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'Empire,' 'Chicago Fire' Filming Increasing Acting Class Sizes, Locals Say

By Josh McGhee | September 28, 2015 6:37am
 Andrew Gallant co-owner of Green Shirt Studios, at 4407 N. Clark St., said classes have been booming as filming increases in Chciago.
Andrew Gallant co-owner of Green Shirt Studios, at 4407 N. Clark St., said classes have been booming as filming increases in Chciago.
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DNAinfo/Josh McGhee

UPTOWN — Over the last few years, Chicago has seen an influx of television series being shot around the city from "Chicago P.D.," "Chicago Fire," to the critically acclaimed drama "Empire," which continues to draw bigger and bigger audiences.

The increase filming around the city has launched the entertainment careers of everyday Chicagoans like 26-year-old South Side native Ta'Rhonda Jones, who plays the scene-stealing assistant Porsha on Fox's "Empire," and has also meant more business for casting directors and North Lawndale's Cinespace Film Studios.

The proximity to the Hollywood glitter has made the once-farfetched dream of landing that big role seem a lot more attainable, according to Green Shirt Studio's owners, Sommer Austin and Andrew Gallant.

“For years, people didn’t even think about pursuing acting because it seemed so unrealistic, but with so many television productions around these days, people are starting to realize that it really is possible to make a living at it,” Gallant said.

About a year ago, Green Shirt Studio was housed in a tiny warehouse in Ravenswood and the husband-and-wife team was seeing about 10 students in the average class. In their more advance classes, they saw even less.

But almost a year after moving their acting studio to a larger storefront at 4407 N. Clark St. in Uptown, they've seen their class sizes increase by about 25 percent, Gallant said.

"Since moving here, we’ve limited [class sizes] to 14 and this current session we sold out like three weeks before classes began. That’s never happened. It’s the fastest we’ve ever sold out, which is kind of a crazy thing," he said.

Green Shirt Studios isn't alone in its enrollment boom, Rachael Patterson, director of Acting Studio Chicago, has also seen a 25 percent boost in enrollment. Acting Studio Chicago, at 10 W. Hubbard, has been serving the theatrical community since 1981, according to a press release for the studio.

For the last two weekends Green Shirt Studios has held workshops that in the past were usually conducted with the hopes of garnering more students for the classes. The workshops, which give students a chance to sample the studio's teachers, didn't seem as necessary this year, he said.

“I was a little terrified because I have no place to put you if you sign up. We actually opened up another session, so we’ve got room for people who want to sign up,” Gallant said with a laugh inside one of the studio's two classrooms Friday afternoon.

While Gallant noted that improved teaching skills, free Friday classes and word-of-mouth referrals were beefing up his studio's numbers, the increased enrollment could easily be attributed to the increase in television dramas being shot in Chicago.

A class of 14 students at Green Shirt usually consists of two or three students who've done background work on set, six to eight students who've worked as actors on camera, in improv or in the theater world and students who've just wanted to give acting a chance, he said.

"There’s a lot of people that started out working background, who are now wanting to transition into more speaking roles and that kind of thing. They feel that they need — and I think rightfully so — work on the art part of it and the training of it," he said.

They're continuing to see a wide variety of characters in their studio, Gallant said.

“We’ve had people who have shown up that have had full successful careers in other things and end up actually getting gigs as actors," he said.

The diversity of students has been evident since the very beginning. In one of Gallant's first classes sat a very talented actress in her 70s. When she transitioned into the more progressive classes Gallant cast her as a nun, he said.

"She had actually spent 50 years as a nun. She got out, left and she always wanted to act," Gallant said. "She went on and did some plays and is still out there auditioning periodically when she’s got time. I mean, she’s 75 now.

"We’ve got a number of people like that."

For Green Shirt Studio's full class schedule click here.