Adam Welsh, the founder of the Divergent Talent Group, reveals how his own experiences led him to work towards improving accessibility in the television business and explains what the industry can do to support neurodivergent artists in front and behind the camera.
Sitting in a sushi bar in Borehamwood at the tail end of the pandemic, I found myself pondering the diverse career I had built as an artist over nearly two decades. I’d trained as an actor in 2005, but my journey had meandered (sometimes somersaulted) through acting, writing, directing, sound designing, being in a band, and even dressing as a parrot in Russia.
I was what some might call a jack of all trades. But this label carried a stigma – as my dad used to say, “Don’t be a jack of all trades, son.” Strangely, this phrase, coined in the mid-15th century, was originally positive. The full version is, ‘A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.’ Somehow, modern life twisted its meaning, making it seem like a shameful thing. I felt it.
Cut to the sushi bar, where I was messaging a former student of mine named Keir, whom I’d taught at drama school during my stints between artistic endeavours. Our conversations revolved around Kier’s struggles in the entertainment industry, often feeling like a lot of things didn’t make much sense. In Kier, I saw the same issues I had faced during my early career as an actor. The agent-client relationship, in particular, was not what either of us imagined it to be.
When I graduated in 2008, my first agent’s priorities didn’t align with mine. They wanted me to do musicals, despite my desire to do Chekhov. In their defence, I had trained in musical theatre, but I saw it more as training to be a multidisciplinary artist rather than a lesson in how to do eight shows a week in Hairspray. I realised pretty soon after I graduated that I was wrong. I’d trained in musical theatre, and that’s how the industry wanted to see me. “But, you’ll have to do musicals….”
Actors are commodified. They become products to be selected as their unique value is monetised by others, not least agents. And this is especially true for recent graduates.
Kier faced similar challenges in navigating the industry after graduating, and I took it upon myself to support him through this time, ultimately leading to him leaving his agent. This took tremendous courage, especially for a recent graduate with no clear path forward. Many young actors would rather spend a decade with a bad agent than be without one. I had a sudden and compelling urge to find Keir a job, though I had no clear plan as to how, but I thought, ‘No one will take me seriously if I don’t come up with a professional agency.’ So I did, right there and then, while dipping my tempura vegetables in soy sauce.
Around this time, I received an ADHD diagnosis. Through my conversations with Keir, it became evident to him that he might also have ADHD, and that many of the challenges we shared could be because of this. Then the word ‘divergent’ came into my head. I WhatsApped Keir: “What if I started an agency that was exclusively for neurodivergent artists? And if the agency represented artists in a way that’s designed to support their specific goals and ambitions and by working in a way that’s tailored to their particular needs?”
I incorporated the agency within 24 hours, made a website, created a makeshift logo on Canva, and tweeted a callout for clients. I was taken aback by the overwhelming demand for an agency like ours. We’ve grown significantly since then, with a growing agent team and roster.
What sets us apart from other agencies is our unique perspective on accessibility. We look at everything through the lens of access, from contract negotiations to sourcing support workers for our clients. We reinvest a percentage of our commission back into our clients directly, whether that be for development opportunities or therapy. We have a development programme in the works with the Young Vic theatre in London and we’ve developed specialised knowledge that we share through our consultancy services, helping film and TV production companies to become more neuro-inclusive.
But our role goes beyond traditional representation. We understand the challenges of being an artist, especially when neurodivergence or disability is thrown into the mix. We don’t push our clients; we push for them. We ensure they receive the right support and prioritise their mental health and wellbeing over all else. This is not just good will: we work in this way because it makes good business sense to support these pioneering and important artists to develop and maintain meaningful and sustainable careers.
Neurodivergent artists often have a creative and innovative approach to problem-solving and thinking, which can lead to unique and surprising results. They have intuitive and emotionally charged creative processes, allowing them to delve deeply into character emotions and relationships. Neurodivergent artists often possess an independent and non-conformist streak too, which may influence their work.
Barbie director and co-writer Greta Gerwig is a fellow ADHDer. While it’s impossible to say how her ADHD impacted the final movie, having seen it, it’s hard for me to say how it didn’t impact the movie. Gerwig talked about “creating an atmosphere of acceptance, no wrong answers, no judgement” on set. She wanted people “to feel safe, to bring wonderfully wild things to the table, which they otherwise might not want to.” However you look at it and whatever you think of the movie, it is the highest-grossing film in Warner Bros’s 100-year history.
I often get asked what the industry can do to support neurodivergent artists. It’s not about quick fixes, but a mindset shift. Instead of thinking of neurodivergent artists as needing accommodations, create an inclusive environment for everyone. Instead of thinking about neurodivergent artists as being on the perimeter, looking in, they need to be recognised as vital. Working inclusively is not a charitable gesture; it makes sense on multiple levels and almost always means better art.