The Ones Who Stay

Last night I said goodbye to two comedian friends who are moving to L.A.

I’m sad they’re leaving, they’re good friends. Last night in the middle of the crowd of improvisers in various stages of their lives, I said goodbye to my friend and he started to cry. So much emotion, so much excitement – it’s a whole new world.

But me? I didn’t cry when I said goodbye to my friend. I don’t cry anymore. I am the one who stays.

I’ve gotten really good at saying goodbye to friends moving to New York or L.A. We say goodbye to the ones who leave. That’s what we do here.

It happens the same way every time.  I go to the bar for the going away party, I stay for the drinks. I watch the friend get really excited, as they should. I tell them that they’re right, that yes, they’re going to have to leave Chicago if they want to make it. Making it is really hard to do here, it can be done, but it’s much more difficult. People realize they have to go. Chicago can only take you so far.

Chicago shows you the ropes. Chicago makes you feel safe, littlest big city. You can work in Chicago; my favorite line when people bring their 17 year old son to Chicago to see if he wants to study improv here or in LA, I say: In LA your son will be a waiter. In Chicago your son will be a waiter AND an actor. That’s because you can work here, plenty of room for everyone. You’re not going to get paid a lot – if at all – but you will work. You will learn your craft from the best teachers – they are also the ones who stay. Then, like most do, you’ll run into the wall. The wall of Chicago.

Mick Napier of the Annoyance once said in class, and I’ve never forgotten it: “It’s easy to get stuck in Chicago. Because you’re working, you’re doing sometimes three shows a night. You’re running from theater to theater and everyone wants you on their team. But it doesn’t mean you’re moving forward.” He’s right too. I see it all the time, people who do show after show after show and five, ten years later realize that no real work has been done. And then they leave generally. And that’s how Chicago has been from the beginning and how it shall be till the end.

And I listen to my friends who go. And they’re so excited. And the warm weather and the thrill of another step in life, the joy of taking your career to another level, the fear of leaving the safety that is the birth right of Chicago.  I smile at them;  I listen to how awesome the weather is going to be. I wish them all the luck in the world and my friends who are leaving tomorrow? I bet they find it.

And then I leave and I walk down my tree-lined street in the crisp, cool weather and leaves falling around my head,  and I know that there are some of us who stay. Not out of complacency or a false sense of accomplishment. But we stay for the work. Because the city itself is the inspiration. Because someone needs to stay and be the teachers. Because someone needs to hold down the fort. Because some are not in search of fame or sun or a change of pace.

I had another friend mention at the party that they were also thinking of leaving for LA – “we’ve done all we can here.”

So I will meet them at the bar in a few months and they will cry. And I will smile and reassure. Because I am the one who stays.