A Day in the Life
Michael Ooi 98
Alumni Document the Acting Life in Chicago
Monday, March 14th
Ive just thrown someone to the ground and proceeded to menace him with a pronounced lisp. I must be in rehearsal for The Sorcerers Apprentice. During rehearsal, were interrupted by a man from one of the offices below the Apollo Theater. Apparently theres a leak running down his wall, and he suspects the Apollos icemaker. As most professional theaters are dark, or closed, on Monday nights, were the only people in the building, and Im the only one here who happens to be on the Apollos payroll. I work part-time for them taking care of minor maintenance and construction, which pays the bills when supplemented with temping or other small projects. I cant imagine what it would be like to try to support a family on my income. I end up spending most of the night looking for a leak that doesnt seem to exist.
After rehearsal, I stop by Kelseys, our local bar, to catch up with some old friends of mine Sean Okerberg 98 and Cindy (Cyd) Blakewell 00. Sean and I moved up to Chicago in the fall of 2003 with Lawrence Kern 01 and Niall McGinty 99. The four of us found a lazy landlord and landed a great deal on an apartment in Lincoln Park, one of Chicagos great neighborhoods, nestled between Wrigley Field and downtown. Sean and Lawrence are attending graduate school at Roosevelt University, Niall is trying to find professional acting work, and I am jumping at any good opportunity I find, whether its performing, writing or directing.
Tonight Seans been helping Cyd with her audition piece for Steppenwolfs Summer School, a professional acting program. Steppenwolf Theatre, started by John Malkovich, Gary Sinise, Laurie Metcalf and other noted actors, is one of the premier theaters in the nation. Getting into this program will be something of an honor. Because of the collaborative nature of theatre, it is not uncommon to work with colleagues on an audition piece or on proofreading and critiquing a new script. Sean is especially helpful, bringing his current studies at Roosevelt to the table.
Sean is pursuing a masters degree in acting and working at Starbucks to pay the bills. He is earning good grades and receiving acclaim from his instructors. Despite his success, enrolling in graduate school was a tough decision. Like many other actors with college degrees, Sean experienced some difficulty in deciding what to do next. With a lot of other jobs, theres a path, Sean says in the back room of Kelseys. With acting, there is no chosen path. I may spend the rest of my life auditioning or holding a spear on stage [as an extra], or tomorrow I may be playing the lead on Broadway.
After graduation, Cyd kept herself busy auditioning for the top graduate schools in the country and working in Fort Worth and Colorado, until deciding to move to Chicago two years ago. When I first caught up with her in 2003, she had been on several auditions but hadnt landed a single role. Since then, shes been in two shows, has taken a couple of acting classes and is working at Starbucks. Ninety-five percent of our job is looking for a new job, she explains.
Cyds roommate is Tara Swadley 99, who has been somewhat more successful than the rest of us in staying gainfully employed. Tara specializes in stage management, an area of expertise that oversees the cast and crew of a production. Many productions also require the stage manager to understudy some of the actors. Tara also works at Starbucks.
Cyd believes that our post-graduate experiences are atypical of SU theatre graduates. More and more of our classmates have careers outside of our degree field, and more are starting families. The three of us talk about our classmates and where they are now. We like to keep tabs on our school friends, sharing in the joy of each others successes and commiserating in each others sorrows. As we leave the bar, Cyd and Sean set off in search of late-night dining, while I head back to the flat.
Niall is home, and I join him on the back porch. He lights up a cigarette, and the smell is intoxicating. Ive been smoke-free for four months now, but not a day goes by that I dont crave one. Quitting smoking for me is like putting money in an IRA. I know itll be good for me in 30 years, but I fail to see any benefits right now.
Niall is struggling to find acting work in Chicago, but its not for a lack of effort. A few years ago Niall joined Actors Equity, the national stage acting union, and while equity actors earn the most financially, those opportunities are harder to come by outside of New York City. Hes landed a few staged readings and is building some key relationships with artistic directors in the city, but he hasnt landed the breakthrough role that will get him the attention he deserves and launch his acting career in Chicago. During this purgatory, he too works at Starbucks to pay the bills.
The subjective nature of acting only adds to the difficulty in landing a job. At the end of the play, theres no final score. In acting, youre as good as somebody [else] says you are. The high points for Niall were in working with guest directors like David Owen Bell and Ron Bashford because bringing in the outside talent was like a breath of fresh air. These guest artists brought with them a taste of the real world. I bid Niall goodnight and head for bed, dreading having to catch the train downtown to my morning temp job.