Should Actors Move To LA, New York, Chicago, Or Not?

Hi Acting Room Family! I’ve been getting so many private emails about this question lately that I felt it was time to write a new post. Here is an example of a recent email I received from Michael, whom I will address hereafter as Mike:

So I'm a 26 year old living and working in D.C. with a really great day job. My first love is improv comedy, but I've been getting more and more into acting. I've read a lot of your posts, and find your wisdom extremely enlightening.

My question for you is this. As I'm getting older...I keep thinking about the three big cities I would love to train in. Chicago because of the improv (yet with still a great theatre scene and training grounds)...New York, because it's New York. And then of course LA...because that's where you go for TV and Film.

Now to tell you the truth, I'm not sure what I exactly want out of my future as an actor. But I was wondering what your advice would be for someone like me who's getting older. Should I just stay in DC for now where my job is...and continue to train with private teachers (not getting an MFA because of your advice)...and get acting roles to build up my resume?

Or should I say screw it and try to move to one of the big three to get even better world class training? And if so, what would your opinion be on choosing one of those cities.

I think I'm just starting to worry that because I'm getting older...I'm going to slowly lose my energy and passion. Hard to see now, because I'm so passionate. But worries me. And as it is, most of my experience is all improv...with not too much acting. Anyway, any advice you could give for someone in my position would be greatly appreciated.

– Michael

Thanks for the trust you put in me Mike, first off, because as you know, no one can really decide your future for you, or even claim to know what’s best for you. That being said, my intention of creating this blog is really to help everyone feel that they are not alone, and that their dreams are NOT for nothing! You sound like such a talented person, and I really hope the best for you.

As many of you may know, I often write about the REAL COST of making it in LA or NY, and often try to discourage you to move to bigger cities unless you have money and support from loved ones. I also often advise that spending lots

But the central question always remains: “Should I move to LA?”
of money on bigger acting programs may be a waste of time (and money) when you could train privately with smaller programs, or individual teachers.

But the central question always remains: “Should I move to LA?” (New York, London, or Chicago). Along with that question usually comes, “Am I wasting my time, and my life, remaining in my smaller city, and when SHOULD I bite the bullet and really try to MAKE it as an actor?”

My advice is always the same. Be realistic about your life and your acting career, and treat acting (if this is really your passion) as a professional job, not as a hobby. You’re going to be in it for the long haul, so be prepared.

As an actor, you must be able to pay your bills and live comfortably while trying to pursue your dreams. Moving to a bigger city to pursue these dreams may sound inviting and thrilling, and a huge adventure, but the reality of moving, finding a new apartment, new friends, a new job to keep your bills paid while auditioning and all that this means, is so much more stressful and expensive than you could ever imagine, that I can not repeat this truth enough.

Having both lived and acted in LA myself for over twenty years, going there as a graduate student to get my MFA from USC, when I was 22, then continuing to live and work there, eventually in filmmaking, directing, and teaching, then moving back to the Midwest off and on many times (with a year in Chicago somewhere there – ha ha) helps me feel that I really do know the ins and outs. Plus, I taught acting to many young actors and actresses, as well as produced indie films as you all know, so I met more actors and actresses who had recently moved to LA, and got to know tons of them as friends.

I saw the whole business from every side, every day, and often felt like first hand, including in my own life, I experienced the good, the bad, and the very ugly, of the reality of “trying to make it” in LA.

The actual experience of becoming a professional actor is actually the fun part of moving to the big city to pursue your dreams. Your initial passion will keep you going and motivated through hard times. It’s pretty exciting, and it’s what people are seeking, to live their life truthfully doing what they love. Kudos to all of you doing this. We are all proud of you!

Finding an agent, getting into a great acting class or program, auditioning, and being in plays or films, that’s the fun part. Even when you’re not booking things, it’s still fun to go out on auditions. Even if you’re broke, it’s exciting to call yourself a working, professional actor.

But the reality of life while you’re doing all of this is the hard part, and that’s where I always want those seeking advice to be VERY VERY realistic about how they will survive.

Younger actors who are still College age, often have lots of financial help from parents and family and those family members often help them pay their rent or their bills for a few years while they are pursuing their acting careers, with the thought that if it doesn’t work out, they can always move back home and try to do something different. Or maybe they’ll end up marrying someone who doesn’t work in the industry who can help bring stability to their lives while they themselves go out on auditions. Great. But that’s not everyone.

