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The Chicago Acting in Film Meet-up Group

December 7, 2010 | By | Add a Comment

Thanks for the Self-Support

Matthew Blake

Grace McPhillips is neither a starving artist nor Hollywood celebrity – she is an established actress who practices a professional craft. In 2007, frustrated by the lack of support for film-focused actors like her in Chicago, McPhillips used to start the Chicago Acting in Film Meetup Group. The group now has 184 members, with a rotating cast of 40-60 people who meet each month to discuss Chicago casting directors, dispense career advice, and get talks from industry experts. Last week Claire Simon, CSA, came to talk with the group and it was standing room only, with an attendance of close to 100 people.

Guest Speaker Claire Simon

McPhillips has done acting in Chicago since 2003, coming to the city with a bachelor’s in Music Theater from Elon University in North Carolina. She has appeared in television commercials and shows, and was a dancer at the Lyric Opera. I spoke with her about the Meetup Group and also her commitment to acting as a sustainable career.

What in your personal experiences made you want to start the meetup group?

I am originally from Montgomery, Alabama and I come from a big southern family with morals. One of those morals is “To whom much is given and much is required.” I am extremely blessed in my acting opportunities, which have lead to success in my part, and encourages me to give back.

Grace McPhillips

Being a singer and dancer has especially gotten me a variety of opportunities. I was a dancer at the Lyric Opera – it was a transformative event to be working there with world-class professionals. It was people that not only think of art as something beautiful and luxuriant, but also as a business and livelihood.

I started the group in the fall of 2007 and what prompted that was my frustration in not knowing what the next step was in my career. I didn’t know how to get to the next level and I didn’t see any opportunities for working actor like myself to learn from other working actors.

I was in an acting group with Stephanie LaForte who runs another Chicago acting meetup. But that group was more for a lot of people who were just getting into the business and I felt like I was just giving other people advice and not getting advice myself.

Guest Speaker Claire Simon

So I started the Chicago Acting and Film Meetup for working actors. You have to apply to the group and we screen them.

So you really keep people out of the group?

I have a list of questions that I ask them – like their level of experience and what their interest is. If someone says I just graduated from college and I really like film, I tell them to get some work under their belt and reapply. It’s kind of fun when some of these people then come back with credits and an agent and so I say, “Great, come in.”

Almost everyone in the group has an agent and they are going into the casting houses in town. A lot of us do independent projects and a lot of us seek out projects on places like Craigslist. A lot of the group members are hustlers!

Why is it that even fairly established actors have to be hustlers? Isn’t there institutional support like the Screen Actors Guild union?

To get into SAG, you actually have to work to do a job and it has to be a speaking or primary role. In Los Angeles, you can join if you’re an extra in a movie, at least 3 times, but in Chicago all the extras that work on the movies are not unionized. It’s an item of frustration for a lot of actors.

So what kind of support does the meetup provide?

It’s a very safe place where actors can talk about what happens in casting director’s offices. We talk about what type actors are – like you’re a teacher or a gardener or you’re totally the mob. I kind of thought of myself as a young 20’s person, but apparently I always look like the mom.

Are actors cautious about providing information to people they’re competing for jobs with?

No, we’re very eager and encourage each other. As Chicago actors, we don’t have the huge opportunities that Los Angeles has. So we’re grateful from learning from each other – everything is such a mystery in the business.

Would you recommend Chicago as a destination for film actors?

Chicago is not really the greatest town for a young film actor. I would actually say to go to New York or Los Angeles while you’re young and get on the young TV shows, hip commercials and music video spots that Chicago doesn’t have, then once you gain that experience move to Chicago, because Chicago is a livable and affordable city. It’s a great place to be a working actor.


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