Podcast Episode 61 Transcript – Kate Shindle
Ken: Hey, everybody, in case you missed the big announcement, we turned all the transcripts of the podcast episodes of the last year into books – good, old fashioned books. Actually, new fashioned books because they’re e-Books, read them on your Kindle, so go get them on the Amazon store or go to TheProducersPerspective.com and go to the book section. Download them, give them away as gifts – you’re going to love reading this stuff as well as listening to them. Now, on to the podcast!
Ken: Hello, everybody. Ken Davenport here. You are listening to The Producer’s Perspective Podcast. Thanks so much for tuning in. So last week we talked to the president of Local 802, the musicians’ union on Broadway, and this week – it’s like labor month here at The Producer’s Perspective Podcast – we’re talking to the president of the other performers’ union on Broadway, the folks who are above the pit. Welcome to the president of Actors’ Equity Association, Kate Shindle. Welcome, Kate
Ken: So, Kate, you have a very interesting story of how you got into the big office in the Equity building where we are right now. How did you get started in performing?
Kate: Performing? Wow. I was not a show kid but I did a play, I remember, when I was really small – I was 4 or 5 years old – that the moms put on, and I played a Valentine’s Day card and I had one line. Then my interest in performing went more towards playing the violin – I was a violinist for several years, not a terribly good one but it taught me a lot about pitch and about working together with a group of people to create something amazing. Then I got into high school and I went to this really small private Catholic school in south Jersey and we didn’t have any facilities. I actually like telling this story because I learned how to make good theatre, theatre we loved, with nothing. We didn’t have a big budget, we weren’t one of these high schools that has a budget the size of some colleges, we didn’t even have a stage – we did our yearly musical, one show a year, on the stage of the elementary school in the next town because they actually had an auditorium – but I just fell for it, like everybody does. My freshman year we did Fiddler on the Roof and I was the violinist in the pit and then I was also Fruma-Sarah and ran back and forth and had a blast, and then sophomore year we did Into the Woods which was really exciting because I had never experienced theatre like that before. And then I decide around that time, sophomore/junior year, that I wanted to try to do it forever and ever so I studied theatre at North Western and then I came to New York.
Ken: And what was life like for you when you first arrived in the city as a performer? I went to NYU and I always used to think “Thank God I went to school in this city so I could acclimate myself to the environment.” You just moved here.
Kate: I sort of just moved here. My sordid history – I had actually been here a lot because after my junior year I took a year off of school and I was Miss America so I traveled all over the country and several times came to New York and that’s when I really went, “This is where I want to be.” A lot of my friends stayed in Chicago after graduation but I knew I would end up in New York at some point so I just came here and the reason I say that is because I came here with a slightly different situation than most students right out of college in that I had some money. I had made not millions of dollars but enough to have a healthy start in a reasonable apartment with roommates and I ended up getting a job because I was just bored and I was used to such a schedule and I got here and there were auditions but there wasn’t much else so I worked, I went and sang at a piano bar at Sam’s, which is no longer with us, and I kind of just did everything I could. I tried to get the lay of the land and of course I thought I knew everything because I was right out of a theatre program but you learn pretty quickly what you don’t know, or the edges of what you don’t know and then you have to get into it and figure that out. My first job on Broadway actually came about pretty quickly – I went into Jekyll and Hyde as an understudy three or four months after I moved here and then, after that, I was there for four or five months and then I went on tour playing Sally in Cabaret so I can’t complain about my first couple of years in New York, it was awesome. It was an adjustment but it always is when you move somewhere new.
Ken: So obviously the pageant experience that you had from being Miss America helped you get a head start here.
Kate: Yeah, in some ways.
Ken: You sound like you always knew you wanted to be a performer yet you went into the pageant circle.
Ken: Were you in it as a kid?
Kate: No, not at all. In fact I remember when I was growing up these different contests would send postcards to the house and I would be like “Mom, what do you think?” And she was like “No, go read a book. You’re not doing a preteen pageant,” but my parents were volunteers with Miss America when I was very young because we lived right at the Jersey Shore, very close to Atlantic City and kind of everyone in our community went over and volunteered on Miss America when it came to town in August and September. It helped in some ways – part of it was that when I finished that year there were a lot of people who just told me “Go right to New York,” and I actually went back and finished my senior year of school and it helped me remove myself from what was really a fascinating, inspiring, exciting but extremely demanding year that had very little to do with what I actually wanted to do for a living and I knew that I wanted to get my degree and I wanted to have another year of doing college theatre and going to football games and that kind of stuff. So there were ways in which it definitely helped – I had no business playing Sally in that production, although I learned a lot on the road, if not for the fact that they were doing one-weekers in the Midwest I don’t know that I would have been considered for that but I felt like I rose to the occasion and learned a lot on the job, and I also wildly over prepared for that audition, which was great. I took it really seriously because I wanted them to take me seriously and, at the same time, I’ve definitely been in audition rooms when I used to have it on my resume and somebody on the other side of the table gets to that line and goes “Oh, you were Miss America,” and you could feel the air in the room change and I would think “Oh, I’m not going to get that job,” because there is a whole set of assumptions that come with that too, stereotypes and beliefs and stuff, so it’s been a mixed bag but I’m very proud that I did it and I wouldn’t want to undo it, it was just a matter of trying to figure out how to compartmentalize that one part of my life which was really a deviation from the straight line that I felt like I was on.
