After selling her successful PR firm at 64, Judi revisited her childhood dream and started taking acting classes. She is now a busy stage actor and even performs her own show, “Husbands: An Owner’s Manual.”
Tell us a little about your background…
I was born in Chicago in 1941, two weeks before Pearl Harbor. When my father was drafted shortly thereafter, my mother and I moved into my grandfather’s large home, where he was single-handedly raising his three daughters (two of whom were still teenagers). For obvious reasons, I grew very close to these aunts, and remained so even after they married and moved out of the house.
When my father returned from the army, we continued to live in my grandfather’s house, where my two sisters were born.
The greatest impact on my life occurred when I was 11. My 39-year-old father died of a heart attack, and my 32-year-old mother became a widow with three children. She also became a business owner, taking over the family shoe store.
Significantly, two of my three aunts were also widowed in their early 30s, and the third was divorced.
As a result, I did not grow up with the regulation mind-set of a ‘50s teenager in the Eisenhower years. I never believed that I was going to get married and someone was going to take care of me for the rest of my life. While other girls chose to major in Elementary Education in college so they’d “always have something to fall back on,” I wanted a career I could be passionate about. I debated between Theater and Journalism, two areas I enjoyed in high school.
Ultimately, I decided I would have a more successful career in journalism. I was hoping to become a crime reporter like my two role models, Brenda Starr and Lois Lane. I graduated with a B.S. in journalism from the University of Illinois in 1963, but never got that job on the police beat.
Instead, I worked as an editor at a trade magazine and later as a publicist at a number of different organizations. I married Jack Schindler in 1964 and our son Adam (our only child) was born in 1973.
When Adam was a baby, I continued to work part-time, doing public relations and marketing for a tele-communications company. By the time Adam was five and going to school every day, I turned that tele-communications company into a client and started building my own PR and Marketing agency, Schindler Communications, Inc., from there.
Over the years, I built a substantial business with some 10 employees and strong specialties in real estate and higher education. Offices were in the trendy River North area of Chicago. I was also a co-founder of the Chicago Area Chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) Chapter, serving as both a chapter and national officer. Through NAWBO, I became active in small business issues and served as a delegate to the 1980 and 1986 White House Conferences on Small Business.
In 2006, when I was 64, I realized that I had to make a decision about the business. Public relations was and is a young profession—nobody wants a little old lady publicist. I worried: How long would I be able to bring in enough business to support my over-head? Should I keep investing in new equipment? How long a lease could I safely sign?
To solve the dilemma, I sold the business to another public relations firm and continued to work in that firm for another five years, before economic pressures forced its eventual closing. I still, however, continue to perform marketing services for one client, The GO Group, a consortium of airport ground transportation companies from around the world.
When did you start thinking about making a change?
Directly after the sale, I suffered something of an identity crisis. I was no longer the boss. And, while I maintained my corporate entity, I was no longer really a business owner. I needed something else in my life. At the start of 2007, I remember telling my peer-to-peer group (The NAWBO Boardroom Exchange) that my goal for the year was to find a new identity.
On a whim, I decided to go back 46 years and try the road not taken. I enrolled in an acting class. One class led to another, better class—then another and another. Along the way, I noted that some of my classmates had headshots and agents and were going out on auditions. So I did too.
What is your next act?
I am an actor, performer, and writer.
For the last several years, I have appeared in a number of storefront productions and understudied at equity theaters including NorthLight (“4000 Miles”), Victory Gardens (“Rest”) and Shattered Globe (“Marvin’s Room”). Most recently, I understudied the role of Hillary in “Hillary & Clinton” at Victory Gardens, and was thrilled to go on for one night.
Other favorite roles include The Drunk in “Hell Cab” at Profiles Theatre, Miriam Goldman in “Beau Jest” at Oil Lamp Theatre, and Juanita Bartlett, another drunk, in “Sordid Lives” at Ludicrous Theatre.
I have also done a few commercials and independent films. Check them out here.
About three years into my acting career, I decided I wanted to have a show of my own that I could perform for women’s groups, senior centers, and spouse programs. So I sat down and wrote “Husbands: An Owner’s Manual,” a 30 to 40-minute performance piece suitable as luncheon entertainment. You can see a brief preview of the show here.
Based on my 50+ years of marriage to Jack Schindler, the show covers how to select a husband and how to maintain him in good working order—including information on replacement parts, warranty policies, and returns. The show has been well received by a variety of audiences, including one stint in a comedy club.
In creating the show, I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to hold an audience’s attention by just standing there and talking so I added multi-media elements with photos, audio, and animation.
Several times during the performance, I am interrupted by the sound of a cell phone ringing, and I take a customer service call from a woman who has an issue with her husband or boyfriend.
I spent almost a year developing the show, working with first-rate professionals. Well-known cartoon illustrator, Elwood P. Smith, provided illustrations; award-winning actress Janet Ullrich Brooks was my director; AV producer Brian Ernst produced audio segments, an animation segment, and a video preview. And several actor friends did the voice-overs.
