Vagabond School Fills a Void for Chicago Actors
Situated on a corner lot in the previously industrial Ravenswood corridor Vagabond School of the Arts is one of the latest additions to Chicago’s impressive list of acting schools. The school, located at 4001 N. Ravenswood, Suite 504 Chicago, IL 60613, is the passion project of Chicago’s very own Michael McCraken. It occupies the 5th floor of a 6 story loft space brimming with artists including Shalimar Photography, Studio L’amor and the Right Brain Theatre. While working with Grossman & Jack, Michael noticed something. The agency’s then recent merger with Aria Talent required him to sit down with all of his newly acquired clients. Michael noted that many of them shared one particular concern.
“Actors would come to me and say ‘There are three shows shooting in Chicago right now. How do I get on them?’ I would reply ‘Take a class.’ Then they would say ‘Well, where do I take a class?’ I would reply ‘How about Acting Studio?’ ‘I’ve done that.’ ‘Well how about the Green Room?’ ‘I’ve done that too.’ Then I would say, ‘Well good luck.’ As far as on camera acting goes, those are the two schools that offer it here.”
School Grows Actors’ Skills and Acting Community
This revelation lead Michael to conceptualize a program that would not only allow Chicago actors to grow their craft, but would also serve as a mechanism to enrich the local acting community. He hopes that with the proper training Chicago actors, who have patiently awaited the opportunities which have recently presented themselves, will possess the acumen to seize substantial series regular roles.“We want them to stop sending LA people here. We want Chicago actors to not have to wait 30 years[… ] Now that we have shows that are sticking around, for 4 and 5 seasons, people realize Chicago has the talent. I want people to know the technique so that people who weren’t getting anything can get a one liner, and everyone who would have gotten a one liner to now get an under 5. My hope, as I’m teaching, is to move everyone up a rung.”
Michael’s Journey Inspires Vagabond
Michael’s storied past as a performer is largely responsible for his fervor for Chicago’s acting scene. For over 15 years he has worked as a TV commercial session director, actor, improviser, musician and theatrical director. His admiration for the city’s performance culture borders on reverence.
“I think Chicago is the best community for actors in the country. It’s a working city where you can work and live and be human for a first. We want to be a physical manifestation of the community that’s already here,” said Michael.
A Holistic Approach to Acting
Vagabond School of the Arts aims to encapsulate the entirety of what it means to be an actor. The tenacity with which Michael and his partners approach transmuting this ethos into a tangible organization is what differentiates this institution from its peers.
“What makes us different is that we try to approach acting from a holistic point of view. It’s a lifestyle. Our four pillars address the whole person. The first pillar is education; I want working professionals teaching our classes. The second one is our gym; we offer free yoga and meditation. It doesn’t make us any money, but we believe actors should be doing it… “
The Four Pillars of Vagabond
The idea of providing a service because it is needed resounds throughout the school’s four pillars. Michael believes in the interconnectivity of the human mind, body and spirit.
“Our third pillar is volunteerism. It’s for your soul. The best thing I think an actor can do is not think about themselves for a moment. Creativity and inspiration don’t come from being part of the commercial machine here in Chicago. Part of being an artist comes from empathy…The last pillar is community programming. We try to create chances for people to come together. We started doing a Chicago TV night. People would come together and watch Chicago Fire and Empire. We have the space. Why not do that?”
Now’s A Great Time for Chicago Actors
Michael believes it’s a great time to be a Chicago actor. With the influx of new shows being filmed in the city, he stresses the importance of supporting them. He suggests that actors stay up-to-date with what’s being filmed.
“Chicago needs to step up. The roles are here. We want more Christian Stoltes [Chicago FIre]. We want more Amy Mortons [Chicago P.D.] Go into the room prepared. Don’t allow them to say Chicago actors don’t get it. Everyone in LA has some kind of credits, even if they aren’t that good. Now that these shows are here we have the chance to get those credits. It isn’t just that LA doesn’t think we’re pretty enough to be their stars. There’s just a lot more out there.”
TV as well as Theatre
With three Fox and one Dick Wolf pilot slated to be filmed in Chicago, the city’s allure has grown. This is why Michael says that Chicago actors have to be well invested in their craft.
“Can you talk knowledgeably with Claire Simon about what she’s working on? That side of the business is extremely important. We know the theatre business really well. The TV side is something we need to work on. You have to keep studying. It doesn’t matter where you’re taking them, you have to keep taking classes.”
McCraken admits that although the school is his passion, there are also times when managing a project of this caliber can be a little intimidating.
“There are difficulties everyday. I had the idea back on father’s day of 2013. I remember sitting at my wife’s parent’s house in front of the pool and writing down this idea that I just had to get down on paper. By August, basically a month later, I went to my boss Linda Jack of Grossman Jack talent and said ‘Hey, I love you guys, but I have this idea i think should be a thing here in Chicago.’ She gave me her full blessing.”