Theatre Critic and Journalist

Capital Gains: A Response to Sam West & James Grieve

Capital Gains: A Response to Sam West & James Grieve

Published in The Stage,  16.02.2012

So Sam West would have us believe that talent agents are the scourge of regional theatre, withholding the best actors from any audiences that exist beyond the bounds of the M25 for their own personal gain.

Interviewed by The Stage last month, West spoke of agents that “won’t let their favourite young clients go and do shows in the regions,” preferring to keep them available for the possibility of more lucrative or higher-profile work elsewhere, be it on stage or on screen.

Since then, at the Cambridge Junction’s recent State of the Nation symposium on new writing, James Grieve – co-artistic director of Paines Plough – has reportedly expressed similar sentiments. In a subsequent Guardian blog about the event, Lyn Gardner wrote, “Grieve bemoaned the attitude of agents who don’t want their client to sign up for a cracking part in a touring production just in case “a walk-on in Downton comes up”.”

Admittedly, there is some truth in this, but it is far from the full picture. I know this because, having worked in the actors department of an agency for three years, I am guilty of it. Yes, I have advised actors against taking jobs in regional theatres.

However, what’s crucial to realise is that this is in no way – and must not be characterised as – a categorical or default position. For starters, as Rayy Hoppkrofft pointed out in his recent letter to The Stage, agents will never outright forbid a client to accept a particular job offer. “It is not,” Hoppkrofft writes, “for the agency to decide which work a work-seeker undertakes.”

That said, any agent worth their salt will, when asked (often also when not), offer advice to their clients about the merits and benefits of particular job offers that come in. A healthy actor-agent relationship is based on dialogue, with the actor’s best interests in mind. When Peter Bennett-Jones was given the Special Award at last year’s BAFTA television awards, his philosophy was explained by a client: “An agent is there to get a performer the career they want.” (I quote from memory.)

The plain fact is that agents are not responsible for the state of regional theatre, but for the careers of their individual clients. West is right: a stint in regional theatre can be hugely valuable to an actor, providing vital experience in the rehearsal room, on stage and in front of an audience. Agents know this and it is churlish to suggest otherwise.

It is, however, important to recognize that each case is individual. There are many good reasons for particular actors to turn down particular regional theatre jobs. (Particular being the key word here – and should be read into all that follows.) It follows, therefore, that there are good reasons – again, in certain circumstances – for agents to countenance their clients against it.

Let’s start by putting the money myth to bed. It’s easy to paint an unflattering picture of agents commodifying their clients, plotting the quickest way to make a buck and skimming off their commission. Easy, but unfair. Agents do not think short-term. All would far rather patiently build a star than trot a client through constant bit parts. It’s more satisfying, but – in the long-term –  it’s worth more. Besides, for a young client, a television day player is generally worth less than a fortnight’s wages at equity minimum in regional theatre – albeit in a shorter time and with greater availability. In the grand scheme of an actor’s career, it becomes negligible.

Regional theatre credits are certainly not redundant. However, there’s no denying such performances are often less visible within the industry. Fewer casting directors and industry professionals will see an actor in regional theatre than in London – they’re busy people and such trips will often involve an overnight stay. The same holds true in terms of reviews. Work breeds work, but it breeds more work when it comes with the benefit of exposure.

In the same interview, West speaks of the actor’s privilege to choose the work he or she undertakes. That includes the choice to remain available for other potential work. It is, of course, always a gamble, but that’s the individual’s prerogative. There may be alternatives in the pipeline. They may want to focus on other areas of their career. They may simply not want to spend time away from home. All good reasons to say, ‘No thanks.’

It’s also worth pointing out that it cuts both ways. Sometimes agents will extol the potential benefits of particular jobs – both at regional theatres and on top London stages, in television and in even, very occasionally, film – to no avail. As an agent, you’ve got to respect that. That is the way it goes. As I say, dialogue is key.

Regional theatres can – and often do – attract top quality actors. Rather than cursing agents when they fail to do so, however, regional theatres should look inwards and seek to make themselves more attractive to such actors. Actors do not work out of charity or moral obligation – nor should they be expected to. Sweeten the deal – with juicy parts, options for potential transfers, better digs, generous subsistence, whatever the organization can reasonably offer – and they will come. Moreover, their agents will be delighted.

Photograph: Linda Nylind

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