Hutson Talent Agency – Performing in a Pandemic

Words by Frank Connelly.
Images courtesy of Hutson Talent Agency.

It is not everyday that I have the pleasure to speak with a funny, vivacious Irish lass. But I was able to do just that, as I sat down over Zoom with Sylvia Hutson. Hutson is the owner and talent agent for Hutson Talent Agency located in Portsmouth VA. The Hutson Talent Agency represents hundreds of local and national talent for film and television opportunities.

Hutson has been involved in the Entertainment Industry for over 50 years. Her experience includes acting, teaching, and wardrobe for television and film- “when you are doing wardrobe for crew, you are there before anyone gets there and you are the last to leave.” She admitted to herself that she was not getting any younger (editor’s note: crew work is rough) after several of her director and casting friends recommended that she open an agency. There were several local agents who would call her and ask her who she would recommend because she was teaching acting classes. It was remarked by several of her contemporaries that she was practically a talent agent already without being one, so she gave it some thought, and decided to give it a try, especially since a TV studio she was working for was going on hiatus. She didn’t want to go on the road again, and would like to stay closer to home. She opened her agency, and told casting and director friends that she was now in the business. Hunter Thomas was her first client, who had worked with her previously on films in 2005/06. Over sixteen years later, the Hutson Talent Agency is still going strong.

Sylvia with a young woman in a white dress in front of a "Country Swagger" step-n-repeat. Sorry, I don't know who the person is.

The skills to be a talent agent are primarily based on the ability to network. Her experience acting, teaching, and working wardrobe allowed her to meet many in the industry. “The hardest thing to learn was whether an actor was being paid the right money,” she noted. She had to learn what the SAG standards are for an actor’s pay. Agent friends from other states also offered advice. The relationships before becoming a talent agent aided her success. Hutson believes that all her clients are more like family and is therefore more concerned about the personal side than the business side. She has gathered quite a following with actor friends who have worked with her previously on other projects.

The film industry within the local area, prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, was primarily based in the Richmond VA area. Several TV shows that included Good Lord Bird with Ethan Hawke, Walking Dead III (spinoff), and Swaggart. Swaggart was still shooting when COVID hit. 

The last big film that was in the area was 2 or 3 years ago with Brian Cox and Udo Kier in Last Moment of Clarity. A big highlight for Hutson was meeting Brian Cox. She thought she was going to die and go to heaven. She went to the executive producer and told him that he had to let her meet him. Brian Cox was originally from Scotland. They both got to sit and talk for what seemed like forever. She said that now, “I can die a happy woman.” He responded that he has “killed many a woman.” She was so starstruck after seeing him in many movies over the years. She wanted to meet other top stars, however Last Moment of Clarity was a medium budget film, and could only have their top stars in locale for a few days. 

Sylvia with a slightly taller man in what looks like an empty room. I'm sorry, I don't know who the man is.

When COVID hit everything was shut down. SAG-AFTRA and IATSE developed strict guidelines for the film industry. They are not going to use background anymore until the pandemic ends. (Editor’s note: this is another huge loss of jobs for our area) Swaggart is supposed to start back up again in September or October. Hopefully, Virginia and other states will get it together so that the film industry can be restored to any sense of normal. In the meantime, there have been requests for one or two actors at a time, such as a boyfriend and girlfriend, husband and wife, or people that have been in the same home together. Hutson just did a Sling TV Union spot in Richmond about a month ago. “Everybody wore PPE masks except when you were shooting. The set was wiped down. You wore your PPE, stripped off into your costume, shot your scene and then back into your PPE. It will be interesting to see where it goes.”

One of her actors, Gail, who is in her 70’s, got cast in a feature film when COVID started. The producers flew her to the Dominican Republic. Gail remarked to Hutson that she felt that she was in heaven. “She arrived on a Friday, had her costume fitting on a Saturday, Sunday was her down day, and she was supposed to start filming on the following Monday.” Sunday night Hutson got a call from the producers that they were going to have to send Gail back to the USA. The Dominican Republic was closing their borders, and everyone was being evacuated because of COVID. They flew Gail home, but Hutson was more worried about the flight because of the crowded airports and the possibility for transmission of the virus. Hutson implored the director to procure for her masks or other protective clothing. “They were brilliant and were able to get what she needed for her flight and travel home.”

Currently, Hutson still gets her breakdown express (requests for actors to play specific characters) through Actors Access (a website for agents) but all the dates listed are TBA or 2021. Current opportunities for actors seem to be mostly commercial spots in the local area where there is only one person. There was a PSA about COVID shot in Richmond, but with actors from the Hampton Roads area. “They had different scenarios such as ‘loving your Grandma’ while wearing a mask.”

A group of people with sleds appear to have wiped out on a snowy hill. In the foreground, a film crew can be seen working.