Currently I am working on the book version of “Husbands: An Owner’s Manual,” which I hope to publish before end of the year.
How hard was it to take the plunge?
I never really plunged; I dipped one toe, tested the water, and slowly waded in.
I didn’t plan to take up acting as my next career. Originally, I was just looking for something new in my life that had nothing to do with business. It could have been pottery or photography, but I had always liked acting as a kid, so acting it was.
I love taking the classes—scene study, monologues, Shakespeare, auditioning, on-camera, improve—I’ve probably taken 25 or more classes since I started.
While early on I was approached by an agent (which is the entryway to commercial work), I did not take the step of signing with one until I was no longer working full time and could be more flexible about auditioning and shooting during the day.
How supportive were you family and friends?
I think my long-time friends and business associates get a big kick out of seeing me in this new role. On the night that I stepped in as Hillary in “Hillary & Clinton,” some 40 friends came to support me. And I know that a few were pretty surprised that I was actually doing credible work right up there with life-long professional actors.
I have four friends who come to every show together to root me on.
My husband has been equally supportive of my theater and commercial work, but has never seen my “Husbands” show. People have told him that it’s an “homage,” but the concept makes him uncomfortable.
In addition to my old friends, I have acquired a new set of friends—my fellow actors, most of whom are in their 30s. Chicago is blessed with an enormous, gifted, and generous talent pool. When I first got started, a number of us formed an “accountability” group, where we met every two weeks to trade information about auditions, theaters, and agents, and to commit to a task list. We even got together to coach each other before auditions. While the formal meetings slowly disbanded for a variety of reasons, we still keep in touch and help each other out with advice and counsel as needed.
What challenges did you experience?
Everything about acting is challenging, particularly when you’re older. Losing yourself in a character is a challenge. Acting naturally for the camera is a challenge. Auditioning in front on directors who are younger than your own children is humbling as well as challenging. Last, but not least, memorizing one hundred pages of dialogue is grueling, exhausting work.
But then everything about running a 10-person PR firm was also challenging. I get amused when a director says, “we decided to go in another direction.” That’s exactly what clients would say when they would hire another PR firm.
The big difference is that as a business owner, I always felt I was the one in control. Actors have no control. They are at the very bottom of the power totem.
Were there times when you thought about giving up?
I remember years ago seeing the celebrated movie star Jimmy Stewart on a talk show saying that every time a movie shoot ended, he was afraid he’d never get cast again. This is not a business for the faint of heart. You have to put up with rejection over and over again.
But then something great happens, a successful audition, a meaty part, a good review, or just a responsive audience, and you’re hooked all over again.
What did you learn about yourself in the process?
Frankly, I am pretty proud of myself. I said I wanted a new identity and I found it. I have built a reputation in a highly competitive industry where I now get direct calls from casting directors. I feel I have a place in the Chicago theater community. Almost every show I go to these days, I know someone in the cast.
I learned that at 74, I am essentially the same person I was at 34, when I started my business. I still have a lot of energy. I am willing to set goals, work hard, and direct my energy to achieving those goals. Only this time around, I have the time to linger over coffee and the newspaper in the morning.
While I have six adorable grandchildren—2 months to 10 years old—I could no more be a stay-at-home granny than I could have been a stay-at-home mom.
I need to be involved. I need to be actively pursuing goals. I need to be engaged.
Is there anything you would have done differently?
Would I go back in time and study acting instead of journalism? No, I made the right choice for me at the time. Somehow at 18, I realized that the communication skills I learned in college would serve me better during the period of my life when I needed to earn more money.
Now that my husband and I are older, our mortgage is paid off, and we’re collecting retirement benefits, I have the luxury of choosing art over commerce.
Furthermore, in my 20s, I would have been in competition with hundreds (maybe thousands) of young women who come to Chicago seeking careers in theater. At my age, there are maybe a couple dozen non-union old ladies. I see the same ones at every audition.
What advice would you give to other women interested in beginning an acting career later in life?
I would not advise other women to go into acting full time if they still need to earn a living. Most young actors (even the really good ones) wait tables, nanny, bag groceries, or have other types of jobs that supplement their income.
However, there are lots of opportunities for those who wish to enter acting for the love of it. I know a retired nurse, a retired lawyer, and a retired tech-entrepreneur who actively work in professional theater and do commercials, voice-overs, etc.
I suggest starting with lots of classes, not only for the skills you learn but also for the opportunity to network with other actors and learn about the biz. I highly recommend the following classes in Chicago.
For general acting classes: The Acting Studio Chicago
For on-camera classes: The Green Room Studio
For Shakespeare: Susan Hart and Jeffrey Carlson (mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Acting Studio Chicago also has a comprehensive list of industry information and resources on its website including lists of agents, casting directors, headshot photographers, etc.
It can be quite difficult to get an agent, particularly if you have little or no experience. It might be easier to start with a non-union agency, which does not require exclusive contracts. Some of these in Chicago include Karen Stavins, Lily’s Talent, Paige Model & Talent, and Talent Group.
Go to their websites and follow the instructions for submission.
Contact Judi Schindler at email@example.com