Ken: So you spent how many years here – you’re now the president of Actors Equity – how many years were you working in the business and in how many Broadway shows?
Kate: I moved at the end of 1999 and I’ve done four Broadway shows. at the beginning it was frustrating for me because I was feeling the things that you feel when you’re right for roles but I’m 20 feet tall and nobody would ever cast me – I’m hard to pair with a guy, you know. It was very frustrating at times but then now I look back at it and I think I’m glad for that, I’m glad that I didn’t hit my stride in my 20s and then have to try to figure out “Okay, what now?” I feel like I’ve gotten to play a lot of interesting unusual roles and now I’m on a different path, which I like.
Ken: What’s the hardest part about being a performer here in the city and trying to make it on Broadway?
Kate: There are a couple of things. I would say that the stability issue is the biggest one. You just have to be okay with not always knowing what’s next. The other thing that I think is important is if you’re just looking for the performance aspect of it, if you like being onstage with an audience and rehearsal is just a means to that end, I think it’s very easy to get frustrated because you have to love the process and you have to love it enough to go into the reading that you’re getting paid $100 for and get excited about the new pages and “Oh my gosh, there’s a new song and we’re making changes!” If you don’t love the process I don’t think you’re going to like being a professional actor because when we’re growing up all we see is the glamour and then when you actually spend time doing it it’s a lot less like that. when you’re 22 it’s super sexy to live like the people in Rent but when you’re 28 or 30 you want a little more stability and, I guess, solidity to your lifestyle, so that’s tricky. Otherwise, I don’t know, I always really liked it and, at the same time, I periodically and regularly think “Should I be doing something else?” Because I think that, if you don’t, you’re crazy. If you don’t look at this lifestyle and think “Maybe there’s something else out there for me,” and just check in with yourself every so often, I don’t understand how that works.
Ken: I’ve talked to so many of my friends that have been in the business for ten years now and they remember what it was like, “Oh, I’m going to be on Broadway for the first time!” And the glamour and the sexiness and then they realize so many of them are in ensemble roles doing the exact same thing every single night, eight times a week. It’s grinding on you.
Kate: Yeah, I learned that when I went into the first show, when I went into Jekyll and Hyde, because I was in the ensemble and an understudy in a long running Broadway show and you learn very quickly that the mechanics are the thing you have to learn first. It’s not like you suddenly walk into this universe of complete artistic fulfilment every single minute. That cast has already done that and you have to fit in and then you get the chance to explore things once you get there and once you’ve learned all of your blocking, for example. The other thing that I think is important is for performers to know that, even for those of us who do Broadway shows – I’ve done four Broadway shows in 15-16 years but I’ve done a lot of other stuff – if you’re only looking at Broadway as the way to know that you’re a successful actor, it’s really easy to get frustrated. Some of the best work I’ve ever done, most of the best work I’ve ever done, has been in regional theatres and in readings of shows that kind of died in development and you have to figure out how to live with that because if you’re only looking at Broadway, Broadway, Broadway, then you’re really cutting yourself off from a lot of what it means to be a working actor.
Ken: So you’ve been here for about 15 years or so – at what point in that process or during those years did you say, “I want to get involved in the other side of this, the administrative side, the performers’ union?”
