So you’re thinking about moving to Chicago to pursue acting. Hello and welcome! There’s plenty to know, and I’m happy to show you around. I’ve put together a list of helpful things actors should know and consider.
I’m an actor and the author of Acting In Chicago: Making A Living Doing Commercials, Voice Over, TV/Film and More. It’s a guide to working professionally in the Chicago market, and plenty of actors use it to help navigate the industry here.
But if you’re not ready to dive into a 200-page book, you can start with these practical tips and links compiled specifically for actors. Have a question not answered here? Leave a comment below or feel free to hit me up on Insta, Twitter, YouTube, or at the Acting In Chicago Facebook page.
How Do I Start Acting In Chicago?
It depends. Do you want to do theatre or do you see yourself as more of a Film/TV actor? Or did you come for Chicago’s improv scene?
Chicago is home to hundreds of non-equity theatre companies, and getting an audition with them can be straightforeward if you know where to look. TheatreInChicago.com and PerformInk.com have audition notices posted by theatres. Once a year, the community comes together for the Chicago Theatre Access Auditions. Here, one audition gets you seen by multiple theatre companies at the same time. Check their Facebook group to find out when the next audition is.
Most paying TV and film auditions are only available to actors represented by talent agencies, and Chicago has about a dozen of them. This page has a current list of agents. To submit to an agent, visit the agency’s website and follow the instructions. You can also follow the process outlined in my book, which has helped hundreds of Chicago actors land representation. Be aware that only agencies franchised by SAG-AFTRA will be able to submit you for most paying TV and film work.
If you’re here for the improv, you may already have an idea of where to train and find a team to work with. Options are always good, though, so check out The Second City , IOchicago, The Annoyance or Chicago Improv Studio.
Do I need a Car?
No, but a set of wheels can make your time in Chicago easier, if a bit more expensive. Many actors think the convenience of having their own car is worth the expense. Cars get you where you need to be, on your own schedule, while keeping you warm (or cool) and dry. Chicago’s a great town to live in, but winters can be harsh and summers can be so humid that you feel like you’re living inside a dog’s mouth.
If you plan on owning a vehicle as a city resident, you’ll need one of these. You’ll also need a Chicago vehicle sticker, stat. You don’t want to be caught without one, because the city will ticket you early and often, and at $200 a pop, they’re not cheap. By law the city can give you up to one per DAY. If enough of them go unpaid, your ride will be booted. Don’t let this be you. Get those stickers.
Spot a sign on your street that says “Residential permit parking only?” It means only you and your neighbors are allowed to park there, but you’ll need one of those permits to avoid being ticketed. If you have guests, you can buy guest passes so they don’t get tickets during their stay.
If some temporary-looking orange paper signs show up on your street, pay attention to them. They’re for street cleaning, and the city will ticket or even tow any car parked there when the sweeper is scheduled to come by.
If you don’t have a car, the Chicago Transit Authority is one of the best public transit systems in the country. It generally runs on time and will get you near most of the places actors need to be: casting offices, training centers, theaters, etc. However, public transit becomes less convenient the further out into the suburbs you go. So if you frequently need to be a few miles away from the city proper, your best bet is probably to drive.
Our rapid transit light rail system is called the “L”, as in elevated. This name has stuck through the years despite the fact that some tracks are underground, technically making it a subway. However, everyone just calls it the “L”. If you call it the subway, people will look at you funny.
This handy transit map is great for seeing if the CTA will get you where you want to go.
Find out about tickets and passes with the Ventra app.
There are plenty of actors who use other ways to get around town. The city has been expanding its offering of bike lanes in recent years, and the bicycling community here is large. While biking isn’t for everyone (especially in the winter months), it’s become the go-to mode of transport for many.
Some people use a hybrid transit/car/bike approach. Short-term car rental companies like Zipcar, Maven and Car2go offer cars when you need them. This might come in handy if you need to get out to the ‘burbs for an audition or job, but don’t want to own a car full-time.
Where Should I Live?
The city is filled with exciting and diverse neighborhoods. Each has its own culture, feel and amenities. But getting around town isn’t always speedy or easy. As an actor you’ll be spending most of your time on the North side, simply because most of the places we go (the training centers, theaters, talent agencies and casting offices) are located on that side of town. That’s not to say that you won’t be venturing to other areas, but you might find yourself north of the Loop and east of I-90/94 (the Kennedy expressway) a lot. Consider that as you look for a place to live.
Trying to decide between the city and suburbs? Though there are opportunities to act in the suburbs, living in the city means being closer to the places you’ll need to be for acting work. But city life can be more expensive than the suburbs. Basics like gas and food are usually cheaper in the ‘burbs, as is rent. But commute times and access to work and/or school is a major consideration. The farther you are from the places you need to be, the more time you’ll spend on getting to and from them. If you’re driving, traffic in Chicago is bad and only getting worse.
The good news is that Chicago’s housing is pretty affordable when compared to other large acting markets like New York and Los Angeles.
Do I Need An Agent?
Again, it depends. You can do all the theatre, sketch and improv you can handle without ever needing a talent agent. Traditionally, those types of work don’t pay well (if at all), so agents don’t participate in them. On the flip side, you will need an agent to work in any type of work where actors stand to make hundreds or even thousands of dollars per job, like commercials, voice over, print, and TV/film.
In Chicago there are two ways to work with talent agencies: you can be multi-listed or exclusive. Being multi-listed means you can be with as many agents as you can get to sign you, and you’ll receive auditions from all of them. There are pros and cons to being multi-listed, and I cover all of them in the book. You can also commit to just one agency by signing with them exclusively. In that case, your auditions will come through that agency only, and you won’t have access to clients who work with other talent agencies. Again, check the book for the implications of working either way.
Do I Need A Reel (Showreel) to Work?
Probably. Reels are very important in the on-camera world, and are becoming more important in the theatre and improv world as well. Actors who are able to showcase their work via reels have a distinct advantage over those that can’t. I wrote extensively on this subject here and here.
Want to Learn More About Your New City?
There are some fantastic books on Chicago. This one was a Pulitzer finaist, this one is focused on Chicago’s legendary architechture (and features amazing photography), and here’s a book on the history of Chicago’s storied theater scene.