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Spotlight on Agents: Reality Check

Agent H. Shep Pamplin of Agents for the Arts said he couldn't stand it when an actor calls him and asks, " 'Can I send you a picture?' I'm not the post office. I can't stop you," Pamplin quipped. The audience laughed, as Pamplin offered another common scenario that annoys him greatly. "The client who, after an audition, calls me and says, 'Have you heard anything? Will you call me if you do?' " Pamplin stared deadpan, underscoring the absurdity of the question (at least from his viewpoint). "No," he responded to the hypothetical caller. "First I'll call my mother, then I'll call my father." He paused to add seriously, "I'll call you. If I know anything, you'll be the first to hear about it."

Pamplin was one of several agents participating in a panel discussion, "Reality Check: Where You Are and Where You Want to Go," moderated by Back Stage "Ask an Agent" columnist Margaret Emory of Dulcina Eisen Associates. The freewheeling 90-minute symposium took place at Back Stage's annual Actorfest, held at NYC's Marriott Marquis Hotel on Sat., Nov. 1.

In addition to Pamplin (a theatre, TV, and film agent), the panel featured Pamplin's partner, Carole J. Russo; Michael Guy, a commercial and industrial agent at Atlas Talent Agency; Eileen Haves, a commercial agent at Acme Talent & Literary; and Stacy Baer, a theatre, TV, and film agent at Leading Artists. Approximately 350 hopeful actors were in attendance.

The seminar was divided into three sections. The first centered on the agents' pet peeves. (The aforementioned Pamplin was describing his.) In the second section—the most interesting, at least to this viewer—members of the audience came up and asked the agents not easily resolvable questions, largely focused on the issue of "How do I move from where I am to where I want to go?" Not unexpectedly, a range of scenarios emerged. The agents responded by sizing up the actors and offering very definite—at moments, personal—suggestions. Section three took a look at the actor-agent relationship, with the agents commenting on what makes for smooth—and, conversely, bumpy—sailing. The symposium concluded with an audience-based question-and-answer session.

Don't Be a Pest

The whole emotionally charged topic of pet peeves was, indeed, a lively launching pad. Michael Guy voiced the views of most. He can't tolerate, he said, "unsolicited phone calls or actors stopping in."

Emory asked what many in the audience must have been thinking, "How should an actor follow up?"

"Send a postcard," responded Guy.

Carole Russo also talked about unnecessary phone calls; she cited the newcomer who says, "I just wanted to check if you're at the same address." Russo shook her head in irritation. "Just check the Ross Reports or the phone book. And if our address is not the same, it will be forwarded to us," she pointed out. "Don't badger us to death. If you got an audition and no callback, don't ask us why. Casting directors don't tell us."

Emory further suggested that if an agent asks for feedback, he or she might end up getting negative feedback that does not even reflect what the casting director feels. The question could simply irritate a casting director, who may not even remember the actor, since so many are seen during auditions.

Eileen Haves said that her pet peeve is the actor who sends her a picture and a resume, but they're not attached. "And, please, don't check to see if we got it. We go through the submissions periodically. And if you go out of town and are afraid we'll call and miss you, send us a postcard telling us you'll be out of town."

On the subject of extra work—should it be mentioned on a resume or not—Stacy Baer noted that seeing extra work listed five times on a resume is one of her pet peeves. "I'd rather see a student film on a resume." It's just not that impressive, she implied. And there is the ever-present danger of being identified and ultimately typecast as a permanent background player.

Later on in the discussion, she talked about how she's turned off by actors who reveal that they've been in the business 20 years (as if that in itself were a selling point), but they've gotten no place. "I'd rather hear that for 10 years you were not in the business at all."

Baer further advised actors to know what's happening in the field. Put another way, her pet peeve is actors who don't have a clue. "If you're young and hip [and have your sights set on a TV career], know if you're the Fox style or the WB style." She added, "If you want a career in theatre, know who the directors are."

In addition to familiarizing yourself with who is directing what, all the panelists agreed that getting to know the players—at readings, classes, and seminars—is a potentially valuable networking opportunity.

Emory summed it up: "It's a business of connections and relationships. Work begets work."

To Join or Not to Join

Most of the actors who came up for career advice had some professional work under their belts—although not necessarily in New York—and they were just not sure what their next steps should be.

The first young woman facing a career dilemma, for example, wanted a future in film and television, but didn't know how to achieve that goal. Currently based in Chicago—and, curiously enough, a lawyer—she believed the best way to get television and film work was to have more theatre work on her resume, along with more experience in front of a camera.

