Stuart Piper: ‘Being an agent is like a game of poker’
Few jobs require people skills to the same extent as a theatrical agent. As well as having to reassure anxious clients on a daily basis, you must know how to sweet-talk intransigent producers and casting directors while simultaneously holding out for the best deal for your client. Balancing acts don’t get any more delicate.
So, it is no surprise then that Stuart Piper, managing director of Cole Kitchenn Personal Management and occasional columnist for The Stage, turns out to be affable, accommodating and relaxed in shorts, flip-flops and snazzy shirt when we meet at his office, the wonderfully named Roar House in the heart of the West End. He may be up to his Ray-Bans in tricky deals and knife-edge negotiations, but Piper gives the impression he has all the time in the world.
Piper hasn’t always been an agent. He started out as a starstruck child actor from Cobham who would rush to the local newsagents every Thursday to buy his copy of The Stage. He attended the first ever Stagecoach in nearby Weybridge, run by Stephanie Manuel, who sent him up for an audition for the chorus of Annie Get Your Gun, aged nine.
“I stood in a long line of kids outside the theatre, dreaming of stardom,” he recalls. “After I got a part in the chorus, I would stand in the wings every night watching it all happen and thinking, ‘This is what I want to do’.”
So for the next 10 years he continued to act, mostly doing TV, playing the son of John Thaw, Penelope Wilton, Juliet Stevenson, Trevor Eve et al. He also played Dandy Dan in Bugsy Malone, opposite the unknown Sheridan Smith as Tallulah, for the National Youth Music Theatre.
There were early intimations of the career change to come. “I could always spot the people who were special, the future stars. When I did The Famous Five, I knew Jemima Rooper had star quality, and it wasn’t hard to see that Sheridan Smith had the makings of something extraordinary. People like that trigger an emotional rather than an intellectual reaction. It’s an instinctive thing.”
Piper started on the road to giving up acting at 18 when he co-produced a revival of the musical Snoopy at the Jermyn Street Theatre with fellow actor Stephen Carlile. “It went so well the owners of the rights contacted us to ask if we’d like to transfer it into the West End. So I called the Duchess Theatre, where it was done originally, in order to find out how I could go about hiring the theatre. I was put through to [theatre owner] Nica Burns, who called Stephen and me in for a meeting.”
Because of their age and inexperience, Burns put them in touch with the management agency Cole Kitchenn. The show wasn’t a financial success, but for Piper “it was a brilliant learning experience”. When it was over, Guy Kitchenn offered him a job as general manager of Cole Kitchenn. “I hadn’t even given up acting at that point, but I didn’t think I’d get a better offer, so I said yes.”
In his early 20s, the whizz-kid Piper was general-managing West End shows, forward-planning productions, managing talent and running a small agency pretty much single-handed. “It wasn’t easy but I was single and eager to make my way in the world. In the early days my ambition was to have a small list of actors, but the more I went on, the more I realised that you need a varied pool of talent to get enough information and intelligence coming into the office.”
So he expanded the client list, and brought in other staff to fill the gaps in his knowledge. In a few short years it went from being a one-man show to being what he calls “a proper talent agency”.
The real turning point came in 2010 when Cole Kitchenn was invited to become part of entrepreneur Jonathan Shalit’s Roar Group of talent management companies that encompasses music, digital, comedy, sports, broadcast and branding. “Working with Jonathan has revolutionised everything we do,” says Piper. “On my own I’d never have signed a music artist like Pixie Lott, but now here we are presenting her in Breakfast at Tiffany’s next year in the West End.
“I guess I’m quite a traditional theatre creature but working with Jonathan has made me bolder and more forward-thinking. We were the first agency on Facebook and Twitter, for instance, and I’m very open about publishing our client list online. Being able to see where all your agents are every night is helpful.”
The agency is also branching out overseas, especially the US, where Piper goes twice a year in search of work for his British clients, as well as US talent who may wish to work over here.
“The talents that interest me are the ones who can do more than one thing,” he says. “I find the James Corden career trajectory very interesting, and I’m convinced the future for artists is to do as many things as possible. My job is to create opportunities for them, to connect producing talent with the right partners.”
Just because Cole Kitchenn is now supplying headliners for stage and TV is no excuse for it to be complacent, he says. “I know of a big London agency that told one of its interns, ‘We don’t call people, they call us.’ I’d never want to be like that. Even now that we represent stars who are constantly in demand, we’re still not slow in being proactive.
“After 10 years, we’re not the new kids on the block any more, but we remain a young, energetic team of six agents, and we’re still evolving.”
As agent and manager to his clients, Piper’s approach to the job could be described as holistic, yet he insists he doesn’t see his job as telling them what to do. “My job is to advise and consult. We never make false promises. Some agents seem to think it is just about being as bullish as possible, but to me it is like a game of poker. If you overplay your hand you can lose a job for the client. You have to be realistic about negotiating terms. The fact that I’ve managed and produced West End shows helps me to understand the economics of producing.”
What sort of person is suited to becoming a theatrical agent?
“If you’re the kind of person who likes to leave the job behind you at six o’clock, then don’t become an agent. It’s true I live and breathe it, and I look forward to coming into work every day. I still get a huge buzz of excitement from seeing what my clients have achieved, both the new signings and the more established ones. But it is also important to have a life away from work.
“When I look at all the other agencies that were around when I started, they’re all pretty much the same as they were, whereas I think Cole Kitchenn has evolved hugely. In five years’ time I’d like to be representing film stars and Oscar winners.”