How Do Chicago Actors Survive?
Being an actor is akin to being a clown in the circus. You need to get into character for every performance, and juggling is a must for survival. In place of dogs and flying objects on a unicycle, an actor balances multiple bill-paying gigs while chasing down rehearsals, auditions and performance. Both jobs—actor and clown—require a healthy amount of risk and sacrifice for its rewards.
From doing corporate singing gigs, to hosting karaoke and dishing out dieting advice, Chicago actors do what it takes to make great theatre possible. "We do what we have to do in order to do what we want to do," says actress Bianca Isabel, who works as a Jenny Craig consultant and sometimes nanny.
For Isabel, who moved from Florida to Chicago in 2010, the day gigs often get in the way of her art. "The survival part is taking up more of my life than the acting life," she notes. A typical day for Isabel involves working at Jenny Craig during the day, often being a nanny at night, hitting the gym, and acting in short films when it's the right project. A one-time student of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, Isabel is devoted to doing acting projects that develop her wholly as an artist. She recently got involved in Chicago's Latina theatre, Teatro Luna, with the goal of becoming an artistic associate. "Acting is my passion, but is not something I have to do all the time—it's quality over quantity," she explains.
"It's a struggle and it will continue forever," explains Anthony D'Amato, a New Jersey actor and singer who moved to Chicago last January. For D'Amato, it's a matter of selling his voice to corporate singing gigs and recording sessions so he can sing and perform onstage. D'Amato plays Frank-n-Furter in the upcoming Underscore Theatre Company production of "The Rocky Horror Show," and is lead vocalist in the Chicago band The Live Debate. D'Amato played Hedwig in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J. and also won the Asbury Park Music Award for Top Male Vocalist in 2010. Despite his accolades, this actor has not been averse to delivering pizzas, when necessary, to pay the bills.
Balancing art and work hasn't been easy for actor Kyle Waddle, who moved to Chicago just days after graduating with a degree in theater from Nebraska's Chadron State University in 2002. He didn't land his first Chicago theater roles until 2010, after he was laid off from a box office sales job that took up his weekends and weeknights—the actor's holy grail of time. Waddle decided to "become more focused on happiness and fulfillment, rather than the ability to pay bills." He landed a job as karaoke host at Lakeview's retro bar, Friar Tuck, which afforded him more flexibility, and fun. "I meet new people every night, and I do a level of performing that some actors never get," he observes.
And besides the free popcorn and Cheers-like ambience Friar Tuck affords, the karaoke gig has given Waddle more time to do theatre. Since 2010, he has performed in "Arsenic and Old Lace" at Batavia's First Street Playhouse and in "Observatory" at Logan Square's Charnel House Theatre, in addition to several shows with the sketch comedy group Suspicious Clowns. Although he's not in a show at the moment, Waddle is more than content to wait for the next good thing. "I don't want to do this forever, as much as I love doing it, it's not the stage I want to be on," Waddle admits. "But it helps pay the bills and it's fun until I get there," he says.
At times, being a not-yet-discovered actor is stressful. Isabel has turned down many acting projects, especially if they occur at the last minute, due to work obligations. And when D'Amato first moved to Chicago last year, he endured the painful process of starting over, relying on savings while trying to land new paying gigs. Waddle makes enough to pay the bills, but not much else. Yet they are determined to hang in there. "I really want to focus on acting and see what happens," says Waddle. "If there comes a time when I look in the mirror and can say, I gave it my best, now I can move on I will, but I'm not at that point yet," he adds. "When it's artistic and worthwhile I have no problem giving up certain amenities to do something that fulfills me as an artist," explains Isabel. "Until I land that thing, I'll ride it for a while," says D'Amato.
Until they land that "thing," actors survive by leading double lives, as artists by night and wanna-be artists by day. But along the way up, actors often entertain those in need of diversion. At Friar Tuck, the show starts when Waddle takes the microphone, at 9 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday nights. "It's kind of nice because it's my own show-I can be the director and the star if I want. But I generally try to make the patrons the stars of the night," says Waddle.
Catch Kyle Waddle's karaoke show on Wednesday and Thursday nights, Friar Tuck, 3010 N. Broadway, 9 p.m. Free.
See Anthony D'Amato as Frank-n-Furter in The Rocky Horror Show, at the Underground Lounge, Thursday-Saturday, October 20-30, 8pm and midnight. Tickets are a suggested donation of $18-$25.
Marla Seidell (www.marlaseidell.com) is a Chicago-based writer and actress. She recently played the lead role in the Chicago independent short film, The Catastrophe (www.thecatastrophemovie.wordpress.com).
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