She said she has been in the business three years and has credits in all media. She has an agent, but is not yet a member of any union. Her question was three-tiered: Is accumulating theatre credits a steppingstone to film and TV work? Should she stay in Chicago or go to Los Angeles? And should she attempt to get into the Screen Actors Guild (SAG)? She said someone had told her that SAG membership was a bad idea at this point in her career and would ultimately stand in the way of her getting work.

She did not state this—nor did anyone else—but the implication seemed to be that SAG membership might present an obstacle to getting work in student films, which serve as a training ground and are a potential source of exposure.

Nonetheless, all the agents vehemently disagreed with the advice she had been given regarding SAG membership. They concurred that SAG membership was a good step and it would help—not get in the way of anything of consequence.

"Anyone who tells you not to join a union is feathering his own nest," emphasized Guy. "Probably someone who doesn't want to pay you."

Russo underscored: "SAG membership will make you more eligible for commercials and that [working in commercials] will get you before a camera and give you on-camera training."

There was also consensus among the agents on the value of theatre experience (as a good steppingstone to TV and film work) and the fact that Chicago was as good a place to get it as anywhere else. An observation that was made throughout the symposium was that theatre experience could be obtained in virtually any city. Beginning actors do not have to be in New York or Los Angeles.

A Natural

The second actor to approach the agents for guidance didn't seem to need any. Indeed, he had the beginner's career right out of a fairy tale. By his own admission, he had no training and no experience when he started getting work. In fact, he had decided to give acting a shot almost on a whim. A year has passed since that fateful decision and he already boasts five commercials to his credit—admittedly, they're not union—and 20 principal roles in student films. He wondered if he was on the right track.

The agents stared nonplused; none knew how to respond.

Finally, Pamplin asked if the actor had headshots and resumes. When he said yes, Pamplin asked if he was planning to join a union. Again, the answer was yes.

More stares.

"What kind of characters do you play?"

Evoking a tough guy, the actor shouted, "Where's my money?"

That generated laughs throughout the audience.

After a moment, Pamplin stressed, "There are people who come into the business without training or experience who are natural and uninhibited and dependable. It sounds like you're one of them. Just keep on doing what you're doing."

That observation served as a springboard for the agents to discuss the importance of dependability on the actor's part, insisting that a reputation for dependability was a big plus.

A Period of Transition

The next performer in need of help had not been working steadily, although she said she had been in the business 20 years, with an undergraduate degree in theatre and extensive theatre experience in the Rhode Island area. She had recently written a one-woman show as a vehicle for herself and was trying to promote it. She questioned whether she'd be better off earning her M.F.A. degree or moving to New York City to try to launch her show—and her career—as opposed to staying in the New England area.

Pamplin asked if she were "pushing the show in Boston?"

"I hope to go from Rhode Island to New York City," she said. "But I'm open. Right now, I'm trying to get my legs. The only acting work I can get at this point is open-mike nights."

"It didn't hurt Whoopi," Pamplin quipped.

"I'm now approaching an Italian restaurant in Rhode Island with my one-person show. The character I play is an Italian mother." She added, "I also work full-time."

That revelation did not impress the panelists. It's not that they objected to her having a job, but rather her lack of focus and commitment.

Guy said, "You have to decide what you want."

Pamplin suspected that she was a woman in transition. And she conceded that she was. "I'm divorced, my kids are grown, and I'm in the process of selling my house."

Pamplin and the others underscored that she had to resolve all her personal problems and be fully committed to her new career, especially before approaching any agent to represent her.

"We need actors who are available and ready to work at a moment's notice," Pamplin said.

In the meantime, the agents suggested that the woman continue doing what she was doing in the New England area. Other decisions—to return to school or come to New York or try to get an agent—could be addressed when she had a less cluttered and more focused life.

Grandma's Dream

The fourth hopeful up at the mike was at the opposite end of the career spectrum. She had graduated from college seven months earlier with a degree in theatre. She said she had trained her whole life; indeed, even as a child, she was performing, she recalled, adding that she was encouraged to do so. "It was my grandmother's dream that I become a performer."

Currently, she said she is taking TV classes—learning to perform in front of the camera—and is a member of SAG and AFTRA. She added that she is in the process of sending headshots and resumes out (not getting any responses) and not sure what her next step should be.

