Credit: Photos by Darrow Montgomery

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One Friday morning last month, about 30 local actors shuffle into a casting session near Farragut Square. It’s not your typical theater cattle call. For one thing, the auditions take place in a generic 10th floor corporate office. For another, the casting director has come all the way from the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, one of the largest regional theaters in the country—not the type of place that usually goes looking for talent in D.C.

And the assembled actors haven’t simply responded to an ad. They’re all here because they are clients of the Capital Talent Agency, the first such outfit in the District’s comparatively puny theater world.

Over the next four hours, the actors, toting headshots and résumés, hang around the reception area while CTA co-founder Jeremy Skidmore whisks hopefuls into a conference room to meet the casting director. Some pace. Some make small talk. Others fidget in the room’s boxy, oversized armchairs. Many casting calls take place on a stage under house lights, but this improbable session is on beige carpeting and under fluorescent lights. But the setting might be the least unusual thing about it.

In other theater towns, like Chicago, Los Angeles, and especially New York, talent agents are common, even mandatory for actors to find any professional success. But until 18 months ago, when CTA opened, it was an alien profession for the Washington theater community. And though it still doesn’t have a proper home—headquarters is currently this shared space that looks more like an image from an office-supply catalogue than a creative-class workspace—CTA has so far signed up over 50 locals on the promise of better salaries, fewer logistical headaches, and more roles, especially in other cities.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

One of the first to sign on was Jefferson A. Russell, who says until the agency came along that he had been “hoofing it on my own.” Russell came down today from Baltimore, where he was a police officer until jumping into acting full-time in 1997. Smooth-pated and burly, he had bit parts in episodes of Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire. Most of his work, until recently, was with smaller theater companies around Washington like the Encore Theatre Company and African Continuum.

Not anymore. Russell is just back from five months on the road—thanks, he says, to CTA. This past season, Russell starred in The Trinity River Plays, produced jointly by the Dallas Theater Center and the Goodman. Today, he’s gunning for his next Goodman role in The Convert, Danai Gurira’s play about colonialism in Africa.

The prospect of that sort of steady work is what seems to have drawn today’s stream of actors to this unlikely audition. Will it pan out that way? So far, it’s unclear. Neither of the firm’s principals—Skidmore and Roger Yoerges, a partner at the Steptoe & Johnson law firm—work there full time. Their office space doesn’t exactly scream “Ari Gold,” and the duo readily admit that after 18 months, they’re still not in the black. But all the same, the very idea of a talent agency signing up some of the District’s top actors represents a major change in a place where theater casting remains an informal affair based on personal relationships. For now, at least, large portions of the theater community seem willing to take a chance on that change.

Theater is as good a lens as any to track the city’s growth over the past quarter-century. In 1987, when Joy Zinoman moved Studio Theatre into a rundown auto repair shop at 14th and P streets NW, the neighborhood was still blighted from the riots that torched much of the city at the end of the 1960s. Now, the stretch of 14th Street between Thomas Circle and U Street is home to restaurants, gyms, and new condominiums. At the center of it all is the Zinoplex, Studio’s massively expanded complex, full of stages, classrooms, and workshops.

But while Studio—and scores of other theaters—have grown up over the past 25 years, D.C. actors kept on getting jobs with a nod and a handshake. Talent agencies were for out-of-town thespians, not locals. “You lived a life with agents where New York actors were concerned,” says Zinoman. “Dealing with agents was the reality with New York actors and that was a big, complicated thing for anyone. It has to do with how many people are between you and the actor. In Washington you were directly in touch with the talented people.”

Zinoman believes the appearance of talent agents could change the theater landscape as much as the rise of Equity, the actors’ union, several decades ago.

That would be quite a change. Equity, which boasts nearly 1,000 members in its Baltimore-Washington region, sets minimum wages and standard benefits for members. Under the Small Professional Theatre Agreement—which is used by Studio, Woolly Mammoth, and Theater J—an Equity actor can make as little as $195 a week. Even when a show is performed eight times a week, the minimum is still only $571. The League of Resident Theatres’ agreement used by larger venues like Arena Stage and the Shakespeare Theatre Company is more generous, but not by much. Its highest base salary is $882 a week.

