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Where Should I Live to Work as an Actor?

July 22, 2013

New York? Los Angeles? Chicago? Atlanta? Washington D.C.? London? Florida? Denver?

Deciding where to set up shop to live and work as an actor can be a quick and easy answer for some: Duh, NYC! But sometimes the decision is laden with many other facets, and it is good to keep in mind that there is work to be had anywhere, it is just a matter of what kind of work you will be having.

Our industry is based in New York City, if you are talking strictly theatre; in LA, if you are looking at film. Every major theatre auditions in New York, so if you are based there, you will have many jobs for which to toss your hat into the ring. But what if you decide – or fate decides for you – not to live in NYC? What then? Where else can you live and still get work as an actor?

Your first stop should be the Actors’ Equity’s Liaison page. There, you can see where a large enough concentration of union actors are living that Equity has given that area Liaison status. Don’t quote me on this, but I seem to recall the number is 100 or more dues-paying union members have to live in a place for it to receive such a designation. This will help in two ways:

You will see where there might be enough work to sustain a professional acting life, and

You can reach out to the Liaison Chair and committee for their input on living and working in that area as a professional actor.

I currently serve as Vice-Chair for the Louisville-Cincinnati Liaison area, and we are always happy to share info about the area. Some of us in the group are from the area originally, while others, like me, are transplants. We can chat with you about the reality on the ground for potential work, the challenges and the benefits to living in our little corner of the market.

All the liaisons I have worked with are more than happy to share the ups and downs of living where they do. Some folks ended up in a smaller market because they moved home to help an ailing parent, or they wanted to raise their kids closer to their families. Sometimes people just don’t want to put up with the larger markets, preferring to deal with work that is more sporadic rather than the pace of NYC or traffic of LA. And sometimes, people aged out of the type they were regularly cast as and didn’t want to, or didn’t know how to, transition in a larger market. I also know plenty of people who decided to focus on a parallel career to shore up retirement savings, and so moved to a smaller market to be able to do both acting and a parallel-retirement-friendly career.

There are hot pockets of work for film outside the LA market, too. While most of the roles cast from the local talent pool will be of the supporting day player variety (day player, background, stand-in), there is a good living to be made doing that work in Austin, New Orleans, and Atlanta. To gauge how active an area is, take a look at the film commission’s website for that state and municipality. You can also check out the SAG-AFTRA list of franchised agencies in the state.

For the Midwest market, where I am based, most of the work is commercial and industrial. Chances are, if you worked for Macy’s, you watched training videos filmed in downtown Cincinnati, for example. Is it glamorous? Meh. Does it pay? You betcha! (And the Macy’s folks are great to work with, to boot.) The kind of work you will have available will just depend on what is being shot there. And your type. Always your type. Reach out to folks who are already there to see what’s going on.

As for theatre in the regions, I will caution you that many Liaisons share a frustration: most regional theatres cast their shows out of New York City, Chicago, or LA. For those of us who are not living in one of those cities, it can be maddening to see roles that a local could have played go to an out-of-town talent. Whether it is a fascination with the “exotic New Yorkers,” a snobbery that quality talent couldn’t possibly be found locally, or a well-worn institutional tradition of hiring from New York, I don’t know.

Why do we live out here in the boonies, out of those office cities, where the work can be so thin? You can get as many answers to that question as there are people living in the regions.

For me, I didn’t have the financial backing to make the move to New York without chaining myself to a job that would have prevented me from being able to act. I decided to live somewhere more affordable so I could act professionally, with all of its financial pits and valleys. The plan, all along, has been to eventually move to a larger market. It may seem illogical not to move to the big market in your youngest days, when it is easier to suck up the Ramen noodle diet and there are no spouses or kids involved. I knew that I was not willing to live the life I would have led as a New York City actor, at the time that decision presented itself in my life. Knowing what I know now, I would make the same decision – with a caveat: I would temporarily set down somewhere and get certified or trained in a solid sideline or parallel career, and then move to NYC, with that sideline career – and more savings. What I have learned about the industry in my time in a smaller market will put me in such a healthier place when I do make the move, I just wish I could have learned it a little faster.

