Zoe Jackson and Richard Branson

Zoe is living the dream…

 

 

Zoe Jackson always had big dreams. By the age of four, she knew she wanted to perform on stage. But, there was a strong entrepreneurial streak in her too, as evidenced by the fact that, aged 8, she set up a café in her kitchen at home and tried to sell the toasted bagels back to her parents that they had just prepared for her breakfast.

 

At 16 she wanted to go to the National Youth Theatre but could not afford the £2,000 fee. Eschewing the usual fundraising methods suggested by the theatre (car washing, holding bake sales etc.), Zoe decided to do something much more exciting and closely allied to her own dreams to raise the money.

 

Youthful vibrancy

Together with a group of around 30 friends, she staged a variety performance at her school in St Albans. She called the show Living the Dream to convey the fact that it represented what she hoped, one day, to do with her life. It was 2006.

 

The young people not only performed in Living the Dream, but also wrote, choreographed, staged and managed the entire show. It was a huge success and raised twice the amount Zoe needed for her course. The response from people who saw the show was phenomenal, as Zoe explains:

 

“Various people described it as absolutely stunning. I think it was a huge shock to people that we had organised the whole thing ourselves, from the costumes to the comedy scripts. There was a youthful vibrancy about it that was unlike anything else that was around at the time. People immediately started asking when we were going to do the next one.”

 

The following year, Zoe staged a second Living the Dream show. This time, she succeeded in obtaining an arts grant from the local council of £11,000, which meant that she was able to pay a group of local teenagers to help produce the show. “It was hard work,” she admits, “with 10 17-year olds producing the show, each with big ideas and brimming over with creative energy. It was the first time I had to draw the line between business and personal. I do think it is hard working with friends.”

 

Accessible to all

The success of the second show equalled that of the first. Throughout her A levels and degree course at the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts, Zoe continued to stage an annual Living the Dream show in St Albans, each time pulling in more and more local young people. “I am passionate about making the arts affordable and accessible to all,” says Zoe, “so we never turned anyone away who wanted to be in the show.” Consequently, the number of performers and organisers more than doubled in four years.

 

Stuck on the sofa

By the time Zoe graduated from the Liverpool Institute in 2010, the pot of arts funding from the council had dried up and she was left wondering how she was going to continue putting on shows. At this time, too, Zoe underwent major surgery on her jaw and developed complications.

“I was, basically, housebound for six months, unable to do anything. My friends who had graduated from the performing arts school at the same time as me were all going off to auditions for West End shows and stuff like that. I was stuck on the sofa with a hamster face, watching TV.”

 

Flash mob

One day Zoe saw an advertisement for T Mobile featuring a flash mob. It gave her an idea and, never one to let an opportunity to pass her by, Zoe immediately got on the phone to St Pancras International Railway Station. She pitched the idea to them of organising a flash mob in the station concourse. “I’ve never been afraid to ask for what I wanted and, as it happened, the timing was perfect as St Pancras was keen to promote itself as a hub of culture and the arts, so they went for the idea straight away.”

 

Zoe had two weeks to pull together the performance and a £2,000 budget to cover the performers’ travel expenses. On New Year’s Eve 2010, people passing through St Pancras were surprised when a young man in the crowd started gyrating Michael Jackson-style. As music blared out over the loud speakers, he was quickly joined by a handful of young people and then others until, after a few minutes, more than 100 young people were street dancing in St Pancras’ main concourse. The joy and energy was palpable and the response from passers-by was amazing. One guy summed up the feeling, saying: “Fantastic to see much energy and enthusiasm from a group of young people just enjoying themselves and having fun. It’s a really good advert for young people because so often they get such a bad press. It’s great to see them in this kind of light.” The film of the St Pancras flash mob has received over 500,000 views on YouTube to date.

 

School of performing arts

Buoyed by the success of this venture, and utterly sick of being confined to the house, Zoe decided that what she really wanted to do next was to set up a school of performing arts. “We had no premises and no funding but I was determined that this was what I wanted to do,” says Zoe.

“It was to be run by young people for young people. I wanted to empower local kids to give performing arts a go, so it had to be inexpensive and accessible to all.”

“My old junior school offered me discount rehearsal space. My friends and I started holding classes there at £5 per class. It was really hit and miss… some classes no-one turned up. But we persisted, first with street dance, then musical theatre and contemporary dance. We also began offering after school clubs in local schools.”

