Young actors: Step up to the plate

If not you, who? If not now, when?

July 20, 2012

Wednesday night I trucked out to see The Merchant of Venice, at the annual outdoor Shakespeare festival presented by First Folio Theatre at Mayslake Forest Preserve in Oak Brook, Ill. I enjoyed this handsomely-designed and engagingly-acted production very much, until the show was cancelled at intermission due to approaching violent storms. Lucky for me, I know how the play ends.

Most Shakespeare plays require a large cast, and the program for Merchant listed 19 actors. Combing through the credits, I found that six of the 19 either graduated from university acting programs within the last two years or still are in school. None of the six yet has a union card from Actors Equity Association (which will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year).

This is one of the finest characteristics of Chicago theater. Our Off-Loop and Off-off-Loop companies abound with embryonic talent; kids just out of school or soon-to-be. Our larger institutional theaters, too, often engage early-career actors. Once upon a time, I was one of those kids myself acting for peanuts in the seminal Off-Loop troupes of Lincoln Avenue, among them Kingston Mines Theatre Company, the Body Politic, Pary Productions and Del Close's Chicago Extension improvisational company.

No one gets rich in Chicago from any type of acting, whether you're working at the Goodman or a neighborhood storefront theater.

Thinking of then and thinking of now, this is the perfect time to be a young actor. So, yeah, sure, the global economy sucks, we're in a depression (don't buy the nonsense that it's only a recession) and if the Eurozone totally melts down we'll really be in the crapper. But what the hell? When has it ever been a good time for a career in the arts? Actors are perpetually under-employed even in the best of economies — it's one of the occupational facts of life — and a sour economy does not substantially offer less employment or less opportunity for employment.

So go for it.

Fact is, electronic, digital, online and video media offer more employment for actors than ever before. From voices for video games, to the explosion of cable TV shows (just think how many actors the Discovery Channel and the History Channel employ), to self-produced internet programs and serials, to direct-to-disc movies, the entertainment industry is exploding with new ways for actors to act in addition to the familiar categories of commercials and voice-overs, TV, film and theater. Yes, much of it is shallow, formulaic and sometimes amateurish; and much of it — perhaps most of it — is not covered by actors union contracts (Equity, SAG-AFTRA), so the possibilities of being underpaid, exploited, ripped-off and/or sleazed are very real, but this blog column isn't a business lesson.

Compared to many of these, live theater may be the worst way to make a living, and I use the words "make a living" with great reservation. In Los Angeles, a newbie actor can appear at an Equity Waiver theater and earn nothing but car fare for professional work, often with established veteran actors. Difference is, the established veterans can afford to indulge their passion for live art, but the starter-out still is eating beans. On the other hand, a newcomer also can find himself/herself on a soap or a series making several thousand dollars a week.

The difference in Chicago is no one becomes rich here from any type of acting, whether you're working at Steppenwolf or the Goodman or a neighborhood storefront theater. Chicago is not the town where you make a killing or become a star; it's the town where you hone your chops, stretch yourself and practice your craft. And, with over 220 producing theater companies, the odds are much better here than in New York or Los Angeles of your landing a role and actually honing, stretching and practicing; witness those six young'uns in The Merchant of Venice.

So, young actors, give it a whirl. No matter if you act for little or no money as long as shoes still need to be sold, hash still needs to be slung, dogs still need to be walked and temp work still is available. Keep in mind that the cost of living in Chicago still is considerably less than in NYC or L.A. Even more important, audiences here are sharper, more receptive to the new and better-informed than just about anywhere else. The lesson from that is to hold yourself to a high standard of craft and intelligence, and to take risks. If not you, who? If not now, when? If not here, where?