Saturday, February 5, 2011

LA, NY or Chicago?

The midwest, including Chicago, my former stomping grounds, has been staggered by this relentless weather as of late. I really didn't enjoy Chicago as a city. Not at all. I lived there for ten years. Before that I lived in NYC for about fifteen years, give or take. I say 'give or take' because easily half of that time I spent 'on the road.' Out doing theatre gigs, that is. And yet, I have nothing but fond memories of NY. Chicago is quite a different story. I simply don't understand why Chicagoans are so fiercely defensive of their city. It's a miserable place to live, geographically. Now, true, it is a very pretty city when the weather is nice. The Loop, the downtown area of the city, is quite diverse, I suppose. And I do agree there are a lot of places to eat in the city. But the weather is nice there very briefly over the course of a year and does one really want to live in a city simply because it has a few nice restaurants? I would hope not.

Artistically, Chicago holds some adventurous venues, theatrically speaking. But unless one works on a continual basis at, say, Steppenwolf or The Goodman, it's nearly impossible to make a living as an actor there. It is, instead, the largest community theatre town in the world. Thousands of actors working for free in small, storefront venues. Yes, some of the work is stellar, but pursuit of a career there eventually means driving a cab or waiting tables or being a secretary and then giving up all your free time to do theatre at night in a fifty-seat house that is usually less than half full. I don't really consider that a career.

Now, of course, one can run into the same professional problems in NY or LA. But those cities offer the one thing Chicago does not: the carrot on the proverbial artistic stick. There is always the chance, even the opportunity, to land the 'break out' role, the big money, the brass ring, the pot of gold barely hidden at the end of the rainbow. Chicago, realistically speaking, doesn't offer this.

One of the things I noticed in my decade in Chicago is that a lot of young actors, fresh out of academia, coddle an ill-advised plan to 'train' in Chicago and then move to NY or LA. Theoretically, I suppose that's not a bad idea. Realistically, it's stupid. If an actor has reached the age of 22 or 23 or whatever and is still thinking with a little more experience he or she might be ready for some 'big gigs,' well, chances are that actor will never be ready. Unless the actor is suffering under a relievable 'crisis of confidence' this approach to a career rarely works.

The major problem is the simple fact that no one sees your work in Chicago. No one of importance, that is.

LA is king of the 99-seat venue. Hundreds of them. Even more than Chicago and NY combined, I'd venture to say. Now, one of my pet peeves here on the west coast is the 99-seat theatre that charges 'dues' for membership. It's a scam. It's a necessary scam sometimes, but a scam nonetheless. Young actors (and even older, more experienced actors) pay around $75 a month to 'be in plays.' I know of one place in NoHo out here that has some sixty dues-paying 'members.' And every now and then they do a play, some one-acts or something trite like that, and just rake in the cash. They don't offer classes for the 'dues,' they don't offer training of any sort, they just take the money and put the actor's headshot up in the lobby as a 'member' of the troupe. Eventually, of course, the actors, most of them anyway, wise up and pull out of the 'troupe.' The company then posts an ad on Actors Access and drags in a whole new gullible gaggle of actors happy to give them $75 to be in the 'troupe.' This scenario repeats itself endlessly year after year after year because sadly there is no shortage of hopeful young actors in Los Angeles.

This practice is not limited to LA but I have to say, I see it more often here than in NY or Chicago. I find it irresponsible, deplorable, and most bothersome, simply cruel. Alas, life is not fair and my kvetching about it doesn't make it so.

Steppenwolf, of course, was the exception to the rule in Chicago. But even the wonderful actors that came out of that institution didn't thrive until they had peddled their wares, via the company, in New York.

In the final analysis, Chicago is the city actors fly over to get to other cities. But I want to be clear: some of the finest actors I've ever met in 35 years in this business are in Chicago. Geography has absolutely nothing to do with talent. But they are, literally and figuratively, spinning their wheels there.