Kate: Well, for me, I kind of feel like once an activist, always an activist, right? And my year as Miss America was 90% AIDS activism – I was talking to students and lobbying legislators, giving speeches and all of that stuff, so I put a lot of that away when I came to New York to just work as an actor and I got involved the same way a lot of other councilors did. If you talk to our councilors and offices – because I’m on the governance side, I’m not a staff member, I don’t have a salary, none of that, so I’m the head of the governance side of the union, which is our elected working actors and stage managers who make our policy decisions – most of us got involved because we were in a show and something went wrong and we didn’t know who to call and we ended up starting to understand better that there is a union that we have in place that we pay dues to that’s there to deal with these things. My specific path was that I was doing a show at NYMF which was a blast, it was such a fun show, but I was doing Legally Blonde at the same time and the night before our last NYMF performance I sprained my ankle in Legally Blonde – in a scene, by the way, where all I had to do was stand still – and I fell down and sprained my ankle and there was no way that I could do, it was called Sympathy Jones and it was a 1960s girl spy musical, so the opening of Act 2 was literally singing and running an obstacle course, crawling under things, jumping off tables in heels and there was no way I could do that with the injury I had just gotten. There was a lot of back and forth, because we were talking about doing it as a reading, but then I was told that NYMF didn’t want that, and the director really wanted her staging to be seen because she had important people coming and I was really frustrated, I said “I can’t do it.” So the solution ended up being that I sat in a chair at a stand down stage left and everybody else did the show as if I was where I usually was. We had stage combat – somebody could have gotten hurt, because if you’re choking someone they brace on you and if that person is not there and they’re just throwing themselves around. So, in all of that, I mean I had been a deputy and stuff but it never occurred to me to call the union – I talked to the director, I talked to my agents, I talked to somebody from NYMF – so there was a forum after the festival was over and they said, “Would you like to come and be part of this talk back to the union about how things went over there?” So I went and I spoke to the right people and then one of the staff members came up and asked me if I would like to join the off-off-Broadway committee so I did and after a year or two of doing that I decided I would run for council and actually Patrick Quinn who bought all of this stuff, he was our past president and we still keep a lot of his things around, had approached me to possibly be a counselor and I didn’t win a council seat the first couple of times I ran.
Ken: The first couple of times?
Kate: The first couple of times, I ran in the general election and then I ran in an internal replacement election where only the council elects the replacement counselor and so finally, like pretty much everything that ends up being important in my life, I had to decide that it was time to get serious about it, instead of just treating it as something I could do that was fun on the side. Then I just really liked it so after a year on council I ran for eastern regional vice president, which was probably a little premature but I thought “Why not? I dig what’s going on there, I’d like to be more a part of the decisions.” Then, after the first term of that, I had been asked to try producing and I thought “Why not? I may as well,” but you can’t do both at once – you can’t be an officer and an employer – so I stepped down during the election because I was running against someone and I thought “I can step down and we have another candidate, it won’t mean that I step down halfway through the term and then the seat is empty and it causes problems.” So producing, as it turns out, is not my jam. It’s okay, it’s interesting, but fundraising is really just… I don’t envy you, I really don’t. It was fun but I decided not to go whole hog and then this came around and I thought “Why not?” It’s very rare for officers to run in contested elections, and sometimes even counselors, and that bothers me, I feel like every election should be contested, everybody should have to be at the top of their game to be able to sit in this building and make the decisions that affect all of us every time we walk into a rehearsal, so I went for it.
Ken: It is not even the end of your first year yet, right? It’s been eight months?
Kate: The election was in May but the oath of office was in mid-June, so what is that? Eight, nine, ten months, something like that.
Ken: So how’s it going?
Kate: It’s awesome. It’s actually awesome. I mean you can see that my priority has not been decorating this amazing office because it’s just a hodgepodge but otherwise it’s endlessly fascinating to me. I think that it’s really important for us to build a tent, essentially, that our members want to be in, it’s important for us to communicate with them well because our employers get way more facetime with our members than we do and it’s very easy, when something goes amiss, to just blame the union because most members don’t know who to talk to at the union to find out whether it’s accurate or not. I really want to make Equity cool, not that I’m some paragon of coolness but I actually think that Equity is exciting, I would like for our members to see it the way I see it, and I don’t know how long I’ll do this, I really have no idea, I kind of thought one-and-done would be a good idea but I like it, there’s a lot I want to accomplish, there’s a lot we can accomplish.
Ken: One-and-done is how many years?
Ken: Three, and then you can run again.
Ken: No term limits or anything?
Kate: There are no term limits starting in – this is kind of inside baseball – starting in 2018 the officer terms are staggering a little bit so that every officer isn’t up for re-election all at one time, so after this three year term, actually, I don’t even know. Some officers serve a two year term, some serve a four, and I just haven’t looked at it lately – I’m just focusing on the first three years.
Ken: What’s your day to day like? When you come into the office, what do you deal with on a day to day basis?
