Saturday, March 28, 2009

Even I can't get an agent

The difficulty in securing an agent is not confined to those writers just starting out. I tried to get a theatrical agent when I wrote my play a few years ago and hit a brick wall, even with my resume. And I didn’t list AfterMASH so I know it’s not that.

The Hollywood literary agency that represented me did not have a theater department so when I wrote my play a few years ago I decided to get a second agent to handle that facet of my career. Unlike these major conglomerates with three letters that handle screenwriters, theatrical agencies are all boutique. Going down the list it seemed every Jewish girl who wouldn’t go out with me now has an agency.

I made a few calls and found no one was interested. The fact that (a) I wasn’t 25, and (b) they couldn’t cash in on movie rights made me persona non representita. And this was before anyone even bothered to read my play.

Through a playwright friend, I was referred to one agent – we’ll call her Beth B. I had a nice conversation with her, she said she really wasn’t looking to take on new clients but wanted to read my play. So I sent it along with a resume. Two weeks later I get a letter from her. The first sentence was “Ohmygod, I had no idea you co-created ALMOST PERFECT!” She went on to say it was her favorite show, the writing was brilliant, she wrote a letter to CBS complaining when they cancelled it, it was like we were in her bedroom, and she was often confused for our star, Nancy Travis. I thought – I am IN!

Next paragraph – pass.

Okay. Whatever.

A few months later I was in New York and decided to call her again. Sometimes when people meet they click and who knows? Maybe she’d have a change of heart. She agreed to meet with me.

It took three trains to get down to her agency. Every other agency was in mid-town, in the theatre district. This one was in the land of discount sneakers and checks cashed while you wait. Once there, after waiting a good half hour, Beth B. finally appeared and ushered me back to her office. My first thought upon seeing her was – Nancy Travis? The only thing she had in common with Nancy Travis was that they both breathed air. Beth B. was large, horn rimmed glasses, and had giant frizzy Carole King hair.

After the pleasantries, she explained that she liked to represent hot young playwrights who lived in New York. The key to her was they’d be able to go to openings and readings and be seen in all the right places.

I said, “what if I produced my play in LA and it got good reviews?” She said that would be disastrous for it ever getting mounted in New York. I suggested that maybe the New York theatre scene was a tad elitist, fully expecting her to back off and say “No, no, not at all.” Instead, she said proclaimed, “Yes, that’s right.” I was a little thrown and wondered if New York had the theatre to support it. “Suessical? Thousand Clowns with Tom Sellick? Annie Get Your Gun with Crystal Bernard? There weren’t exactly new Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams pieces starring Brando or Burton coming in this season.”

It was clear we were not “clicking”. So finally, I asked Beth B. what advice she could give me? She thought for a moment and finally said, “Write”. I said, “Excuse me?” She repeated it. “Write. I find that the first play is an introduction, the second gets a reading, the third gets a workshop, and the fourth maybe gets a production. So just keep writing.”

I nodded and finally said, “Beth, that’s great advice. In fact, it’s the same advice I’ve been giving young writers… for THIRTY YEARS. But since I’ve had more of my work produced on a national level than all your clients combined times ten I think I can SKIP A STEP.”

Beth B. was not on the invite list for my New York reading.

I know it’s discouraging when an agent doesn’t want you, but always remember, there are plenty of agents out there that YOU don’t want. If it takes more time to find a better match it’s worth it.


Jason said...

This is great advice Ken... great stuff.
Great advice from both you and her!!

Allison Williams said...

You're far further along in this field than I am. But I'm a published playwright - one of my plays is among the 10 most produced plays in the USA (on a list with David Ives and Neil Simon) the high school market. I've chosen to specialize in a market where I don't need an agent, I don't need a production in New York, and if I follow some basic parameters while being as creative as I want, I can sell a lot of scripts and get a lot of productions.

Obviously, if the path you want is the one that leads to Broadway, you need an agent. But if what you - or any other playwright - want is to make money while people enjoy doing and watching your work all over the world, agents and New York are irrelevant.

Other fields of playwriting this might apply to - the Christian market, the corporate event market, and colleges.

Perhaps a venue for you to get your play on its feet and have a decent production done - that doesn't poison your chances in New York - is to get yourself invited in as a college guest artist to do a production of your script with their students. Your credentials would probably open a lot of doors there.

You've probably already thought of this, but maybe it will be helpful to some other people :)


Allison Williams
Author, Drop Dead Juliet!

Dhppy said...

Jeez Ken. I'm not sure if this is encouraging or not.

Ray Richmond. said...


This diss of you by some elitest horn-rimmed twit is so appalling I'm practically speechless. The idea that a MASH writer with Emmy credentials would be told he's on par with a twentysomething novice Is beyond absurd, entering surrealism territory. I've about had it with bullshit ageism. The truth is, the New Yotk stage doesn't deserve you. You're too good for 'em. Chin up, and please invite me to your next reading.

Sarah said...

Your most hilarious post yet. Talk about Curb Your Enthusiasm...

Laura Deerfield said...

Broadway is strangling itself. Hopefully it will come up for air soon.