But even Equity rates, which aren’t accessible to the thousands of actors and roles that don’t qualify for the union, are no great shakes. Zinoman estimates there are only 10 actors in the entire city who manage to be full-time performers. Several members of that group—Jennifer Mendenhall, Holly Twyford, Clinton Brandhagen—are on the CTA roster.

The rise of an agency for the city’s top talent could eventually mean better money. But, Zinoman says, it could also create a new level of stratification, akin to the difference between the Equity scale and the compensation for freelancers.

According to Yoerges and Skidmore, CTA is more about expanding the menu of roles available to clients than about immediately boosting their pay (though they hint that that will come). They’ll look out for auditions so actors don’t have to rely on being tipped off by pals. They’ll write actors’ performance contracts with theater directors so business negotiations don’t get in the way of artistic collaboration. And, they say, they’ll broaden their clients’ appeal beyond the city’s borders. In exchange, CTA takes a cut of 10 percent, though Yoerges and Skidmore say that doesn’t apply to gigs that pay less than $300 a week.

Actors, as well as casting directors, seem content to give CTA a chance, reckoning that its emergence—tentative as it may still be—is a sign of D.C. theater having grown up.

“I felt like I was hitting a glass ceiling in town. I hadn’t worked at some of the higher-profile theaters,” Russell recalls. “At some point you need to change things up.” He adds that in a recession that hasn’t spared theaters’ bottom lines, he was close to having to find a regular day job. “I don’t necessarily subscribe to the ‘starving artist’ theory.” Though he says he’s not yet earning more since signing with the agency, he thinks CTA is worth its 10 percent.

“I wouldn’t have had that last gig [in Dallas], but CTA submitted me. In that case, mission accomplished.”

Of course, CTA’s assertions about its own power sometimes exceed the reality of its current reach. Brandhagen, for instance, played in a recent Kennedy Center production of Master Class, the Terrence McNally play about the opera diva Maria Callas. When the show moved on to New York, he was obliged to re-audition for his role, but landed it. Displaying an agent’s gift for salesmanship, Skidmore suggests he helped him land the gig. Brandhagen isn’t quite so sure—though he’s happy with the results. “The agency didn’t help me get the role,” he says, “but they did negotiate the contract for me.”

For Brandhagen and others, much of CTA’s allure was the prospect of not having to negotiate their own contracts. “I got tired of being my own middleman,” he says, speaking by phone from New York’s Penn Station, where he’s arriving ahead of previews for Master Class’ Broadway iteration.

Some of the agency’s younger clients say they signed on thinking CTA would jumpstart careers that would otherwise be labeled provincial by virtue of an actor’s residing in the District. “Just to have an agency on your résumé, it makes you look more professional,” says Joe Isenberg, 26. Without an agent, he says, he would have little chance of getting on the radar at venues like the Goodman, let alone theaters in New York.

When it comes to the D.C. theaters, though, Yoerges and Skidmore tread a bit more lightly. Every client is allowed to pick a “home theater,” designating a venue where the agency won’t take its 10 percent cut when an actor gets a role there. Skidmore calls it a “major tip of the hat” to the personal relationships that predated CTA.

That’s certainly the case with Woolly Mammoth Theatre and the seven members of its company that CTA represents. “I didn’t want to go to [artistic director] Howard Shalwitz and say, ‘Hey, you have to go through us now,’ because that’s ridiculous,” Skidmore says.

But when one of the Woolly Mammoth clients wants to go elsewhere in town, CTA says it gets involved. Kimberly Gilbert, who is also a member of the Taffety Punk theater company, will appear in the world premiere of The Religion Thing next January at Theater J. Gilbert, 35, was quick to sign on with CTA. With few exceptions, her résumé is all Woolly and Taffety. She says that will change over the next year.

“I’ve wanted to work at Theater J forever,” she says. “Next season is the busiest I’ve ever had. CTA is part of it.”

I relayed Gilbert’s excitement to Ari Roth, Theater J’s famously acerbic artistic director, who reminded me that it still comes down to talent. “Kimberly got that role because she came in and did an amazing audition. It had nothing to do with CTA,” he says.

