I was asked an interesting question at a masterclass yesterday – Was it better to have a bad agent than no agent at all?

My instinctive reaction was to say that an agent was such an important part of an actor’s life that not having one made the job impossible. But on the way home, looking through some CV’s for a new production, I noticed several from certain agents which were incomplete; no date of birth or playing age, no heights given, no singing range etc. Where other agents had bothered to note at the top of each CV which role they were submitting their actors for, these bad agents hadn’t bothered, leaving me to guess myself where best they fitted – a tough quest given the important information wasn’t available. A good agent knows what we need to see and what information to include, and let’s be clear (before I discuss the negatives) there are many, many excellent agents out there. They aren’t the ones to worry about. It's the bad 'ins we need to discuss here.

For a musical, it’s not uncommon for Casting Directors to receive thousands of submissions, although less so for a play. I tend to first go through them all quickly and grade them based on who I do or don’t want to see, based on the criteria I've discussed with the creative team. There’s also a rejection pile, and that’s where these incomplete CV’s ought to go - why, when I have so many to choose from, should I have to do the agents job and find out the basic facts about an actor? Thankfully, I’m a little more tolerant than most and so these incomplete CV’s go on a pile of their own; the ‘if I have time, I’ll go through this lot’ pile. My concern is that I may miss someone, but ultimately I may not have time to do this, or I may have already filled my appointment slots with those with proper CV’s. What a shame that potentially wonderful talent is not being given an opportunity, simply because the agency CV is not up to date, incorrect or missing important information.

The next stage is rather more annoying – when an agent pushes a client who they claim to have certain skills, and then the artist is in the room and can’t do any of them. For example, when casting the 50th Anniversary productions of West Side Story, the role of Tony had to sing the top Bb in Maria. This was on the casting breakdown, and was repeated again when setting up meetings. Specific agents begged and begged to have their boys seen. Well, I don’t know every actor; no casting director does and so there’s an element of trust between me and the agent in this situation. Most I can trust, and they are right. But what about that agent who goes on and on about how perfect his client is, only for me to give them a valuable audition slot and they are completely inadequate? Not only have they duped me into wasting everyone's time, as well as taking the opportunity of someone else, but it makes me reconsider whether I will trust them (or their other clients again).

There have also been several agents who have been so abusive during the casting process that I’ve cancelled their clients appointments and refused to see anyone from their agency in the future. Some of their clients I’ve phoned directly and suggested they move agent. We all get heated sometimes, but none of us are in this business to be abused or insulted.

I say again that many agents are fantastic, work tirelessly for their clients and are a pleasure to deal with. Such an agent is invaluable. But a poor agent is a big problem. It undoubtedly takes a certain person to represent themselves; one needs tenacity, a hard skin, be proactive in self-promotion skills and a business head which can be separated from their raw talent. And that’s just the start. So, I’ve changed my mind; poor representation is detrimental and scary as it is, sometimes it’s wiser to move to someone else or go it alone.