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Careers Clinic: Will I get better work with another agent?

John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher
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To move my career forward I feel I have to move on from my current agent. I have been out of drama school for five years and signed with my agent straight out of my showcase. It is a small agency and has good contacts in areas such as cruise work, theatre in education, small theatre shows and regional panto. That’s the kind of work I have been doing since graduating and, while I’m honestly grateful for all the experience that is now on my CV (as well as the money), I’d really like to be seen for TV and film work.

I’m allowed to nudge for this kind of work and have no doubt my agent puts me forward, but it just doesn’t seem to be their area of strength, so I very rarely get seen. Although we have a good personal relationship and I hope that won’t change, I think it’s time to leave. I wanted your advice on how to approach agents who can take my career to the next level.

JOHN BYRNE’S ADVICE I would love to do a quick survey of how many agents reading this grimaced, laughed or shook their heads when they came across the line about “taking your career to the next level”. This is probably one of the most clichéd phrases that pops up time and time again in letters and emails from prospective clients. For that reason alone, I would avoid using it when you are doing your own approaches. Beyond simply being hackneyed, this particular phrase also sums up a kind of thinking that often derails an actor’s chances of connecting with agents who can genuinely move them forward.

To have a chance of ‘moving to the next level’ you first need to be very clear what level you are at now. More to the point, you’ll need to be able to demonstrate this understanding to agents you are contacting and tailor your approach accordingly.

One very common example of actors not doing this is when, in the actor’s head, ‘taking me to the next level’ means ‘getting me film and TV work’. All too often, an agent receiving this type of request looks at the work to date and finds no evidence of either existing screen work or any screen training. This immediately raises several concerns, the first being the difficulty of getting the actor seen for screen in the face of stiff competition when their own level of work in that area is zero.

Soapbox: An open letter to all actors, from a (hard) working agent

A less obvious thought from the actor’s point of view, but one that most agents will have immediately, is whether you are going to be one of those clients who, having decided they want screen work, will then refuse any other work even in areas they did train in and have more chance of getting. It is always an actor’s right to turn down work – but it is also an agent’s right to choose clients who might bring in some income.

An actor who demonstrates flexibility is a more attractive proposition than one with a rigid wish list. As well as being realistic about your level, you need to know why you are not already at the next one. It may be because the agent you have can’t get you there, but focus on what you can bring to a new agency, not what your old agency didn’t do for you.

Say why you are moving as briefly as possible, but concentrate on the practical steps you are prepared to take to close that gap between where you are and where you want to be. This may include training, upgrading your showreel and other investments of time and effort. The narrower you make that gap, the more likely a new agent will be encouraged to step into it.

Contact careers adviser John Byrne at dearjohn@thestage.co.uk or @dearjohnbyrne

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