Pursuing an Acting Career in Toronto, New York, & Los Angeles
Determining which city is the best place for your acting career to thrive is a seemingly interminable internal debate for every actor serious about making this their life’s work. Some of us have such trouble deciding that it feels like we live in all three places at once.
Within the past four years I have spent at least 6 months each in Los Angeles, Toronto and New York. In each of those cities there are opportunities to perform in theatre productions, sketch comedy and improv shows, stand up, short and feature films, student films, on television, hosting opportunities and, as always, to create your own work. It can feel overwhelming to find work in the indie world, especially with the proliferation of casting websites and their paywalls. What follows is a guide to starting out in each of these cities and some suggestions as to when is a good time to make a move.
A good place to take the temperature of any given city are the listings of what is being shot there. In NY and LA you can find these on Backstage.com. In Toronto there is a listing on the City of Toronto website of what is currently filming.
The industry in Toronto has definite high and low periods. When it is busy, it is very busy, and it may be just in commercials or just in TV, but there is work there to be had. The gatekeepers in Toronto (casting directors, agents, etc) are very big on the idea that you follow the tried and true path to becoming a working actor: study, work for free, develop a reel, get an agent, audition for commercials, book commercials, join the union (ACTRA), audition for small parts in TV shows, book those, work your way into larger roles on TV, move into film, move to LA. Agents like for you to have improv on your resume if they are going to represent you in comedy and since there is so much “comedy” in commercials, it is a pretty important step toward your marketability.
The Second City is where I studied in Toronto and it changed my life. The community is wonderful and supportive and the teachers are top top top notch. I suggest the Improv for Actors program which is a faster track through their first year courses and has you working with others who have made the commitment to acting as their work. If you are lucky enough to be in Toronto, get in there, and tell Kevin Frank I think he’s the bee’s knees.
Why and when to choose Toronto?
If you are Canadian it is a great place to start and to come back to after you have trained and done work elsewhere. Canadians are notorious for loving you once you have proven yourself in the US, so you will be more appealing once you return with some experience under your belt. There is a LOT of web series activity happening in Toronto they have one of the most vibrant indie film and web series communities in the world thanks to organizations such as Raindance Canada (a school with affordable courses in different areas of filmmaking, which also serves as a great networking community for indie filmmakers really enthusiastic dedicated people all around), and groups such as The Toronto Web Series Collective (also a very enthusiastic group of folks dedicated to supporting others in the webseries process), and We Make Movies Canada, and financial support from funding bodies such as the IPF (Independent Production Fund). Go to their events and meet them, get involved, take their courses if you can, or volunteer. Raindance has an intern and volunteer program that allows you to sit in on some of the courses in exchange for working with them at events.
The best time I have found to be there in the past couple of years has been Spring and Summer for small roles in features and tv shows. September to December for commercial work.
With the recent shift in the dollar, Toronto is nearly at capacity for feature films and large television shows requiring studio space; it is a great time to be working in the city. While January to May has been slower, but if you are there, it is a great time to do some theatre work, but large shows such as The Strain, Shadowhunters, and Suits have kept actors and crews busy in this normally slow time. This has usually been when I and hundreds of other actors take off to either NY or LA to train and build our network.
As I mentioned earlier, they seem to like for you to follow the rules within the industry, but there are also many ways to get noticed through all of the indie projects on the wire in Toronto. If you are a US citizen you won’t be able to work for money, but it is a great place to develop as an actor with fewer competitors, particularly if you are Latino as there is a large demand for Latino actors from US productions. Also be aware that most of the lead, recurring and series regular roles are still cast out of LA so, when the time comes for you to be considered for those roles, you will need an agent who has strong relationships with LA casting.
Rent in Toronto is reasonable and the transportation system is decent so you won’t need a car to get to auditions. The majority of all of the commercial auditions happen within four blocks of each other so that is helpful as well. Food is a bit more expensive than in LA or New York so that is a consideration. The rent is a bit higher than it is in Los Angeles, but much less than New York, and you will have decent space in a thriving, safe community. The quality of life is very good and the acting community is open and supportive. Even though the agents and casting directors want you to put in the time to gain opportunities, they are respectful and supportive of you as an actor.