It is understood that now is a very difficult time for actors while waiting for the film industry to resurface. Hutson advises that it is important for actors to enhance their skills and to enhance their tools. She recommends that YouTube is a great resource, as it has many workshops for actors. Actors should improve their video clips and ensure that their headshots and resume are up-to-date. “The industry is constantly changing,” she explained. When Hutson started in the business there were very few video auditions. Talent agents would have to drive to the auditions, and hand deliver to the casting agents a book with headshots. But now, especially with COVID, ninety percent of auditions are on video. Both auditions and filming are going to be done using Zoom. “Learning how to play with your camera and your phone, practicing scenes, practicing monologues- All of this can be done on your own.” Actors can also read, and watch videos. “If you have a favorite actor, watch every movie they were in, and try to determine what you like about their acting style, then try to emulate it. As an actor, you are constantly learning in this industry, otherwise you are doing yourself a disservice. Become a people-watcher- how they react when they get news, angry.” Hutson used to tell her students that our brains are like having several rooms and doors, “when you like what you saw, you would take it to that little room.” Hutson’s motto is that you should be like “sponges with your craft”.

One prominent request that Hutson gets is for an actor to be “real and grounded. You don’t even know they are acting but they can pull you into their world. Actors back in the 1940s would over act and be over dramatic. Directors want a more natural style, and rounded, in requests for TV shows and films.” Hutson’s definition of a good actor is “they can pull you into their world so much that you want to hate them, cry, laugh because you believe in the character and you do not see the actor.” The acting world is so competitive that you do not have the luxury to sit back and rest. You need to take the time to work on your skills.

Hutson also recommends that actors should also try to keep their names and availability active by responding to any submissions from casting directors or agents. Networking can happen through Zoom classes or grouping with fellow actors. Unfortunately, during this COVID period keeping your name prominent is difficult.

Sylvia Hutson is optimistic about the future of the film industry. She concluded our interview with her Irish lilt by saying “that there is a rainbow.” I must write that I believe her.

Interested in the Hutson Talent Agency? Check out their website.

48 Hour Film Project: A Triathlon for Creatives

Words by Frank Connelly.
Images courtesy of Jeanette Rainey (inc. feature image) and Anna Tozzi Barbay.

The Hampton Roads 48 Hour Film Project is celebrating its 20th anniversary and is scheduled for July 31 through August 2, 2020. To understand perspectives on the 48 Hour Film Project, I interviewed Jeannette Rainey, the City Producer for the Project, and Anna Tozzi Barbay, an award winning creative for the project.

The 48 Hour Film Project started around a kitchen table in Washington DC by Mark Ruppert, his sister and sister-in-law, and wanted to encourage film makers to make more film. Ruppert wanted to encourage local creatives to make indie films so that their voice could be heard. Big Studios drown out the independent voices and it was recognized that there was a strong need to encourage independent film. They decided that a good way to encourage indie filmmaking was by setting a deadline. Jeannette Rainey relates that the 48 Film Project was Rupert’s “brain child and his work of art. Each year is different, the films are like buddhist sand castles that go away until the next year. It is like improv for filmmakers.”

The very first year of the Project there were 10 teams. They came up with general parameters of having a character, 3 elements, props and a line of dialogue. Nick Rupert was an indie filmmaker. Rupert asked how can a film be made two days? That question was answered by setting parameters and a time frame- the films are to be 5 to 7 minutes in length. 

A filmmaker holds a shirt up to themselves- it reads "I survived the 48 hour film festival"
“Been there, done that, got the t-shirt” Photo courtesy of Jeanette Rainey.

Word of mouth caught on without the social media that we have today. Now with Covid-19, there is a need to do it all virtually around the world. Rainey mentioned “That’s requiring a big server than can handle large electronic files”.

Jeannette Rainey succeeded Keith Flippen as City Producer. Tom White was the first City Producer. Keith was City Producer for 5 to 6 years. Jeanette is working on her sixth year.

In 2011 Jeannette saw JPIXX/In Captivity at the Naro Theatre in Norfolk and it stuck with her. It won the Grand Champion at Filmapalooza. Hampton Roads holds the honor of having the last Grand Champion from North America. Keith Flippen wanted to move on as City Producer and Jeannette did not want the community to lose the 48 Hour film Project, so she stepped up and took on the role. It has resulted in strong collaboration between local theatres such as Generic and PUSH Comedy Theatre. One year, PUSH had four teams. Rainey offered that “The more we do the stronger we get as artists.”  

Ann Tozzi Barbay is a very talented creative who has won awards for her involvement with the 48 Hour Film Project and has been involved for over six years. Her first three years she wrote play scripts with Ernie and Heather Smith. She then participated in all roles of the creative process with Skelly Films and 2 other teams. 

Anna Tozzi Barbay and Heather Smith outside the Naro with their award
Anna Tozzi Barbay and Heather Smith with their award. Photo courtesy of Anna Tozzi Barbay.