Kate: Well I’m not in the office every day but rarely a day goes by that I’m not doing some kind of Equity business. I spent probably four hours on the phone with different counselors and officers this weekend, just talking through some of the issues that we’re working on, whether it’s things that are going to come up in council, whether it’s big picture governance, whether it’s communication strategy, those kinds of things, and that’s why being president is so surprisingly and awesomely different from being a regional vice president, because I just feel like, I guess, more of a team leader and closer to the center of decision making. I mean technically the president probably is the center of decision making but I think it’s important to think of myself as the member of the council who happens to be sitting in the office of the president because really the council makes all of the decisions, the president is just the head officer of the council. So when I come in, I may work on my Equity news column, which is overdue and which I should have done last week. I just went out to LA and Chicago for focus groups because we’re doing strategic planning about what this union looks like and is going to look like and how we operate. I have to chair the council meetings and we have a number of issues that council has to make decisions on so it’s a matter of somewhat filtering and distilling the information so that you present it to council in a way that allows a decision to be made with some debate but rather easily, because if you just dump everything into the council room it can take ten hours in order to figure out which end is up, but that’s a bit of a tightrope walk too because I want to be transparent, I want our union to be transparent and I don’t want to be filtering things in a way that obfuscates them, I just want to make it simpler for our 83 member body to understand, debate and actually make decisions that don’t take three months. There’s this sort of running joke around here that everything takes forever and I think that part of it is because we expect it to take forever – if we need to get something done, like online signups – we’re ten years later for online signups for EPAs and Equity course calls. I can sign up for any yoga class in the city on my phone but our members who do EPAs can’t yet sign up on their phone for the number one thing that they want their union to offer and, again, it kind of goes back to when you’re young and when you’re first starting out it’s so cool to be out on the sidewalk, waiting in line, it’s part of the myth, but I think that once you’re past 25 you would really like to just make an appointment and show up, it makes people feel like they’re professional. At my first council meeting I asked the council to give us permission to form a working group and just get it done and we formed a working group – I took two chairs of the two main committees and we formed a working group and in two days had a meeting and convened the whole group a week later and then sent it to staff. Things can happen quickly, it’s just kind of a matter of expecting them to without cracking a whip. I think there’s a way to work with people and motivate instead of reprimanding.
Ken: That specific example is a great one – I was going to ask you about how Equity was going to use technology in the future.
Kate: We have a lot to talk about with that – keep going!
Ken: But the 22 year old in me, that was an actor at one point, just loves that idea because one of the reasons I was like “I’m never doing this anymore!” was because I used to wait on the sidewalk in the freezing cold, so that’s amazing. Where is that? Is that happening now?
Kate: It’s in process. We have to revamp our casting call section of the website and that’s going to be a part of it, but we just had a status progress report ten days ago maybe and our IT department walked us through the different parts of it and what they’re going to look like and basically they’re template and I think but I can’t promise that it will be up and running late spring, early summer, and at first I thought, “That’s just when everything dies down, for the summer,” but actually, if you’re beta testing something, it’s probably better to not do it in January when everybody is just flooding the audition rooms so, to me, that’s a really important thing and it’s something that will actually make a huge difference in the lives of our members. I got an email early on from a member who lives in Westchester county and he said, “I don’t have friends in the city that I can ask to go put my name on the list so I really can’t afford to do Equity course calls because I have to spend the money on whatever it us, childcare, travel, just to come in and write my name down. Isn’t there some way we could put just a signup sheet online?” And when I wrote him back and said that the council was taking up the issue of online signups he responded within 90 seconds with more exclamation points than I could count. Our members who live on Long Island or in Westchester county or Staten Island or wherever, because they can’t afford to live in Manhattan or it’s not their style or whatever, they should be able to participate and I also think, this is probably going to go a little too far at first, but there are also members in Buffalo, and Pittsburgh, and D.C., and Philadelphia who have never really been able to participate in these kinds of auditions who will probably want to sign up too. Pretty quickly, I think, people will discover that commuting from Buffalo is maybe not the best way to do this but they should have an opportunity, it shouldn’t just be about the members who live in New York.
Ken: This is a lot of work.
Kate: For a hobby.
Ken: Right, it’s an unpaid position this job of yours, and yet you have to make a living at the same time – you still pursue your career.
Kate: That’s the other thing, right?
Ken: How do you juggle this?
Kate: I was out of town for about the first half of last year and that kind of took me out of the loop – you know how there’s a lag, right? So if you’re out of town from January to May, you’re not working in the summer because you haven’t bene here for auditions. So, fortunately, it all coincided with this so I had some time to settle in and then in the fall I went “I also need to make a living!” So it can be crazy – like this afternoon I have a callback for a really big job and I’m trying to make sure that I can do what I have to do here and then get my head in the game for that, which is pretty demanding. I don’t know, you just make it work. I think if you like the things that you’re doing, you just make it work, and I like doing this and I like being an actor. It’s not rocket science, it’s just time management, which I’m not that great at, but I’m getting better.
Ken: What do you think the biggest concern is of working actors today?