New York has definite high and low times as well, but it depends on what you are there for. The old adage that New York is only good for theatre is not true, however there is a striking difference between New York and LA in terms of the amount of paid theatre work. The theatre is a part of New York culture and New Yorkers regularly go out to see shows that are independent of the Broadway Musical Theatre genre.
It is the place to exercise your chops on stage in front of sold out audiences.
There are also many small theatres who rent out space to small indie producers for little to no fees so if you have written something for the stage that you would like to have produced it may be easier to do in New York than anywhere else.
There are so many training options in New York it is hard to know where to start. While I was there I studied method acting at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade, Michael Checkhov’s comedy techniques at HB Studios with John Charles Murphy, Meisner Technique with Steven Randazzo, improv at Artistic New Directions, audited a couple of classes at The Barrow Group, and paid for one terrible casting director workshop.
At the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, I took a winter intensive course and it was exactly what I needed at the time. The class was small: only 11 students and we had 16 hours of class per week for four or five weeks. It was expensive (around $2K), but worth it. It was there that I started to understand how much acting is like any other sport, art, or activity within which one may achieve mastery. It takes time for your body to assimilate the information into itself and to learn how to perform without being distracted or interfered with by the brain. Matthew Syed has a really excellent book on how your brain functions in a competitive environment called Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice. In it, Syed talks about Olympic athletes and how they train to achieve mastery and avoid choking in competition.
At Strasberg I learned how to achieve the required (by the director) emotional results in a scene without having to visit traumatic memories from my past. This seems counterintuitive to what most consider to be the foundation of method acting. You do use personalization and sense memory as primary tools in your work, but what you learn is that it is the small details you remember that surround the traumatic event that will take you to your desired experience as opposed to the heart of the memory itself; using the heart of your personal trauma will only cause you to go into fear and block your emotions.
Strasberg is a great place for international students. Almost all of the instructors have trained with Lee Strasberg himself and are members of the Actors’ Studio. They have an extensive library of tapes and archives of classes where you can watch Lee teach.
When I first started studying there, I chose the intensive over the two-year course because I didn’t feel like I had two years to dedicate to studying because of my age. Now I realize that achieving mastery as an actor is a lifelong process and that immersion is what gave me the surest footing from which to spring into my career, so I’ve worked to maintain a schedule of at least ten hours per week of acting, auditioning, and role preparation (including rehearsal and class time) and, slowly but surely, those ten hours have been converting into regular, paid work.
Why and When to Choose New York?
Generally speaking, New York is the best place to study the craft of acting. It is also a great place to discover which area of acting you would like to focus on. There are more quality theatre opportunities in New York and several quality filmmaking school programs to explore acting on camera in student films. The comedy scene in New York is also thriving. While there are pilots filmed there, it is not as busy for casting as LA. Once you get to the point in your career where you are looking for lead or recurring roles you will likely need to go to Los Angeles.
While you are in the early stages of your career, New York is a great place to start. If you plan to work in the theatre, New York is the place to be.
There are a lot of actors and actresses in NY and it is difficult to get the industry (agents and casting directors) to take notice. I do not suggest paying for casting director workshops?—?often these are run by assistants and can do more harm to your self-esteem than good. I was so traumatized by the one I went to that I co-created a web series called The Infinite Need, about an actress who goes to several in an effort to get the casting director to remember her.
I suggest building up a quality reel, studying with quality coaches, and preparing your marketing materials.
Above all else, build yourself a creative tribe. A group of people with whom you can jam creatively and make new work. The improv schools are a great place to do this, as is getting involved with student and indie films.
A little note on building your tribe: make sure to develop a way to keep track of all of the beautiful people you meet along the way. I use Google Circles so I can easily find all of those who work in film and separate them by role: sound, acting, directing, etc. Adding everyone to Facebook is an easy way for them to get lost in the ever-changing algorithmic ocean.
Things haven’t changed much in New York since the days when Carol Burnett shared a room with 5 other girls and each of them put in $5 to buy an audition dress which they all shared!
It worked for Carol, but some of us don’t have that type of tolerance for living in tight quarters (or wardrobe sharing!). New York is by far the most challenging place to live financially. A monthly subway pass is imperative and will cost you $175. You may be able to get a room for $800 a month in Queens, but you won’t find a room in a shared place for less than $1500 in Manhattan (I recently saw a post where someone with a big bathroom was charging $600 to put an air mattress in it, but you and your mattress had to be out of there if the owner wanted to use it!). Food is also expensive, but there are a lot of places to grab cheap grub; it just takes some research.