For Anna Tozzi Barbay editing is the most difficult aspect of the 48 Hour Film Project. Writers write into the night. Sometimes scripts are finished by 10 PM or it can be 5 or 6 AM. “If you are on the team, you may get a call from the writer at midnight.” The phone call would let the actors know whether they are in the film, what character they will play and what to bring with them. After the script is received the Director tries to figure out how to shoot the film. Actors show up in the morning and shoot all day Saturday. Some films may continue into Sunday, but it would cause difficulties for the editors. Editors patch it altogether. “They have to make sure the sound is good, everything looks right, rendered, downloaded and then getting it to the dropoff location.”

Barbay’s proudest achievement was her second project with Skelly films in 2014 when she wrote Plural. It is a film about a woman with three husbands. The mockumentary won Anna best writing award in 2014 along with another female writer. The film also won the audience favorite award. “It was quite a fun experience,” according to Barbay. The comedy had Joel David King as a reporter who investigates a woman in a plural marriage.

The process for the 48 Hour can be marked as before COVID-19 and after. Before COVID-19 there was the Friday evening 7:30 PM kickoff. Each team would draw one or two Genres, Character Name, dialogue, prop and career field. There can be 20 Genres in total. All Films were separated into two Groups and screened at the Naro Theatre. Group A Films are shown on Tuesday, and Group B films are shown on a Thursday. Top 10 are chosen to be screened as “Top Dog” on Saturday and awards are given out then. Each film has to be 7 minutes long not including credits, and has to be completed and placed into the hands of the Area Producer within 48 hours or you are disqualified. You can be disqualified for not getting in on time, the film being too long, or not using all of the elements. All of the films (even those which are disqualified) can place under Audience favorites. Audience votes by ballot at the event- you can pick 3.

The inside of the Naro Theater as the crowd is seated for a viewing
The audience during a past screening. Photo courtesy of Jeanette Rainey.

Now with COVID-19, Rainey has declared that “this year, it is virtual [because she] does not want to risk people’s health”. She is advocating use of smaller casts. She wants the focus on the story, less is more, and to always wear masks. The Event is going to be one big Zoom meeting. Kick off will be with Team Leaders. Team Leaders will press a button, a wheel will turn on a website and will randomly choose their genre. Before 7 PM team leaders will get their elements. “At least they will not have to commute back to their writing space, this reduces their driving time.” They will upload their films to 48 Hour Cinema .com. The website was a major feat for Headquarters to create. Screeners will have to be online. “When we can all get together in person then the hope is to air the films that competed in the global film challenge and the 48 Hour film project”. She is thinking that maybe the wrap up party could be in a parking lot.

Jeannette Rainey as the City Producer thinks of her role as like a Stage Manager for the Project. The Project involves 130 cities around the world. Each city has a City Producer. Rainey loves the comradery of everyone involved in the project and she loves going to Filmapalooza every year. It is the grand finale to see all of the films. The 48 Hour Film Project “is the epitome of inclusion of different languages, skin color, everyone has the passion for storytelling and filmmaking. City Producers can’t make a film and be in it but we support and celebrate their local film makers. We believe that everyone who participates has a story.”

Anna's daughter sits on the couch with a notebook during their 48 hour in quarantine project.
Anna’s daughter Francesca during their 48 Hour Stuck @ Home Project. Photo courtesy of Anna Tozzi Barbay.

Rainey’s vision for the 48 Hour Film Project “is like being a master gardener germinating global growth of film project flowers. It is the largest Short film library in the world. There are more than 8,000 films created over the last twenty years. It is now really the art of not messing it up.” Vision can really be articulated as collaboration and celebration. “There is competition but Hampton Roads is known for their encouragement and support between film makers. It is a group triathlon for creatives. Each team is really just competing with themselves and not with the other filmmakers. As a result, film makers obtain a mad respect for each other. They routinely work with each other outside of the 48 hour film project. They get to know each other’s products such as Drones, film shots, sound etc. 48 Hour Film Project strengthens local filmmakers’ skills, especially when large studios come into the area looking for skilled film technicians.”

The Greatest Challenge for Rainey is getting the rhythm and flow as a producer standpoint. It is so complicated that it requires good organization. “It is logistics, scheduling and coordination; such as scheduling the theatre and making sure that team leaders have all the documentation they need. Also, making sure that the screeners have the correct slate for each film. The film community is very encouraging and forgiving when mistakes occur. However, it takes courage to play the 48 Hour Film Project.” 

Anna Tozzi Barbay with 3 make up cuts on her face in front of a lit up green curtain.
Anna during their 48 Hour Stuck @ Home Project. Photo courtesy of Anna Tozzi Barbay.

Rainey would “Love to see a rain forest of local film makers. I want to cultivate our local crop from seedlings, they come back next year and it’s a bigger plant. As humans, we are in a constant state of becoming all of our lives. The 48 Hour Film project is a microcosm of that idea. It is a setting that helps you to succeed and grow.” 

Some noteworthy participants include Local Actors such Joel King, who played George Washington in Legend and Lies and Candy Dennis who was in Sixth Sense. Other noteworthy actors include Martin Freeman and J K Simmons.

If you would like to view more information on the 48 Hour Film project go to their website.