Ten years ago, I was traveling around Argentina, working online as a freelancer. I had a great time traveling and thought I might live like a nomad for a year or two, but after a few months away I really missed doing comedy and on a whim I found a summer sublet in an apartment on Webster in Lincoln Park.
My plan was to stay for the summer, take some improv and sketch classes, and then move on to another city. I ended up staying for 10 years.
I stayed to join a community and write and put up shows and get on stage as much as possible and learn how to be a better comedian.
I think I succeeded. I’ve read the sketches I wrote in my first summer here, in the Second City writing intensive. They’re really bad. The things I write now, I think they’re pretty decent. They’re much much better than what I was writing ten years ago, and much better than what I was writing three or four years ago.
Comedy on stage didn’t work out for me the way that I hoped. That was heartbreaking. So I pivoted, before that as a word I knew. I started writing a lot and then making movies and found that I loved writing just as much, albeit in different ways.
I miss the stage sometimes. It’s a different feeling when a show goes well, a feeling that I haven’t found anywhere else. I could say that it’s like a drug, but I’ve done the drugs and they’re different.
I’ve been lucky to find great communities here in Chicago, first in comedy and then in film. Artists in Chicago are incredibly supportive and welcoming and eager to help each other out. People come from all over the country to study and learn here, to form groups and put up shows and write and rehearse and experiment and take classes and study.
I think that sometimes we take this for granted in Chicago, that there are so many people who come to a place and work really hard and devote themselves to a practice or a field or an art form. Of course there are other cities where this happens, but not very many, apart from New York and Los Angeles.
The beauty of starting in Chicago is that there’s not much industry presence and that means that it’s easy to be around people who care about the work more than anything else. The downside is that ambition means that eventually many or most of the people will move on.
I used to complain that the film community here was spread out and hard to find. That’s true to a certain extent, but after living here for a few years I’ve realized that that’s an unfair criticism. I think that in relation to the improv/theater community, it never felt quite as good.
That’s because improv always had natural meeting points — you were always going to a show to perform or see a friend and so you were always running into people. Film screenings are less frequent and production isn’t very frequent either. I only made about 1.5 things per year when I was directing video/film stuff in Chicago.
But after spending a few years in the film community, I found some really really great friends and I found myself in a place where I would often run into people when I went to a local festival or film event or just to see a movie at The Music Box. There were plenty of people to talk shop with, it just took some work to get there.
In my opinion, the best thing about Chicago in terms of artist development is the culture of showing up and working hard. I believe that this comes in part from the Midwest culture, an extremely hard-to-describe-but-ever-present culture.
In Chicago, people show up. They commit (and often over-commit) and keep their word. They work hard and don’t complain. They’re not superficial and they don’t create interpersonal conflict for the sake of drama.
When you say “let’s do a show,” people say “yeah, let’s do it. do you want to meet on Saturday to start writing? In the mean time, I’ll look at some possible theater options.”
I think it’s very easy to underrate this culture, but having lived in other cities and having talked to filmmakers and comedians in various cities around the world, I think that this kind of culture is not the norm, and that maybe 30-40% of success is determined by how people respond when you say “I’m going to do a thing.” It’s not every city where people encourage you and want to help out or join in or say “that sounds crazy but fuck it you should try it.”
Of course these are generalizations, but they tend to be true in my experience.
Anyway. I’m leaving.
It’s really hard to leave right now because right now it’s summer and Chicago is the best place to live in the summer — it’s magical in a way that only a city that experiences long dark freezing winters can be.
And it’s hard because I have great friends here. And practically speaking, it’s the easiest place for me to make a movie right now.
So why leave?
While I do have great friends here, a lot of my friends have left, and this isn’t an uncommon experience. For the artist community, a lot of people view Chicago as a stop along the way to somewhere else, with that somewhere being Los Angeles or New York. But I’ve also had a lot of friends and acquaintances, people who aren’t actors or comedians of filmmakers, move as well.