But even after the arrival of something as emblematic of big-time theater towns as a talent agency, Washington performers needn’t worry about the loss of small-town relationships. For evidence, look no further than CTA itself.: At least six of its clients, including Yoerges son, Danny, are graduates of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts—Skidmore’s alma mater. Many more of the clients appeared in Skidmore-directed plays over the past decade.

CTA’s office space, rented from a management firm, shared with several other unrelated companies, and festooned with the blandest possible decorations—framed photos of monuments to remind you what city you’re in—will never be confused for a smoky agent’s warren on Sixth Avenue. Especially not when the shared secretary alternates between answering CTA’s line with a cheery “Good morning, Capital Talent Agency,” and answering the other tenants’ lines with an equally personal hello.

Then again, Yoerges and Skidmore will never be confused for central casting’s version of agents, either.

In fact, if you were casting Yoerges, 52, you’d put him in the role of a D.C. lawyer. Which, as it happens, is what he is: He spends his days arguing class-action cases as the head of his firm’s product liability group. Sturdily built and neatly groomed in a tailored brown suit, he answers questions by first deliberating the premise before getting to the point. Like a good attorney, he’d sussed out my LinkedIn profile and memorized my professional history before our first meeting.

Before opening CTA, Yoerges’ last stage experience was performing in a few high-school plays while growing up on Long Island. As an adult, he got into theater via his son. Once the arty kid finished art school and made a stab at going pro, the lawyerly dad applied his own skill set to the effort: Yoerges says he started thinking of ways to get more involved in the theater scene beyond just buying tickets. He’s quick to admit that he’s facing a steep learning curve.

“I’d go down to see performances as parents are obliged to do and realized how much I missed that part of my life and thought, ‘How can I find some way to get back in?’” Yoerges says. He decided the “most logical thing” was to pair his legal expertise with his interest in the theater. “Being an agent made a certain amount of logical sense, but not a whole lot of practical sense given that I didn’t have a whole lot of practical knowledge.” Yoerges started by querying some of his sons’ professors about breaking in as a talent representative.

“When he brought it up, when his son was a student at this school, I didn’t take it too seriously,” says Robert Beseda, the assistant dean of the drama school at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Beseda spent a decade as a talent agent on Broadway before joining the faculty of the Winston-Salem college. “I thought it was just a whim, but alas, he did.”

Through Danny Yoerges, his dad met Skidmore, then working full-time as a director. From 2001 to 2007, he’d been artistic director of Theater Alliance, a small but respected company (and the alma mater of many current CTA clients). Skidmore had drawn favorable critical coverage, but says he was looking for a different kind of challenge. “I kept on trying to grow the company and things slipped away,” Skidmore says. “It never occurred to me that in building an organization I needed to build it in a way to go on without me.” In Skidmore’s absence, Theater Alliance withered.

So Skidmore made a somewhat unusual choice for a theater guy: He went to business school. Contemplating supply and demand, and leaning back on his knowledge about the District’s growing number of theaters and actors, he found himself thinking about becoming an agent. (There are about 30 venues around the city and even more acting companies that share theaters.) Starting CTA, Skidmore says, was a way of furthering his managerial education.

“When I first came here there was no agency of any kind, and I thought that was a good thing,” he says. “As the years went by, I really started to feel like the community had grown.” With that growth, he adds, came a few dilemmas. More actors were being offered roles with conflicting schedules and needed to work out the calendar themselves, causing awkward business situations to damage artistic relationships with theaters. “It’s a torturous thing to watch actors go through.”

Skidmore leans forward in his swivel-y high-backed chair. We’re in one of the shared office’s deliberately nondescript boardrooms, undecorated save a stack of bottled water. I notice each bottle costs $1—like a hotel-room minibar. I wonder if I should pay Yoerges back for the cup of coffee he offered me.

CTA’s principals are reticent about sharing financial specifics. They say they’re not making money yet. But Yoerges, who is footing most of the bill, won’t say exactly how much that is, leaving it at “several tens of thousands.” He says it’ll be a while until CTA can stand on its own.

