An actor friend of mine once shared a story with me. The day he told his father he had decided to become an actor, his dad replied with one word. With his brow wrinkled and a scowl of confusion on his face, his father cleared his throat and asked, “Why?”

That’s a fair question. For most of us actor types, we do it because we love it. There’s something irresistible about being in front of people, pretending to be something you’re not. The pull of the stage, or the camera, or the eyes of a crowd can be strong, allowing us to tap into instincts we can only count on when we’re being watched, when an audience is depending on us for something. For some of us, performing recharges our batteries.

But even though we might love acting, not everyone decides to make it a career. Pressures from family, society, or simple practicality prevail, and we choose much more sensible ways of making a living, ways that guarantee a regular paycheck but at the cost of cramming our creativity into a desk drawer. Acting can be a road to fame, wealth, and an exotic lifestyle, but it can also be the way to obscurity, sketchy finances, and vacationing only in your dreams. If you’re in it for the superficial things, it’s nothing but a roll of the dice. But if you simply can’t imagine doing anything else, then it’s a calling - and you can’t say “no” when it calls.

Ask yourself: “Why do I want to act in Chicago?” Usually when I pose that question, people give me one of three reasons: they want to start here and then move on to a bigger market, they want a career that allows them to be creative, or they want to be stars. All are honest answers, but whenever I hear that someone got into acting to be a star, I have to wonder why they’re in Chicago at all.

Chicago vs. Fame

When you decide to make the Midwest your home as an actor, you’re making a choice between two very different but alluring things: work and fame. Here, you can be moderately experienced or even a newcomer, and there’s work for you. There’s a friendly, nurturing community that wants you to do well. There are people that will help you without expecting anything in return. As you progress up the ladder of work that’s available, there’s a greater chance of becoming a big fish in a small talent pool, allowing you to make a handsome living doing what you love.

But let’s think about what isn’t here. When you think of cities where movies and TV shows are made, Los Angeles and New York probably come to mind, and for good reason. Los Angeles hosts hundreds of shows and films every year. New York produces dozens. In 2012 there were as many as four scripted TV shows regularly being made in Chicago. This was a record for Chicago television production. We usually host one show in a year, or more often none at all. But nothing lasts forever. Fans of Boss on Starz, The Beast on A&E, and The Chicago Code and Prison Break on FOX know what I mean. Those shows, all of which were produced in Chicago, were canceled. TV production here has always been unpredictable. By the time you read this we might have set another record, or we might not have any shows in town. While recent years have been busy, Chicago’s not exactly thought of as a hotbed of scripted television production. A few films usually shoot in the Midwest every year. They hire locals for smaller parts, but most of the larger roles are played by actors who were hired in other markets. Actors become famous by doing TV and film. See where this is going?

When you’re a Chicago actor, it’s likely that your entire career will develop here. You can easily play out your dreams in any number of Chicago-based productions. However, if you stay in Chicago, you should brace yourself for the fact that working here will almost certainly not make you famous. Not one of the big time Chicagoans you can think of made it big by working here. The Cusacks, Jeremy Piven, Stephen Colbert, Chris O’Donnell, Alan Arkin, Vince Vaughn, and all the famous Second City and Steppenwolf actors had to move to Los Angeles or New York to become big shots. They may have gotten their start in the Midwest, but they earned their fame on one of the coasts.

But don’t worry. Those who are in the know understand that Chicago is a great market in which to get started. An actor can learn most everything they need to know about acting for a crowd or a camera in this city, and when they’re ready, they can take that knowledge to L.A. or New York. Lots of recent college grads come here with that very intention. They build their resumes by working with the huge number of non-equity theater companies, grab some commercial work and maybe join the unions. After a couple of years they leave to go after bigger and hopefully better work. If you’re in this group, moving here will be very rewarding, and will undoubtedly be an important step in your professional life.

If you’re a Chicago-area native and you don’t see yourself leaving, consider yourself lucky because you just happen to live in the third biggest market in the country. Actually, some would call Chicago the largest theater town in the United States. New Yorkers would argue that point, but there’s no denying that with over 150 theater companies in town, there’s an awful lot of acting going on. Chicago is also home to some of the busiest advertising agencies in the nation and has a huge corporate video production presence. And we sometimes get to audition and work in smaller markets like Milwaukee and St. Louis. The bottom line is if you want to work here, there’s no reason why you can’t. Your toughest decision might be trying to figure out where to focus your energy.

Commercial vs.Theater Actors

In general, there are two types of actors in Chicago, the commercial actor and the theater actor. The basics of the two are the same; both are expected to give a truthful and believable performance. Generally, commercial actors work in front of cameras and microphones, and their performance is recorded to be played back at a later date. Theater actors work in front of live audiences and their performances are not recorded. What you see is what you get, and the next time it’ll be a little (or maybe a lot) different than what you saw the last time. Different unions watch over each type of actor. The commercial actor may join the broadcast union, SAG-AFTRA. The stage actor might join Actor’s Equity Association (AEA). It’s possible to join both, of course, but each union has its own specific set of rules regarding when and how you can join.

