Discussing your Mental Health and Wellbeing with your Agent

Honest communication and being transparent and open with your agent can help them to understand and support you when perhaps you can't make the audition, or need some extra time out.

Spotlight's Mental Health and Wellbeing Manager Bea Grist spoke to Simon Pontin from Soundcheck Agency and J from JBR Creative Management about best practices when it comes to discussing your mental health and wellbeing with your agent.

Bea: What advice or tips would you give a performer who wants 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 on 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 is causing the anxiety. I would 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, however this is always my approach.

It’s important to remember that there is a difference between an on-going mental illness and a change in life situation such as struggling financially or going through a divorce or bereavement, for example. My advice to a performer who is suffering from mental ill health is to always seek professional help.

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? There is also documentation of good practice around mental health through the #Time4Change Mental Health Charter for the Arts which can be obtained by any agency. This charter gives advice on how agents can best advise and support their clients with their mental health.

J: I think we’re very ok 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 is perhaps not normal or natural for them.

Bea: I think we need to have more conversations about what to expect when you’re coming into the industry and how to look after yourself and build resilience. What can agents and the industry do to make that transition from drama school into the industry a little bit easier?

J: Yes I agree. There are techniques that can be taught and learned (and practiced). 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’re not out of this pandemic yet and so 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.

Bea: With Covid we’re seeing a lot more attention and emphasis on the importance of looking after our wellbeing. Have you noticed much of a shift in terms of how Covid has impacted the conversations you’re having with your clients and how they’re dealing with it?

Simon: Absolutely. I’m having to re-learn where clients are at and what their aspirations are, and we support that wholeheartedly. The role of the agent has changed somewhat, however our job is (and has always been) how do we support you professionally? Obviously we’re not therapists and we don’t know exactly what’s going on for our clients in their personal lives. We only know what our clients have told us, so it’s about how we take what we’re given from the client (in terms of how they are, their mindset and what they want to do) and then we look at how best to help them to live out those aspirations. 

Bea: It feels as if so much comes from that trust between the client and the agent. It’s knowing as a client that you can share that information and your agent is going to wholeheartedly support you.

Simon: The whole relationship is about trust. It’s trusting that we’re putting you up for things that you want to put up for and that we’re working hard for you. Out of that trust comes the ability to say ‘actually I’m not coping well at the moment and I need some help’.

Bea: Is there anything performers can do to help with that trust and 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.

Bea: If the agent or the client isn’t getting what they need from the relationship for whatever reason, is there also something here about redesigning the relationship? So having an honest conversation about what you need more/less of?

Simon: Yes, some people don’t like talking on the phone, they’d rather send a message or an email and visa-versa. For some people self-tapping can make them feel anxious. If I know that a client is worried about self-tapping, 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!’ 

Bea: As an agent my sense is that you’re a champion for your client, and you can’t be a champion for someone unless you really know them?

Simon: Yes, that’s a lovely way of putting it. 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 their home. 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.

Bea: The client has to be fully transparent with you as well. I have this image of two playing cards leaning into each other - like when you build a house of cards. And you’re both leaning in but if one of you leans in too much or too little then those cards aren’t going to hold. You both have to contribute to the relationship so that you’ve got that solid foundation to work from.

Simon: It’s exactly that. I think even more so now since the pandemic - it’s more of a collaboration than it ever was. There is a sense that we’re all in it a bit more together now. I think some of the previous structures that were in place in the industry have been broken down and been redesigned since the pandemic.

Bea: What advice would you give a performer who is experiencing mental health concerns or issues when they’re on an acting job?

Simon: Again, 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. 

Bea: If someone is struggling right now, how should they best raise that with their agent?

Simon: I don’t think there is a ‘best’ way to do that - it’s about what is 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 say 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 too, 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 is 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.

Bea: It’s such a simple thing but when you feel well, you work well. That has a positive impact on you as the performer but it also has a positive impact on all those who are working with you too.

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. This also might be questions around whether to shave my beard off or should I cut my hair? I always say - what makes you happy in your life? Do you want a beard in your life or is it just because you’re worried about what job you’re going to get? 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.

Bea: As a performer you’re trying to make a living out of playing different people so identity can sometimes be really challenging. When so many of a performer’s life choices and decisions revolve around being a performer, I think it’s healthy to also look at what gives you joy in other areas of your life too?

Simon: Yes, 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 since the pandemic. That helps everyone’s mental health too 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 is not going to be conducive to good mental health.

Bea: When performers are applying to agents do they 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 is part of the ethos of the company that we have this charter that we are 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 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.

Bea: If you’re a performer at the beginning of your career I can imagine that it’s perhaps harder to have those empowering, open conversations with your agent?

Simon: Yes, 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 those two playing cards you described earlier. It’s about - 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 between a performer and an agent because it’s both personal and professional and you achieve together and it’s the most amazing feeling to watch a client grow. On the one hand there is 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 is a personal relationship where you get to know the people, you get to know their life and you get to see them perform. You also journey with your clients through a big part of their life - you might see them get married, you may meet their children, you might witness them going through a break-up or a divorce. So as an agent if your client is struggling, you also go through some of that with them too.

The whole industry takes mental health much more seriously now and the difference is great to see. There’s still a long way to go but we’ve come on leaps and bounds in recent years.

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 ok to speak about these things. 

Bea: From the conversations I’m having it certainly feels as if things are shifting and I agree there is still a way to go and we have to keep talking to each other about this. One of the most challenging things is the stigma that still exists around mental health and the fear (particularly in this industry) that by sharing these things performers may feel they are less employable?

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.

Simon Pontin is an agent at Soundcheck Agency. He has nearly 20 years of experience in the entertainment industry. He studied Performing Arts at University College Winchester then Musical Theatre at The Royal Academy of Music. He worked as a performer for 15 before beginning the transition to agent. He now finds himself at The Soundcheck Agency representing clients in Theatre, Musical Theatre, Actor/Musician productions, commercial, TV and Film.

J is an agent at JBR Creative Management. After beginning a professional performing career at 11 years old, JBR has now been in the industry for almost 4 decades. J is a teacher, a writer and the director of JBR Creative Management, a personal management company working with multiplatform creatives. His book Getting, Keeping and Working with your Acting Agent (published by Nick Hern Books) is out now.

If you’re struggling with your mental health, you’re not alone. We have lots of helpful resources in our Wellbeing Hub.

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