Russo asked, "Where do you want to go? What kind of career do you want?"

"I'd like to do commercials and be in a sitcom."

"Do you have any credits?"

"Student films and music videos." She also noted that she had done a fair number of musicals in community theatre in the California area.

"You should continue doing what you're doing."

The young woman then mentioned that she frequently attended seminars that featured casting directors and agents.

Russo thought that was an excellent idea. "If you're prepared and present yourself well, it will work."

Baer added, "A casting director can be your best friend, so the more you meet them, the better it'll be. If you're interested in sitcoms, make it your business to meet TV casting directors."

Margaret Emory pointed out that the young woman's musical theatre background stood her in good stead with all casting directors, not to mention agents. The trick, of course, is to be seen. Emory said that she herself is more likely to respond to an actor if she has seen him in a showcase performance, as opposed to pictures and resumes that are sent in cold.

It was at this point that Pamplin brought the conversation back to something the young woman had said in passing. It irked him. To wit: "That your career as a performer was your grandmother's dream. As an agent, I think about a remark like that. If you came into my office and said that, I'd wonder, is it your grandmother's dream or yours. I probably wouldn't make any comments about it, but that observation would trigger thoughts."

The young woman insisted it was her dream in addition to her grandmother's. But, in the future, she said she would be more mindful about making a remark like that.

Still in College

A young college student who was toying with the idea of being an actor was the next one up. His major was psychology, but he loved acting, had appeared in some college productions, and seriously wanted to give acting a shot. He wasn't sure what his next step should be following graduation. "How should I market myself? Should I move to New York or L.A.?"

Baer noted that both coasts had their advantages and disadvantages. "My first piece of advice is to go where you'll have the best support system, where you have friends or family. New York is smaller than Los Angeles, so that makes New York easier. On the other hand, in L.A., youth is at a premium. So that might be the way to go. Still, New York offers a very strong indie film market [a venue for young unknowns to get some experience]."

Russo pointed out that the young man didn't have to relocate to either city as a first step. "There's a lot of opportunity in Boston for you to get your feet wet. You can even do it while you're in school. Boston is a busy area for theatre, film, and commercials."

The young student said that he believed there was more of an opportunity for freelance acting gigs in Los Angeles.

Emory acknowledged that that might be so. Nonetheless, she agreed with Russo that acting in Boston should not be dismissed. "Boston is more accommodating to getting work. And getting work is what's important."

The agents also seemed to believe that his psychology background would be useful to him, both as an actor and as an artist in search of a fallback career.

Play a Kid

A young actress had the floor and came to the punch line quickly. She pitched the question that almost everyone in the room would have liked answered: "How do I get an agent?"

She said she had been acting since she was six, had been in theatre, and had performed on local cable programs. She wanted a career in commercials and films, and had been busy over the last year sending out headshots and resumes. So far, nothing had come of it. She added that at one point, she had been close to getting a manager, but that fell through.

All the agents seemed to feel that she should just continue doing what she was doing, in addition to taking classes and appearing in showcases.

Haves stressed the importance of meeting casting directors and agents and urged her to go to seminars where casting directors and agents are speaking, if not for networking purposes, at least to find out what the agents and casting directors are looking for.

"And go to auditions for the experience of going to auditions," she continued. "You might even get a part."

Guy suggested that she get a copy of Ross Reports to obtain a list of agents and managers who represent children.

The young woman did not look pleased with the suggestion. She clearly did not think of herself as a child.

"Focus your attack," responded Guy. "You're still young. And we don't handle teens."

Emory said that she is often asked the question "What am I doing wrong?" by actors who are not moving ahead and don't understand why. Her answer was simple: "Maybe you're doing nothing wrong. It's just timing."

Baer thought the young woman might get some valuable training and possible exposure in summer theatre programs.

That idea did not turn off the young woman. She said she'd look into it.

Lose the 'Tude

The most lively—and emotionally fraught—encounter occurred when an actor approached the agents with the observation that he had a lot of training (10 years' worth to be precise), a fair degree of experience (in modest out-of-town venues), and was getting no place quickly, while his actor friends, with neither training nor experience, were rocketing ahead in their careers.

He was asked where he wanted to go.

"I want to be at Radio City getting a Tony Award." He didn't miss a beat with that quip and it garnered laughs from the audience.

The agents appeared to be both amused and irritated.

"What kind of shows and roles do you want to go for?" Pamplin asked.