The big problem about trying to do all this, in all of these bigger cities, is money, money, money. It always comes down to that. As artists, we don’t like to hear that. It brings us down and certainly does not inspire us one bit. It never motivated me, that’s for sure. It’s one reason everyone in LA becomes so spiritual, and one reason why everyone’s into the ideas behind books like The Secret. We think that if we just “let go” and say enough affirmations, that we will make it. It’s something “we’re doing wrong” if we aren’t making it. We’re not positive enough, not spiritual enough, if we’re broke. We end up becoming obsessed with things like Tarot Cards, and Astrology, if we haven’t booked a job in awhile, thinking, “oh, my energy is off” – or we may even turn to alcohol or drugs, or become depressed, blaming ourselves that we just aren’t working hard enough to “make it!” So you have to be very centered and really “know yourself” and have some very healthy lifestyle things set in place if you are going to move to one of these cities and be centered, happy, and hopefully, successful.

The truth is that it’s not magic, and it’s not even about God – even though I write about how helpful Faith can be when you’re an artist. Making it, that is, supporting yourself financially as an actor, honestly, is much more about luck, and also about who you know, and about if you have enough money to support yourself and be happy while you basically work harder than you’ve ever worked in your whole life, to try and get work as an actor, in a city that’s full of actors just like you. It’s a bit crazy! But it’s also a bit like life in general – an adventure.

So when I get an email like Mike’s, I feel like a protective teacher or Auntie, and I want to admit that… I worry.

Mike, you have a great job, your words. You love to do improv comedy. You like your life. You live in a cool big city – Washington DC -- that DOES have world class theater. But you worry that you are getting too old. You want to take the “next step” which usually means, “going for it!” and that usually means, “Moving to LA!” or some type of bigger theatre city where you might get discovered, or at least get a real agent and go out on more, or bigger, auditions.

I like to advise students and older actors who are supporting themselves to really look at where they are NOW and what they are REALLY doing now to become working actors. If you live in a tiny town of 500, of course you may want to move to a bigger city, that’s a given. But if you’re already in a mid-range city that has a theatre scene, or has some TV production in the area (say, commercials being shot) then… are you REALLY doing all you can do where you are now? Are you? It’s scary to really take a long look at yourself and your life and realize that you may NOT be doing all you can do where you are, and then reorganize your priorities to change all that. Refocusing your energy is not easy. I know. But it CAN be done. You can do it!

If you think about your life, it’s not always easy right where you are – am I right? Keeping rent paid (even if it’s only about $600 a month), paying your bills, taking acting classes, working, all that is never easy, no matter where you live.

Now practically, if you think about how hard all that is where you are now, think about quadrupling all of your bills, rent, and stress, and THEN think about also trying to have an acting career, a career that you’ve not REALLY pursued back where you came from. Think about the kind of job you have to find in LA or other big cities, that will allow you the night before (when you get your call you’re your agent to go on an audition the following day at 11am) to tell your boss that you will be gone for two hours.

If you’re a busy actor, you may have auditions twho or three times a day. It’s very very hard to have any kind of job when you’re really going out on auditions daily. It’s all pretty scary, right? Sorry if this sounds like I’m being a downer, but I’m just trying to give it to you straight! Ha!

Moving into a new apartment in LA, NY, or Chicago means things like: paying first, last, and half a month’s rent for a deposit, on a place that may cost up to $1000 - $2000 a month. That means that just to move in to a new place could cost you up to $5000. I am NOT exaggerating. This is a fact. That’s ignoring setting up the move itself, and all the expenses that will incur. I have personally moved away from and back to LA about 4 times in the last 20 years. Each time I do, I have had to spend at least $5000 just getting into a new place. Then my costs are so high once I’m there that I wonder, “Why did I do this?” On top of that, the places that I WAS able to afford were usually in pretty sketchy neighborhoods. The last place my husband, Ozzy and I lived in was near Silverlake (East Hollywood area) and although it was thought to be cheaper (at $1400/month) we had gang fights outside our bedroom window about twice a week, and helicopters flying overhead all hours of the night. It was a bit hellish to say the least. My brother lived nearby, in a renovated one room garage, and his rent was $900/month.

On top of that, I also want to mention the “stress” of living in one of these bigger cities while doing something that everyone else is also trying to do. Not to dis LA too much (because I loved that darned place and have a million friends there) – but keep in mind that every single person you meet there is also trying to “make it” and you are, sadly (even if you are the most remarkable, talented, gorgeous person)… one in a million. In a smaller city, you may actually stand out. That can’t be a bad thing, can it?