Living The Dream School 2012

Once again, the response was amazing. The local kids loved it and their parents were happy that they had somewhere to go that was fun, educational and didn’t cost a fortune. Today, the Living the Dream School of Performing Arts works with over 500 young people, aged from five to 25, who take part in workshops, classes, flash mobs and events. All of the teachers are aged between 18 and 25 and the youth-led environment has a very different feel and ethos to conventional theatre schools. As yet the school has no permanent home and offers its classes in hired dance studios and school halls. It hopes, one day, to have its own purpose-built performing arts centre.

 

I Have a Dream

In 2011, like most of us, Zoe watched, horrified, as London burned during the riots. Unlike most of us, however, she decided to do something positive about it. Convinced that young people were crying out for their voices to be heard and determined to challenge the negative perception of young people being portrayed in the media, she set up a professional dance company for young people. In March 2012, they presented I Have a Dream, their showcase performance, at the Arts Depot in London. Inspired by Martin Luther King’s ground-breaking speech which marks its 50th anniversary in 2013, I Have a Dream was a spellbinding mix of dance, music and visual arts depicting the breaking down of barriers that hold people back in life.

 

It is just one of many breathtaking performances by the Living the Dream company. In March 2013, it was invited to perform in Westminster Abbey in front of royalty to celebrate Commonwealth Day.

Westminster Abbey - Living the Dream

The Dream Foundation

On the back of the I Have a Dream show, Zoe founded The Dream Foundation. It is a charity that aims to work with around 1,000 of the most disadvantaged young people in London and Hertfordshire, before taking its message of hope out to young people across the UK. The charity is working to raise £250,000 so that it can take performing arts workshops into schools in some of the most disadvantaged areas of London and Hertfordshire. It will then train and mentor a small group from each school, giving them an opportunity to perform in the I Have a Dream show and receive professional coaching from the Living the Dream company.

 

The potential to change lives

“The message we want to send out to young people is that it is great to have a dream and that they can go for it. Dance and the arts have the potential to change lives.”

“It gives young people an amazing sense of achievement to come together as a group and master a performance routine. The feeling of being on stage in front of an audience is amazing. We want to help young people who are at risk or who face limited life chance to be able to find their talent, discover their own identity and express themselves through performance. By giving them this chance, maybe we can prevent some of them from going down the wrong path and we can help open up new opportunities for them.  It has been amazing already to see how the young people we worked with in the first I Have a Dream show have increased in confidence and blossomed into young adults.”

 

An ambassador for young people

As a result of her work with young people, Zoe was invited to become the London ambassador for Virgin Media Pioneers, an online community for young entrepreneurs. Zoe was selected by Richard Branson to campaign for the idea of business start-up loans for young people from the government.  The idea is similar to student loans, giving young people an opportunity to pay back the loan at a low rate of interest. In 2012, the government launched the Start Up Loans Scheme, and Zoe is now working as an ambassador for the scheme alongside former Dragons Den participant, James Caan.

Richard Branson and Living the Dream

Zoe says: “Young people don’t necessarily realise that setting up a business is an option for them. When I was at school, I can remember my careers adviser frowning at me when I said I wanted to go into the performing arts and set up my own business. Young people aren’t always aware, either, that some of their role models are entrepreneurs. For example, there is a young rapper who has set up his own T-shirt company. Part of my role is to make young people aware of what is possible and what other people are doing and to encourage them to give it a go themselves.”

 

Further ambitions

Although she’s only 23, you might think that Zoe had few ambitions left to realise, but you would be wrong. “We are setting up a talent agency later this year. We will be encouraging raw talent – real, honest performers not the polished performances you see from stage school kids. In the future, I also hope to create an award-winning West End show and to set up a performing arts centre, either in London or Hertfordshire.”

 

Women of the Future award

In 2011, Zoe was named the winner of the Women of the Future in the Arts, Media and Culture awards with Real Business. “I am proud of this. It really hit home to me what I have achieved so far. I have big dreams and I have created an amazing business. I want to continue to build on this and I really want to make a difference.”

Zoe Jackson Living the Dream

Believe in yourself

Zoe’s advice for any other young people harbouring big dreams?

“Believe in yourself and your dream. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want – OK, some people say no, but some do say yes.”

“Networking is important but it’s not about getting what you can out of people. It’s about connecting people you think could benefit one another. You will find, then, that you will benefit, too, in other ways. Richard Branson once said “Do good, have fun and the money will come”. I can’t really better that. We all have an obligation to make a difference. How do you plan to make a difference?”

Living the Dream: http://www.livingthedreamcompany.co.uk/

The Dream Foundation charity: http://www.livingthedreamcompany.co.uk/foundation.html

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