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.