Tips for getting support to maintain your mental and emotional health and communicating your needs with your agent
Acting can be a challenging industry when it comes to mental health. You may experience rejection, frustration, and moments when your next job feels like it’ll never come. That’s why it’s essential to have a relationship with your agent that lets you confide in them about your mental health issues without fear.
Spotlight spoke to agents Simon Pontin from Soundcheck Agency and J from JBR Creative Management about how you, as performers, can discuss your mental health and wellbeing with your agent, and what agents are doing to support their clients.
Hi Simon and J! What tips do you have for performers wanting to talk about their mental health with their agent?
Simon: I would encourage them to tell us as soon as possible if they’re struggling with anything. If you’re experiencing a life situation or something which may be impacting your ability to work (or audition), then the sooner you tell us, the easier it will be for us to help. The information you give us is confidential and we will then have a dialogue with you about the best course of action. That conversation might be about taking some time off so you can have some headspace to resolve whatever it is that’s causing the anxiety. I’d always say to clients, ‘Take that time, keep in touch, and we’ll be here when you get back’. I think performers have a concern that if they ask for what they need they might lose their agent, which is what we need to address.
Of course, I cannot speak for every agent. Every client will have different needs and every client/agent relationship is unique. I like regular contact with my clients. I encourage them to tell me how they’re doing, what we’re working on at the moment and where do we go next in their career.
J: I think we’re very okay with talking about physical problems in the industry, but when it comes to something that cannot be seen, there can be a stigma around discussing those non-physical issues. I think it’s important that agents have a list of resources that they can give to the client so that they can go and investigate it for themselves.
Some of the time I’m speaking to performers who are feeling anxious going into an audition, and often what they’re experiencing are those very natural and normal feelings of nerves and vulnerability. And, of course, that state of vulnerability is exactly where you need to be as a performer. So I think it’s important that we teach drama students how to harness those very normal and natural feelings, so they can recognise when they are having an experience that’s perhaps not normal or natural for them.
What can agents and the industry do to make the transition from drama school into the industry a little bit easier?
J: There are techniques that can be taught and learned (and practised). I think normalising being in therapy would be hugely helpful for us as an industry but also making that therapy readily and cheaply available.
There are very few industries that are steeped in this mythology that ‘the show must go on’, with an emphasis on showing that people are ‘happy’. We’ve seen it recently in the West End with these understudies and swings stepping in (sometimes with very little rehearsal), and I have a concern around how safe that working environment is. We need to always start rehearsing understudies from the beginning of any rehearsal process, because if you don’t feel physically safe then that’s also going to affect your mental wellbeing.
How can performers help to create more transparency with their agent around their mental health and wellbeing?
Simon: The key is communication. That’s what all agent/performer relationships come down to. Even in the most basic terms, such as when you’re available to audition, when you might be going on holiday, or if there are specific jobs that you do/don’t want to do. That communication is vital, and out of that communication comes trust. It works both ways as well. It’s not about them just contacting me, it’s also about me keeping in regular contact with my clients and touching base with them.
If an agent or client isn’t getting what they need from the relationship for whatever reason, what can they do to redesign that relationship?
Simon: [Have an honest conversation about what they need more/less of.] Some people don’t like talking on the phone. They’d rather send a message or an email and vice-versa. For some people, self-taping can make them feel anxious. If I know that a client is worried about self-taping, I can say, “Don’t worry about it, we can get this filmed for you, you can go here,” etc. The more I know a client, the more I know what might be concerning them. I have a client who is dyslexic, and when I send him big scripts, he gets understandably anxious about them. He finds it difficult reading in auditions, so he prefers to learn the script. I know that it’s not a good idea to send him a load of scripts out of the blue and say, “Learn this!”
Unless I know what the problems are, I can’t support them or be that ally. If I know that someone needs to be at home, then I can find them work nearer where they live. It may well be that going across the world on a cruise ship and being isolated from their family is not the best thing for them to do at that time.
What advice would you give to a performer who’s experiencing mental health concerns or issues when they’re on an acting job?
Simon: Please tell us as soon as possible. Take the scenario that a client is having some problem or issue, and they don’t tell us immediately. Perhaps they go through an audition process, and then a rehearsal process, and things might be continuing to get worse and worse. The show then opens, and because of what they’re experiencing, they might then be unable to work. It’s much more damaging to their career at that point, whereas if we’d known earlier then we could have put support structures in place.
If someone is struggling, what’s the best way to raise it with their agent?
Simon: I don’t think there’s a ‘best’ way to do that – it’s about what’s best for you. It might be saying to your agent, “Can I schedule a phone call?” or, “Have you got five minutes for a chat?” There’s no wrong way to do that. It may well be that certain agents have preferred ways of being contacted. From my point of view, I would always advise to just reach out and let’s have a chat. If I got that message from any of my clients, I would organise that straight away.
