An Open Letter to Editors, Critics, Friends, and most importantly, My Own Warring Thoughts/A Love Letter to Chicago
By Tara DeFrancisco
Everyone I know seems to be moving to Los Angeles.
In the past year or two, there has been a mass exodus of Chicago to the west coast. I don’t know what has happened – maybe it’s that “my class” era of performers has felt they’ve graduated from the scene, maybe they did all they came to do in the city, maybe they want a challenge or a change of pace, or simply -maybe they’ve only barely outlasted one of those Chicago winters we’re all so fond of.
I like that they are happy.
The west coast is fun. I like it.
There’s something that’s been troubling me.
After you perform for a while, and finally become one of the people who is regarded for doing it well, all people tell you is how you should go. “You will be on SNL!”, they used to scream after shows, over the din of a clearing audience. “You will be famous!” Lately, that old sentiment has evolved – “You have GOT to have your own show! You MUST go to LA.” In one case, a man outside a theatre said “You’re so good! Don’t waste it here.”*
Recently, I was fortunate enough to receive a big award here in the city, Top 50 Performers in Chicago; soon thereafter, an improvisation show I created was tapped by the Tribune as one of the best shows of the season. It blew my mind to wake up those mornings and see a stream of facebook congrats, from friends & some fans I had never met, on what wonderful fun my teams were making and how funny and beautiful a show I created had become. I was on cloud nine.
One reviewer, after many wonderful sentiments, said this crucial sentence that has caused a war within for a good while now:
“An audition last year didn’t land for “Saturday Night Live” didn’t land her a job this time, but performers with this kind of talent don’t stay in Chicago forever.”
What just happened?
Why do I feel like this?
Was I just complimented, or was Chicago just slammed?
First off, it’s no secret to my friends that I live in a fairly bohemian mental state – where I am is where I am, and make it the best that you can and plant a garden where you want to grow. See, the thing is, I already moved. I did that. I moved to Chicago years ago from another place I loved, my hometown. And I moved here for hope, for a dream, for the work, for a good life.
Because I am fairly bohemian, I also believe that no move has to be permanent, and you can do lots of things in one life. Life is long, and there’s a million choices to make.
I also believe, conversely, that it’s hard to do a hundred things truly well, and choosing to do a few all the way and committing to those choices is a good part of life. It’s part of what makes life incredibly beautiful – you can’t do it all. You can only do some, hopefully well. Leave the campsite better than you found it; be a blessing to someone else, be the best _______ you can be.
I chose a lot of this. I chose not to get married young, for instance. I chose follow a dream. I chose to be a performer that got a million reps and didn’t complain it wasn’t fast enough. I chose not to go out and party with friends some nights to get another show in. I chose to tour 250 days out of the year to learn. I chose to do over 2000 improv shows by the time I was 33 so I could feel like I truly understood the shows I did. I chose to still do riskier things that may have a high reward for those risks. I chose to get away from the poisonous who did comedy primarily for masturbatory reasons rather than the love of the work. I chose incredible friends and found a community that loves me and that I adore. I chose to root for my friends in all scenarios. I chose to not say no to opportunities like pilots and screen tests,to work hard and keep an open mind, and believe if one is coming, it’s coming. I chose to not beat myself up for not getting some things that a lot of people really wanted for me, but I really didn’t want for myself. I chose to keep my voice. I chose to play. I chose to love it. And I chose Chicago.
I guess that critic’s statement above kills me so much because it is so kind, and it’s just so cruel to a city that thrives so hard in so many ways. Why is stage work with an adoring audience not enough to captivate a player? Why has LA become synonymous with talent, or the voyage to a coast the true testament of a person who wants to work? Why is Chicago less-than? Why isn’t it just Also Amazing?
Commercially, I get it. Los Angeles has opportunities out the wazoo, and it is reeeeally hard to make it in Chicago as a working actor. I’ve flown out there for commercial work. If any friend wrote me into a script, or needed me to go there for a project, I would never sweat that, it would absolutely be a blast. I see friends writing for someone, getting their feet in the proverbial doors, scrappin’ and survivin’, and in some cases – even writing their own shit, making it big time. I love that. I love that they are happy.