Most of my remaining close friends either have general plans to leave at some point in the next two years or a general sense that they would like to try living somewhere else.
It’s hard to form close bonds when all your friends keep leaving!
Living in Chicago has become easy for me. My days and weeks have become routine and I no longer have the feeling of excitement that I had when I first moved here. I don’t feel like there are any surprises waiting for me here.
I don’t want to be complacent. I want to experience a new culture and to see how things are in a new place. And yes, I want to pursue bigger opportunities. And travel, like really travel for a few months, without the overhead of rent and a gym membership and the burn rate that comes with being fixed somewhere.
This kind of major life change has always been exciting to me because they force me to evaluate everything I own and to question all the major premises of my life. Where should I live? How should I make a living? What kind of films should I make, and should I be making films at all? What is important to me? Why is Spain? Oú sont les Neigedens d’antan!?
So with a hunger for something new, something that I don’t yet know, I’m selling off most of my stuff, putting my books and a few important items into storage and leaving.
I don’t know where I’m going to land yet.
I’m going to travel for a bit and try living in some new cities before picking one to settle in.
These are my favorite things in Chicago:
The Music Box Theatre, on a Friday night when the house is packed and the organist is playing.
Seeing something fucked up and hilarious at The Annoyance.
Summer days with adventures that go on forever.
The lake shore, which I never spent enough time at.
The creative communities and creative people.
The painfully short autumn.
That every neighborhood is like its own little town with its own character and sense of place and culture.
The next-level restaurants that are actually affordable for non-wealthy people.
That I’ve never met anyone here who was trying to ‘become an influencer.’
The amazingly generous teachers I’ve had.
The fact that it’s so cheap to live here compared to other world-class cities. You can still come here and get a cheap apartment near public transit and afford to work on your thing.
And yes, I love the -50 degree days that come every few years in February.
I went to Sidewalk last week in Birmingham, Alabama and I meant to post something about it but I’ve been working from 7 7 7 to 11 every night (kinda makes life a drag…). Yeah I’m on a freelance producing gig that just has insane hours but I’m rebuilding my savings after not working for four months and making a feature film. Freedom awaits in November…
Sidewalk Film Festival. They really know how to take care of filmmakers. I woke up at 4am last Friday to catch the early flight from Chicago to Birmingham so I could get there in time for the filmmaker luncheon/retreat.
They took us to a now-defunct iron and steel processing plant that was built in the late 1800s and was operational until the 1980s. Birmingham is almost uniquely situated for steel production as all the raw materials are within 30 miles of each other, and it was the 2nd biggest producer of steel (after Pittsburgh) in the U.S. for a long time (my facts are a little hazy).
The old buildings look like sets from a post-apocalyptic world, as nature slowly reverts to the its pre-industrial state. The event was hosted by representatives of Film Birmingham. They were very eager for us to film something there and made it known that there wouldn’t be a lot of red tape.
Our guide (one of the many resident artists who have been given workshop space on the premises) told us that the plant was shut down overnight and the workers weren’t told — their personal belongings from their last day are still in their lockers and there’s still salad dressing and… something else… in the refrigerator.
The plant isn’t completely shut down — there’s a dolomite quarry right there.
Massive trucks bring the dolomite up from a 400-foot-deep quarry where the rocks get smashed in giant rock smashers so they can be used for gravel and other industrial things that need small rocks (it’s an ingredient in steel too).
Driving down into the quarry, which I sadly didn’t get a good picture of, reminded me of Taste of Cherry (I mentioned this to another filmmaker and he was like “me too!” and we became friends immediately).
The quarry processes 7,000 tons of dolomite per day. There’s something awe-inspiring about being around massive machinery and trucks. Living in a modern city, I feel shielded from any kind of industrial of manufacturing whatsoever. By the way, those trucks the guys drive — super high-tech. The loaders cost about $2,000,000 a piece and they have climate-controlled cabs, multiple cameras, high-tech seats that don’t bounce around, and a lot of other stuff I’m forgetting.
