By Grant Robbin
“Have your agent call us!” All too familiar words to any struggling actor or performer trying to get a gig. Yes, there are open calls, but most of the juicy jobs require an agent to tout your unbelievable talents. Without an agent, you’re nobody. With an agent, you’re somebody! Somebody people should pay attention to.
Backstory. When I was in college, a little after The Holy Wars, there was a draft. No, you twenty-somethings, I don’t mean a cold blast of air. I’m talking about Vietnam and the opportunity to die for your country for no good reason at all, and, guess what, you didn’t need an agent, and you get to play a soldier. Awesome! (I never use this word in real life, but I’m trying to connect.)
So, there I was, standing in line with dozens of other young “hopefuls,” naked, as a cold hand clenched my testicles, and I was told to cough. I didn’t exactly get the part. I was classified as 1Y; they’d call me to go on if they needed me. Understudy. Well, I wasn’t all that anxious to be in this play, so great. (Thank God, I never got that call, or I might have to write this posthumously.) Incidentally, my brother filed as a conscientious objector and had to leave Chicago and go live in Milwaukee, which, frankly, I thought was far worse punishment than going to Nam.
While in college, I auditioned as an entr’acte, a brief distraction for the audience while they changed sets behind a closed curtain for fraternities and sororities, who put on big musical numbers. I had always wanted to try my hand at being a comedian or a singer, and I couldn’t decide which, so I did a little of both and, to my amazement, got great reviews, and the attention of one of the best-looking girls on campus. This was a discovery that ugly rock performers were well-acquainted with. How many girls did Mick Jagger attract before he was famous? Who would want to dance the herky-jerky with him, and, once he opened that dinosaur mouth to speak, I’m sure all bets were off.
I got ill, very ill. High fever and hepatitis. I was told I had to get my yellow ass into a hospital, pronto. Either in Madison, Wisconsin (I was at the U of W), or in Chicago, my home. I chose the latter, used what little energy I had to pack up all my belongings, including the bamboo curtains and fish nets (not the kind you wear, my tiny apartment looked like a South Sea shack, but that’s another story) and spend eight hours driving home, instead of three, because I had to pull over every 15-20 minutes to take a nap.
Once I recovered and was told I could keep my liver, I somehow knew somebody who knew somebody in Second City, the now world-famous improv comedy club, which was only several years old at the time, and there was no school offering courses that included one performance on the Second City stage in front of friends and family, so that you could go to Hollywood or New York and pretend you were actually a member of the troupe. There was only one company that did the shows in town and on the road on the day off, and I managed to get an audition, sans agent, and was the only non-company member in the workshops with the actual cast. Eventually, one of the actors got cast in the touring company of After the Fall by Arthur Miller, and a spot opened up. (Thank you, Mr. Miller!) I’ll never forget the night I got the call. I was at my parents’. Great timing, Sheldon.
I was called in to improvise a few scenes (there was no script) and told I was going on that night! Are you f—n’ kidding me? What happened to rehearsals?! Anyway, I went on and got good reviews, and my beautiful girlfriend from college (remember her) moved to Chicago and lived with me. In those days, living together wasn’t generally accepted, so I never told my parents, and they never asked.
I started writing songs late at night after I finished at Second City, but I had to play guitar and sing very softly because we lived in a one-room apartment, and my girlfriend was a normal person who had a day job. I became more and more obsessed with writing music and less enamored with Second City, and it must have shown because I got fired, on my birthday, with my family there (right after they brought out a cake and sang Happy Birthday!) Not so great timing, Sheldon. Don’t try to hug me next time you see me.
Okay, I’m halfway into this monologue, and I need to get back to the point of it, which was getting an agent. Post Second City, I called various clubs and TV shows to try to get a booking, and what did I hear repeatedly? Have you been paying attention? They said, “Have your agent call us!” What agent?! I didn’t have a goddamn agent, or a clue how to get one.
Wait! Hold the presses! I’m a performer, who did impressions in college. I’ll create my own agent. He needs to sound totally unlike me, so I’ll give him a high-pitched voice, a rapid-fire rap, but what about a name? My brother was Lawrence Jay, so I called him Jay Lawry, the best agent ever, because he’d do whatever you told him to, and he could never drop me, but I could drop him, and I didn’t have to pay him 10% of my hard-earned money! I know this may cause an intervention by my family, but, to this day, I still think of Jay Lawry as a real person, and frankly, I miss him. No one ever did so much for me and asked for so little in return.
What a guy, Jay Lawry! He got me all kinds of bookings: concerts, nightclubs and even my own specials on PBS, two of them. Then, when I thought I was ready to take a bite out of the Big Apple, he got me a booking at The Bitter End, where Bill Cosby, Woody Allen and Barbara Streisand all started. And, he got me the same manager as some guy called Barry Manilow (whatever happened to him?), who played piano for me on numerous gigs, but, unfortunately, not at the “Copacabana.”
So, you young perspiring actors/performers, be creative. Do what you have to do, short of breaking the law, or getting caught breaking the law. Forget William Morris, ICM, CAA! Who needs ‘em?! Sorry, Jay Lawry is retired (for now), but I’m sure there are other great agents eagerly waiting in the wings of your imagination. Break a leg!!
– Grant Robbin (a.k.a. Jay Lawry)
Grant Robbin is a guest writer for Tumbleweed Diaries. He is a writer-composer-producer of musicals, plays, and screenplays, as well as a screenwriting coach and professor in the Film Department at Columbia College Chicago. For info on coaching, visit www.myscriptcoach.com, or learn more about his projects for stage and screen at www.grantrobbin.com.