Don’t Call Agents, Playwrights—They’ll Call You
Monday, September 21, 2015
By Sam Hurwitt
When a playwright becomes a playwright, one of the biggest and most obvious questions is, “How do I get my work seen?” Following almost immediately after that, possibly in the same breath, might be, “Do I need an agent? How do I get one?” As with a lot of big questions, the answer to that last one is more complicated than the questioner might think.
“I think the deal with agents is they’re going to find you,” says Lauren Gunderson, the San Francisco-based playwright named by American Theatre this week as the seventh most produced playwright nationwide at Theatre Communications Group member theatres this season (not including Shakespeare and holiday shows).
|Playwright Lauren Gunderson.
“For the most part, you actually can’t get an agent, you are gotten by an agent,” Gunderson adds. “Which I feel actually should release people’s worry about it. It’s going to happen when it happens. Any time and energy you’re spending on getting an agent, focus that on writing, getting your work done, connecting with artistic directors and literary managers, finding people who get your work, finding people who get your voice. That’s way better time spent than knocking on agents’ doors or sending random emails, because I think their antenna of when somebody’s ready for an agent is different than we feel it is when we start out writing. When I was in high school and writing, I thought, ‘I should get an agent!’ and I was like 18. I didn’t get one until I’d been writing for five, six, seven years. The truth is, you can always use an agent, but you don’t actually need one; your career isn’t going to be completely thwarted if you don’t have one.”
Berkeley’s Aaron Loeb, whose Glickman Award-winning dark comedy Ideation (published in Theatre Bay Area magazine, July/August 2014) plays New York’s 59E59 this season after premiering at San Francisco Playhouse (exactly as Gunderson’s Bauer did last year), had exactly the experience that Gunderson describes.
“I think like a lot of writers, I felt like I should get an agent as soon as I started getting produced,” Loeb says. “But in my early days of getting productions, there wasn’t really anybody particularly interested in representing me. There’s a pretty interesting dichotomy that’s emerged. Agents are reading everything that’s coming out of the top grad schools, and so a lot of people graduate from the top playwriting grad schools and get an agent almost right away. But for folks who pursued playwriting through a different path, you have to reach this point where there’s a lot of interest in your work, particularly in New York, and where the agents really see a reason why you need them. Because when you’re just getting small productions in one of the regional cities, a lot of them don’t a lot of reason why you’d need representation other than because you want it.”
|Playwright Aaron Loeb.
“I think somebody once told me that you get an agent when you’re ready to get an agent. While I didn’t quite understand what that means exactly, it did make sense once it happened,” says San Francisco native Lauren Yee, whose play in a word is crossing the country as a National New Play Network rolling world premiere while her Goodman Theatre commission King of the Yees plays the Goodman’s New Stages Festival this November.
A common experience seem to be that when a playwright’s career seems to be on the verge of taking off, agents come calling.
For Loeb, “It was when Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party won best production of the [New York] Fringe,” he says. “The production sold out at the Fringe before it even opened, and there was a lot of press about it. So that piqued the interest of several agents, and the agent I ended up working with, who I still work with today, he and I really hit it off when we talked. It happened very quickly. There’s no traction for many years and then suddenly it was very, very quick.”
“It was halfway through grad school when I had my first play, which was a commission from South Coast Rep, included in their Pacific Playwrights Festival,” Gunderson says. “George Lane, the head of the Creative Artists Agency, was in the audience—agents often go to these new play festivals—and told an up-and-coming agent, Corinne Hayoun, to chat with me. But the agents weren’t beating down my door; it was really just Creative Artists who talked to me. Luckily they’re a pretty amazing agency with a great reputation, so it was easy to say, ‘Yeah, great!’”
|Playwright Lauren Yee.
“After college, it was around the time when I was just starting to see my full-length work Ching Chong Chinaman get produced, and when I got my first full-length commission, in 2008 with PlayGround,” Yee says. “So I was just beginning to have contracts that mattered. I personally am not particularly great or interested in negotiating contracts, and so I was like, ‘Oh, it would be great if I had an agent.’ In 2009, as I was getting ready to go to grad school, I was doing a reading in Chicago, and the theatre that I was working with introduced me over email to Antje Oegel, who’s my agent right now. We didn’t meet because she was moving, but over the next year we would talk every so often. In 2010, I’d written another full-length play called in a word, and when I sent her that play, she almost immediately called me back and said she wants to represent me. I think with my agent it was about her reading the right play by me that convinced her that I could write more than one play and had a career ahead of me, but also that I was a writer that fit her aesthetic. It actually was good timing for me, because it was about the time when things started cooking and I got a bunch of smaller little productions. Then in grad school I continued to grow as a writer, and the kinds of opportunities I’ve had have continued to grow, too.”
San Francisco’s Christopher Chen, the Glickman Award-winning author of The Hundred Flowers Project (published in Theatre Bay Area magazine, July/August 2013), had a dramatically different experience, landing an agent at the very beginning of his career, when he wasn’t yet even thinking about getting one.
“I got really lucky,” Chen says. “My agent, Antje Oegel, had just started her own agency about four months before I met her. She was Chicago-based at the time, and I had just happened to have had a play reading at Silk Road Rising in Chicago of Into the Numbers, an early play of mine, and she just happened to see it. And she just happened to be in a zone where she was looking for new, young clients. So she saw the reading and she just signed me up the next day. This was back in 2009. Now she’s really huge, and I’ve slowly progressed with her. More than anyone else, she’s singlehandedly responsible for giving me all the national and international opportunities I’ve gotten.”
|Playwright Christopher Chen.
