Why you need an agent

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Students from Qld Academy of Excellence in Musical Theatre at Griffith University in their own production of 'Urine Town'. 

OLIVIA STEWART explains the vital role agents play in a dancer’s career.

So you’ve done the hard work and are ready to pursue your dream of being a professional performer… the first thing to realise is that no matter how good you are, you’ve only taken the first step.

Auditioning is just one part of the process. You’ll also need an agent.

The most basic reason is that while social media has made it much easier to find out about castings directly, some briefs are sent only to agents in a vetting process that assumes represented talent will meet a required standard.

But the function and benefit of an agent representing you extend far beyond just finding you work. “They provide valuable industry knowledge and connections, and it’s important to respect their role in your career,” notes Professor Paul Sabey, who directs one of the country’s most successful training grounds, the Queensland Academy of Excellence in Musical Theatre at Griffith University.

The Academy (under Queensland Conservatorium’s banner until last year) is now arguably the country’s foremost musical theatre training ground. Since producing its first graduates just over a decade ago, numerous alumni have been employed prominently across the industry – currently, Beauty and the Beast stars Shubshri Kandiah (Belle) and Jackson Head (Gaston), and Opera Australia favourites Billy Bourchier and Kimberley Hodgson, who played Tony and Anita in West Side Story straight off the company’s Miss Saigon tour.

Paul Sabey

Agents (and managers – more on them shortly) have a business skill set that generally performers both lack and don’t want to have to acquire or apply. They can make sure you’re being offered fair and appropriate payment in keeping with industry awards that also set working conditions for rehearsals and performances.

Depending on your role they may be able to negotiate rates and terms for the number of performances, their duration and the length of your engagement. They’ll also negotiate arrangements for publicity responsibilities and arrangements (if any).

After reviewing the employment contract your agent will administer it and the payment arrangements.

An agent’s fee for performing these services is capped at 10%, and can only be charged on gross employment income; there are several types of payments that are excluded. (Be aware that management agreements are a different arrangement – you agree to pay a higher fee in return for duties beyond the core activities an agent performs. As these rates are often 15-20%, always seek further guidance before committing.)

Because there is no uniform national legislation governing agents, the Resources section of the performers’ union MEAA (Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance) website is essential reading. You’ll find fact sheets listing registered agents in each state/territory, what they can and can’t charge for, a sample contract and other vital information as to both parties’ rights and obligations. www.meaa.org/resources

The process of finding a reputable and suitable agent is definitely made easier when your school invites a selection to student showcases. Most accredited tertiary courses will do so for their graduands’ end-of-year performance. Professor Sabey reports that it’s a highly fruitful process for each Academy cohort, adding that in the rare instance representation isn’t secured, the Academy will act as the graduate’s agent for their first professional year.

The director’s advice for building the foundation of a successful career involves three Rs: resources, relationships and research. So even if your school hasn’t narrowed down the field for you, using those tools simplifies sifting through the agent list. Agencies vary widely in their reputations, calibre of talent, areas of specialisation and size. For example, those that canvass for people without training and experience are often extras agencies, although some of these will have a separate section representing professional talent.

Word of mouth and website trawling are the two most effective starting points when it comes to working out who might be the right agent for you and your skill set.

Past graduates are a perfect source of reliable and relatable practical advice, Professor Sabey affirms. Whether you want to do musical theatre, or commercial dance, start by asking former students and teachers for recommendations. Go to agents’ websites and look up who’s on their books – are there young artists working in your field who started out like you.

Once you’ve narrowed down your top choices to approach, a headshot and showreel – a video of four or five segments demonstrating your skills – are your selling tools (along with a CV including your training and experience, however brief), especially if an agent hasn’t seen you perform. This is another area technology is making more accessible and affordable.

While professional photographers specialising in artist headshots will ensure yours ticks all the boxes, if your budget is limited, a smartphone and an AI portrait app might do for starters – use top talents’ headshots as a guide, and make sure you still look like you!

Even better, students no longer have to spend thousands on a showreel with high-end production values. “It’s changing a bit,” Professor Sabey observes. “Before they wanted (something) quite detailed and students were making these really glitzy expensive showreels. Some agents I’ve spoken to are now saying just stand in front of your phone and keep it simple.

“It’s only whetting an appetite. That’s all you're doing. ‘Do you want to see more of me?’ That’s something that is important (to remember).”

Students from Qld Academy of Excellence in Musical Theatre at Griffith University performing 'Grease' at the Qld Performing Arts Centre. Photo by Darren Thomas.
Students from QAEMT at Griffith University performing 'Grease' at the Qld Performing Arts Centre. Photo by Darren Thomas.

It’s also worthwhile asking your contacts for specific information about industry practices – for example, what are reasonable rates for portfolio photos and showreels? Agencies can’t charge a joining fee, but find out what other costs may be involved in being on their books. Some may seek to augment their base commission through the fees they charge for associated services like photos and showreels when they take you on. Ask exactly how much so you can compare, and also whether you can supply your own.

Building an industry network can prove a decisive factor in getting both the representation and jobs you want.

“That connection with the industry is vital, and it’s the best thing,” Professor Sabey declares. The second – and sometimes overlooked – component of “showbusiness” is an important focus of the Academy’s final year preparations. All students participate in individual career planning meetings and industry liaison opportunities.

Workshops, masterclasses and forums held online and in-person connect the cohort with industry professionals – not only performers, but also producers, agents (talent and casting) and creative teams – who share their insight, experience and feedback. “Anything that connects them with people in the business is really going to be useful for them. You can do lectures, talk about it, but they really want to meet and greet and work with people who are in the business because that builds up connections and a real understanding of what it’s like.”

Once again, this is something you can also organise yourself. Even if it doesn’t come naturally to you, remember that this part of your job is as important as your ability to perform. “You can’t expect an agent to do all the work for you,” he stresses. “Sometimes the agent might not have had an audition notice sent to them or they missed it. You’re both part of a team. And an agent can’t get the job; you’re the one that’s got to turn up at the audition. So you need to keep your peak, and then keep getting better.”

Beyond your teachers and alumni, create opportunities to put yourself on the radar of industry professionals. Noting that “it’s about finding a few that you really want to build a relationship with”, Professor Sabey suggests attending a choreographer’s class regularly and getting to know them, or booking a coaching session with a show’s musical director.

Not only is social media a useful forum for asking questions, it can also enable connections that once would’ve been impossible, through Facebook community groups and following profiles or pages for agents, producers and artists. “Make sure you’re in some circle of friends, people in the business, social media platforms where people share – ‘Yep, they’ve got an audition for this.’”

Finally, in an era where triple threats are the norm, what will give you the edge is being a quadruple threat. That fourth essential skill, Professor Sabey explains, is being a good company member.

“It’s so important if you’re taking people on for 12-18 months (in a production),” he elaborates. “You know that talent-wise (our students) are all going to be individual, different, committed; I want to turn out good people who you want to work with. That’s why we invest a lot in helping develop the person as well. So far, so good.” 

This article first appeared in the April/May/June print issue of 'Dance Australia'. Subscribe or buy here or individual copies here. Print is for keeps!



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