Pursued By A Bear: “How can I get an agent without having produced plays?”

Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor.  He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.   

“I would like advice on how to approach agents with only partial work and no published/performed plays (if that’s even possible).  Thank you.”

In the interests of full disclosure I’d like to say I do not currently have an agent, nor have I ever had an agent in the past. This may mean I’m poorly qualified to answer this question but I’ll give it a shot anyway as you asked.

I can confirm it’s absolutely possible to get agents interested in your work without being a published/performed playwright. I’ve exchanged a lot of emails and phone calls with agents in the past after they ‘ve seen ten minute excerpts of my unfinished plays at scratch nights or read first drafts I’ve sent them.

You can definitely open a dialogue with many agents based on the flimsiest evidence of your talent.

However, the obvious caveat here is that, in my experience, it probably won’t lead anywhere at this stage.

There are three reasons I’ve deduced for this:

  1. After reading/seeing an excerpt of your work, if an agent likes what they’ve seen, they will always ask to read the full script. You don’t have one.
  2. Agents want to know your plays will sell, and the only real way to know this is to see them in front of an audience and gauge peoples’ reactions. You’ve sent a half-finished script or invited them to a ten minute reading, this is not enough evidence.
  3. Agents want to know you have what it takes to be a great writer. They want to know you can finish a script, they want to know you can fill a venue, above all they want to know you’re dedicated. Again, you sent them half a script or invited them to a ten minute reading.

I don’t mean to sound overly negative or make getting an agent seem like an impossible task. But the fact is, getting an agent isn’t easy. It’s also not the solution to all your problems.

Many playwrights, including myself in the past, labour under the misconception that an agent will do everything they don’t want to do themselves. You want to write plays, you don’t want to negotiate with theatres, iron out publishing deals, promote shows or network with elderly men who think turtleneck jumpers give them an air of sophistication. Because all of those things are time-consuming, boring and not within your skillset.

Think about it though, why would an agent do all those things for you? Out of philanthropy? Out of love for your work? Because they’re a big fan of your Primark wardrobe?

First and foremost, like everyone else, agents need to pay their bills.

Without meaning to cast unfair aspersions on anyone, the majority of agents probably also love theatre and genuinely enjoy boosting the careers of great writers. But they still want their ten percent.

And the cold, hard truth is that there are enough good writers out there for agents to be picky. If the next writer has a proven track record of finishing plays and attracting audiences, why would an agent pick you over them, even if your work shows greater promise, when you haven’t done anything yet?

Despite what I’ve just said, if your excerpt or first draft is impressive a lot of agents will open a dialogue with you. Don’t get too excited.

This is a scenario I’ve commonly found myself living:

I have a 10-15 minute piece read/performed at a scratch night where some agents are in attendance.

A few days later an agent emails me something along the lines of; “I really loved your piece, can I read the full script?”

If I have the full script ready I send it to them. If not, I promise to send it in the future and send them something else for now.

Several weeks/months later I get another email; “I really liked the script you sent, what are you working on now?”

I reply, telling the agent about a new play I’m writing or inviting them to see my next piece if there’s anything coming up soon.

I don’t hear from the agent again for another few months then I receive something along the lines of; “Thanks for the invite, sorry I couldn’t make it. Do you have anything else coming up?”

I fill them in again, and the cycle continues.

My observations here are based entirely on my personal experience and a lot of what I’m about to say is guesswork.

I think in the majority of cases an agent will contact you when they’re thinking of dropping another writer from their books, or someone’s quitting or they have a space coming up for any other reason.

At that point they want to know what you’ve got so they can decide whether you’d be a suitable client to fill their slot (Oops, that sounded dirty). They’re probably also talking to several other writers who’ve been on their radar in the past.

How do they choose between you and someone else?

It goes back to my previous point; agents have bills to pay. They want writers whose work will sell. Hopefully selling coincides with being good, but not necessarily always.

If you’re an unknown quantity sending them an unfinished script in the hope they’ll see talent, you will always lose out to a writer who has put in the work to get a finished play produced under their own steam. Maybe that writer got there by submitting an unsolicited script, or they’ve built up a relationship with a theatre after participating in a scratch night or competition. Whatever they might have done, if they’ve had a script in front of an audience and sold tickets, they’re ahead of you.

Because they’ve shown they have what it takes to be successful, and they’re willing to work for it.

So you can guess what I’m about to say now.

You need some notable success under your belt before the majority of agents will consider taking you on as a client.

It’s kind of a catch-22 situation because you feel like you need an agent to be successful, but now here I am saying you have to be successful to get an agent.

And it begs the question; if you can make your own success, why do you need an agent at all?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not telling you agents are all a waste of space, I don’t believe that’s true. What I want to say is that you should treat signing with an agent like you would any other business deal. Because that’s what it is. A business deal.

Agents provide a service in exchange for 10% of your earnings.

When you’ve had a bit of success it’s likely agents will start to approach you. The more success you’ve had the more they’ll want you and the more powerful your position will be.

It will then be up to you to weigh the benefits of what they’re offering against the money they want to take in exchange.

Although I don’t have any personal experience, I’ve spoken to writers with wildly different stories about agents. Some will say they signed with an amazing agent who does everything in their power to promote them and negotiate the best possible deals. Others will say they signed with a completely useless agent who pockets 10% and gives the square root of a mosquito’s anus in return.

I like to hope the useless agents are few and far between but that’s entirely based on foolish optimism, I haven’t conducted a survey.

If you’re able to get far enough alone for agents to start noticing you I see no reason why you couldn’t continue to build a career by yourself. However, a good agent will take some of the workload on, giving you more time to devote to writing and generally making your life easier.

Right now I think your best bet is to forget about agents altogether and devote your time to finishing a play and getting it produced. You currently have no leverage, there’s no hard evidence of your talent.

Build yourself a reputation and the agents will start coming to you. Then keep building until they stop beating around the bush and offer you a deal. Then decide if their deal is what you need. If it isn’t, keep going by yourself until someone else offers you a better deal.

And remember, getting an agent isn’t a fast track or shortcut or easy route to the top. Yes, they might take the tedious contract negotiations off your hands, and help your scripts bypass the slush pile. But your agent will expect you to hold up your end of the bargain, which will mean writing regular masterpieces and promoting yourself to anyone who’ll listen. If anything, a good agent should push you to work harder than you do already.

Have a question or problem you’d like to send in?  Email advice@londonplaywrightsblog.com and keep your eyes peeled to see if the answer turns up on our site!

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