"No actor should be in Chicago 'cause they wanta make money," a character says in "The Last Duck," a new play that includes a brief but pointed look at our
Countless Chicago performers working in theater, sketch or improv, have been down this path before. Scraping by. Doing it for nothing but artistic fulfillment. That's the Chicago way, a tradition set in motion during the early renegade years of playwright
But one can only live on a diet of ramen and unrealized potential for so long.
He is in an entirely different tax bracket now, and glad for it. But the cupidity of Hollywood has made him wary. That's why he's back, working in Chicago for the next few months. "Not every play (in Chicago) excites me to my artistic core," he said last week, "but there's a lot of stuff out there that's like, 'Yeah, I would love to be in that play.' In LA, the scripts are like — just the titles alone are so depressing, like 'Dumb Girls.' So there is that question of, why do I want to be an actor? To be in movies and TV just for the sake of making money and it's a good job?"
In "The Last Duck," Neff's alter ego puts it this way: "Money kills art. That's a fact." If that doesn't sound like the rallying cry of Chicago's storefront theater scene, I don't know what does. But there will always be that tension, between the poverty-level purity of work in Chicago and the lure of becoming a household name, with a healthy net worth to match.
Is there something in the water these days? Two other new plays embrace this neurotic preoccupation, as well. "Johnny Theatre," at Chemically Imbalanced
Problem is, he returns with a massive ego that has outgrown the humility (and humiliations) of off-
Meanwhile, billed as a "truly Chicago tale," playwright Randall Colburn's "The Improv Play" opens Thursday at the Storefront Theater and follows the lives of three aspiring improvisers struggling for success and validation after one of their pals hits the jackpot, landing a gig on
Some choose to live here and do get national work, but the opportunities are limited. The Second City veteran and respected improviser
"There's always going to be this awful ambivalence," said
"If you decide to stay in Chicago, you have to have so much confidence in yourself, because you'll never be able to completely convince other humans that you actually made that choice. People will assume it was a choice made for you."
But the indignities in Hollywood can be endless. "Now I have the good fortune to be able to say no to things," said
This tension exists for audiences, too, by the way. We want local actors to hit the big time and become celebrities. We want the bragging rights, out of some weird mixture of pride and Second City insecurity.
The list goes on. For the most part, people don't come back. And we — the irrational, demanding, star-craving audience — feel cruelly forsaken. Didn't we make these people?
"It's not irrational," said Steppenwolf co-founder
Kinney (who co-stars in the new
"Johnny Theatre" takes this kind of sentiment and milks it for parody. As the obnoxious Hollywood actor says in the play: "This is going to be a bare-bones, no-holds-barred, down-and-dirty production that will literally kick the audience" into submission.
For most stars, Chicago is out of sight, out of mind, but there are exceptions. Steppenwolf ensemble member
It's nice to think you might bump into a Pulitzer winner or
But there is a point being made: that it's possible to have a major Hollywood career — in the last 12 months, Shannon juggled work on
"I never really wanted to leave Chicago," he said. "I never got frustrated with being in Chicago. I mean, I didn't have a very high standard of living, but I didn't get into acting to make money." And yet: "There's no money to be made at Red Orchid. After all this time, we're still struggling (as a company) to survive, constantly. It's really hard."
It's a unique coincidence of timing. "The Last Duck," "Johnny Theatre" and "The Improv Play" have all landed onstage within weeks of one another, drilling deep into Chicago's insecurities: You're busting your hump, but does anybody notice?
For his part, playwright Neff said he intends to keep working in Chicago, regardless of his career path in LA. But even he admits to being fallible.
"I don't know, maybe I'll become a really ruthless, cynical, money-hungry, glory-hungry person. That seems to happen to a lot of people," he said. "It seems to be a pretty natural progression, and it starts to be all about the biggest stage and the brightest lights and the biggest paycheck."