Last year, in the summer of 2015, my wife Sara and I sat down and had a very serious discussion about my moving out of the house.
To be clear, we were getting along just fine. The prospect of packing my bags had nothing to do with the stability of our marriage. Instead, it had to do with work.
See, I’m an actor. And I’ve been an actor, (mostly on stage, but sometimes on the little screen), for over 25 years.
But I’ll be honest with you: Almost ever time someone has asked me what I do, what I am, and I reply “I’m an actor,” I’ve felt like a fraud.
Not because I don’t think I am undeserving of the title, necessarily. And not because I don’t think I’m any good at it. (Actually, when it comes to my ability, I’ve got a healthier ego than most. I always say: If you don’t think you’re good at what you do, quit and explore a new field. Like accounting. Or maybe macrame.)
No, the reason I’ve so often felt uncomfortable referring to myself as an actor is because, very simply: I have never been able to support myself financially in my chosen profession. And unless I’m making my living as an actor, (I told myself) I felt as if I wasn’t allowed to refer to myself as such.
Pay your bills with you acting wages? Congratulations. You’re an actor.
But act for nothing, or for chicken-scratch, or simply for the pure joy of performing?
You’re not an “actor.” No, in the second scenario, acting is your hobby. Instead, you’re a paralegal. Or a waiter. Or a secretary. Or whatever else you do to earn your daily bread.
What are you, at the end of the day? Well, I used to think: You are what you get paid to do and nothing more.
But that simply isn’t so. As Kurt Vonnegut so wisely put it: You are what you pretend to be. So be careful what you pretend to be.
Me? I’m an actor. A professional, card-carrying actor. And I’ve got the scars to prove it.
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Career-wise, though, as I discussed it with my wife, it became clear that things were not where Sara and I had hoped to be at this point in our lives. When you work as long and as hard in this business as I have, you begin to dream that one day, someone will tap you on the shoulder and say :
“Hey there. You remember those ‘dues’ you were supposed to pay before making it big? Well congratulations! You’ve paid them! Yes, we checked our records and it turns out that you’re all paid up and, consequently, it is finally your turn, Mr. Theis, to be a big, fat star! Well done!”
You then get escorted to the limo, handed the keys to the beautiful new house and you begin work on your new sitcom “That Hilarious Fellow” (or, alternatively, the crime drama “This Truculent Gent.”)
Then all your financial and career worries blow away, your bank account swells, the offers roll in and, in short, you’re artistically fulfilled and happy forever, amen.
Yeah, that never happened.
So, consequently, there we were, Sara and I, talking about the future.
We kicked it around for awhile and finally agreed that at this stage in my acting career, it would (or might) be a good idea for me to, at long last, test the waters in Los Angeles.
“So why now?” you may be asking. (You may also be asking “Who cares?” or thinking “I’m hungry.” I really have no idea.)
Anyway, here’s why now: In Chicago, I had begun to feel (and had been for some time, really) that I had been spinning my wheels.
That’s not to say I wasn’t working. Hell, I was working all the time. I would estimate that, for each of the past twenty years, I had been lucky enough to land three, sometimes four, occasionally five shows. Every year. That’s pretty cool, looking back on it.
And, being a moderately smart cookie, I had also managed to become affiliated with two separate theatres – one in an Artistic Associate capacity (Oak Park Festival Theatre) and the other as an ensemble member (Irish Theatre of Chicago,née Seanachai Theatre Co.).
What this meant was that, first, I would be able to work for – and contribute to the betterment of – two companies I truly believed in as an artist. But it also meant that I would be under consideration for at least two, sometimes three shows a year just from these two theatres alone. Nothing guaranteed, but I knew I would be in the running for whatever they were putting together that year. Which is also pretty cool, right?
And it has worked out just about as well as can be expected. As far as theatre work went, I have been extremely lucky over the years, no question about it. Between Festival Theatre and the ITC alone, I had played some of the greatest roles ever written for any actor on any stage.
In the past ten years, I’ve played the title role in “Richard III,” Mr. Lockhart in “The Seafarer,” Benedick in “Much Ado,” Salieri in “Amadeus,” George in “Of Mice and Men,” and a laundry list of other amazing parts.
As if that embarrassment of riches wasn’t enough, I had also been given the chance to direct at least four shows each for both Festival Theatre and ITC, and a couple dozen others with some of the best companies in town, including Lifeline Theatre, City Lit, Buffalo Theatre, greasy joan and co. and CT20 Ensemble (the latter of which was a company my college friends and I founded which flourished briefly in the mid-nineties. The company died a merciful death in 1998 and we scattered its remains over Wrigley Field.)
Add to that the voice-over work, the live radio broadcasts, the occasional writing project, readings, fundraisers, etc. etc.
Oh, but that’s not all! I also have the love and support of a terrific team of agents, too. I am represented by the fine folks at the Grossman & Jack Talent agency and I dearly love them all. As I have previously attested, they have stood by me through good times and bad, continuing to submit me for auditions even when I had gone months without a booking. (That is the hallmark of a great agency- they have unwavering faith in their clients.)
