NY? LA? Somewhere Else?

Last week I spoke to a group of actors from NYU who were here as a part of a six-week program held at the Stella Adler Studios with Ron Burrus. One of my first questions was, “Who has already decided to move to LA after graduation next year?” About a third of the class raised hands to that question. “Who has decided to stay in New York?” Another third. “And the rest of you are still trying to decide where to go?” Nods. Yes.

I remember when my co-author Blake Robbins and I interviewed actors for our book Acting Qs: Conversations with Working Actors a few years ago, one of our most “important” questions was, “How did you decide on Los Angeles?” or “How did you decide on New York?” as the case may be. And the more out-of-market industry pros who contribute to The Actors Voice: POV, the more I’m learning about markets outside of LA and NY in which actors earn a living every day. (Note: If you’d like to talk with me about contributing a future POV, make contact via my email address below. Thanks!)

So, if you’re at the point in your life where you’re trying to decide exactly where you’ll be pursuing your showbiz career, perhaps you’d like to consider some things that others who once were in your shoes (or thereabouts) have said about their decision-making process. I’ve compiled some notes both from my above-mentioned book and from recent POV contributions to round out a bit of info on geographical choices and the acting business.

Why LA?

“I graduated in ’95 and I did Shakespeare in the Park in June and in September I did a play at the Dallas Theatre Center,” begins The King of Queens‘ star Victor Williams. “And then for the next year and a half, I got no theatre. As much as I loved it, I was so frustrated I wasn’t getting theatre work. I was impatient. In hindsight, it was just a year and a half. But at the same time, I was getting these TV roles and these movie roles and these commercial roles. My whole thing was, ‘Well, fine. If theatre doesn’t love me, I’ll go where I’m respected.’ It was a business decision but also sort of an emotional decision. I wanted to work. I wanted to feel wanted. And when I looked at the resumé, I was getting some TV, film, and commercial work. So, I needed to move to LA then.”

“Because I’m from New York City,” begins Angela Goethals, “I had that sort of ‘LA is evil’ kind of bias. LA has been really kind to me and good to me and I like it so much more than I thought I would. But I went to college on the East Coast and I grew up there. I have such deep roots there. After I graduated, for years it was kind of this specter of LA and knowing I probably should just go there and see what it’s about, figure it out, and see if I could make a life there that I was comfortable with and happy with. I was sort of afraid but I kind of had this tough girl New York attitude like, ‘Screw LA. I don’t need it. I’m a New Yorker!’ My defenses were definitely way up.”

“The industry informed me that it was time to be in LA as opposed to being in New York,” explains Blake Robbins, best known for his work on HBO’s series Oz. “I thought for a long time, as an actor, that I couldn’t have a relationship like the one I have. I thought it was an either/or equation. I married someone that was always going to support me being who — and where — I needed to be. A lot of actors think they have to choose. You can have it all. There will be compromises along the way but you can create the life you want.”

“It was the numbers,” according to Jonna Tamases. “I thought: ‘This is where — by far — the largest percentage of the work is, so I will be here too.'”

“New York is what you do either early on when you’re totally ready to be a poor, starving artist and you think it’s cool or you do it when you’ve made it and have a nice view of Central Park,” says NPR and O magazine’s own Faith Salie. “I go back and forth. In fact, I’m going next week to pitch a show. It’s fun. It’s nice to do the back and forth. But to answer the question, when I left England, it had not been sunny for four months and it was truly depressing. I needed the sun. I went to a college where tons of people went into the business and a lot of them were already out here. I moved here already having a great network of friends.”

“I got out of college and went straight to New York and lived there for four years and couldn’t get arrested,” recalls Ed F. Martin. “I tried everything including the Spanish. It’s a much smaller competitive market. I have a beautiful sister who is an actress here in LA who said, ‘Stop it. You need to come to LA. You’ll start working immediately.’ When I got here, I started working immediately. I started with Spanish commercials and that has been solid the entire time. Spanish and English, really. I would say that my income is eighty percent actor income and twenty percent day job, here.”

Why NY?

“I’ve always been in New York,” begins highly-recognizable actor James Rebhorn. “The irony is, my two least favorite places in the world are LA and New York, in that order. But, if you’re an actor, you have to be in one or the other. I think, on balance, New York for me is a healthier world. LA, for all of its strengths, is essentially a one-industry town. No matter what you’re doing for a living there, it’s all focused and dependent on the entertainment industry. New York is not. I think that — for the human soul — is better for me. That’s why I’ve always stayed here, and I’m lucky.”