Kate: Wow, the biggest concern? I think it’s availability of work and that is a straight line to availability of things like health insurance. Obviously we have exchanges now and we have national universal healthcare but at any given time – and this is a balance that we have to figure out – we could organize more work weeks if we just let anyone join because we would just soak up everybody, we would soak up the whole talent pool, but at any given time like 17% of our members are working and so, if we had a lot more members but don’t organize more work weeks, that’s not really a solution either. But I actually think that the other thing that people are afraid of, or maybe it’s just a misconception, is that we think we’re really alone. When you’re in a show, the show is your family, more or less, especially a musical – even a play but especially a musical – and when the show closes or a run ends that family sort of shuts down and people go their separate ways and even people that you’re best friends with you kind of fall out of touch with. I think here in New York there is definitely an extra something when you’re in a Broadway show – you really feel like part of a community in a way that you may not if you’re not actively in a Broadway show, but Equity is a community that everybody is part of all of the time. I mean all of our members, not all actors, and I would like for that to be sort of an umbrella community that our members know to ask about things and it’s funny because, save me, but there’s been this rise of unofficial Facebook pages where members are discussing all kinds of different things and that’s fine, I’m glad that there are places for people to congregate and get information – hopefully it’s the right information – but there’s no question in my mind that we have to communicate differently with our members because there are now places that members can congregate and swap stories. We have to be ahead of that messaging because it is very easy for the wrong information to get passed around and then people get very angry and if they had just come to Equity, if they had just called the office or emailed someone and asked the question that they got an answer to on Facebook, they might have gotten a different answer, so that, to me, is a big challenge.
Ken: You’ve been a producer for a brief period of time, you’ve worked with a lot of producers – what do you think makes a good producer?
Kate: My favorite producers, I think, all seem to be pretty good people, and that allows me, and I think other actors, to trust that they’re not trying to take advantage of us, that they’re not trying to exploit us, that they’re not trying to pull a fast one with the rules. It’s pretty easy to tell when you have that kind of producer who’s trying to play really fast and loose and push the stage manager not to give you breaks. I’m a rule person – if the rules don’t make sense then I think it’s good to change the rules, but as long as you’ve signed the contract that you’ll work under certain rules then you should, and that applies to actors too, it’s not just a producer thing. I think my favorite producers, also, are the ones who really understand how to lead and I think that that’s even more challenging now than it ever has been because, you know, people who would have been investors 30 years ago are now producers and everybody’s got an opinion and, in a way, wrangling those opinions is, I think, one of the hardest jobs that a producer has – to be able to distill information from 30 people who wrote checks and came to tech rehearsal or a run through or whatever and then feed it to the creatives, the director in particular, in a way that doesn’t just overwhelm the whole production is a real skill. I don’t envy that wrangling of voices but I think it’s really important. I think good producing just doesn’t happen very often in chaos.
Ken: Do you like to deal with producers directly now, in the chair that you’re in now? Do you find yourself dealing with them?
Kate: Not so much. I’m happy to – I went and had a meeting with Barbara Whitman a couple of weeks ago because, I forget who it was, had told me that if I had questions about how producing worked, if I wanted to know more about it – and Barbara was one of our producers on Legally Blonde so I’ve known her for a long time – that she was a great brain to talk to. I went and had lunch with Kevin McCollum and just talked to him about ideas because, frankly, if you want big picture ideas about how our community works, you should ask Kevin and he is happy to tell you.
Ken: How long was that lunch?
Kate: It was perfect, it was an hour or an hour and a half, but it was funny because I was walking through the door and I thought “Should I have prepared more to talk about?” And then we just talked. I’ve known Kevin sort of socially for a few years so I wasn’t just going in blind. I think that it’s important to draw on evert possible resource. We’re all making theatre together and my view is the more that we can be allies in that, instead of adversaries, the better. Now, can we all herd our respective cats to make that possible? It’s easier said than done but, again, we put a man on the moon, we can have conversations about theatre and survive them. This is one of the reasons I was excited to talk to you, although I don’t have much to say yet. We’ve got to figure out how to expand our content delivery and I have a friend who, again, I just called and talked to her because I think she’s got a good brain and she was at YouTube for a while – she works for Google but she went over to YouTube for a while – and she said, “Why do you guys keep this wall up between live theatre and streaming content?” And I said “Well, because we do. That’s just what we do,” that doesn’t mean that has to be what we do, it doesn’t mean we have to price online content out of existence, and I thought it was interesting that shortly thereafter you announced your Daddy Long Legs stream and there’s something to be said, there’s a lot to be said, for persevering the fact that live theatre is live and that is an experience that’s unlike anything, it’s like jobs that can’t be outsourced, it’s a really valuable commodity these days to be in a room with people telling a story, whether it’s a meeting or a show, and at the same time I look at how many shows close and how narrow profit margins are and think “If we don’t take advantage of some of the technology or allow our employers to take advantage of some of the technology that could really deliver things in new and exciting ways we’re just going to stagnate and then we’ll be fighting over $1 per day per diem instead of saying . Look at this brave new world that we’ve got out there.” So that is a big ask for our members because we’re used to things like recognition fees and we know that there are members who, when Lincoln Center films a show, they don’t want to go, they don’t want to perform because they feel so strongly that their work is best viewed in person but I don’t know, I get really excited thinking about learning to film theatre from the people in NFL films, like a really active, engaging experience. Can you imagine? One of our councilors mentioned virtual reality last week and my brain is not there yet but can you imagine? That would be so cool. We have it take some baby steps first but I think our industry has to go there because pretty much every piece of evidence we have is when people see something at their house they want to see it more in a building, not less.
