The business of agents is often a mystery to the artists they represent. Every young writer scrambles to find representation, but once they’ve landed it, what the agent actually does can be hard to figure out.
For Charles Kopelman and Sarah Douglas, who head up the literary arm of Abrams Artists Agency in New York, the job is “very relationship-oriented,” as Kopelman puts it. “You really do function in a lot of ways as an agent: You play mother, father, and shrink.”
The agency represents such established writers as David Mamet, Tracy Letts, David Ives, and Maury Yeston, as well as up-and-comers like Hansol Jung and Michael R. Jackson. American Theatre sat down with Kopelman and Douglas to discuss what goes on behind closed doors to get a play from a writer’s hard drive to a developmental hub to a resident theatre, maybe even to Broadway.
“One of the hardest things in theatre is the collaborative nature,” says Douglas. “And one of the things we say to clients—especially young ones—is know who to listen to. Who has a perspective that jibes with what your perspective is? Whose criticism is worth sitting up and taking notice? Whose praise should be ignored?”
What are the basic things that an agent does for writers?
Sarah Douglas: One of the basic things one does is introduce a playwright and a body of work to the theatre community.
Charles Kopelman: Agents often become involved in the development of work and finding those theatres—whether that be literary managers or artistic directors, who might respond so a specific writer’s voice. So it’s communicating with those folks, knowing what they’re looking to put into their season or into their development programs, and then really being very supportive of writers who get selected for those programs. And those programs extend far beyond a specific theatre to institutions, like the Sundance Institute, which exist specifically for development.
How do you find new writers?
Douglas: It’s a fabric that has a lot to do with the exchange and interaction with other theatre artists, development organizations, and other clients.
Kopelman: And graduate writing programs. There’s not a lot of secrecy to it, because as agents we are competitive and we are all out trying to make those inroads. You develop relationships like anything else. So a literary manager might say, “I’ve just read a really interesting young new writer, and I think you might really respond to them.” It’s all very responsive. Five different agents can all read the same play, and not every person will have the same response to it.
Douglas: And then, of course, the artist has a say in terms of what their evaluation is of what they need. A lot of it is very instinctive.
When you’re first signing an emerging writer, are you looking for them to already have had a few readings and productions?
Kopelman: You know, whenever you say, “Here are the rules,” you’ll come along somebody who doesn’t apply to those rules. One of the other agents here and I were invited to see an actor/writer’s work at NYU. She’s written one play. We went to see it, and we went, “Oh my God, she’s terrific,” and we’re working with her.
Douglas: One way that the business has shifted is that artists are smarter. They’re using networking—digital and otherwise—to find out what’s going on. And so there’s that interchange of artists looking for agents at an earlier stage of development, and the competition among agents to sign writers. Because if you say, “Oh you’re in school, you’re too young, you don’t have enough of a body of work,” sometimes you lose that chance to build that relationship when it most needs building.
When you have a new client, what are the first things you go over with them?
Douglas: Of course, I want to immerse myself in what the work is. Then it’s making a game plan for how to get the work out and what work to get out—and finding out the relationships that are already in place.
Kopelman: I always say, “You don’t know everybody I know, and I don’t know everybody you know.” So roundness of communication is essential. We want them to know that a) we’re accessible, and b) we want to be a part of the earliest steps. One of the things we talk to clients about is you have to be a self-starter. You have to be out there. You have to making relationships.
Is an agent’s role different for an emerging writer versus a mid-career writer, and how so?
Douglas: Well, you don’t have to go through the groundwork with the established writers. If I call up Lynne Meadow and say, “David Ives has a new play, would you like to read it?” it’s not a problem.
Kopelman: We’re very fortunate to have many clients who we have represented for more than 20 years. So it’s very different than the course that I will take with this new writer, who we’ve just signed out of NYU who needs to be introduced to the world.
Do you encourage playwrights to take jobs writing for television?
Douglas: We love writers to go to television. They love to make the money, and we love to make it also.
Kopelman: We work very closely with our L.A. colleagues, so there is a really seamless transition.
Douglas: We relish their success, but my love is theatre. There’s a certain sacrifice that young writers make in terms of their own artistic voices…
Kopelman: I’m not sure I 100 percent agree with that. I think that there are certain sacrifices, I guess, but there are other artistic voices that are coming out in television that I think are pretty substantial. And I think there’s some writing on television that’s as good as anything I’ve heard anywhere.
How has the business changed for you over the years?
Douglas: It’s the economics of the business. And producers—when I say producers, I mean producers who pull together the creative elements that make up a show and the financial elements that make a show possible—need the producing skills that need to be applied to make all of that work together: the management, the advertising. There are a handful of producers who actually produce and there is a cadre of people who write checks.
Kopelman: You’re talking specifically commercial.
Douglas: Yeah. And so have lost the producer-writer relationship, where the producer says, “I think you have talent. I want to work with you.” Now producers say, “Oh, I like that play. When you have another reading, let me come and hear it.”
Has it changed at all in terms of nonprofits?
Kopelman: Well, more and more comes from the nonprofit sector, which is great, because they can put everything through development. I mean, what’s the last new, original play that was just produced on Broadway?
Kopelman: Okay, there’s one. And there’s the example. [David Mamet’s] represented by people sitting on the other side of this glass…
Douglas: And with [producer] Jeffrey Richards, they have that relationship. There’s a perfect example. I know a lot of people who would die for a relationship like that.
What are some things you wish artists knew about what agents do?
Kopelman: There are those writers who want to know every time you’ve submitted their play and every time you’ve heard back. And I have said to several writers over the course of time, “If I were to tell you every time I submitted your play and every time I got a rejection, I wouldn’t have time to do my job.” Because there’s a constant flow of information, especially now with the speed we communicate with the world. So we do a lot of stuff behind the scenes that we don’t really necessarily tell them.
Douglas: My mentor Flora Roberts said, “Clients don’t really know what agents do.” And that is a struggle. I remember one season she looked up at the sky after getting another playwright’s bad review in The Times and said “My clients are not doing their job.” Meaning, she was doing her work—getting things out, getting them produced—but they weren’t writing sustainable, viable plays. And I have a longtime client, who is wonderful, and he says, ”Please—my agent talks. I write.” The other way around, you wouldn’t be happy. But there are those clients who have trouble trusting the agent to deal with the business, and they cross the line in terms of conducting the business. We don’t cross the line in terms of being artistic. I would like all the clients to have a little more trust in the process.