So, by almost any measure, I was doing just fine. Steady work, artistic challenges, first-rate colleagues and good representation.
Naturally, I had to get away from all that, right?
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Okay, here’s what happened: I had hit some kind of ceiling. Banged my fool head right up against it.
Sure, I was working a lot. That wasn’t the issue. When I say that I was “spinning my wheels” I’m talking instead about advancement.
And as far as advancement went, there wasn’t a whole lot going on. I was running hard. But I was standing still.
I had my Equity card…but I couldn’t get work in any of the largest Equity houses. (Seven years of “Christmas Carol” at the Goodman notwithstanding.)
I was very often going from show to show to show without a break…but I couldn’t make enough money from any theatre job (or string of them) to even once cover the cost of my mortgage (much less the rest of my expenses).
I was an actor, yes…but I made my daily bread in an office, working at a computer monitor and not, as the goal had always been, from the sweat of my artistic brow.
But there was another factor that was contributing to the idea of a move to L.A.:
The beard. (I’m only half-kidding about that).
In the summer of 2012, when I was getting ready to play Richard III, I decided to grow a beard. No big deal, right? Some whiskers. Not exactly Dylan going electric, news-wise, was it?
Except…about two minutes after I grew it, I got booked on my first network TV show. Then, a couple of months later, I booked another one. Then a short film. Then, the following spring, another network show. For those of you counting, that’s three television shows and a movie. For a guy who, up until that time, had assumed he was a vampire and that his image could not be captured on film.
So, all of a sudden…I had a video acting reel. (And a good one, too.)
Oh, and the beard? That wasn’t going anywhere.
The bad news? Well, I had now been on three of the four shows they were shooting in town- “Chicago Fire,” “Chicago PD” and “Betrayal.” And for some reason, try as I might, I couldn’t seem to convince anyone that I would be a great candidate to appear on “Empire.” (I can be urban, dammit.)
So my burgeoning network TV career appeared to be over. Because those were all the shows that anyone was shooting. Anywhere in Chicago.
But then- a miracle! The Dick Wolf universe was set to expand and two more shows were announced to begin filming in town- “Chicago Justice” and “Chicago Med.”
Until…I discovered that because I had appeared on two of the other shows in the “Chicago” pantheon (“Fire” and “PD”), I couldn’t audition for either of the others for two years.
Super. Back to square one.
Sara and I- after flirting with the idea for over a year- began to seriously discuss the idea of giving L.A. a shot. All signs seemed to point to giving the mythical “pilot season” a go.
After all, I had been unhappy with my day job for what seemed like forever. Not because of the work, necessarily (I liked my co-workers just fine and was paid a more-than-decent salary), but there was no denying it: every day I spent in the office was a day I wasn’t doing what I felt I had been born to do.
And yes, the fact that I turned fifty last year might have had something to do with the sudden urgency of this plan, sure. I mean, I didn’t necessarily feel old. It’s more the fact that the dues- those famous show business dues- felt paid several times over.
So after a long gestation, wherein we addressed the pitfalls and the potential rewards of the move, we finally made the call.
I was going to Hollywood!
It wasn’t going to be easy. We would need to prepare. I needed to get into shape, nail down some new headshots, save up all my nickels and dimes, find a place to live on the coast, figure out a way to part amicably with my employers, try and set up some representation in L.A. all the while politely explaining to my Chicago agents that I was blowing town, no hard feelings.
All told, it took about a year.
And now, as I head back to Chicago- my live-blogged mid-life crisis finally coming to an end- I am faced with the task of assessing whether or not the entire enterprise- from idea to execution- was a worthwhile endeavor.
Objectively speaking, I think most people would agree, it went better than expected.
Within two weeks, I had a voice-over agent and have auditioned regularly for them ever since. Within five weeks, I had an on-camera agent who began submitting me regularly as well. Everything I had been hoping for and more.
Then, all on my own, I booked and shot a short film. Soon afterwards, writing on deadline, I completed a play that I’ve been playing with, off and on, for the past two years.
In my free few seconds, I honed routines for my new career as a stand-up comic and- after a spur of the moment audition- was actually hired to perform at one of the city’s largest clubs.
Then, having been given a peek at the lucrative world of recorded books, I nailed down partnerships with two audiobook companies in a week, both of whom agreed to add me to their respective databases.
Soon after that, I even managed to get hired to tape two actual audiobooks (and recorded both in a single sitting).
Plus, all the while, I made sure to take the time to try and get to know this strange, legendary city. Not just the tourist sights (though I’ve taken those in as well), but the small theatre scene, the comedy clubs, the mind-boggling transportation challenges and natural beauty of the city, as well as the urban history that shaped this town into the world-class metropolis that it has become.
And in addition to all of that, I also managed to reconnect with dozens of old college friends and former Chicago colleagues who have, over the years, come to call Los Angeles their home. Each of them had offered to help me out in any way they could, sometimes with a kind word, sometimes with a recommendation or a hot meal, but never with anything less than encouragement and unwavering support.
