Do I need an agent?

The industry
Christina Ham

“Do I need an agent?” The answer to this question depends on where you are in your career. If you are just beginning as a playwright you don’t need an agent. This is because you are practicing your craft by creating a body of work that will help you develop a name for yourself. If you just graduated from one of the big M.F.A. playwriting programs and an agent offers to represent you it might appear that you have it made. However, you might be in for a rude awakening when your work doesn’t automatically get productions just because you’ve slapped your agent’s name on your cover sheet. Why? Because theater is the business of relationships and in order to develop these relationships people need to become familiar with your work over time which helps you to develop your name as a playwright. While an agent can help facilitate this introduction no one cares more about your name or your work than you do. Developing your name includes tirelessly submitting your work to contests and awards (and most likely being rejected by most or all of them), but hoping that one successful submission will garner your play a modicum of notoriety that might help you attain that allusive first production. Please refer to Mary Sue Price’s excellent article on submissions.

If you are interested in getting an agent this will have to be a regional production that “has legs”. After all, an agent needs something to package and sell. While you might think that your highly personal drama that takes place in the terminally ill hospital ward is the type of play that will sell itself if only you had an agent—it does not work that way. When an agent can be helpful to you is when your play has attained some cache from that regional production and it might be looking at subsequent runs. If you are fortunate enough to have written this kind of play then the agent will probably find you. They will be able to help you strategize what theaters are a good fit for your play and will help you attain access to theaters whose doors were closed to you before. Agents can also help you with contract negotiations and setting up meetings with directors that you may have also wanted to work with, but never had the ability to meet before. If you are interested in getting into the world of television and snagging yourself some meetings with television executives—look no further than your agent. In other words, an agent can give you another level of access in exchange for ten percent of your earnings. It’s a small price to pay when you realize that a manager will take twenty percent. The tricky part of this arrangement is that a playwright should never be lulled into believing that just because they have an agent—their work is done. You should always try to market and pitch yourself since you are one of about twenty other playwrights (most of them much farther up the food chain with their awards, productions, etc) on your agent’s roster fighting to stay relevant.

However, most playwrights I know do not have an agent and have had a long and steady career in this business. The reason? Those relationships that I spoke about at the beginning of the article. Agents can help you gain access, but you can acquire your own access like I did when I first started out as a playwright. Because I had a play that I had developed at one of the largest regional theater companies in the country and it was also a finalist for several prestigious contests at the time I was able to cold call literary managers at other regional theaters and ask them if I could send them my play to read after letting them know the play’s history. Even though a lot of these theaters were agent submission only they all said “yes” and to this day I continue to have great relationships with these theaters where I can send them my work. As a playwright you will have to do your research and understand that not all contests and awards are created equally in order to gain the necessary access that you are looking for with some of the larger theaters. But, with smaller theaters, these smaller accolades may be just enough to provide an introduction and get your work in the door. And, it’s my opinion that these smaller theaters can aid you in getting some of those first productions that regional theaters have reserved for the veterans in the business or the plays that have already had productions in New York City.

Another option if you don’t have an agent and you need someone to look over your contracts (especially if they’re intricate) is an entertainment attorney. However, most of these attorneys can charge a minimum of $200 an hour and when you begin to realize that contract negotiations can require several different drafts it doesn’t take long for you to have a bill that’s $1,000 or more. A more affordable option is the Dramatists Guild that has a legal department that will look over production contracts and commission agreements and mark them up for you. The only thing they won’t do is to negotiate your contract with the theater—you have to do it yourself. They are an invaluable resource for most of us playwrights who do not have agents, but find ourselves with productions anyway. Your membership also includes a variety of other benefits for only $90 a year.

Four years ago I had an agent with one of the top agencies in the business and then—like what happens so many times—if it is difficult for the agent to find a production for your work then they will release you as a client. When this happened I found myself having to negotiate my own contracts.  I know that a lot of playwrights don’t want to do this, but I’ve found it extremely empowering, as I have been able to get better deals for myself than my agent did. Once again, no one cares more about your work than you do. Another resource that I highly recommend that should be on every playwright’s bookshelf is the Stage Writers Handbook: A Complete Business Guide for Playwrights, Composers, Lyricists and Librettists by Dana Singer (former Executive Director of the Dramatists Guild). I have read this book cover-to-cover and I can’t tell you how much more informed I am about this business as a playwright. This book covers some of the most essential aspects of the business and contains material that they usually don’t cover in M.F.A. programs.

The thing to remember about this business is that it’s very circuitous. There are a myriad of ways to be a playwright in this business. This also means that there is no one road to getting an agent—if that’s what you seek. And, while some playwrights might find that an agent has done wonders for them—others have found the exact opposite to be true. I remember Paula Vogel doing a workshop while I was in graduate school and she mentioned that at that point in her career she had already changed agents six times. It made me realize that your career is a journey. You meet different people along the way and some of them, like an agent, are meant to go part of the way with you, but maybe not all the way. In the past I have asked my friends who do have agents what have they done for them and all of them have told me the same thing: the agents have capitalized on the work they had done for themselves for several years, but they seemed pretty confident that it was their years of work and not the agent that was getting them most of their gigs. So, in the meantime, continue practicing your craft while you develop those relationships and try to remember: you are your own best agent for your work.

About the author

Christina Ham

Christina Ham is a Core Writer and manages the Playwrights' Center's Many Voices program.