READ AN EXCERPT: CHAPTER 1 - MY STORY
Seventeen years ago, a nervous, jittery college student picked up the phone to call a teacher in Chicago. The kid prayed for an answering machine, because if the guy picked up, the kid didn’t know what he would say. Thankfully, the machine did pick up. The kid listened to the outgoing message, then left a bumbling one of his own. A week later, he got a brochure in the mail. He looked it over, got scared again, and buried it in a desk drawer.
Fast forward one year. The kid found the brochure and looked it over. Without thinking, he called the teacher, who answered the phone this time. A conversation ensued. An appointment was made. A lesson was taken, and a career was launched.
That kid was me.
Today, I’m a working actor in Chicago. I don’t have another job, I just act for a living. And I’m busy. The fact that I’m a full-time actor in the Midwest is unique enough. But what’s different about my story is that I’m one of the few actors in town who is a product of the Chicago market itself. By that I mean I didn’t go to college to be an actor, and I had zero experience when I started. Everything I know I learned in Chicago’s acting schools or on the job. No one in my family is an actor; and some folks would say that I have no formal training, which I guess I’d agree with. I started out knowing nothing and knowing no one in the business. The path from clueless college kid to career actor wasn’t easy, and there were a lot of bumps along the way. But that’s why I wrote this book - if you’re looking to establish an acting career in Chicago, I know exactly what’s on your mind. Because it was on mine, too.
If you’re totally new to the industry, you might be thinking these things: How do I get started? Will I be “discovered”? Do I need an agent? How do I get one? Are there classes I can take? Where will I work? How much will I get paid? Do I work for myself or for a company? Is there some kind of application to fill out? When I was new, I pretty much just wanted to know how to get in.
If you’re a veteran actor new to Chicago, you might need to know what kind of work is available for you here, or want details about which talent agents in town are strongest in your area of expertise. Maybe you’re considering staying in Chicago for a while, then moving to a larger market. If you’re going that route, you’ll definitely want to learn what you can do to make the most of your time here.
When I decided I wanted to act for a living, I was a senior at DePaul University. I was a science major, and I had every intention of going to medical school. That meant lots of long nights studying for the Medical College Admission Test, the standardized exam all med school applicants take, and it’s a monster. It takes a whole day, and it sucks the life right out of you. It’s the kind of test you prepare for months in advance. Some people, like me, even take prep classes to help them get a higher score. To break the monotony of studying, I wanted something else to think about. When I found the brochure in my desk, it was the perfect escape.
The brochure contained information on private voice over coaching. I got the teacher’s name from an ad in the paper. When I met with him and started reading some scripts, I knew I stunk, but I was hooked anyway. As a kid, I remember wanting to record myself doing something, anything, either on video or audio tape. I recently discovered a cassette of me singing along to disco records when I was little. I think my favorite is my rendition of a Bee Gees hit. After my first voice over lesson, I knew I had a lot of work ahead of me if I ever wanted to be a paid voice over guy, but I also knew that I really wanted to do it. It was what I had been training for since I was a child without even knowing it.
I didn’t start out intending to be in the crazy world of acting. I thought actors were all hyper-creative, perennially poor, and chronically desperate for attention - turns out that some of them are. And I thought people who hire actors were coarse, unforgiving, brutal control freaks whom actors needed but didn’t like - also sometimes true. My thought was, as someone who worked in voice over I’d avoid all that. Not true. The acting thing followed as a logical progression of my career. I had acted in plays in high school, but I never thought of myself as an actor until I looked at my records at the end of one particularly busy year. I keep track of what jobs I do, for whom I do them, and how much I make from each one. The IRS makes you do this for tax reasons, but it’s also good for seeing where you’ve been, which allows you to decide where you want to go. When I saw that half my income came from on camera work, and the other half came from voice over jobs, I had somewhat of an epiphany: “Holy cow, I’m an actor.” I guess I was the last one to find out.
Since I started, I’ve been cast in every kind of work Chicago has to offer. I’ve worked on TV commercials, films, industrials, cast in radio and other voice over work, booked on TV shows, shot for commercial print, worked as a hand model, hired for live corporate events, cast in theater, shot for the web, and I even did a musical once, though I don’t really sing. Obviously, I came out of the shell I was hiding in when I called that voice over instructor. Now I spend my days going to and from auditions, shooting, recording, and generally winging my way through job after job. When I’m not auditioning or working, I have free time. I spend time with my family, I run, and I grocery shop during the day – when there’s no wait at the checkout line. Sometimes I teach, sometimes I take a class. The best part is that I make a full-time living for working part-time hours. And if you think I have the life you want, wait until you read about a friend of mine later in the book.
If you ask around, you’ll find that a lot of people like the way I work because I’m quick and I don’t mess around on the set. When I’m working, I’m there for one purpose only: to get the job done. I feel the same way about this book. I’m going to give you all the information I wished I had when I started, so that you’ll have as much insight as possible into Chicago’s acting community. I’m going to present that information as efficiently as I can, because there’s a lot to know. And most importantly, I’ll make sure you’ll have all the information you need to make a living as an actor in Chicago. You’ll just have to bring your abilities.
I should clarify a few things before we start. First, what do I mean by “making a living”? It’s different for everyone. Some actors can barely pay their rent, or they have to skip the cable bill to pay their phone bill, and they’re happy with that. If they can cover their monthly expenses, they would describe themselves as making a living. These are people who love what they do and are very dedicated to their art, but to whom money does not come easily for various reasons. If this describes your situation, look at this book as a guide to help you do much more of what you love to do.
I think most people strive to have more than what they need to just cover the basics. To me, making a living means you can make choices about what to do with your money, instead of your money making the choice for you. You’re able to pay your bills, have money left over to save, and still be able to have a life. By this definition, you can do the things you want to do without putting your household at risk of financial meltdown. Things like taking vacations, having good credit, pursuing a pricey hobby, giving generously to a charity, or sending your kids to a private school won’t be a burden to you. Basically, I’m talking about living a life of abundance, whatever that means to you.
Secondly, you should know that this book is not a how-to book on the art of acting. There are classes you can take and talented teachers out there whose job it is to help you learn how to act. Besides, you can’t really learn this kind of thing from a book. You can get an idea of it, but you can’t become a competent actor unless you’re doing it in front of, and getting feedback from, a knowledgeable teacher. So if you’re looking for something that will turn you into a brilliant thespian, this isn’t it. If you’re looking for all the information you’ll need to build a career as an actor in Chicago, you’ve come to the right place. I’m assuming you can act. I’m assuming you’ve got a basic knowledge of what actors do, and that you want to make acting a profitable venture.
Finally, this book is written from my perspective, which is based on my experience over many years of working. We all draw conclusions based on the path we take. Because every actor’s journey is different, these conclusions will vary from actor to actor. I suggest you read this book with an open mind. If something strikes you as contradictory to what you’ve heard or been told, it doesn’t necessarily mean that either view is wrong. It just means that the two perspectives don’t align.
It would be impossible for me to speak to everyone’s specific set of circumstances or answer every question any reader might have, but I can promise these things: I promise to spill my guts about everything the business in this town has to offer. I’ll even name names. I promise that everything you’ll read is true, valid and as current as possible. I promise that this book contains everything you’ll need to start or cultivate an acting career in Chicago, and I’ll leave nothing out. I promise to be straight with you, even if it’s difficult to hear. Acting for a living can be a challenge, and if I didn’t tell you about the difficult part of it, would you trust me to tell the truth about the other parts?
Making all of this information work is up to one person: you. But you can do it. I know because I still do it every day, and many of my friends do, too.
Let's get busy.