Ken: Obviously I agree with you on that. I don’t really have anything else to say.
Kate: I was like “Oh, fish in a barrel, Ken Davenport!”
Ken: So we’ve talked a lot about Broadway, of course, and it’s easy to think about the Broadway actor, but the fact is you are the president of all of the members of Actors Equity.
Kate: I’m the boss of everyone! I’m kidding.
Ken: That means all of the touring actors, that means the Summer stock actors in Maine or Michigan, all over. Are their interests the same, different? How do you juggle those different opinions?
Kate: It’s unbelievable how we do have a lot in common but the needs of the different communities are so diverse. Like I went to a couple of student theatre conferences in the fall – one of them was in Richmond, one of them was in Greenville, and Greenville is beautiful, it’s this thriving small arts community, there’s not a lot of Equity theatre in the state, and they explained to me, we were just talking about union stuff and why they can’t afford to bring in too many Equity actors and they said, “All of our people have day jobs.” In New York your day job is going to rehearsal. In South Carolina, in most places, you can’t make a living, you can’t make your whole living by being an actor so you have to have day jobs which means you can only rehearse four to maybe six hours a night, maybe, and that means that if you’re bringing somebody in from New York and housing them, what would ordinarily be a four week rehearsal process turns into an eight or twelve week rehearsal process and then you need to make contributions and obviously you need to pay their salary. So the good news is it’s exciting to try to figure out how to solve these problems. The challenge is that they’re real, it’s not just people complaining who are not wanting to use Equity actors. The other thing, for example, is gender parity, especially in smaller theatres all over the country, but not just in smaller theatres. We hear from a lot of young women who have just joined the union that, as soon as they get their card, they stop working because the roles that they would be right for are being cast non-Equity. So I asked one of the artistic directors of the theatre in Richmond when we were at the other conference “Why does that happen? There has to be a real reason, it’s not just that producers don’t like girls,” and he said, “If you’re doing Gypsy you can probably get a local June and Louise. I have to go to New York to get Tulsa because the Tulsas in Richmond are playing baseball. You need a kid that’s been in dance class and knows how to sing and knows how to really own a stage, so you’ll probably get your Rose from New York or elsewhere, it could be from Atlanta or D.C., but you’d probably use one of your Equity contracts for Rose, probably one for Herbie, one for Tulsa and whoever else, but June and Louise are pretty easy to cast locally.” So where do we even start with that? Are we going to start by telling five year old boys all over the country that they have to get into dance class so that they too can be hired non-Equity? It is demanding. The touring stuff is absolutely a frustration for some of our members but the touring market has changed and so we actually have a really, really interesting – long but oddly fascinating – YouTube video about touring, about how the market works and what a guarantee is, things that our members don’t necessarily know, and we had a big dustup about that two years ago that culminated in us – well it wasn’t me, I went to it but I wasn’t an officer at that point – having a town hall for our members that were really unhappy about the lower salary tiered tours and I remember walking into that room and thinking that people may as well have pitchforks because they were angry, like “Where did the money go? Why aren’t we making what used to be made on tour?” And then Russell Baer, who’s a numbers genius and one of our staff members, got up and he gave a presentation about how tours work, why Venue A is going to book this tour with this guarantee, all of the costs that they have to subtract from it, and so finally I could feel the air in the room change, which was interesting. When our members have actual information instead of edited sanitized information we do well with it. We’re questioners, we just are, so that’s what we do and we have to have accurate information given to us so that we can make sense of this whole thing. So that’s on YouTube somewhere, I just watched it three or four days ago, it’s 40 minutes long but it’s kind of everything you need to know as an actor who might go on tour.
Ken: It’s got to be so hard – all of these people all over the country in pockets working every single night, talking to each other, spreading information, some true, some not, and you have to govern that. The instance that sticks out in my mind, of course, is the dustup in L.A. that happened.
Kate: Still happening.
Ken: That I remember being so shocked about because here was Actors Equity doing what you think unions were supposed to do, trying to get more money for their members, and here comes celebrities and all of these people saying that this will change the market out there, that there will be no more of these small productions, which, again, is just so different from how the New York actors might feel about their reading contract.