The lifestyle of the two kinds of actors can vary tremendously. Commercial actors work and audition during regular business hours: Monday through Friday, from 9:00 to 5:00. Occasionally they run across a job that shoots overnight, but for the most part acting is, in fact, a day job. In contrast, theater actors work mostly after dark. The larger theater companies rehearse their actors during the daytime, but performances are almost always in the evenings and on weekend afternoons (the one exception to this is children’s theater, which is usually performed during the day). This contrast means that it’s much easier for the theater actor to have a regular “day” job. If you work commercially and you want to supplement your income, you’ll need to have a job that allows you the flexibility to audition and work during the day, or you’ll have to take a night job. And if you decide to act commercially and in theater at the same time, you’ll have very little time available to make backup income.

The biggest lifestyle difference between the theater and commercial actor is earning potential. I know I’m going to break a lot of hearts by saying this, but it’s very difficult to make a living doing theater in Chicago. Like any rule, this one has a few exceptions. There’s a small group of Chicago-based actors who work at a very high level and are able to book show after show in theaters locally and around the country. These actors can do well financially, but for actors who aren’t in this group, the earning potential is much greater in commercial work.

Another exception to this rule is the actor who works in musical theater. There are a handful of local companies that produce only Broadway-style musicals. I’m not talking about the big theaters downtown like the Cadillac Palace or the Auditorium Theater. Those houses usually bring in shows from somewhere else, and most of the cast is imported, too. I’m talking about the smaller, but still very reputable theaters like Marriott’s Lincolnshire theater and Drury Lane Oak Brook. In order to work in musicals, though, it helps to be a strong singer and dancer, as well as a strong actor. Performers who are good in all three disciplines are rare, so they tend to work a lot. And in Chicago, there is always a musical being produced somewhere. So if you’re the musical type and you’re good, you could go from job to job, and you’ll have more earning power than your colleagues who only do straight theater.

Actors who have joined AEA, like the group of Chicago-based acors who get cast around the country, can earn good wages. The union makes sure they’re taken care of because it sets the rates actors must be paid. But there’s a real lack of theater companies in Chicago that hire Equity actors. The two most recognizable names, The Goodman and Steppenwolf, each have their own casting quirks. While the Goodman casts Chicago actors, they also like to cast from other markets, like New York. Steppenwolf has a large and diverse collection of company members to choose from. Translation: if you’re not a company member, you’re less likely to be in one of their shows. While a handful of other Equity companies exist, there simply isn’t enough work for all of the Equity actors in Chicago to keep doing show after show. So, many supplement their theater income by doing commercial work.

The overwhelming majority of live theater in Chicago is happening in storefront spaces and being done by actors who aren’t affiliated with AEA. Audiences will see innovative, powerful performances in these theaters, but they simply can’t afford to pay their actors a living wage. It’s a simple fact of economics. Theater companies can only charge so much for a ticket. After paying all the costs to produce the show, most often there’s very little left over for the actors. Most theater companies go after donations and grants, but usually this money only goes so far.

The commercial folks win the money game hands down. But if you think I’m discouraging you from doing theater, nothing could be further from the truth! I’m simply making a distinction between the earning power you’ll have in both worlds. Theater is an important part of a Chicago actor’s time here. Being on stage gives you lots of credibility with the decision makers in town, and not doing any theater at all can actually get in the way of your effort to make a living. It’s important to go after a certain number of theater roles, because they can be an integral part of your career path.

When it comes to money, there’s no getting around this fact: there’s a ton of dough to be made in the commercial acting community, you just have to decide to go and get your share. Later, we’ll talk about how much your share can be.

What’s A Workday Like?

Free time can be your best friend or your worst enemy, but however you think it’ll affect you, get ready to have a lot of it. The full-time Chicago actor’s day can be filled with auditions and jobs, or it can be filled with nothing more pressing than opening the mailbox to see if there’s a check waiting for you. Let’s take a look at a day with a little bit of everything going on.

A career actress, we’ll call her Faith, starts her day with an audition at a casting director’s office for a regional TV commercial. It’s for an automaker, and they’re looking to cast a few friendly looking people to be featured shopping for, and buying, one of their cars. Her audition time is 10:00 a.m., but the casting director is running a little late, so by the time the audition is over and she’s walking out of the office, it’s almost 11:00. That’s ok, because she still has plenty of time to get to her next audition, which isn’t until 1:00. With two hours to kill, she decides to visit one of her agents to pick up a check for a job she recently did. A little chatting, a couple of questions about work that’s going on around town, and she’s just about overstayed her welcome. No problem, it’s time for lunch anyway. A quick sandwich will get her through her second audition of the day, a voice over audition for a radio spot. It’s at a different agent’s office. A fast food chain is looking for just the right voice to promote their new breakfast item. Faith goes in, does her thing, then leaves. She’s done for the day except for a scene study class that evening. Until then, she’s got free time. She heads to her class (which goes swimmingly), and then she’s home for the night.

That’s a pretty solid day with good things going on. Faith didn’t make any money, but she laid the groundwork for a couple of potentially big jobs, and she can’t get the work without auditioning. You’ll have many just like this, but you’ll also experience the strain of having nothing to do at all, as well as the elation of having so much to do in a day that it doesn’t seem like it will all get done. I sometimes have days where I literally have so much going on that I have to turn some of it down. I also have gone entire weeks with only one audition. That’s part of the business, sometimes you’re up, and sometimes you’re not. But before you get into the business at all, you’ve got to get your ducks lined up in a nice, neat little row.

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