I did it backwards. I started in L.A. and then I moved to Chicago. Whurrpsies.
Improvisers and comedians often incubate in the Windy City and then depart for the smog bowl of L.A. once they grow too big for Chi-town (or, sometimes, just their heads do). Or, something catastrophic happens like they don't get TourCo after their very first audition. Or they just want to give their acting career a "serious" shot. Or, you know, they get a sensible marketing job at US Bank (this never happens).
There should be an updated version of the Oregon Trail called the Yes And Trail where you start in Chicago as an unemployed improviser/temp and take a 1997 Honda to L.A. with your friends, and stop to hunt for Buffalo Wild Wings, and Clara dies of boredom and Hezikiah drowns when you caulk your Honda and float it across the Platte River because Hondas don't float.
I went the wrong way. I went from the plush spoils of Willamette Valley to the more hardscrabble Independence Missouri, so to speak, on a red eye Southwest flight with all my earthly belongings stuffed into two big suitcases. Los Angeles did have more opportunity, but so much that it was overwhelming. Chicago felt more finite. I could wrap my brain around it.
I suppose I did L.A. first because I am bad at following recipes (Mix 5 years in Chicago with a dash of touring and a heaping of a national commercial, then slowly add 7 years in Los Angeles, wisk until stiff, and viola! You've just landed a walk-on role on a CW comedy. Mmm! SAG card!)
When I was 22, I took my first improv classes at the iO West and was the only non-actor and non-industry person in any of my classes. For me, it was a time of terror and exhilaration. And a fuckload of driving. I lived in Rancho Cucamonga with my then-boyfriend, worked in Santa Ana (a good hour and a half away during rush hour) and did all my improv shenanigans in Hollywood or Santa Monica (another hour, hour and a half drive from work during rush hour).
Though I only lived there for a year and eight months or so, I remember it like it was an entire era of my life.
I remember being parked on the 405 for many eternities, trying to get from work in Santa Ana to Hollywood during evening rush hour. I remember the soothing/sexy voice of Kai Ryssdal on NPR's Marketplace keeping me calm as the road rage boiled. I remember the turn-off from the 405 to the 605 and how I always seemed to hit it right as the sun dropped to it's magic hour angle.
I remember the dank Hollywood parking garage I always parked in and the rape-y, crack-cocaine-y staircase I had to walk down to get to the street level. And, the rape-y, crack-cocaine-y side street I had to walk through to get to Hollywood Boulevard.
I remember the picture of Seth Meyers clasping his hands and smiling, located on the stairs in the iO West lobby, and how I would look at it and think "Maybe. Just maybe."
I remember deciding before my last Harold audition that if I made it on the team, I would stay in L.A. If I bombed, I'd move to Chicago. I ended up doing a positively shitty scene about storm chasers and now I'm intimately familiar with drunk Cubs fans and the sound of the Red Line running express.
I remember leaving the iO West late at night to find Scientologists outside their big Hollywood office building, chain smoking in their navy blue pants and royal blue shirts and waiting for coach buses to take them off into the night, to wherever Shelley Miscavige ended up, probably.
I remember telling my independent improv team Mega Fancy that I was moving, several months before I actually did, and how immediately concerned and sad they got, and how they tried for weeks to subtly petition me to stay. And how so many times after my announcement, during rehearsals or before shows or while at dinner, I wanted to blurt out "I'm staying!" just to wash clean the disappointment and make them excited. I wanted to stay. I really did. Especially when they threw a surprise going away party for me.
However, after failing at Harold auditions and breaking up with my boyfriend, the prospect of living alone in that vast phalanx of freeways and commuting hours upon hours every week was too daunting. Back home, I had all my old friends, my family, and a city that wasn't so scary and would allow me to live without ever owning a car. I also wanted to be in the epicenter of the improv universe and take classes at Second City, the Harvard of comedy.
So, I went back. It's a decision I'm still not entirely sure how I made, or why. I think at the time I was mostly motivated by the fear of upsetting the college friend I'd signed a lease with for a Wrigleyville apartment, by pulling out of the deal and staying in LA.
I don't regret leaving Hollywood, because moving to Chicago led me to so many great friends and creative experiences and, duh, the love of my life. But, I can say that I miss it. Not the driving. Holy shit, not the driving. But I do miss the wide-eyed openness of being 22 and not yet jaded to the comedy business and it's subtle indignities.
Whatever track is closest to "normal" for the typical Chicago performer, it's been clear for a very long time that I'm not on it. Like my endless SoCal commute, I'm taking the scenic route in Chicago and putting tons of miles on the car while sitting in gridlock among the endless traffic of improvisers. I'll get to wherever it is I'm going, eventually.
Eight years later, I'm still not entirely sure what I'm doing in Chicago. Then again, I had no idea what I was doing in L.A. until years after I left. That tends to be how these things go.