I’ve been a performer and so I do have some understanding about those struggles. I love my job, and my job is my clients. Performers are assets, and they need to be looked after in every way possible. In terms of their professional career, we are experts and they need to be nurtured. If they can’t work, they’re not going to earn any money and we (as their agents) are not going to earn any money. So from a business perspective, it’s in our best interests to ensure that our clients are healthy.
J: I think it’s important to think of it in the same terms as a physical ailment. So, for example, I have a client who’s an occasional wheelchair user and, depending on his condition, some days he needs to use his wheelchair, other days he doesn’t. So thinking about it like that, it’s about going to your agent and being honest about what you need.
You can then go into that conversation explaining how you want to manage it. In the same way that if you sprained your ankle, you might say, “I can go to the dance class if I strap my ankle up and take some painkillers,” or, “I’m really sorry, but my ankle is bad today, but I could go and watch and take notes?” Only you really understand your mental health, and it’s knowing how far you feel you can go on each day. You might call your agent and say I’m struggling today – I’m a 2/10, but can I keep checking in with you throughout the day to see if I get up to a 6 or 7 out of 10? Having that shorthand with your agent can be so helpful in supporting you when you’re struggling.
Simon: Everyone has mental health – it is a human condition and we just need to keep talking about it as much as possible. This ties in with the communication thing, too. If a client sounds a bit stressed out, I might say, “Where are you living? Is it stressful commuting to all these auditions all the time?” There are little changes everyone can make in their lives to help them feel more comfortable and happier. Ask yourself what will make you feel happy, because if you’re feeling happy then the energy you’re going to bring into auditions and self-tapes is going to be much healthier.
It’s good to look at what hobbies can also give you joy. Lots of performers have invented side hustles and jobs that they can do at home and over Zoom. This will help everyone’s mental health, because if you’re working fifty hours a week to pay rent in London and you don’t have any time to devote to your art, that’s not going to be conducive to good mental health.
When applying to agents, do performers have to tell them about any mental health concerns or conditions which may affect their ability to work?
J: The first thing that happens when you sign with me is you’re sent the contract, you’re sent my code of conduct (i.e. what you can expect from me as your agent) and the mental health charter which was developed by the MTA and is called #Time4Change. So for me, that charter coming with the contract says immediately to the client that this is a safe space for you to be able to discuss your mental health with us. The charter is a wonderful document that talks about the different types of mental health you might experience.
By sending the charter out to clients, my hope is that it sends a message that we’re informed, we take it seriously, we know what might occur, and this is how we deal with it, together. I’m quite open on social media about my own mental health and my own struggles, so it’s part of the ethos of the company that we have this charter that we’re signed up to.
Simon: I think it all comes back to trust. At the very beginning of a relationship with the agent you are effectively strangers, so it can take time to build that trust, and it might take some time for a performer to feel comfortable [enough] to disclose that. We would never ask anyone to disclose anything like that in an interview. It wouldn’t be appropriate for us to instigate that, so it’s up to the performer to decide what they need from an agent in terms of that support.
Those interviews aren’t just us interviewing the performer – they’re also the performer interviewing the agent. The best advice I can give to a performer who might be worried about that is to decide what it is that you want from an agent and then have the courage to challenge that in the interview.
What advice do you have for performers at the beginning of their career who struggle to have those empowering, open conversations with their agent?
Simon: It can be difficult, but it comes back to what I was saying before about it being more of a collaboration. In an ideal world, the performer would feel empowered to have those conversations, and this hierarchy of agent over performer probably needs to go. We need it to be like two playing cards [leaning against each other to stay upright]. Can I lean on this agent? Can I trust them with those issues I have? Do they understand me and will they be able to support me moving forward?
It’s a unique relationship because it’s both personal and professional, and you achieve together. It’s the most amazing feeling to watch a client grow. On the one hand, there’s the transactional side (i.e. I get you auditions, you get the job, you earn money from it and I take commission from you). Alongside that, there’s a personal relationship where you get to know the people, you get to know their life, and you get to see them perform. So as an agent, if your client is struggling, you also go through some of that with them too.
J: I think it’s helpful when we see people like Carrie Hope Fletcher talking about her mental health, because she is one of the few young performers who has the platform and the reach to be able to share things like that more widely. Seeing Carrie speak as wonderfully and eloquently as she does can help younger performers to realise that they’re not alone and it’s okay to speak about these things.
Simon: Which is why it’s so important for the agent to support them. It’s much better for the agent to know what’s going on so they can support you with that. And honest communication and trust are at the heart of that.
Thank you Simon and J for your uplifting insight! If you’re struggling with your mental health, you’re not alone. We have lots of helpful resources in our Wellbeing Hub.
Image credit: Joanna Nicole Photography