I always tell the tale of going to an audition for a movie, back when I was about 25 and I looked a bit like Sharon Stone (others said this, not me) – and I was thinking I looked pretty that day, all young and thin and blonde, with a great new outfit on, thinking I was “perfect” for the part (ha ha!) -- and when I walked into the room, every single young woman there auditioning with me looked EXACTLY like me. We were all clones of each other. Obviously, they were looking for a blonde like me, a certain “type”. Little did I realize that every single girl in my age range with any type of talent, dream, a certain kind of look, had also moved to LA from all over the world, and was also trying to “make it” in this crazy industry! It was hilarious, heartbreaking, and also a real eye opener. I thought, “but I bet they don’t have an MFA like me,” and I talked to a couple of these girls and both had MFAs, and one went to Yale! I felt like a complete loser! Ha ha!

This audition experience changed my life forever. It made me realize I had to do something to set myself apart. I had to work harder, yes, take more lessons, yes, but more importantly, I had to network my “you know what” off, and meet people, and create my own projects, if I was ever to stand out. It made me realize that “making it” in LA had nothing whatsoever to do with my training, or even how good of an actress I was. It was all about who you know, how long you’ve been at it, making real, lasting, relationships with real, hard working production people (the directors, the casting agents, the producers) and really getting involved in the industry as an active participant, not just as someone sent out, passively, on yet another acting call by their agent. It was around this time I started working in TV and indie film production, and also started teaching acting. I just HAD to find ways to use my brain and keep busy. I also got and enjoyed several retail jobs and realized I HAD to also find some faith (with a capital F) if I was to survive my hectic life!

The Internet has really changed all this, in that it’s created a new, and rather cheap (free!) way for actors to create projects that can be seen by the whole world. You don’t have to live in LA to get noticed anymore – especially if you are a comedic actor. You can actually write, star, and direct your own sketches, and get seen immediately. Check out the sketches by the likes of Julian Smith for a great example.

If you are independently wealthy, or if you have $30,000 saved up, I think a move to a bigger city would be a fun and exciting idea. Go for it! Give yourself a year to see how it goes, but have a back-up, escape plan, Plan B, in the back of your mind. Think how you could use some of you money to buy a place or to put it into an indie film you could star in, or a play you could produce. Or, if you can get a very good paying job in LA, NY, or Chicago (say, at least $50,000 a year) BEFORE you move there, you know you’ll be okay while you pursue your dreams. If you have a husband, wife, or partner, that supports you, and THEY get a great job in one of those cities, that’s also a safer way to hit one of those towns running. But if you’re like most of us, you maybe do not.

So for Mike, the best advice I can give you is this. Stay in DC. You are younger than you think! Get into a great private acting class. Audition for local theatre. Get more experience. Find other comedic actors who also know how to run cameras and editing equipment, and get some of your sketches on a website. Do all you can do NOW, exactly where you are NOW, to become a working actor. Find local agents, get new headshots, and start going out for commercials shot in your city.

Do this for YOU. Don’t do this to get “more professional work on your resume” to eventually impress agents in LA. Because agents in LA care only about one thing: If you look right for the part, basically ARE the part. After that, then, and only then do they even care if you can basically act. Of course it won’t hurt if you’ve played Hamlet in a professional DC play! They “like” a decent resume, and decent training, but they care more about how you look, because film and TV casting agents really care most about you looking “right” for the part. That took me many years to figure out. I used to say, “But I had the LEAD in my Master’s Thesis play at USC!” and they’d say, “So what!?” and I’d say, “But I’m smart and I went to Grinnell College!” and they’d say, “Where?” It was very hard.

If you absolutely LOVE Improvisation, a move to Chicago is not a terrible idea. It’s not as expensive as LA or NY, and there are tons of improv type groups there. But many of them are also money making schemes, and you have to watch out for those ones that lock you into multi-level training programs, promising you time on stage, that may be many years off.

To all of you reading this, I hope this post did not discourage any of you, but helps you plan better as you think about your future careers. As actors, there are so many ways to “make it” in this business. You can stay in your country, your smaller city, and be the star, and actually make a living acting, while paying lower rent. You can always move to LA or NY later, after you get a real taste of what the industry is about. Or not! There’s an actress here in Kansas City that is in tons of professional plays, and she was recently cast as a good part in Winter’s Bone. Her name is Cinnamon Schultz, you can see an interview with her here.

And you can always move to those cities now if you just HAVE to. But move there knowing what you’re getting into, with a wise heart, and your head on your shoulders, as you’ve got to be very strong, safe, and have some money saved, or else you’ll find yourself even more discouraged as you start out in a very difficult (yet rewarding) career.

Hope this helps, and keep on acting!

About Kirsten Tretbar

Kirsten Tretbar is an acting teacher, filmmaker, and former actress. She received her MFA in Acting from USC in Los Angeles, where she acted professionally for many years.

Los Angeles + Kansas City