Saturday, April 24, 2010

Even I can't get an agent

As I head into New York from Washington D.C. with the Dodgers I'm reminded of this delightful NY rejection from my storied past.

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. “Seusical? Thousand Clowns with Tom Sellick? 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.”

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.


Cap'n Bob said...

I had an agent who loved my first book but couldn't sell it. Years later I sold it myself but, since I still needed an agent, asked her to represent me. She read the book again and said she didn't like it. I can only assume her tastes had improved during the interval. Or, she's crazy.

Jeffrey Leonard said...

Ken...This is the first time I have realized that reading your blog every day since day ONE has its drawbacks. Today's blog is a RERUN...shame on you. :-) Just kidding. You are allowed one now and then...

By Ken Levine said...

Yes Jeffrey, it's a re-post from over three years ago. I've picked up a lot of new readers in that time. Why should they miss out on the good stuff???

Jeffrey Leonard said...

Ken...I wasn't picking on you. I think it's amazing that you can come up with something clever every day of the week. Thank you for always putting a smile on my face. P.S. I realize you are on the road with the Dodgers right now. However, aren't you impressed that I would catch you.

normadesmond said...

yes, i'm new here an enjoyed your rerun. btw, is the play still in a drawer?

Dave Creek said...

Ken, don't worry about the rerun. The comment about "skipping a step" is one of my favorites of all time from your blog.

Paul said...

If something's a rerun, you should mention at the top that it's a rerun. Blogging faux pas!

blogward said...

I liked this post even better three years down the line. So there.

WV: thpacti = Portuguese Spackle

Michael said...

Except this is a repost of a repost! A quick blog search shows you first reran this on March 28 last year... (still a great blog though)

GabbyD said...

so what happened to the play? :)

Unknown said...

Thank you for writing this, Ken.

I started reading this entry but didn't really like it. My advice to you: post a couple more entries and eventually you will build an audience. Maybe I'll pick you up as a blog I'll read then.

richard Y said...

Even with it being a rerun (yes I noticed) it is still GREAT information - as usual.

Mary Stella said...

I'm over 50 so my memory isn't as good. This post was a great fresh reminder.

Dudleys Mom said...

Oh, thank goodness, other people noticed this was a rerun. I thought my early Alzheimers was acting up again. Guess I didn't need to take all that Aricept after all. I'm a little dizzy right now...better cut this short.

Charles H. Bryan said...

Not a rerun for me; I enjoyed it,as much as reading about another person's frustration can be enjoyable.

Also, I dislike complaining about quality entertainment that I get for free. Thank you writing this blog, Ken.

These posts make me VERY appreciative of good produced work, because it seems that there is every roadblock conceivable.

William Goldman's famous quote seems to remain ever true. "Nobody knows anything."

A. Buck Short said...

I’m with Dudleys Mom’s 0.3 version of Mary Stella’s 0.2 version of Jeffrey Leonard’s Agent 0.1. I hadn’t been certain I’d seen this before until confirmed by at least two credible sources – but that’s the old reporter in me. This was all worth it again even just for “persona non representata.” And speaking of the Latinate, as another example of the issues facing aging boomers, two weeks ago I was staring at a notepad trying to remember what those medications were whose names I had scribbled down. Only to finally realize they were shrubs I wanted to pick up at Home Depot.

Simon H. said...

I prefer to look at it as "The Best of the Ken Levine Blog". Give him a break, he gives us new pieces probably 360-362 days out of the year. The sad day will be when he pulls a Carson and does it only three times a week.

MadAsHell said...

You know I love you, Ken, but I concur with Beth.

New York/Hollywood isn't a two way street. Sometimes, TV shows will look at the resumes of produced playwrights and assume they can write for television. The reverse never happens. Call me a New York elitist, but theatre involves a completely different kind of story-telling. Great Hollywood credits are no guarantee that you can write something a curtain will fall on.

So, Beth's right: You don't get to skip a step. She read your play and deemed it a good first step in a four step process. Nothing you say about her leads me to believe she's not the right agent for you.

I'd love to hear more of your experience with the musical (that's what I write).

By Ken Levine said...


I respectfully completely disagree. Good story telling is good story telling and television writers wrestle with stories week after week. TV comedy writers also see runthroughs every day and learn to spot problems and fix them that night.

That is a skill that very few playwrights have because they're rarely put in that position. You may take six months to write a play and when you get it on its feet are you able (or even WILLING) to throw out whole scenes or sections and have replacement scenes ready the next morning? Give me a staff of TV writers any day.

And again, it's not that playwrights are any less talented. They just don't develop that skill the way we TV guys in the trenches do.

That play in question goes into production the end of the year.

Anonymous said...

Do you get any residuals for repeat posts?

(This is not a question for Friday)

B Smith

Anonymous said...

Dear Ken,
(my name is Art)

i noticed the re-post (who cares)... read and enjoyed it again because it warranted it.
I hope it is not bad luck in the theater to wish you a Smash success with your play! Because I Will if it isn't but won't if it is:) Art

Chazz said...

I love this story but I worry about that last line. Did you find a good match with a theatrical agent?

Malachy Walsh said...

I remembered this post the first time around - and it's just as good the second time. Since the original, a book's been published outlining just how screwed up the theatrical world is with regard to new writing and new writers. It's called OUTRAGEOUS FORTUNE.

Anyway, I'm guessing you ignored Beth's advice and pushed your play - which of course is the right thing to do. Where's it going up?

Anonymous said...

I feel your pain Ken...try playing an Old Jewish Woman named Ester Goldberg or doing a LIVE show about PAUL LYNDE...and the agents have no clue WHO he was.

louise said...

I write a blog/diary (a Bl-iary) called

I even have a little fan base who get mighty fussy if I miss a day.

My question to Ken is this; I really enjoy writing and think that my Bl-iary would cheer people up if it were run in a newspaper but have no idea where to begin.

Would you have any advice?