Claire Simon, a leading Chicago casting director, and her associate Becca McCracken are on something of a mission to change one of the truisms of the American theater: In order to work in regional theater, you have to audition and get cast in New York City. They'd like the truism to become: In order to work in regional theater, you have to audition and get cast in Chicago.
Simon and McCracken arrived for a recent lunch interview armed with two separate lists. One list, which included such regional houses as the Asolo Rep Theatre in Sarasota, Fla.; the Syracuse Stage in Syracuse, N.Y.; and the Indiana Repertory Theatre in Indianapolis, contained success stories. All three of those out-of-state theaters come to Chicago to find the bulk of their actors.
"They're always thrilled by the talent here," Simon said. "Once they start coming here, they always come back."
Right now, for example, director Frank Galati's Florida production of "1776" is filled with Chicago actors: Brandon Dahlquist, Patrick Clear, Jarrod Zimmerman, Andrea Prestinario and Bernie Yvon. The Indiana Rep production of "A Christmas Carol" features Matthew Brumlow.
The other list contains theaters that Simon and McCracken think should come to Chicago to cast but don't. Top of that list is the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, one of the Midwest's flagship institutions, but a theater that has tended to cast only in Minneapolis and New York. Also highly desirable: Actors Theatre of Louisville and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Simon and McCracken make several arguments as to why it makes sense for such institutions to cast in Chicago. One is that Chicago actors are of very high quality (rarely do people argue otherwise). Another is that they tend to love doing legitimate theater, especially a juicy play, as distinct from TV and film. And a third is that once they take your gig, a Chicago actor is likely to still take your gig, even if more remunerative employment has come up in the interim.
"Actors here," said McCracken, "are very serious about commitment." And although Simon and McCracken didn't mention it, it's probably also worth noting that regional theaters that cast in Chicago don't have to compete with Broadway and touring production contracts, which are relatively lucrative, but with much less lucrative Chicago Area Theatre contracts. Room and board and a reasonable salary in Sarasota can look very attractive, especially at this time of year.
Why is this important if you're not an actor? Well, it impacts the quality of the work you see on Chicago-area stages. Most of the actors we see in Chicago live in Chicago, but there has to be enough work here to sustain them and prevent the best of them leaving for the coasts. "Enough work" doesn't just mean shows that play here but also shows that audition here. For decades, New York actors have been sustained by out-of-town work. Chicago needs a bigger piece of that pie.
Chicago will never be able to compete with New York and Los Angeles when it comes to TV and film, but Simon and McCracken argue that, when it comes to nonprofit theaters that value ensemble-type artists, Chicago is the best place to find performers. It's just a question of fighting some established patterns of doing business. Most New York casting agents don't know Chicago actors. And people tend to push those they know and trust.
One can see Simon and McCracken's efforts (despite the obvious self-interest) as a companion piece to Broadway in Chicago's efforts to attract out-of-town tryouts. Those shows have a huge economic impact for musicians, stagehands and, well, waiters and bartenders. But they don't tend to hire many local actors.
Simon and McCracken are trying to build Chicago as a casting center, even if the performances take place far out of town. They deserve the city's support
So what else can be done? Well, there have been some terrific developments for musical theater performers. One is the decision of the Mercury Theater to produce its own musicals. The other is the overwhelming success of the Paramount Theatre's self-produced, Broadway-sized musicals. If you head to Aurora to see "Annie," and you should, you'll see a lot of fine Chicago actors put to work.