No other city compares to the vibrancy of New York: its energy is the life-blood of the artist at any stage of his or her career. What you sacrifice in luxury, you will gain in creative stimulation.
What is being made there? Everything and nothing. I spent my first pilot season there without an agent and was not called in for a single audition. I also had no visa, no substantial credits, and was submitting auditions two to three days after the breakdowns came out (I was getting them on the “black market”).
Los Angeles is still the primary market for auditions, but it is no longer the rule that you have to be there in order to audition for work. Self-tapes are becoming the norm for nearly all castings and are saving significant amounts of time and energy on the parts of both the actors and the casting directors. The self-taped audition is a completely different skill set to the traditional audition, and one that should be practiced as well. While in LA, I studied at The Berg Studios. Gregory Berger Sobeck is the teacher who has had the most impact on my acting aesthetic. He is a graduate of Yale Drama and teaches one semester per year in their acting on-camera class. His scene study class and boot camp ignited my confidence and curiosity. He is a wonderful eccentric, and one of the two most passionate teachers I have ever worked with.
Isolation, bitterness, misdirected passions, everyone being overly focused on the business of acting, multiple scams, rats in the palm trees, and the fact that you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an actor (or a screenwriter). It is a city like no other, and has a lot to offer in terms of lifestyle; beaches, mountains, desert, surf, the WEATHER!, and the opportunity to meet incredible, creative souls who have spent their lives working to master their respective arts. It is truly a city of juxtapositions.
I have heard many times that “they” say, “Don’t go to LA until LA calls for you,” and I believe that this is true.
Timing is a very important part of deciding when to make the move. It is a grind, but there is no question that it can pay off if you have the tenacity (and the financial stability) to put in the work at a very high level for an extended period of time. Most people I’ve met who make a go of it in LA plan to be there for a minimum of three years. It is a common conversation amongst the recently transplanted and the natives that it takes at least that long to get into the swing of things.
Get a car, or ride the bus and buy mace, bring a notebook, and work on your standup material.
The bus and subway are efficient and on schedule, but have the impossible task of covering a very large geographical area. It takes twice as long to get anywhere on transit as it does in traffic, unless you happen to be going from one place with a subway to another. If you do get yourself a car, parking is not too difficult, and fairly affordable even valet. But it doesn’t beat the $80 monthly unlimited ride bus pass just avoid traveling at night; not so much because of what happens on the buses (they are mostly filled with sweet domestic workers, European backpackers, and the deranged) it’s more about what happens while you are waiting for the bus. Two of my most memorable experiences involve a chauffeur who insisted we had a connection because I looked back at him while he was hanging out of his window as he drove by, and a man with a burlap cape and a skirt made out of a suede couch throw who asked me out for a bowl of soup after I complimented him on his creative style of dress. He was somewhat disappointed when we got on the bus and there was a woman with a giant Yellow Pages phonebook strapped to her head with a scarf; I suspect he was worried she was dressed more creatively than he was. Should you find yourself in the life situation of having to ride the bus, be aware that your stay at the bus stop will make you a sitting duck for elderly men with rope chains who want you to be their wife, but there is a lovely support group in Echo Park where hipsters share their bus stories and smoke drugs.
What LA Has Taught Me About Being an Actor?
In LA it is not enough to have talent. You have to be more than just a great actor: you have to have a product to sell.
In most cases you are that product. I decided while there to write a show and make that my product, and I also learned that my materials (website, reel, resume, headshots) need to be TOP NOTCH if I am going to wade through the infinite deep of the waters filled with actors in LA. Each time I have been there for an extended stay, my brand, materials, and message become more polished and more clear. As a former business owner, honing my brand is a fun game for me to play; for others, it can be soul-sucking and feel defeating. It is easy to get swept up in the “business” of LA to spend your time networking and shipping yourself to a casting call in a FedEx crate to be seen, but at the end of the day, you can do all of the networking and security breaching you want, but if you don’t have the goods to back it up, your star will burn big and bright and then dissolve, as you stare out of those big, fat bus windows with a phonebook strapped to your head.