Carlynn de Waal-Smit is essentially a superhero in the industry. She is an agent and founder of Contractors Artists. She is also an advocate for the rights of professional actors, serving as the National Secretary of SAGA, a guild which she helped form. She also serves on the executive board of the PMA. For the past few years, Carlynn has championed for fair and ethical treatment of performers in the industry. We sat down to discuss SAGA, the misconceptions surrounding being an agent and the future for actors in South Africa.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I think at the age of five I basically said to my mom, “I want to dance.” And that kind of instilled dance classes that went through all of my schooling. I went to study Ballet and Dance at Pretoria Technikon. Then I came into the industry. I stage managed and worked as a company manager for a dance company in 1994. I took a gap year after that, then came back to Johannesburg and stage managed a production of The King and I in 1996, and then [that] June we started Contractors. That was 21 years ago and that’s how long we have been doing what we have been doing.
Do you still feel challenged by it even though its been 21 years?
I don’t think there is any day that is the same. Because of the variety and because of the fact that there is very little routine except for arriving at work at a certain time and leaving at a certain time, there is obviously that dynamic energy which I think is fantastic. Also, I get to work with people all day. Some amazing incredible people who do some of the most wonderful stuff, whether they be filmmakers, directors, producers, actors, voice artists, singers, casting directors, etc. There are so many different aspects to the people that we deal with that I think inspires us to be the best kind of people in the work that we do. I think that being an agent takes a very specific somebody to do that job where a lot of people say, “Oh I could never do it.” And I could, but don’t ever let me produce because there is no way that I could do that job. I think everybody has kind of found their niche. I think because of so many of the things I’ve seen in the industry over the last 20 years, seeing the injustice to actors, seeing how people get exploited, seeing how often in the country the arts is not as well supported as some of the other areas. For me, it has kind of been a bit of a challenge that I have picked up and gone, “This is my crusade.” We need to make it different and we need to make a difference. I always have a philosophy in life that says, “I have to leave it better than when I found it.” If we are not going to make a difference and make it better, then we should really not do anything.
What do you find to be the biggest misconception about being an agent?
From outside? Or from inside?
I think from the outside [people assume] agents are only here to take your money. That is the biggest slogan that I hear across the board because I am not sure that talent really understands and knows what agents do. I think it is a lot more intricate and a lot more about relationships. I see an actor/agent relationship like a business partnership. Actors employ agents. If actors say negative things about their agents, then I’m like, “Well then you are in the wrong place.” If you are not happy where you are then you need to find where you will be happy. I think performers are often quick to moan rather than to solve the problem or to find a solution or to have a conversation. In terms of on the inside, I think that the extent to which you have to be organized and detail-orientated is a misconception for most people who do this job. I haven’t seen any other job where you have to be that attentive to detail and organisation because things can go awry in a minute. We kind of have to have a finger on every possible pulse.
A lot of my friends are actors and I marvel over how many of them are terrified of their agents. I think we need to put the focus back on the fact that it is a mutually beneficial relationship.
Absolutely, I think the other thing is that talent has an expectation of what they think an agent is rather than go, “How does this work in this agency?” All of us are different. We have a certain way of dealing with people and of dealing with work and a way of dealing with the industry which is different from other people. Everyone has their own unique touch because of the personalities that they are. Contractors is very much a family environment. We are a family business. For us it’s a case of, “You are part of a family and if you want purely business then we are the wrong fit.” Actors need to understand that they are in the power position, not the agent. You need to hold your agent accountable because they work for you. The biggest misconception is because there is this fear that actors feel, the way they communicate often is not to their benefit. Just have a conversation. The assumption is that, “I am the last person you think of.” And in my office I look at people’s faces every single day. I don’t know how I can forget you but people don’t always think in those kind of terms because they are not sitting on the other side.
Let’s segue into how you got involved with SAGA?
There was a meeting that happened in August 2004 with one of the broadcasters and there was a discrepancy around some of the legislation. When we left, basically it was a case of, “There is a difference in opinion about the legislation and if that doesn’t work for us then we need to take it further legally. We need to take it to a tribunal or something.” Our industry has never had a tribunal. I walked out and I went, “This is really unfair and something needs to change and it’s not going to change unless someone does something about it.” I left there really angry and I spoke to a couple of other agents who were involved in that conversation and then I spoke to a couple of actors and those agents spoke to a couple of actors and eventually there ended up being a meeting in my lounge going, “We need to do something. What can we do and how can we do it?” That was in August 2004 and then we looked at possible ways to start an actors union. Then we realised that actors can’t be part of a union because they are not employees, they work as contractors and therefore you can’t unionise if you are not an employee. Then we had to find another way to do it which is why we are a guild. We do have legal support but we are not officially a union. We managed to get the constitution done. We managed to sort out our paper work and get the corporate government side of things sorted and I think we got our first members in August 2009. We managed to do all of that and we have been going ever since. In 2012, SAGA was approved as one of the members of FIA (International Federation of Actors.) That organization is an umbrella body for all unions and guilds for actors around the world. We now have that amazing ability to speak to all the other key players in the world and find out how they do things and learn from them. For the last 3 years FIA has facilitated SAG/AFTRA representatives from there and representatives from ACTRA which is the Canadian union and they have come out every year for the past 3 years to come and share and assist us and give us guidance in whatever way that we could grow.