That last part is also an unusual sentiment among the playwrights I talked to. “For local theatres, it seems it’s very much about personal relationships,” Chen says. “I definitely hustle here in the Bay Area, because I care about this community. But I’ve now had productions around the country, and internationally too, and that simply would not have happened were it not for her. I don’t really hustle anymore for these gigs, because she just kind of sets them up for me. So a lot of my time does not have to go to hustling.” He adds with a laugh, “Or maybe it still does and I’m just being lazy!”
The network of existing contacts that an experienced agent brings to the table is obviously a huge plus. “The secret to a good agent,” Yee says, “is not so much that they’re great at sending plays out, but they’re good at knowing what the theatres want and will be able to send it at the right time and under the right circumstances, such that the literary staff and the artistic directors will actually open it up and read it.” But other playwrights say that doesn’t take the hustle off their hands.
“Once you have an agent, you don’t get to just kick back and let the productions roll in,” Gunderson attests. “You’re still going to be doing the exact same work as before, still trying to get your productions. A high number of productions happen because of my relationships and conversations. Even Facebook has gotten productions for me, because of conversations or articles I’ve posted. Even though agents are so wonderful in so many ways, you still have to do the work of being a good playwright and an active playwright and an active manager of your own career.”
“Every playwright I’ve talked to, the common thread is you have a belief that an agent is suddenly going to help you get produced everywhere, and that’s not true,” Loeb agrees. “Getting produced a lot takes a huge amount of work on the part of the playwright. The local person I point to is Lauren Gunderson. Lauren works tirelessly to get to know everybody in the American theatre. She’s a dynamo. She writes a lot, she works really hard on her writing and she also works really hard at collaborating with theatres, which is a huge part of the job that an agent can’t do.”
If he was at first interested in getting an agent for what he now says were the wrong reasons, what are the right reasons to have an agent?
“The most important aspect of agency is that you have somebody who is not you who is negotiating with the theatre,” Loeb says. “Quite often in a production you’re negotiating your contract with someone with whom you have an artistic relationship, and that gets really awkward. Having an agent dramatically eases that issue.”
|Playwright Marisela Treviño Orta.
San Francisco playwright Marisela Treviño Orta doesn’t have an agent and has been using the resources of the Dramatists Guild to help her negotiate her contracts. Now studying at the Iowa Playwrights Workshop, she’ll see her play The River Bride (published in Theatre Bay Area magazine, January 2015) produced at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival next spring.
“I haven’t thought about really looking for an agent, and I’ve been doing this for 10 years. Only now am I thinking, ‘Maybe,’” Orta says. “I remember when I first started asking that question of playwrights who had been at it longer than I had, one of the first things I heard was that having an agent won’t solve anything. I’m not interested in getting an agent just for the sake of having an agent, unless they’re willing to work as hard as I’m working to get work for me. Otherwise you’re giving somebody part of your income to just review your contracts.”
For playwrights without agents—or with them—the Dramatists Guild is an invaluable resource.
“As soon as you decide that you’re a dramatist, you should join the Dramatists Guild,” Loeb says. “The Dramatists Guild is the primary source I used for everything to figure out what works on submissions, to figure out contract stuff. There’s a book called The Stage Writer’s Handbook by Dana Singer, which is a book all about the legal construct of being a playwright. That book is what really helped me understand my relationship to the theatre in a different light than I had previously understood it, and that helped me in all contractual negotiations from then on.”
As for getting your work seen, “I always say that theatre is about relationships, it’s about who you know, and it’s true, because if people know you and they like you, then they’ll want to work with you,” Orta says. “I believe in building personal networks, and now more than ever with social media platforms, we have that ability to connect with theatres and decision-makers in ways that we haven’t before. I’ve found Twitter to be really helpful; I’ve actually had a couple of opportunities come that way, because you can network and get closer and get to know people. If I’m friends with somebody on Twitter long enough, then they’ll be like, ‘Hey, send me that play that you’ve been mentioning every so often!’”
The main thing emerging playwrights should be working on is writing—a lot—and exploring the many new-play opportunities there are in the Bay Area and around the country.
“As far as finding opportunities without agents, there’s a ton of them,” Gunderson says. “And frankly, most of them say ‘new play’ in their descriptions. You can find ones that say, ‘Please give me your unrepresented new plays! I want to read all the new plays!’ And big ones: the O’Neill, the Playwrights Festival here in San Francisco, there are a ton of companies and festivals that just want new plays.”
“It takes time to see any kind of headway,” Orta says. “Think about a career—it’s a marathon, not a sprint. So it’s about laying a foundation for that career. That means relationships; you have to build a network as well as your craft. And when it comes to developing your writing, submit to everything, say ‘Yes’ to a lot of things. You’ll be busy and spread thin for a while, but it allows you to meet a lot of people and get out there a bit. And then you can be a little more selective, you can pull back so you have more time to concentrate on your own projects.”
Instead of fretting about getting an agent, Gunderson says, “Focus all that energy on writing plays. And notice that is plural. Don’t just write the one, because if that’s not going to fit their season or their new play slot, they’re going to ask for another one, and you’re like, ‘But I do have one! It’s this one!’ Figuring out your voice, the people who you respect and want to work with ideally, your process of writing, your process of rehearsing—there’s so much to unpack when you’re finding yourself as a writer. Worrying about an agent is just not going to be a good use of your time. A good story, a really good story, is going to be the thing that changes people’s minds. It’s not going to be the cover letter. It’s not going to be the favor that someone owes you. It’s going to be a great play. So focus all your energy on writing as many great plays as you damn can.”
In the final analysis, Yee says, “An agent isn’t so much like a magic bullet as it’s like having a really popular friend that takes you to parties, you know?”
A freelance theatre critic for KQED Arts, the Marin Independent Journal and the San Jose Mercury News, Sam Hurwitt blogs at The Idiolect and is currently writing a Medea play for the San Francisco Olympians Festival.