And that’s probably more time than Skidmore is willing to give. He says his own role as an agent won’t necessarily outlast his role as a business student. He’ll complete his MBA at American University’s Kogod School of Business in a year, and says he’ll go back to directing at that point. He’s already slated to direct at least two shows in Maryland and Pennsylvania next year.

“I agreed to give the agency the two and a half years I had,” Skidmore says. “One of the fascinating things is building an organization that is sustainable and doesn’t need me.”

The plan is to get the agency to a place where, by that point, it won’t wind up like Theater Alliance.

Yoerges and Skidmore say that, in order to break even, they’ll need to double their client roster. Commissions alone from the current client list aren’t enough to cover the office rental or the two additional agents they’ve hired.

If one way to get new clients is via word of mouth, they’re in a pretty good position. “I think there was some dread of the New York or Los Angeles agent that was hell-bent on writhing for the best deal at the expense of an institution,” says Roth, conjuring an image more in line with the one in HBO’s Entourage. But that hasn’t been the reality, he says. “The consensus among people including casting directors is ‘surprisingly pleasant’.”

Daniel Rehbehn, the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s casting director, says the emergence of a talent agency is a logical progression for the Washington theater scene. “Everyone knows the D.C. theater community has been growing for the past few years. So it made sense there would be an increase in the number of companies associated with it,” he says. Rehbehn says he’s glad to have a third party submitting headshots of actors he might not otherwise think of.

“We get to see people we wouldn’t usually see, and it’s nice to have someone out there pushing local actors,” Rehbehn says. “A lot of time I’ll say, ‘Yes, I’ve already considered them,’ but sometimes it’s, ‘No, I haven’t thought of that person, thank you so much.’” But for all the added convenience, he adds that he misses some of the face time with his actors who are now CTA clients.

Back in salesman mode, Yoerges says CTA serves “the role of a kind of adjunct to the casting director.” (The agency also represents about a dozen production designers.)

As for how they’ll manage to double their business, “Jeremy and I have a broader vision of expanding the agency—not to other cities, but expanding it in terms of our visibility throughout the country, so that our actors have more choices to act outside of D.C.,” Yoerges says. “A lot of our clients don’t need an agent in D.C.”

Which is sort of a strange line for someone whose main business remains, well, being an agent in D.C. All the same, even if the broader vision still needs filling in, the pair thinks they’ll be more effective in finding clients work—and money—outside the traditional venues. Yoerges and Skidmore talk a lot about padding their actors’ résumés with commercial and industrial film work, though plenty of their clients, like Brandhagen, are already registered with casting agencies who facilitate those gigs.

“If they can find work for actors, commercial work in the daytime when they’re in the run of a show, that’s fantastic,” Zinoman says. “Can they do it? Talk is cheap.” But the Washington theater community is a welcoming one, and like any new player, CTA is getting a tryout. Even a skeptic like Zinoman thinks it “could be wonderful for Washington actors” if it succeeds.

When Skidmore finally does make his way back to directing, his role as the non-suit in CTA’s leadership will likely fall to J. Fred Shiffman, who joined the firm in early May after hanging up a three-decade acting career. Shiffman’s decision to turn in his Equity card after winning three Helen Hayes Awards wasn’t terribly surprising: He’s almost always had business-oriented day jobs, including a stint as the agency’s informal accountant. But at 57, he grew tired of stringing together the “rat race” of his acting career.

The Goodman Theatre casting session was Shiffman’s first day on the job. Like Skidmore, he was bouncing around the room, coaching the former colleagues who are now his clients.

“I love business,” Shiffman says. He’ll need to, especially after Skidmore jumps ship next year.

Meanwhile, the Goodman has also held casting calls for The Convert in New York and Los Angeles, as well as in its Chicago home. The theater says it won’t make the final cast public for another few weeks. But if any of their clients make it, CTA says someone will fly out for the show—because, whether or not an agency means the theater scene is all grown up, that’s still what a D.C. kind of agent does.

“The New York stories are legendary,” Shiffman says. “Actors there have told me, ‘my fucking agent didn’t even come see the show.”