So those, I believe, are all the positive things that have happened since I arrived here twelve weeks ago.
On the negative side, I was- frustratingly- never able to achieve my one, elusive, final goal: an actual network or feature film audition. I had been submitted for plenty of them by my new agent, but had not been given the chance to read even once. As an unknown quantity in a town full of known quantities, I finally realized that to get called in by casting agents to audition for these types of jobs, I would need to be here for a lot longer than the brief time I had allotted for myself.
Also: While I had recorded and electronically submitted dozens of voice-over auditions to my new VO agent, none them- not one- had resulted in a booking. Not so great there, either.
In addition, (though mainly out of curiosity) I had wasted my time and money attending this city’s greatest shame: the casting workshops that have become so controversial over the past few years. I had followed advice that I knew to be bad and, worst of all, had not trusted my own instincts, which had told me that it was a deplorable practice and should be avoided.
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But, I’ll tell ya.
In the end, if you want the truth, it all seems worth it. I’ve learned so much since my arrival- about this city and this business- that I wouldn’t change a thing that happened.
Well, I probably should have written more, but when is that not the case? (No one ever says, “Gee, I think I wrote too much this month.” Except maybe Stephen King.)
But apart from that, I can’t really say that this trip was anything less than a positive experience. Yeah, it’s missing the big, “wow” ending where, despite the odds, I manage to book a TV show in just three months but…to be honest? I think there are some people out there who would have killed me dead if I had pulled off that particular trick.
So I head back home, my future uncertain.
Will financial considerations force me into a regular day job again, putting me right back where I was before?
Will my new, just-out-of-its-crib career in the audiobook field allow me to meet my expenses by just…talking?
And, the big question: After discussing it with my family upon my return…
…will we even stay in Chicago after this?
I mean to say: How can you keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paris Hilton? (That may be the worst thing I have ever written. My apologies.)
All these questions, and many more, will be answered in the coming months.
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Before I officially sign off, I would like to personally thank each and all of you who chose to read this blog and go on this journey with me. It has meant more than you know to check my daily updates and see that a dozen, three dozen, a few hundred people have looked in on my progress, shared a post or two and taken the time to “like” and comment on one of these chapters.
Being this far from my family- and spending more time alone than I’ve ever spent in my life- the experience of having this blog as a sort of lifeline to reach out to and communicate with all of my friends and loved ones so far away has been an incredible experience.
There are some additional folks to thank as well:
Primarily, my deepest appreciation goes to my three hosts on this trip: Paul Stroili and Monica Kaiser (who housed me the first two months) and Ed Burgess (who put me up in March). Their generosity in opening their homes and lives to me has been a humbling and heartening experience. My sincerest and most heartfelt thanks to Paul, Monica and Ed. I will never be able to repay them for their boundless generosity.
Special mention should also be made of Adam Meredith and Shantelle Szyper (who I saw, perhaps, more than anyone else during the trip and who so often hosted me as a guest in their home), Michael A. Sheppard (who helped me land my wonderful agent, Orion Barnes, and never failed to come to my aid during the trip), Orion himself for laboring so hard to try and get me work, Chuck Constant for helping me so much with my audiobook work (and for allowing me access to his recording studio) and Vanessa Lanier (one of my Chicago VO agents who assisted me in getting my West coast VO representation).
To my other Los Angeles friends, who have fed me, squired me around town, recommended me to their agents and managers and generally made my stay in this city so memorable and fun:
Chet Grissom, Jasmine Ryan, James Sie, Douglas Wood, Jeff Eyres, Chris and Bill Rickett, Cat O’Connor, Tom Kelly, David and Caron Mellblom-Nishioka, Paul Sandberg, Renee Sicignano, Richard Courtney, Jim O’Heir, Gus Buktenica, Marc Vann, Warren Davis, Ben Carr, Sara Gorsky, Matthew Miller, Vanessa Gilbert, Jazmin Rangel, Amy Ludwig, Ann Noble, Kyle Gibson, Ellen and George Shannon, Erin Philpott, Sara Isaacson, Jamie Pacino, Michael Sterling, Andrew David James, Cindy Katz, Jeff Ahern, Debra Deyan, Celine Hoppe (and the rest of the crew and cast of “Double Dead,”), the Sins o’ the Flesh cast at the Nuart Theatre Rocky Horror show, Jeremy Aluma and Trudy Blair.
Lucky guy, having friends like that, aren’t I?
But most of all, and from the bottom of my heart, I need to thank my family. My father, brother, uncles, aunts and cousins, all of whom have given me their unwavering and invaluable support throughout the entire process.
Finally, to my kids, Milo and Gwendolyn, and to my patient, strong, loving and generous partner in this life, my wife Sara. Thank you, my loves, for allowing me the opportunity to take this journey for sacrificing so much to allow it to happen. I am breathless at your confidence in me and so deeply grateful to have you in my life.
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And so, as this jaunt of mine comes to an end, it is time to see what’s around the next bend. What further adventures await?
Because if you haven’t figured it out by now, my friends:
This is just the beginning.