Adam Szymkowicz said...

It's weird that getting a foothold in one world doesn't really help in the next. I'm a playwright trying to break the other way. Not sure how it's done, but I did manage to get good tv agents. But i don't know what happens next.

Theatre is such a crazy world though. It doesn't really have logic to it. And it does take FOREVER to get anywhere. And even then, it's not where you want to be.

Hope the reading went well. Oddly enough, the way to do it is to get celebrities in your reading. It changes things. You might have access to those actors in a way the normal playwright does not. (something to think about, perhaps.)

rob! said...

Back when I was first starting out as an artist, I tried to find an agent. After sending dozens of samples out, one woman I spoke to told me she "liked my work" but "It had no commercial appeal."

Cut to: a couple of years later, and I've done work for the NBA, Pitney Bowes, Camel, Popular Science, Time Out New York,ESPN Magazine, and dozens of others.

Maybe this was Beth B.'s sister?

Anonymous said...

Most agents, 99% are lazy and short-sighted. They only want to sign you if you are either already making money or are on the verge of making money. NEVER take an agents notes on anything. They work for you. Never feel that you are friends, you are not. Treat them like employees, not partners. And if I sound like some bitter writer who can't get an agent, I am a WORKING writer, for the last 22 years and am with one of the biggest agencies in town. But they are worthless. I make and have always made my own breaks. Bottom line, you really just need their letterhead for submissions.

David O'Hara said...

I wrote a spec for ER. A friend of mine work on the show (below the line). ER wouldn't read it.

A major agency read it, "Wonderful script! Get a couple of credits and come back. We'd like to represent you... after you get those credits"

The screenplay won some major writing competitions.

I get my work read without an agent. Just got signed to adapt a book.

WV: spelecte (Not far from select.)

Anonymous said...

I once did an internship for an agent in New York whose primary clients were theatrical playwrights (he branched out into Film when some of his clients started doing movies).

One of my primary jobs was reading spec scripts/plays. Going in, I imagined that there were all these brilliant, artistic playwrights and screenwriters out there whose work was not getting produced because they were not 'commercial' enough.

To my shock, after working there about a year I can confidently say that 98% of what was submitted was crap. Even sadder, pretty much all the new work by the established clients the agent DID have was pretty lackluster too.

Every once in awhile, some people with real talent DID submit work, but in those cases there were problems. I remember one youngish actor submitted a play that was absolutely terrific 2/3 of the way through, then completely fell apart. The agent let his assistant (who I answered to) and I to ask him in for a meeting to try and feel out if he was aware of the problem in his play and if he would be open to changing it.

He was pretty adamant that he would not change a word - so we said 'no thanks'.

In another case, we got a blind submission by a young screenwriter that was BRILLIANTLY written but had some major 2nd act plot structure problems. The agent knew though, that the writing was good enough to gloss over the deeper issues and that it would be snapped up by Hollywood - which was indeed the case.

I came out of the experience with the opinion that film/theater are DESPERATELY hungry for great material - but that great material is very, very, VERY rare.

I do think if we had gotten a great play/screennplay by an older writer it would have been seriously considered, but since that never happened in my time there, I can't really say.

jbryant said...

About 8 years ago, after my writing partner and I got an episode of a Disney Channel show, we decided to query agents. We got exactly one meeting, with a boutique agent who clearly realized that our inability to pass for 25-year-olds would be a problem. Frustrated, we sent blind submissions of our Frasier and Malcolm specs to sitcom story editors.

The guy from Everybody Loves Raymond (who had been elevated to producer status by the time he contacted us) loved our work, asked to meet, bought us breakfast, invited us to the taping of the 100th episode, and sent our stuff to his agent at CAA with his strong recommendation. The agent said he wouldn't even read it because it's easier to poach successful writers from other agencies than it is to break new writers, regardless of quality, especially if they're no longer zygotes. I don't doubt that that's true, but you'd think the endorsement of a producer on the then-top-rated sitcom would carry a at least a scintilla of weight, wouldn't you?

Chris said...

Okay, as a person who still held out hope he could be a writer who got his work read or seen by people outside of his blood relations and inner circle of friends I will now go to the pharmacy and see about getting a inordinate amount of pills.

Seriously, is there any way to get "discovered"? Someone suggested getting your stuff on YouTube but that in like spitting into the Mississippi River and hoping your DNA is picked out of the Gulf of Mexico.

Anonymous said...

so now you have to be skinny and pretty to be able to indentify with characters on tv?

Annie said...

Hey Dad,

I'll trade you my Dramatist's Guild membership for your agent? C'mooooon. C'moooooon.


Wayne said...

When I wrote a play, agents told me my timing was off. So I'll write my next play during the Elizabethan era.

The Kenosha Kid said...

Beth B, in addition to being your pseudonym, is an actual person: a NY movie director I once worked for. In mid-eighties she made a movie called Salvation starring a then-unknown Viggo Mortensen.