Kate: I have to be careful what I say about this because now they’re suing us. There is a group that has filed but not served a lawsuit against Equity for basically this issue so I can’t stray too far into it but I think that the whole thing is something of a balancing act. Obviously there is a somewhat thriving, some would say completely thriving, community out there of actors who feel like they can do the kind of work that they want to do and they don’t care if they get paid. There are also members who moved to L.A. – and I’ve actually even talked to some of my friends who are not involved in that conversation at all – thinking “Let me try some TV and film,” people who work here all the time but think “In the meantime. I’d love to continue to do some theatre,” and they’ve had to give up the theatre because there is just basically no way to make a living. Now, there are a couple of different arguments – one is that there is just no money to pay people, one is that there is somewhat of an oversupply of inexpensive theatre or 99 seat theatres in Los Angeles so the audiences are spread out and basically no one is breaking even, or very few are, and one is – and I think this is one of the things that guided the council – the idea that a midsize theatre could open at this point, or even a smallish theatre could open at this point in Los Angeles when they have to compete with the 99 seat business model, which is much more cost effective, is kind of preposterous. So if there are going to be jobs in L.A. there has to be some way that some actors can get paid aside from the big institutional theatres like the Geffin – they have a budget, I’m not worried about them. What the council, I believe, did was try to figure out a way to get some actors paid some of the time and carve out enough opportunities for people who wanted to work with membership companies, for example, and volunteer their time. It got to such a fever pitch that by the time the election rolled around and I found myself in this job I actually asked the staff to just stop talking about it – stop engaging, stop defending, let’s just calm down, because at this point if any of us went on Facebook and literally just wrote the word “volunteer” there would be 35 responses and nobody is hearing each other anymore. One of the first things I did was go out there and sit with a number of people and our executive director, Mary, and just talk about what our members actually need because I think lost in the passion out in Los Angeles was the fact that our members are looking for certain things and people who produce these shows are looking for different things and everybody united, which is good and I’m sure is really exciting and it was nice to see their passion, but at a certain point you have to say “Okay, what do our members really want and how can we talk to them about how to make that work?” So it’s an ongoing conversation, it’s an interesting conversation, it’s definitely a challenge and I’m sure that no matter how we solve it someone will be unhappy. I do think and I have said a number of times and it’s gotten me in some hot water that when we were going in to sit down for the production contract negotiations I thought “We’re not going to get through one day of this without our employers, our bargaining partners, reminding us that there are a few thousand actors in Los Angeles that want to sue the union because they want to work for free.” There is bleed over into other markets and that was so public that how can sit down across the table from LORT theatres in San Diego or San Francisco or wherever and argue with a straight face that our members need a raise – you just can’t. So there are a number of balls in the air when it comes to solving that but we’re sort of on pause right now because we’re sort of figuring our way through this litigation.
Ken: What do you think is the biggest myth of actors?
Kate: I was going to say the Equity One. Do you know what the Equity One is? I had never heard that before.
Ken: No, please tell us all.
Kate: Apparently there is this myth about Equity that you’re allowed to have one drink before half hour and not get in trouble. That’s totally made up! I think the thing that irritates me the most is contempt for actors. I know that we can be mercurial, I know that sometimes we are like kids because we want to know “Why, why, why, why, why?” and I think that that is just fundamental to who we are and why we’re doing this. We’re trained to ask why, we do it on stage, off stage, it’s consistent, so when I see people just rolling their eyes, like “Uh, actors,” I think that people who do that are selling everyone short because if you know how to deal with actors and to treat actors with respect and except them to treat you with respect back it’s a lot better. There was this snarky thing on Facebook that I almost replied to three times and then was just like “No…” and it’s this graphic, a stage manager thing, so it’s funny, that said, “The first thing that every actor is trained to bring to rehearsal is a sharp pencil. The first thing that every actor asks the stage manager for on the first day of rehearsal is a pencil,” and it was like “Why we drink.” Okay, I get it, it’s funny, but it’s not necessarily accurate. We know plenty of very professional people who take this seriously who show up and do their jobs the way that they’re supposed to be done so this myth that actors are whiny crybabies who just want to talk about themselves all the time is so frustrating and, again, some of those things become self-fulfilling – if you treat actors like kids you’re probably not going to get the best behavior. The best stage managers I know really don’t ever have that problem because they know how to manage without a whole lot of drama and people do what they’re supposed to. We want to be collaborators, I believe, throughout the process of whatever we’re doing and that, to me, is the key to really having good relationships between creatives and producers and actors.
Ken: Some of those assumptions people make about actors sound like some of the assumptions they were making about you as Miss America, in a way.
Kate: Boom! Good segue. I would actually say that set of assumptions can be summed up in one sentence, and it’s not the first time I’ve said it, but I was on the dean’s list at North Western and suddenly I became Miss America and people assumed I didn’t have a brain. It was baffling to me, I never saw it coming. It wasn’t that much fun but, you know, you adjust, we have to be adaptable.