A friend of mine ended up working steadily with a cruise line right out of college, after just a few months in NYC. By the time she traded in her sea legs for land, she was married to a man pursuing a masters degree in the Midwest, whose job eventually moved them to another market that is not New York. She never made a conscious decision not to go back to New York, but her decisions along the way have her living in the regions, still. And working steadily, I might add.

Another friend of mine moved out of New York after a successful decade there. He met the love of his life, who didn’t live in New York, and also wanted to be a little closer to family in the Midwest. With his New York credentials, talent, and work ethic, he was confident he could work steadily. While he has worked steadily, a theatre that once hired him when his phone number was in the 212, will not even take him for an audition appointment, now that his area code is different – even for a role he originated in New York. That discovery has been a painful one for him, and is the example of the kind of thing people living where you are thinking about moving can share with you during your contemplations.

One fellow acting buddy worked steadily – as a janitor – in a small market while he auditioned and took whatever few roles came his way. Simultaneously, he developed himself as a fight choreographer. In the past five years, he was able to leave his custodial job and now works all the freakin’ time in a small market in the South. No, really. He is ALWAYS in a show. And if he is not in the show, he is usually fight directing it.

Another one of my local peeps did the NYC-LA thing for years. He has an impressive reel from his days there, and some great stories, to boot. But he got tired of the pace of both of those markets, so he moved back to his hometown. Since being back, he has worked as an actor and director, occasionally bartending. Acouple of years ago he left bartending when he got on with a regular voiceover job. He and his partner have now opened a fantastic new theatre and rehearsal space in an old building they have renovated in downtown Louisville.

As you can see, there are many reasons an actor ends up somewhere besides NYC or LA, or even Chicago. If one of those cities doesn’t appeal to you, take a look elsewhere. When in doubt, give one of us in the boonies a call. We’ll be happy to share all our trials and tribulations…and we probably even have a guest room for you to stay if you need to do a scouting trip!


6 Comments leave one →
  1. July 22, 2013 9:13 pm

    I’ve often felt frustrated with the need to live in NYC to pursue theatre. I love it here but I don’t think it’s sustainable for me. I need space and would love to raise children in a backyard. I think it’d be great to get steady work at one of the big regional theatres like Arvada or the MUNY – that is, if I can get cast.

  2. Karen permalink
    February 12, 2014 10:10 am

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this.
    I’m from Chicago 22 years old born and raised. I auditioned for the American Academy of dramatic arts in New Yrok. Was accepted, but made the big choice not to attend. Way too expensive (30, 000) a year without a promise to be accepted the second year.
    I digress. But I thought it would be smart to stay in my hometown Chicago and make a living here.
    Another not so smart descison. Most roles here have become exclusive only to the equity established actors who has a ba in the arts.
    But now I’ve come to the decision that I need to move to a smaller town build a resume where ever this place may be. And go to a school that might be cheaper than what I originally planned.
    Any help in that department?

    • The Enterprising Actor permalink
      February 12, 2014 11:49 am

      From what I have heard from my peeps in Chicago, earning your Equity card IN Chicago is about the only way to get hired to work there. Again, this is what I’ve heard from actors, most of whom earned their card out of town in smaller theatres, but apparently the routine is to work in the non-Eq theatres in the suburbs and meet people. Then, when those people move into positions of casting authority in town, they call up their buddies, who then get their Equity card and their foot in the door with Goodman, Steppenwolf, etc. Of course, everyone’s experience will be different. But if you are non-Equity, being willing to work in the ‘burbs to establish yourself seems to be a tried and true method. The Red Headed Actress talked about her experience doing that in NYC/NJ in this blog post.

      There are a lot of markets with a lot of work, but I have heard complaints about all of them. As you are looking around, think about what town you’d like to be in for awhile, a place that also has a good program is a bonus, too. Smaller markets that are still substantial that I see lots of auditions in are Atlanta (primarily non-Equity), Washington, D.C. (added bonus of being close to Philly and NYC), Philly, Boston, New Orleans, Florida, and Austin. A lot of film work is also available in Atlanta, New Orleans, and Austin. Check out the Equity Liaison cities, there are some I didn’t mention already, and see if you can get in touch with the Liaison Chair there. That person can give you the low-down on what it’s like.

