Set up by casting directors Rosie and James Pearson, Collective Creative Initiative (CCI) was formed in the early days of lockdown to support actors and keep them engaged through these difficult times. By any measure, it’s been a tremendous success and might well outlast the virus. We spoke to the Pearsons about how it came about, the impact it’s having, and what the future of CCI looks like.
The Pearsons were in New York in March to see SIX The Musical open on Broadway. Flying there, Rosie says she was aware of a “mild risk” from this thing called Coronavirus, “but everyone was just talking about washing your hands. And then Broadway closed the day SIX was meant to open. That’s when we knew this was going to be bad.”
They flew home to a deluge of calls and emails from panicking clients. “Within 24 hours,” says Rose, “we went from being about to employ an assistant to having zero income.” James admits they cried a lot, adding: “It was horrible.”
However, past experiences of producers going bust had given them practice in disaster management, and even before they had come to terms with what was happening in the present, they began looking to the future. “Big knocks reprogramme your brain,” says James, “allowing you to cope with anything.”
From an idea to an entity in under two weeks
What would become the Collective Creative Initiative began from a moment of foresight: “A lot of people started doing stuff for free. We did lots of Q&A and podcasts, partly to feel connected,” says Rosie. “We saw that need for support, connection, and development across the industry, but it’s not sustainable for everyone to do everything for free for the foreseeable future. Then a friend sent us a link to Innovate UK, who mostly support industries like technology and manufacturing. You could apply for £50,000 with an idea for industries impacted by Coronavirus. We put together our proposal, thinking that as the arts probably aren’t top priority at the moment, we probably wouldn’t get this money, especially as the idea is non-profit. And they came back and said we’d won the money and had to launch it in 12 days.” James nearly jumps out of his seat as he interjects: “Nine days, actually! From getting the money to launch.”
In those nine days, the Pearsons built a website, leveraged their social media followers for marketing, and launched CCI with 30 hours a week of classes, talks, and sessions for performers “to maintain or grow their skillset.” They’ve now been open for eight weeks and have won nearly 50,000 viewers. The countless emails they’ve received from actors about mental health – how it has saved people, energised them and given them purpose – “brought tears to our eyes.”
I ask if James and Rosie’s backgrounds as performers fed into their desire to help and their ability to hustle? James agrees that the years of “going through every hardship actors go through,” surviving with a mixture of busking and shoe-shining, definitely helped. Rosie adds that the habit of “always looking for opportunities” is just as much a part of the casting world, too: “With the amount of Q&As online now, I think actors are starting to realise that we’re also pitching for work!”
How the pandemic has highlighted deeper industry issues
Alongside keeping actors busy, James spies a higher purpose to CCI – one that’s important for its future. His eyes light up as he explains: “We wanted to reach people from all backgrounds with this, communities for whom acting is a pipe dream.” While striving for inclusivity, they’re open about how difficult it’s been. “Setting out, diversity was key and we said: ‘Let's find commercial producers of colour’ – but then found there aren’t really any in the UK. When you’re doing this on a daily basis, the problem in our industry becomes really clear. Especially in theatre, you can see why people from some backgrounds don’t feel like they can get involved. There’s no one at the top leading the way. Where is the British-Asian Andrew Lloyd Webber? They don’t exist.”
The online classes remove cost and geography from the equation, but the Pearsons are working hard to ensure there are no other barriers to ensure that “anyone is in a position to access all of these classes,” with the aim of drawing “representation from all communities.”
“We’re not there yet,” says James, though he’s excited about the scale of the challenge and opportunity. “When we come out of this, we can sort of redesign theatre. The bits we didn’t like before, we can change – we don’t have to go back. And one day, we can have people on stage from all areas of life, of any ethnicity. It can just be about talent.”
This is what’s got them thinking past November, when their initial funding runs out. Although they’re exploring branching out to Australia and the USA, the focus is to support British actors and practitioners, and one thing that won’t change is free access: “We’re looking at funding because it’s imperative it stays free,” says Rosie. “We don’t want to suddenly switch the money thing on.”
They could definitely use some help. “We need four of us, at least. So far, it’s been a six-day week, 12 hours a day.” But while their casting business is yet to return, the CCI has helped them build new connections.
An example is director Nick Bagnall. A neighbour from their old Liverpool office next door to the Everyman Theatre, they’d tried to meet him for years, but it never happened. “But within two days of launching CCI,” says James, “he was one of our practitioners and doing phenomenal sessions.” They’ve loved discovering new creatives, too, and James reels off some of his favourites: Monica Gaga on improvisation, Omar F Okai on sightreading, audition skills with Jamie Armitage. “It’s mind-blowing, the talent out there and wanting to be part of this. And if it was in a room you might get about 15 people in a class, whereas some sessions have had 1,500 people watching.”
Bridging disciplines and continents
They’ve also found it interesting to discover who’s watching. They’ve received messages from actors from New Zealand, and spoke to a dancer who’s now fallen in love with Shakespeare: “She said she’d have felt humiliated walking into a session with actors. Four classes in, she’s loving it and wants to make it part of her career.” James sympathises – he did Jackie Kibuka’s street dance class in his office but would never walk into a dance studio. Now, not only can he throw shapes, but “it's also a way for us as casting directors to learn about other styles of performance. We haven’t cast a street-dance show, but now I’ve watched Jackie teach it, I get the structure, so I could in the future.”
As for them, how has it been running something with more contact-hours than a drama school during a pandemic? “Hard,” admits Rosie. She and James live and work together. “We do try to take one day a week where we don’t answer emails. But this isn’t a normal time, is it? We’re just doing what we have to. Everyone’s in survival mode – there is no normality at the moment.”
James laughs. “Thank God for Lidl’s wine selection.”
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