Ken: Before I ask my last question I will tell you one of the biggest myths about Actors Equity association and I’ll describe the Daddy Long Legs process after I’ve finished. I got so many emails from people saying “Ken, how did you get Equity to agree to this?” and I was like “I asked them and we worked it out. It was that simple.”
Kate: It’s like the angels are singing when you say that.
Ken: It’s crazy how there is this myth out there that you don’t want to provide work or opportunities. You have to ask the question. Too many of us, I know, on the producing side, especially when we’re doing peripheral stuff, not the big Broadway stuff that’s dealt with by a contract, that we don’t just call and ask, so that’s a big myth.
Kate: The recent frustration for me – and, again, I’m not going to get too far into this – was the snow storm. It was a bit of a dust up because the shows were cancelled pretty late – by the time it was cancelled it was like 12:45 for a 2 o’clock curtain and I think there were some people, I have heard, that, I’m just going to use my own words, were agitating. I was on Twitter and Facebook all morning and there were some people who said “Okay, everybody, just don’t go to work.” No, no, no, no, no, you can’t do that – that’s illegal, don’t do that. But if you don’t feel safe, if you don’t feel like you can safely get from your home to your theatre and back again, then you should call out, because you’re allowed to call out as long as the show is still on, like you would for any other show. I can understand how perhaps a producer might think that was encouraging mass callouts but that really wasn’t what it was. If we’re talking about people’s lives and safety, isn’t that more important than a play or a musical? As important as we all think this is and as much money as is at stake, and I do understand that there is a lot of money at stake, but there has to be a time at which we can say “Okay, maybe the show will not go on this one day.” So there have been a number of people who have asked “Aren’t you afraid you’re going to stop working because you’re president of Equity?” I hope not, but I also think that if you’re on a power trip and you just want to be an asshole all the time then, yes, people will probably not want to hire you because they’ll see that, but if you act in good faith and just try to use your common sense I think there is a way to balance all of it. I hope so!
Ken: Okay, so my last question, which is my Genie Question, my one James Lipton question for you.
Kate: Oh, God!
Ken: Don’t be scared, Kate, you’re going to be fine. I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin comes to your new office which still needs some decorations, so maybe an interior designer will hear this and volunteer for you.
Kate: Yeah, right.
Ken: The genie knocks on your door and says “Kate, I want to thank you so much for being an activist for actors all over the country and to thank you for all for all of the hard work you’ve done by granting you one wish.”
Ken: One wish. What’s the one thing that drives you so crazy about Broadway, that keeps you up at night, that really gets your blood pumping and the steam coming out of your ears, that you would want this genie to change with the snap of a finger?
Kate: Right now the thing that’s really been bothering me is that I think we have to figure out a way to work out some kind of system – our members are saying that we should eliminate the Lab contract because there’s no percentage like a workshop contract. Now, to me, that is not the answer because before the Lab contract existed everything was developed out of town. Now, that could be good for our members who don’t live in New York city and want to be part of developing shows that might eventually go to Broadway but I’ve also heard from friends that have developed shows, one in particular who is developing a show, where the book writer wasn’t even in town for this developmental part – I forget if it was a lab or whatever – and they would sort of come up with stuff in rehearsal and it would be taken down and sent to the book writer in another country and then it became part of the show. In that context I can understand why our members feel frustrated that they don’t have a piece in participation and future rights. It’s not about performing in the show, it’s actually about helping to create the show. That’s been a really buzzy topic in the last, let’s say, six months and something’s got to give because enough members have been told “Well, the lab contract exists, take it up with your union,” and they have. I would really like the genie’s help in fixing that. There are certain things that just kind of simmer for a while and then you hit the point where it just becomes a pressure cooker and the top pops off and I feel like we’re there with development so it looks like the head of our show development subcommittee, Page Price, who’s also our first vice president and co-chair of the production contract committee and I are going to meet with some folks from the Dramatists Guild to start talking through not necessarily participation but just development. It has to be an industry-wide conversation and it’s tricky to start it because people just metaphorically slam the door when they hear “percentage” and I understand why but that, to me, is the biggest challenge we’re going to have in the next few years so, Genie, fix it.
Ken: If you’re asking him, I’m sure he’ll listen to you. Thank you so much for sitting down with us and everything you’re doing.
Kate: My pleasure.
Ken: Thank you to all of you for listening. Don’t forget to subscribe and leave a nice rating if you like this podcast and we’ll keep doing more. Thanks so much!
Ken: Don’t forget – go to Amazon.com or TheProducersPerspective.com to download the book editions of these podcasts. You’re going to love them in printed form.
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Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.