      As far as a degree, to have your BFA or BA from a reputable institution is shorthand for casting that you’ve had good training, but it doesn’t mean that actor IS good, per se. I just returned from UPTAs and, trust me, the letters next to your name mean nothing as to whether or not a person can produce the goods when it counts. That being said, I am an advocate for getting a college degree, but that doesn’t mean you have to go all-in on a four year degree from the start. You could start by getting a certificate or an associates, or even cobble together training from various schools without certificates or degrees. Usually you can take a class or workshop at one of those for a very reasonable cost. That way, you are training and networking and when you save up for school, or work out the financial aid, go get the four year degree. You are in a great town to pursue that option. The biggest hindrance in a smaller market is the lack of professional training programs in town. For example, I am currently looking at programs in L.A. – though it would be the same to go to Chicago, NYC, or somewhere else – and I will have to pay for the cost of the program as well as the cost of travel, while being out of work during that amount of time.

      I would recommend that you get very clear about your ambitions – write them down – and then write down steps to get there, and maybe include several different paths there. I’m retooling, myself, right now and I have found that the soul searching to write my acting business plan has been very illuminating about where I’ve been wasting energy and where I need to refocus my energies. Although it is not actor- or theatre-centric, the outline I’m using to create my business plan is on this website. I also really enjoy Colleen Wainwright’s thoughts about the business of acting, she blogs here and also at Casting Networks. Paul Russell is a NY CD whose book and blog are very no-nonsense. He is a big advocate of getting a degree, partially because he does not have one, and he speaks very openly about how that has hindered his career at times. Once you get very clear and very focused on your intentions for your career – both short-term goals and long-term goals – I think some of the answers will just reveal themselves. I know that sounds really “woo-woo,” but it’s amazing how that often happens. Not always. But most of the time.

      Oh, another route to consider: are there companies who have apprenticeships or internships? Some of them can be cost prohibitive, that’s why I didn’t do one myself, but some of them pay a small stipend, or are just for a summer. Maybe you can make the money work to apprentice for a summer. It’s a lot less overwhelming that a full year apprenticeship or internship.

      Check out Backstage Magazine and TCG. You can also look up theatres you would like to work with and see if they have an unadvertised intern program. I know of one theatre that regularly uses interns but they don’t advertise that an internship is available, you just have to call up and ask if there are any opportunities.

      Wow, that was a long-winded answer, but I hope it was helpful.

  3. Pauline Heath permalink
    January 26, 2015 2:08 am

    Thank you so much for your wonderful advice! I don’t feel as alone. I see that there so many aspiring actress/actors who has the same questions. Do I have to live in major cities to start an acing career? This article really helps. I have also read an article about the Top 5 Major Cities for Acting Auditions here Try to check it out guys.

  4. May 11, 2016 3:15 am

    Sometimes it is such a relief just to hear I’m not the only person who feels this way – and that it’s possible to love my life AND my career. I think a lot of people would be saved a lot of self-beatup if they questioned the necessity of living in these places. I’ve lived in both and seen it truly artistically and emotionally damage people – not because these places are inherently flawed, but I think because people think they HAVE to live there, rather than it being a joyful best option they are willing to commit to, regardless of outcome (i.e. Living and pursuing is enough, not just success).

  5. gabifaye permalink
    March 3, 2017 10:48 am

    I really appreciated this article. I would love to hear from someone living in the south florida area. My Boyfriend just got an amazing job offer in Boca Raton (South FL) There seems to be acting work to had there, but its still painful for me to think about leaving the NYC market. I just signed with my first agent and feel that I’m finally making some significant progress in my career. My boyfriend is an amazing man and wants to help us succeed as a couple by insuring our financial stability. I am so grateful to him, but feeling upset at the same time for the possibility of what feels like pausing all of my hard work contacts and progress to start over in a different area and market.

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