Matthew Del Negro (of The Sopranos) reports, “The two major things for me that were dilemmas in this career have been: ‘Do I go to grad school?’ and ‘Do I go to LA?’ I chose not to go to grad school because I started getting jobs and I was learning and in class anyway. I’m jealous of people who’ve been able to go to conservatory and kind of be in a bubble for three years, just really delving into plays. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for going out there and scrapping. That’s the path that I chose. The LA thing, I always have my little catchphrase: ‘I’m going to make a name for myself in New York and if something brings me to LA, I’ll go.’ I’m not a name, but I feel like in New York, I did some things.”

“I was on top of the world in Boston,” begins character actor and busy on-camera host Suzanne Whang. “Why would I want to [go to New York]? New York City is disgusting and it’s scary and it’s dirty and it’s crazy. I meet with [a New York agent] and she says, ‘So, when are you moving to New York City?’ I said, ‘I’m not moving to New York City!’ As I’m leaving the building, she calls me on my cell phone and says, ‘Pack your bags. You’re moving to New York. It’s unanimous. We’re signing you.’ I ended up absolutely loving New York and having the time of my life. I grew so attached to New York; I did not want to live in LA. I especially didn’t want to live in LA because it was so yuck! Instead of having a going-away party when I moved to LA, I had a wake. Everyone had to wear black.”

“New York is easy,” says The View panelist Joy Behar. “I’m five minutes from where I work. I don’t like LA. I can’t take that schlepping around constantly. I lived in LA for six months while I was in a TV series called Baby Boom with Kate Jackson. I lived in West Hollywood at the bottom of Laurel Canyon in what looked like an old-age home to me. It’s not my cup of tea. I’m a ghetto girl. I’m a definite type for a sitcom. I always was. But I wasn’t interested in living in LA. I’ve always managed to have a career that’s not as big maybe as it could’ve been because I insisted on staying in New York.”

“What I love about New York is that it’s such a small community,” explains Al Thompson. “You think it’s big, but really it’s not. Everybody knows each other through someone here. I’m an independent actor. I respect the independent film filmmaker and I respect independent film. I’ve done movies in LA and been there for three months to do stuff, but it’s such a major difference. Everybody always complains all day about LA. You can talk about LA for hours, whether it’s the driving and the traffic or whatever. LA is the type of place where it’s hard to establish a network of supportive friends. People are really out for self. It’s hard to establish a network of friends who aren’t in the business because you’re surrounded by the business in LA. If you go out to LA with credits and a reel and an agent and a manager, you can make it. If you have all that, by all means, go out there. But bottom line, you have to work twice as hard when you’re in LA. You can’t just do a couple of rounds and drop headshots off and all the little things that we can do in New York. You can’t get on the studio lots in LA like you can get into casting offices here in New York. You really have to prove yourself a lot more in LA and separate yourself out a bit more.”

Why elsewhere?

“Portland is hopping,” according to casting director Lana Veenker. “From big Hollywood productions excited about our locations and film incentives; to indie filmmakers wanting to do projects their own way; to the plethora of commercials, infomercials, industrials, and animated films being shot here every year; regional production is in full swing. It doesn’t take long for a skilled actor to become known to all the local casting directors when there are only a few offices. When someone’s good, it’s common for us to read him or her a half-dozen times a week for various projects. Compare that to the number of auditions an LA or NY newcomer gets to attend. In a regional market, you spend less time commuting and trying to make ends meet, which means more time to devote to your craft AND to having a life outside of acting, which — in my opinion — makes you a more interesting, well-rounded person. Just as independent filmmakers choose cities like Portland to forge their own paths, so do independent-minded actors. Smaller markets are great places to start your own theatre or production company; write, produce, direct, and star in your own projects; launch a new idea or even start a business to support your craft. The risks are fewer since costs are lower and you can always relocate once your ideas have proven successful. Just think of your regional location as an incubator.”

“The regional markets have become very savvy and successful,” reports New Mexico casting director Jo Edna Boldin. “Now, I cast roles regionally that years before would have only been cast in LA or NY. We have all grown. New Mexico offers a 25% tax rebate on all production expenditures (including New Mexico labor) that are subject to taxation by the State of New Mexico. This is a refund, not a credit. That can add up to big bucks — fast. New Mexico is booming with production business. We need more good actors in New Mexico. Maybe your ever-changing dreams will lead you here.”

