On March 23, 2020, the UK officially went into lockdown and our industry ground to a halt. Three weeks earlier, I'd finished producing the second production from Just Add Milk (JAM) at VAULT Festival in two years, Who Cares, and we'd established ourselves as one of the leading casting and agent workshop companies in London. Little did we know that the next 18 months would change everything for us.
After we wrapped in July 2021 for a summer break, Kristian (Co-Creative Director) and I realised we had been working non-stop for a year and a half. Juggling full-time jobs and trying to run JAM had been enough for now, and we needed a reset.
So when FlairBox approached me to write an article, I had to try to filter through my burnt-out state of mind and think of something interesting to write about. Though obvious now, our journey through the last 18 months wasn’t a clear choice and I never thought that discussing our workshops would be a hit - but it’s one of the most popular subjects when I meet people who've heard about JAM or seen our work online.
When we first went into lockdown, we cancelled and refunded all of our in-person workshops for the foreseeable future. We initially toyed with the idea of hosting a few via Zoom, but I still remember that idea being alien to us and something we didn’t reconsider for another month.
Instead, we delivered a load of in-kind (free) workshops and seminars with leading industry professionals to creatives in the industry who were willing to offer their help.
From Katie Posner (Artistic Director of Paines Plough) to Tom Bellerby (Resident Director at Donmar Warehouse), we cultivated a brand new audience because of the accessibility and open to all attitude we had and still have.
The company’s ethos has been developed and redeveloped over the past few years and now we live by making the industry accessible for actors. We knew that everyone in our industry was affected by the pandemic, but our duty was always to support actors from the day the company was founded. So we ensured there were support workshops and seminars that offered actors the chance to diversify their skills – in areas such as producing and marketing – while the industry stalled.
The Zoom Boom
Fast forward to May 2020 and we started to see another company ploughing ahead with online Zoom casting workshops. Though they were charging a hefty amount, and we knew we could do too, actors were absolutely desperate to continue their training, or networking, and meet casting directors and agents as they had done beforehand in real life.
The only difference was, actors across the entire country and Ireland would be able to take part in these, creating accessibility on a scale never seen before.
The biggest hurdle, before we launched our own casting workshops, was the price. The only other company (at the time) was charging a lot more than we considered fair so we cut our prices significantly and also made it clear on our website and communications that any actors who were going through financial hardship could take part in our workshops for free - no questions asked.
Despite there being an incredible amount of interest from actors, in often oversubscribed workshops, we had to make sure it was fair and continue to be as affordable as possible.
By June 2020, we'd established ourselves as the only other company that offered casting and agent workshops. Though we always made sure we were the most affordable, our type of workshop was also different to the other type of workshop available.
We knew that actors were interested in having exclusive 1-to-1 time with casting directors and agents so we scrapped the group workshop element and offered individual 12-15 minute slots for actors - focusing on giving participants as much attention as possible rather than getting lost in a group workshop.
With this format established, actors now had the opportunity to choose between both types of workshops and stock suddenly went through the roof.
We conduct a lot of feedback from the actors that take part in our workshops and one common piece of information we receive is how useful the 1-to-1 element is.
Once the industry started to reopen and Zoom auditions were taking place, our actors were finding auditions and self-tapes much easier because they had extensive experience and knowledge in how to film themselves, use the technology efficiently and communicate with casting directors properly.
Another piece of feedback we often hear is that having those 12-15 minutes alone with the casting director is something that was only accessible before through auditions.
Simply put, if you didn’t have an audition, you couldn’t practice being in the room (or in the Zoom-room) properly. Though group Zoom sessions are useful, handing the power over the actor and giving them the chance to command total attention is crucial for an actor's development - from being under pressure delivering their mono/duologue in an audition atmosphere with all eyes on them, to simply being able to converse with the casting director.
Another piece of feedback that crept up, though more so on social media, was the growing realisation that casting directors are normal people like you and I. This may come across as well in group sessions, but in 1-to-1 sessions, actors were (and still are) regularly feeding back that they felt or feel safe in the room with casting directors, and were able to easily reach new levels or discover new things about their mono/duologues thanks to the casting director’s support and feedback.
Ultimately, they want you to do the best that you can. They are there to help you achieve your best performance. Every single casting director that we work with is briefed beforehand on how we work and the friendly, actor-comes-first atmosphere we try to create on Zoom and in the room.
At JAM, we’ve now found a way of working that provides actors with a unique experience and service to continue their development. But that’s not to say there aren’t other companies out there that may suit you better.
Unless you don’t use social media, you’ll have seen countless companies emerge over the past 18 months that offer casting and agent workshops online. As the lockdowns came into play, and out of play, we saw more and more companies forming and offering these services which we thought were excellent.
The original duopoly of casting workshop companies was never going to last, so it’s brilliant to see these new companies all offering different things as part of their services.
As we look to Autumn 2021, we’ve spent the summer refining what we offer in terms of courses. Our courses are designed to offer actors more contact time than our workshops, usually between 3-12 weeks, and have actors working with well-known directors and industry professionals.
Though casting and agent workshops will continue to be the crux of the work we offer, courses are proving to be more and more popular with actors who want to really take their development to the next level. Our courses from January to June have included directors like Sarah Bedi (The Globe) and Sean Turner (The Play that Goes Wrong, West End).
For us, it’s important for the industry professionals we work with (whether that’s a casting director, director, agent and so on) to buy into us as a company first before we work with them - 10 times out of 10, they do. This element of understanding is so crucial as they realise our intent to create affordable, accessible work for actors across the UK to continue to make the industry accessible.
The understanding that they’re a part of something much bigger than just a workshop or course is the key, and this leads to them delivering extra-special sessions for our actors.
If you’re interested in finding out more about our workshops or courses, please head to our website to find out more. Kristian and I are also extremely happy to answer your questions about the work we do.
Liam studied a BA (Hons) in Theatre at The University of Hull and an MA at the Academy of Live & Recorded Arts. He has had producing roles at Arcola Theatre, Theatre503 and Tara Finney Productions as well as independently producing for Liam McLaughlin Productions Ltd, Klein Blue and Moonchild. He works for the RSC and was formerly the Marketing Manager at Park Theatre. Liam has produced successful Arts Council England-funded projects in the form of UK Tours, Off West End and UK Festival runs. He is a Stage One Bursary recipient.