totally different, it's like, 'Wow, how can I [send] you out if you can't even be honest about yourself?' "
If you choose to include special skills on your résumé, Gill says, just be sure they're truly special. If you're a lifeguard or an EMT or if you lettered in a sport, by all means point that out. But don't bury those useful skills in a list filled with trivialities, such as a talent for wiggling your ears. "Don't try to be cute," he says, "because we've seen it all and it's not cute anymore."
The photograph you send to Gill can be fairly casual. "Some of my clients that do very well came in from a snapshot four years ago," he says. "That's basically all you need to start out." Sending him a reel with clips, however, is a waste of time. He's looking for fresh young talent, and most actors new to the business have only self-produced clips—what he calls "made-up stuff."
Gill believes in the U.S. mail. He doesn't accept electronic submissions and, like most agents, has no patience for in-person drop-offs, which go directly into the trash.
As an agent, Robert Malcolm of the Artists Group East in New York is in some ways very different from Gill. Yet they share a propensity for knowing exactly what they are—and aren't—looking for. Formerly an actor himself, Malcolm has been an agent since 1984. Starting in 1991, he worked bicoastally, running both the Artists Group in Los Angeles and its East Coast branch. (He closed the L.A. office in 2007.)
Over the years, Malcolm has largely represented name actors. The late Jerry Orbach was a client and close friend for many years. On his current roster of 15, Malcolm says, only three are not household names. A specialty of his is helping to revive the careers of one-time television stars, in part by finding them gigs in live theater.
"At this point, I'm very, very choosy," he says. "I'm basically only interested in working with people who are already established…. I mean, if somebody is spectacular, I might be excited. But if somebody is 30 years old and they've been knocking around for 10 years, that's not somebody that I personally want to deal with." The only beginners he would likely be interested in representing are gifted actors who are also outstandingly attractive physically—and hence highly marketable.
Malcolm rarely goes to actor showcases anymore ("I've paid my dues," he says). He still receives bundles of résumés but feels that many applicants are not truly ready for representation. He advises newcomers not to bother with larger, high-profile agencies; instead, single out five to 10 that might be a good fit and submit a cover letter with a short note—not a "whole life story," he says, but enough to lend a personal touch. After 10 days or so, he adds, follow up with a phone call and try to schedule an interview (taking into consideration, of course, the contact guidelines of the office in question).
Certain unsigned actors continue to send Malcolm postcards and other notes—some for as long as 20 years. At a certain point, he says, performers should acknowledge that if there's been no previous response, there will likely never be any. It's not necessarily a reflection on the actor's talent, he explains, just a lack of spark between the parties.
Like Malcolm, J. Fred Shiffman of Washington, D.C.'s, Capital Talent Agency thinks actors should check in with potential reps after submitting their materials. "Agencies are busy," he says. "We might be in the middle of casting six things. It's not that we don't appreciate your cover letter and whatnot. Don't be shy about following up. We don't consider that nagging."
Of course, the situation in D.C. is somewhat different from that in New York or L.A. Until recently, Washington didn't have a single local talent agency. Actors—including Shiffman himself, who acted in the city for more than three decades—were generally their own agents. "We frequently found ourselves in the rather awkward position of being on the telephone with artistic directors of local theaters pleading for an extra $25 a week," he says.
Capital Talent Agency was founded by producer-director Jeremy Skidmore and lawyer Roger Yoerges in 2009. They asked Shiffman to be one of their first actor clients. He said yes, but added that he would eventually like to move from acting to agenting. That transition came about earlier this year. Although the actors it represents are local, the agency serves a national pool of theaters, including Chicago's Goodman and Philadelphia's Arden. It also represents actors for film, television, industrial, and governmental gigs.
The agency finds talent through recommendations from its current clients, but it also takes cold calls. This summer the agents will invite performers whose work they've not yet seen to a group audition featuring monologues and musical selections. Shiffman and his fellow agents also encourage actors to send invitations when they have booked a job in a local production.
So far, Shiffman and his colleagues have not been asked to attend college showcases. "But what does leap out at us with young, up-and-coming talent is where they went to school," he says. "Everyone always has an ear pitched for the likes of Juilliard and Yale and NYU and North Carolina School of the Arts." He notes that graduates have become savvy about filling their résumés with details about specific training and prestigious teachers. "That stuff is helpful to us," Shiffman says. "We spend a lot of time looking at that part of the résumé."
Dave Bennett is an agent with the Talent House, which was founded in Toronto 27 years ago and opened a New York office 15 years later. The Toronto branch deals with Canadian clients and Americans working north of the border, while the New York office handles Americans living in the States, along with Canadians working in the U.S. on long-term contracts. Bennett—who has dual citizenship—works mostly in Toronto but travels to Manhattan about once a month. In both cities, he and his colleagues are out seeing projects several times a week.
"One of the best things you can do if you're in a showcase and seeking representation," he says, "is to talk to your fellow cast members and see who is already repped, to see who they're repped by." Agents and managers tend to be loyal to their clients, Bennett explains, so they will usually attend showcases and other productions their clients are in. Actors should feel free to send a letter to the agent saying they're also in the cast and would love to meet up, either directly after the show or in the days following.
You should be careful about the personal references you provide on your résumé, Bennett cautions. "Make sure they're going to speak in a positive manner about you. People think because they've been in for a casting director quite a few times that it means the casting director loves them and their work—which might be a logical assumption but isn't necessarily the case." Also make sure your résumé speaks honestly of your experience, he says. If you pad your credits by inflating background work into a principal role, you will likely be found out.
Reels, Bennett says, should be "short, sweet, and focused" and let you truly be seen. He has received clips of ensemble dance numbers shot from the back of an auditorium, with one dancer even adding a graphic arrow above his head. "Not especially effective," he says.
Some agents and agencies have Facebook or LinkedIn pages, which can aid with your research before you send out submission packets. You can also determine whether you and the rep have a friend or colleague in common—someone who might agree to put in a good word for you. Bennett advises, however, against using social networking to make the actual approach. Some reps shy away from connecting online with people they haven't met in person.
Don't Be Shy
With such diverse attitudes about what is and isn't acceptable in the pursuit of representation, it's easy to get confused or discouraged. "I've always been afraid of pushing too hard, for fear that I was going to be considered obnoxious to people I was trying to get in with," says John Unruh, a New York actor who has freelanced with agents in the past but who largely relies on Equity principal auditions for job opportunities. "The fear factor is a very strong deterrent in this business, at least for me."
Ed Breen, another New Yorker, was signed with a commercial agent for about four years, but—like Unruh—has pursued theater work largely on his own. He says he would be reluctant to do a mass mailing of postcards advertising his appearance in a showcase: "Maybe I'm embarrassed…to tell people, 'Come see me. Look at me.' That's not my makeup."
A great deal depends, of course, on what sort of career you want. In a sense, it's admirable to put the craft of acting ahead of the business aspects. But when you do secure representation, at least some of the administrative chores of your career will be in the hands of a business professional—allowing you to concentrate more on those all-important artistic matters.
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