I also see more of my friends – wildly talented, smart, sexy, strange, compelling friends – struggle and beat themselves up because they aren’t getting a chance anywhere; that they don’t fit a preconceived mold of what works on tv, even though they are fucking ADORED by mainstream audiences everywhere they play. The gatekeepers are not the voice of the people, like most places. The execs are afraid, with good reason, because some financial backer is telling them it’s their job on the line if they take risks that don’t work. So we see another sitcom with a schlub bumbling husband and a hot dead-eyed wife. It’s a machine where evolution is slow like molasses, even though the people have spoken, and all have unanimously agreed – my friends are the funniest fuckers on earth.
In the past year, several of my closest friends have moved to LA for the very dream of opportunity. They are incredible. Another great friend is about to move. She is incredible. My boyfriend moved too. He’s incredible.
Who knows, maybe something WILL bring me there, temporarily again to shoot a piece or a show; maybe one of those producers that had me on hold for a sitcom or two willll actually design a show for me before I’m forty years old. Maybe, more likely than any of those, I’ll move there for a bit to be with the person I love and just kick around a bit.
But all I ask is this, and we must do it first (critics, producers, ourselves):
Quit thinking this city is less.
Stop thinking Chicago has something less because not every invention is televised. Part of the reason it rules is because there is energy, no rules, punk rock shows, a current of electricity always, and the gatekeepers are few and rarely matter now.
Sink your ever-loving TEETH into the joy of live performing.
Adore your friends and know you’ve made lifelong war-buddies that have seen you at hilarious lows and exhilarating highs.
Know that in five years, like Patton Oswalt noted, Hollywood may simply be sound stages where people film and no one will need to permanently live anywhere to create the media they want to create. Remember that five years ago, there were no smart phones.
Don’t uproot because you need to prove that you’re worth something. You are.
And to me: Love your fucking self, and please don’t look for anyone to do that for you, not even a city full of producers. You find that in you.
One thing I can say, unilaterally, about almost every person I know that has moved to LA from Chicago – you know what they say?
Chicago was pretty much the best time of their life.
So, consider that your life is more than just being televised, noticed, or momentarily loved by anything. The funniest people seem to rarely be famous.
Hey, feel free to be free of the vision you had for yourself you had when you were 13. If you wanted to be a lawyer when you were 10, and then you found out the law is more complex than you believed on an elementary level, and you changed your dream to want to be a social worker, no one would be upset with you. Your dream is allowed to evolve. It might be different now. I HOPE it’s different now. Be brave and see what you want, now.
And if you’re truly here for the training and to move on and know your goals clearly, feel no guilt. If you move to LA and it is perfect, fuck yes. Do you. This letter isn’t about you. Go. We’ll root for you. Hell yes. Go. I think it’s amazing when anyone feels called to something. Go. We love you.
This is for the lovers of this place who feel they love what they do enough but feel pressure from outside themselves to be something different. That when they get good enough to be here, they are being strangely pushed out by the very city that loved them. That when they hit their Chicago goals of being known for finally being good, that they should go, rather than enjoy all the good they have worked for.
The thing that makes our city awesome is it is Ours. It is like nowhere else… and it doesn’t need to be a shitty imitation of anywhere else. Let those places be those places and do what they do. Cities have tried to emulate the community we’ve fostered here. Folks always notice the coinciding incredible strength and Midwestern friendliness of our town. People have strained to explain the feeling. Chicago’s got a voice. Chicago’s got heart. Chicago has balls. Chicago is fucking CHICAGO. That is a gift.
Move anywhere, do anything, love anyone, live anyhow. Just don’t think that what you’re doing – what anyone is doing – is less-than. It’s just Also Amazing.
Everyone I know seems to be moving to Los Angeles.
Maybe I’ll be one of them, because life is exciting, and it’s something else.
But no matter where I go, I definitely know where I belong; wherever the hell I am.