Back in town I walked around a bit and got food. I spent most of my time in the downtown area of Birmingham, which felt pretty empty and sleepy. Someone told me later that the neighborhoods to the south and east are more bustling with life and culture. I don’t know, it was weird walking around on a Friday morning/afternoon and barely seeing anyone on the street — the buildings weren’t abandoned or run-down though. It felt like everyone was on vacation.
Don’t forget your Jesus Cake. I actually ate here twice (they set up a stand on the sidewalk outside one of the theaters) and it was delicious. Very good Cuban pork, mofongo, and plantains. I asked what Jesus Cake is and the girl told me that it’s something like tres leches cake, and not a Cuban thing nor a Birmingham thing. So just a thing they made up.
What about the film festival, Robert?
This is a great festival. I mean, they really take care of their filmmakers and by take care of I mean they throw big grand parties with free food and booze in remarkable venues.
The opening night screening and party was at the Alabama theater. The opening night film was White Tide: The Legend of Culebra, an over-the-top doc about a Florida man (hah) who goes after $2,000,000 in cocaine that’s buried on Culebra, and island in Puerto Rico. It was a perfect fit for a raucous crowd of 2,000 on opening night. It’s a good story and very funny.
Then there was a big party on the stage of the theater. And everywhere else in this massive 3-story theater. There was just a party and food and drinks everywhere. It was a ton of fun. I made new friends and ran into some old friends that I didn’t expect to see there.
I talked to some locals and asked about the film scene there and what people thought of the festival. My understanding is that Sidewalk is the biggest thing that happens there every year. I talked to one woman who had been planning months before to come and had picked out all the films she wanted to see in advance. I also talked to other people who said that 80% of people in Alabama only care about college football and look at you funny if you mention some sort of non-college-football form of entertainment.
I talked to another local woman who works for the city, helping to promote it (I can’t remember exactly what she does). She told me about how the city is resurgent, about how 20 years ago it was dangerous to be downtown and how it’s developing and people are moving back and there are cafes and shops and how great the food scene is.
It’s the same trend playing out in so many cities across the U.S. There are so many small to medium sized towns now that are pleasant places to live.
The festival took over Linn Park in the middle of downtown Birmingham for a massive party.
I had a really good conversation at the party with someone about living in a small and pleasant city vs. a big and ambitious city. The question for her and for me and for probably a lot of young people with options is: is it better to live somewhere comfortable and pleasant and enjoy the good life, or should I ask for something bigger in life, something more ambitious? Am I being complacent?
I loved living in Baltimore. It was fun, I liked the texture of life, I was a big fish in a small pond (the improv pond). Good food, a great baseball stadium, very affordable, good art/music scene, and an actually weird place that doesn’t really give a fuck about trying to be anywhere else. Obviously Baltimore has massive problems too, with crime, education, etc., but those weren’t the reasons I left. I left because it felt too small, too hard to be ambitious there.
Chicago is a big city. I think it straddles the pleasant/ambitious divide. It can be either. It’s certainly more ambitious than cities like Baltimore or Portland, but less so than L.A., San Francisco, or New York. I’m not sure where Austin fits into this (it feels like it’s in the process of rapidly changing from pleasant to ambitious, which is causing a lot of angst for the people that want it to keep its old identity).
I think what I’ve been feeling in the last few years, when I feel the urge to move, is that Chicago is just a really big pleasant city and not really an ambitious city. When the woman from Birmingham tells me about the great food scene there, I politely listen, but I know that it’s nothing compared to Chicago. Maybe Chicago is an ambitious place for aspiring chefs (I don’t know, I’m really not a foodie).
But when it comes to film, entertainment, entrepreneurship and startups, etc. — I think it’s not an ambitious place. Not that there aren’t ambitious people here! Not that nobody is doing those things! It’s just not the big ambitious place where people move to seek those things out.
Oh yeah, my short film, WHAM, premiered on Sunday.
The screening includes five short films and an opening night reception that starts at 7pm.
Chicago is an October sort of city even in spring.
– Nelson Algren