There for awhile a lot of filming was taking place in Chicago. Nowadays whenever I see a film that was shot there (The Fugitive, Blues Brothers, Dillinger) I see a bunch of people I know from that community. They have a line here, a line there. Small roles, one liners, cameos. People I know to be terrific actors. People I've seen do just awesome work on stage in front of about 12 people. And their claim to fame is saying, "He went thataway" in a big money hollywood movie.

After all is said and done, Chicago has become a 'friends and family' city, theatrically speaking. While living there I realized that the audience usually consisted of other actors and family members coming to see little Timmy act. To be fair, a lot of times this is also true of the 99-seat 'pay to act' venues in Los Angeles. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but is that really why any of us do this? I don't think so. Being a serious actor in Chicago eventually becomes a parody of the business itself. "You should have seen my Biff Loman at 'Grandpa's Strasberg Institute of Serious Acting' down on Addison Street. It was incredible!"

There are pitfalls everywhere in this business. I'm sort of picking on Chicago right now, but that city is certainly not alone when it comes to living a life of the mind in theatre. The bottom line is, if you're not sure you're 'ready' for NY or LA so you go to Chicago to 'get ready,' well, it's a cop out. Either you're good or you're not. A few years of storefront theatre is not going to make a difference.

See you tomorrow.

1 comment:

John Wehrman said...

You do have some valid points. And I have a lot of respect for someone who spent ALOT of time in all three major cities. However, your perspective on the business on a whole seems INCREDIBLY OUTDATED. It seems you are perptrating the false idea of a "brass ring" existing in NYC or LA; if it ever did.... Sure perhaps there was a fleeting glimpse of the fairytale story of the unkown being "discovered" in the 80's (i.e. Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt).

But what you seem to not understand is that Hollywood, and certainly not NYC, are not in the business of discovering the next big thing. That ended in the 90's. I don't think I need to illustrate countless unnecessary examples of evidence. They are looking for a brand that will keep them in business and protect their coveted real estate assets. That's it. Aaron Spelling's ilk need to protect his mansions and wealth and they do so by processing the same garbage. How's that for "friends and family"? If you look at the TV/Film screen, you see a collage of faces and bodies that might as well be the same person. It's no coincidence, it's a brand sold to Joe American to affirm/reinforce middle class consumerism. The days of the "great actor" and the movie star are done.

That being said I still believe, despite my own gripes, Chicago to be the greatest city for theatre and acting. I can say this with a grain of confidence having lived there for four years and one year in NYC. This is evident in the fact that NYC has imported a number of shows that originated in Chicago. NYC buys great plays, they no longer make them. Broadway theatres have become souless hotels whereby producers rent them out in hopes of luring the toursits away from an oversized Olive Garden to spend $150 on a workshop production that has no artistic merit (I'm looking at you Spiderman). I saw a horrendous new play from Martin McDonagh starring Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell, Zoe Kazan and Anthony Mackie. That play would have never made it past the negotiation table if it was to star Joe Bus Driver or "Little Timmy".

And the many new plays that are produced in NYC are nothing more than an enlogated soap opera episode because that's what producers think the public likes and because they're CHEAP to produce. Or it's a flimsy one act that Hipster Jones wrote with his friends in his Williamsburg loft (biting sarcasm).

I am one of those actors you refer to that moved to Chicago to break my teeth in. And I'm glad and proud I did. It gave me an aesthetic to value my work by and the community I take part in wherever I am as an actor. It taught me the value of what it means to be part of an ensemble rather than outright aiming for a "brass ring" that doesn't exist. (Though if any producers or agents are reading this, I'm more than happy to wear it). It taught me to not be fooled into the cheap celebrity worship of NYC theatre. I felt sorry for my NYC actor friends who thought McDonagh's new play was "AMAZING". I felt sorry for them because they didn't see The Cherry Orchard at Steppenwolf or In a Dark Dark House at Profiles Theatre. Or how about Unchanging Love at The Artistic Home. These were the performances/productions that still serve as my first teachers in great acting.

I believe it to be very necessary for any actor to at some point live in all three cities, if one can, to understand and appreciate the community they are taking part in. And on a final note, I can assure you that hardly any of the cab drivers in Chicago are aspiring actors these days.