"I see myself as Mufasa in 'The Lion King.' "

"How old are you?"

"I won't tell you that."

"As an agent I can legally ask that question. And you've just copped an attitude."

"I can play someone between the ages of 25 and 45."

"Can you play someone who is mature and evil?"

"I don't know about mature. But I can play someone evil."

More laughs.

Baer felt the actor would be well served if he got his Equity card and then just worked, worked, worked wherever.

Emory added, "If you have talent, and you say you do, it will work."

Pamplin noted that the odds were that the young actor would not get a Tony Award in one year, but perhaps in five years.

"I can take that."

Russo then made a personal suggestion, urging the young man to substitute his brashness with panache. "Tone it down. It's a business. You got to make it work."

Emory offered some general caveats: "Never walk around as a victim or with a chip on your shoulder. It's the reality of the business. You know you're talented, you're not working, and it's frustrating. So. Duh…let it go. Punch a bag before you come into the agent's office."

Be Likeable

The symposium then turned to the actor-agent relationship, the third and final part of the seminar.

Baer said the obvious: "We like to work with actors we like, people we want to spend time with, down-to-earth people."

All the agents emphasized that contrary to what some believe, they are not in an adversarial relationship with their clients. Indeed, they are personally thrilled when they have helped an actor they believe in get to a casting director and, better yet, land a gig. And, conversely, they are deeply disappointed when one of their actors does not get the role.

Pamplin emphasized, "We don't take on people we don't believe in. So please don't tell me I didn't get you a job. That's not my job and that kind of remark will end our relationship quickly."

Clearly, the bottom-line question was "On what basis do you sign an actor?"

Short of seeing him or her perform and being overwhelmed by the talent, it's an intangible bit of chemistry (that gut response that tells an agent, rightly or wrongly, that he's got a winner), they all agreed. Trends—what types are getting work—play their role as well. An agent has to take into account whether an actor is in a position to get cast given the current marketplace.

Nonetheless, it's a field awash in randomness, the agents pointed out—from landing an agent to getting a callback to walking off with the role. Sometimes the least likely person gets the part and the most prepared and gifted actor doesn't even get the callback.

On that powder keg of a topic—unfairness in the business—Russo said she doesn't like actors who express funks that last more than three minutes. "Then get on with it."

Pamplin stressed that everyone on the panel believed in new talent and development. "We all want to be able to say we knew that actor when."

Everyone Is a Type

Emory then opened up the discussion to the audience. There were many hands raised.

An actor with a marked British accent wanted to know "to what degree does national or regional background hamper the roles you can get?"

Baer responded, "It doesn't hamper you. It helps. But it also helps if you can lose it, if you can do an Australian accent. Irish is better yet."

Emory addressed the practical considerations. "I hope if you plan to work here, you have your papers."

Question two centered on what to do to market yourself if you're not a specific type.

Guy said that from a commercial point of view, everyone is a type.

In the legitimate theatre world, knowing your type is important as well, said Pamplin, suggesting that you become familiar with—be able to cite—those actors doing the kinds of roles you'd be doing. "Find your niche. Know what makes you unique. Sometimes that's more important than anything."

Haves recalled a 25-year-old African-American client she represented. "They were looking for a 50-year-old white male with comic talent. But because I knew my client was right for the role—he was really comedic—I sent him out for it, and he got it."

The point was that the actor's comic flair—the quality that made him special—also made it possible to cast him, in this instance in an unexpected way.

One young woman in the audience asked if it was okay to inform agents of a role she wanted to play in a production the agent might not have heard of.

"Yes," Pamplin said. "If your ears are open and you know productions that we are not familiar with, absolutely. But don't send us a circled list of productions that we are familiar with, telling us to send you out on this or that."

A question was then pitched about getting back into the business after a long time away.

Baer suggested removing anything from the resume that was too out-of-date or irrelevant to the current market. It was at that point she made the aforementioned remark about admitting that you've been out of the business for, say, 10 or 20 years, rather than suggesting you've been at it all that time and getting no place.

The final question came from a young actress who said she has always sung and danced—gotten work in those areas—but now wanted to turn her talents to acting. She wondered if she should focus on just one area or spread herself out.

Emory had the final word, suggesting that talent in musical theatre—not to mention a resume boasting musical theatre credits—was a big plus in getting cast and thus perhaps opening up other doors.

On a pragmatic level, "You will always get work in musical theatre. Then do what you have to do to be seen as a [straight-play] actor."

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