Ellie Frances, left, and Tracey Walker hope to carry on the legacy of Maureen Fahey Dreher with their new venture, Rossa Casting Agency. Courtesy Terry Johnston
At the close of December, Rossa Casting Agency introduced itself to West Michigan via Facebook.
The firm is not new to the area, however. It was formerly Fahey Dreher Casting.
Over the past year, couple and business partners Ellie Frances and Tracey Walker have been in the process of taking over ownership of Fahey Dreher Casting from its founder, Maureen Fahey Dreher.
Fahey Dreher started the agency in the 1980s and recently decided she was ready to retire and wanted to see her business continue. So in 2014, she approached Frances and Walker about taking over. Both had previously worked for Fahey Dreher, first as talent and later as full-time employees of the business in administrative roles.
“She came to us about her retirement and carrying on her legacy,” Frances said.
Frances said the fact that both of them had worked for the company and had existing relationships with Fahey Dreher made the transition easy for everyone. They set a transition plan in motion.
“She said, ‘I want to be retired 100 percent by the end of 2015,’” Walker said.
Frances and Walker took over the day-to-day operation of the company at the start of 2015 and began its soft transition, introducing themselves to clients and local talent — most of whom they already knew from their relationship with the company and from being part of the area’s theater community.
By June, the pair took over full ownership of the company, with Fahey Dreher serving in a consulting role as needed through the rest of the year.
Instead of renaming the company after themselves, which is traditionally how casting agencies are named, Frances and Walker decided to rename the company to fit their plans for its future.
“Where we want the company to grow is beyond the two of us,” Frances said.
Walker explained Rossa Casting Agency was chosen based on the pair’s love of all things Italian — rossa is the Italian word for red — as well as what the color red symbolizes — passion, drive and strength — and the fact that they are both redheads.
Frances and Walker said they want to carry on the firm’s legacy and plan to remain loyal to Fahey Dreher’s mission of casting local talent, but they also have plans to make some changes they believe can grow the company.
They said when Fahey Dreher started the agency, she wanted to help local talent find more work by connecting them with local opportunities.
Her husband, Paul Dreher, was the founder and director of Grand Rapids Civic Theatre, so she was familiar with many of the area’s local actors and wanted to help connect them with local companies like Meijer, Steelcase, Herman Miller and others that were casting for parts in their commercials, educational videos and other casting needs.
“Meijer, Amway, etc. — their models and casting weren’t coming from the West Michigan area,” Walker said. “They were going to Detroit or Chicago (for talent). We had people who were actors and talent here in Grand Rapids who were working through an agent in Chicago to do something with Amway, which is located here.”
Fahey Dreher helped local companies realize they didn’t have to leave the area to find the talent they needed.
Though the agency’s mission is to help cast local talent, Frances and Walker said, as a casting agency, they will be working on behalf of clients, not actors.
“There is a difference between a talent agent and a casting agent,” Walker said.
She said a talent agent represents an actor and works on his or her behalf to help land roles, while a casting agency works on behalf of a client, including producers, companies, movie studios, artistic directors, theaters and others who are looking to cast talent.
Walker said Rossa Casting keeps a database of local talent so when a client is looking to cast for a project, the company can find suitable options to fill the roles.
“If you are an actor and you walk into our office with a headshot, we’ll put you in the database and we’ll come and find you if we have a role, but we aren’t going to advocate on your behalf,” she said.
Frances and Walker want to streamline the casting process to make it more efficient.
“We are working on developing our own software to help make our casting easier for everyone,” Frances said.
They are also building the company’s online presence. Frances said the company is focusing first on Facebook and Twitter but will include other platforms, as well, like Instagram and Snapchat.
“The luxury of having two of us is we can take what Maureen was doing on her own and divide it,” she said.
Frances said her role will be more on the talent development and marketing side, while Walker’s role will be more focused on the business and client side.
Frances currently spends 10 months of the year living and working in New York City and regularly interacting with casting directors there.
“I’m working as an actor in New York, and I am working with casting directors all the time, going in for workshops, having regular meetings, trying to see what is the next wave in casting — everything from artistic to administrative,” she said. “With me living in both states, it is going to bring a different perspective.
“When you are trying to push an industry of our size, you have to look at what other, bigger cities are doing and see what we can apply here.”
By being aware of what is happening in larger markets, Frances and Walker hope to open up more casting opportunities for local talent.
“We can play with the big kids and can cast things in other states with local talent,” Frances said. “If someone is bringing a project here, they don’t have to bring talent with them, and that is a big thing.”
Walker said while the loss of the film incentives hurt the industry, there is still plenty of work in the area and she expects Rossa Casting to have opportunities for growth.
When asked about possible challenges, Frances and Walker said while they hope it isn’t an issue, the fact that they are an openly LGBT couple is something they have had to take into consideration.
“We do happen to be in a relationship and we aren’t going to shy away from that,” Walker said. “Sometimes people don’t want to work with you if you are gay — and that is not just a West Michigan thing; it is an anywhere thing. So it is important.”
Walker said she and Frances view being gay business owners as important for the region.
“In West Michigan specifically, being a gay business owner, a female business owner, I do think it’s important,” she said. “I think it’s positive, when you have other businesses and people thinking about moving to West Michigan, to be able to say, ‘It’s a place for you and it is accepting.’”