Actor Dionne Audain loves her “DMV” market. “The DC, MD, VA market has it all: feature films, major network and cable shows, commercials galore, terrific theatre, and let’s not forget all the indie/student projects, industrial/training videos (live and taped), print work, promotional work, and tons of other ways to make a full-time living as an actor. How you show up here is how you’ll show up in the larger markets: Hard work is hard work is hard work, and at the end of the day, that’s what industry folks who hire us want to see — that we know how to work and how to get work.”

“Many look at regional markets as a kind of purgatory;” describes North Carolina agent Kristi Stanfill, “a proving ground that leads either to success in a bigger city or to a silent descent into the boundless and overcrowded depths of obscurity. But people do live in other markets. Movies are made here, TV series are shot here, we have a ton of commercial production, and our strong crew base stays busy most all the time. We are all individuals, so everything is contingent upon your goals, passions, and personal responsibilities (although talent and bravery also factor in there somewhere). You will soon find out if your market can sustain your acting habit, or if you need to broaden your circle. If you are driven by your craft to move to NY or LA, you still need to start somewhere, and there’s no place like home.”

Washington DC casting director Carlyn Davis says, “Actors in this market can actually do film, TV, whatever, during the day and do an Equity show at night. And then you can proudly say that you are an ‘actor’ and not a waitress or something. But nothing comes easy. You have to work hard. Get your training. Figure out your market. Build your resumé and most importantly remember that show business IS a business. We are the third largest industrial and the sixth largest commercial market in the nation. I guess the secret is out.”

“Chicago is a thriving market for actors,” according to casting director Jane Alderman. “Instead of the studios and networks, we have weather! There are few casting directors in Chicago, so it isn’t too hard to get known by them (for better or for worse). As for agents that are franchised with the unions, there are about 12 of them. So different from New York and Los Angeles, eh?! We do get a lot of work here and the actors generally tend to dip into all forms of the business. So, one week an actor might be filming an industrial and then get a role in a feature for a large studio followed by a small role in ER and then do a play at night. We have some great training centers here and acting classes and, of course, magnificent colleges and universities surround us. Our theatre is world class. Playwrights and directors come here to work in relative peace — a wonderful opportunity for any actor. Because of this wondrous playground, it is relatively easy (or easier) to get union membership. Even though our market is small (roughly 6000 professional actors), we still look at the resumés to see if an actor is SAG, or has training, or has been in some plays. Anything less than very talented just will not do.”

“We do a lot of actor-friendly, multi-platform casting,” says Philadelphia casting director Susan Gish. “We cast everything. And we’re aware that principal actors, here, do background work (and we don’t judge them negatively for that choice). In the bigger markets, casting companies usually only handle one thing. They specialize in voiceover, or theatre, or films, or TV, or commercials, etc. So do the agents. So, you need one agent for each area of coverage and you really have to push yourself in one or maybe two directions to get seen at all. The agents in the Philly area handle it all! So, there are options! Unlike casting directors in Los Angeles, we respect actors that accept background work! We figure, at least they are working in their profession, as opposed to waiting tables in between gigs.”

Why decide?

Here’s my take on it. Why decide? Why feel like any decision is forever? I chose LA (twice) after having worked in a minor market (Atlanta) for many years. I loved both my experience in Atlanta as an actor and hand model, and my experience pursuing an acting career in Hollywood. Obviously, an acting career on any large scale in LA was not to be, for me, but luckily it was that pursuit of acting that led me to the career(s) I love so much.

And if I ever get “over” living in Los Angeles, I’ll leave it.

I think people like to put a lot of emphasis on the decision-making process, believing that it is of utmost importance to get it right. I say, make a decision after having put thought and research into it, of course. And then, if you find you’d like to make another decision later, go for it again! Don’t give up on one decision before you’ve given it enough time (I say 18 months is a bare minimum to try out any new venue to be really sure you understand the flow of it all), but don’t be afraid to change course either. No one says you have to “choose LA” and then keep that choice chosen forever.


Bonnie Gillespie is living her dreams by helping others figure out how to live theirs. Wanna work with Bon? Start here. Thanks!


Originally published by Actors Access at http://more.showfax.com/columns/avoice/archives/000900.html. Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.

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