I keep having conversations with people, and my motto for this year is “Integrity before career.” I feel that there is not really going to be an evolution among actors until we all join forces. How can we regain that power?
I think unity is our greatest strength. The difficulty that I have found in the industry in this country is because we have no residual income whatsoever, there is a large amount of actors who live hand to mouth. If you say, “We are shooting a thing for X,” and [an actor] is going to be evicted from their house at the end of the month, then they are going to do the work which is unfortunate because here we have a combination of a socio-economic issue together with an integrity and a work base. Ultimately if we are all standing together knowing that we all go, “These are the minimums that we are willing to work for and nothing less,” and SAGA has minimums that have been put on the website, then nobody will be put in the position to be exploited. For us it is about informing actors about what the minimums are. Morally no one should work for less than the minimums. The only way it is going to happen is if actors stay together and there is some kind of unity.
I think people might not understand what SAGA can really do until you are in that horrible position of needing to be bailed out. And I think there’s still a further element of a lot of actors thinking, “Oh well it won’t happen to me,” and then it does. Do you think it’s a case of agents needing to say, “We will only represent SAGA members?”
It would be lovely if people did that however if you look at the industry, let’s go back to, I like facts, our constitution says that you have freedom of association. You can choose to be free and associate with whoever you choose to associate with. There is no way that anybody can force anybody to become a SAGA member or to become a member of any association whatsoever. For me, the industry however needs to have some kind of legitimacy and people need to take actors seriously as a profession. If actors don’t take themselves seriously as a profession [then] how can you expect anybody else to?
It was requested that I ask you specifically about the legislation pertaining to the copyright laws.
In November 2015, The Department of Trade and Industry basically was open to comment on a Copyright Amendment Law, which means that the entire copyright legislation would be looked at to be totally reviewed because the Copyright Act hasn’t changed in 20-something years. There was an opportunity for everyone to comment and then part of the comments that came through, specifically on the performers side, was that …for copyright and the impact that it had on performers should dovetail with what the Performers Protection Act should ideally be because the Performers Protection Act is from 1967 before we even had television in the country. It was then split into two amendment bills, Copyright Amendment Bill and the Performers Protection Act. Because The Performers Protection is much smaller and more specific, it has kind of gone further in the process with the Department of Trade and Industry and Parliament. A couple of weeks ago they were open to the oral hearings so that people could come and discuss the submissions that they had made and it basically got postponed indefinitely because they want to bring the Copyright Act in as well. So what does all of this stuff mean? Obviously it’s going to depend on what eventually goes through but for performers what we would like to see is the implementation of world intellectual property treaties that have been signed over the past couple of years that have not necessarily been signed or ratified by South Africa. The one that is the most important for us is The Beijing Treaty which basically allows all audio and visual performers the right to their image and moral and remunerative right ‘til the end.
What are your hopes for the next half of your career?
A lot of people say that it is really difficult to become successful. I don’t necessarily think it is. I think it is difficult to maintain it. I think you need to be continuously vigilant. One of the most important things for me is that performers are taken seriously and it is my job to do that. I want to continue to have an amazing environment that I work in. The people in my office are amazing. They inspire me every day. I want to be able to continue to do this for as long as I enjoy it. When it becomes that thing of, “I am exhausted of fighting every single day,” then I need to walk away.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
I think it has been quite tricky because it’s not like there have been a massive amount of women in the arts. I think if I look at people who are not that much older than I am, you have your Brümildas and Sandra Prinsloos and Thandi Klaasen, who recently passed away. I was in awe of her. Seeing her perform after the hardships that she had been through, I was like, “I want that kind of resilience to be able to do that.” And then basically seeing that women can stand up. There is a phenomenal woman, Ferne Downey who is the president of FIA and she just astounds me in the kind of work that she does. She stands up. She doesn’t have to excuse herself for anybody and she is the most gentle, dignified woman who has this powerhouse of energy and I think that’s what we all need to be. Stand in our truths. Stand in our power as women in the arts because I think we can make a huge difference.
Cover photo by Aurelie Stratton and given with permission by Carlynn de Waal-Smit.
All photos courtesy of Carlynn de Waal-Smit.