D. McEwan said...

After the agent who got my first novel sold and published faked her own death, fled the country, was arrested, faked insanity, was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon (she ran her own mother down with her mother's car. THAT'S an agent!), and was deported to Canada (!), I was naturally in the market for a new literary agent for the next novel. My editor recommended a list of them, and I began submitting the new book to them.

I was, after all, published with a well-reviewed book whose sales, if not exactly setting the world on fire, nonetheless went into profit and made me royalties. (Teh agent's percentage of which sits in an escrow account where my ex-agent can't get at it without admitting she's not dead. She tried posing as her own fictional daughter, but found that, sans death certificate, no money for her.)

Rejection after rejection. One agent read the whole new book, and then suggested I write some gay romance novels. "Those I can sell." Perhaps, but I couldn't write them. I was really flummoxed by that one. She reads a book full of cynical black comedy, with a darkly-funny murder in EVERY chapter, and thinks I should write ROMANCE?

But the one who took the cake for me was like your ALMOST PERFECT fan. He told me how he LOVED my first book. How it was on the home book shelves of ALL of his closest friends, that it was a "something of a must" in his circle, and then turned me down, saying no one reads comic novels anymore. No one except all of his friends. "I love it, but I can't sell it."

Meaning, he would, in fact, have to SELL it, not just hand it to a mill grinding out 20 identical books a year.

Agents. Feh! You can only get an agent if you don't need one.

WV: inhag. Someone is having sex with Roseanne!

LisaB said...

I have to agree with Anon 2/29 12:59p . . . I can see a writer wanting to describe Beth B. to paint a picture of the scene, but comparing her to Nancy Travis in that way was a hurtful dig.

It seems like there was plenty of material to work with to expose Beth as annoying, shallow and snotty. Why devolve into the superficial/trivial by insulting her appearance? It's all the more disconcerting coming from a writer who's complaining about being treated poorly based partly on his age.

These attitudes about gender, looks and age really are deeply ingrained in our culture. The only way to try and get rid of them is to keep calling them out, even when they're coming from intelligent, funny, successful writers.

jbryant said...

In fairness, Ken said that Beth B claimed that she was often mistaken for Nancy Travis. So the humor is in the disconnect between that statement and reality. Ken's description of the woman didn't strike me as anything but objective -- no loaded words like grotesque or repugnant.

D. McEwan said...

"LisaB said...
I have to agree with Anon 2/29 12:59p . . . I can see a writer wanting to describe Beth B. to paint a picture of the scene, but comparing her to Nancy Travis in that way was a hurtful dig. "

The woman said "she was often confused for our star, Nancy Travis," i.e., that she LOOKS LIKE Nancy Travis. Therefore, the fact that she in no way resembles Nancy Travis is relevant to her delusional state.

If I go around telling people that I am often mistaken for Beyonce Knowles, the fact that I'm a 58 year old, overweight, out-of-shape, white man is relevant to my delusion.

So back off, PC police.

WV: micutis. A term used by self-centered crooks when dividing up the loot.

Michael Taylor said...

Agents, schmagents - dude, I just want Nancy Travis...

Cap'n Bob said...

Twenty years ago I sent an agent a ms. for a private eye novel. She wrote back praising it to high heaven, laying the flattery on with a trowel until my ego nearly exploded. But the book didn't sell. I rewrote it, changing the p.i.'s profession and sold it myself. But I still wanted an agent and wrote the woman. She read the ms. I sent and said she didn't want to represent it. Agents are insane.

PS: I sold the sequel, too. It'll be out next March.

NickPennington said...

Don't feel bad. She wouldn't even give Gelbart a meeting.

Paulina Shur said...

I read your stories with horror. I have just finished a two-act stage play for seven old actresses, hoping old actresses would be interested in getting interesting roles. How can I start finding agents in New York City?

Thanks, Paulina

Unknown said...

So what did you do? Did you get an agent? Was the play staged?

Christina said...


I stumbled across your blog. I too have met with Beth B. Three times. And run into her at Humana and other huge theatrical festivals. She represents a lot of my friends. She is incredibly nice and generous with her time, but is the ultimate when it comes to leading a writer on. And, she does look like Nancy. I worked at Warner Brothers for the producer of So I Married an Ax Murderer. LOL. Good times.

Unknown said...

Shakespeare would not get an agent, let alone a production. Too many characters, too expensive to mount. Arthur Miller said the same about his own plays before he died.

I have plays which have been raved about as groundbreaking and brilliant by some of the geniuses of our time; and they can't get a production, let alone an agent. And without the agent, the MFA, the list of "prizes" what bullshit, eh? no production--and without the production no agent. Catch 22.

Maybe after Armageddon. Right now it is the same stories told over and over again, to the same self absorbed bourgeoisie and pseudo intelligentsia, produced by and agented by unimaginative mediocrities. When's the last time you saw anything on stage that moved, provoked, or changed you? and this MFA youth cult is ridiculous. Ibsen, Sophocles, how many wrote their best or even started writing plays until mid life and beyond--and what degrees from what regurgitative college did they have?

Unknown said...

Wm Shakespeare would not get an agent or a production. Too many actors, too expensive.
Mediocrities rule theater today.