Meeting Kate Shindle, president of Actors’ Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers in the United States some two months into theatre shutdown, she declares: “We’re going to get through this.
“Theatre has been around since long before any of us were and it will be around long after we’re gone. We are creative people who work with creative people. Creativity is what we do, so as hard and scary as it seems, creative solutions will be in the offing,” she says.
This optimism has been a characteristic of Shindle’s tenure as the elected head of the union since 2015 (she is currently standing for a third term). Among her achievements on behalf of union membership in the past five years she particularly notes the 2016 negotiations to improve the rate of pay for Off-Broadway actors and stage managers as well as last year’s agreement for AEA members to have profit participation in new commercial work. The latter was hard-fought.
“It was our first strike in 50 years,” says Shindle, “and I think strikes should be a rarity. But taking that bold step, and seeing the members mobilise around the idea that if other members of the creative process are making hundreds of thousands, or millions, of dollars – the actors and stage managers who were part of that development process for much lower wages can split 1% of the money that’s coming in – was incredibly satisfying.”
Shindle ran for president after serving on various committees and as an AEA councillor after she was recruited by friends. She says she was concerned that actors and stage managers are too often left of out the conversation.
“We’re sort of lost in the mantra that we’re lucky to have the work because that’s what we’re told so often,” she says. “It’s just never made sense to me, because it really philosophically is incredibly reductive.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
Waiting tables at a diner in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
What was your first professional theatre job?
The Witch in Into the Woods, Little Theater on the Square, Sullivan, Illinois, 1999.
What was your next job supposed to be?
Cabaret at Pittsburgh CLO, but the season was cancelled.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
You are more interesting than anything you try to construct and put out in the world. The authentic self is a lot more interesting than a persona.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
It’s something I saw reflected in a quote from Chris Jackson: “Work harder than anybody else.” Then my piece of it is: somebody’s got to get it and that may as well be you.
If you hadn’t been an actor and director, what would you have been?
I probably would be writing but I like doing so many different things.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
No. I am only ritualistic in the routine way, in that this is how I put on my make-up, this is when I get dressed. Though I try to respect other people’s superstitions.
Shindle has been a working actor for more than 20 years, but she came into the field after a different type of recognition: she was crowned Miss America in 1998. She acknowledges that when she stepped out of that spotlight into audition rooms, it may have helped her gain access to those rooms, but it never got her a job.
She says: “I felt like I didn’t really get the benefits of star casting, so I didn’t want to pay the price for star casting. It’s been a complicated undertaking, but I wouldn’t change any of it.”
The pageant has undergone significant changes in process and perception since Shindle’s 1998 win, and she has written a book about her experience. She is very clear about the value it held for her and her pride in the achievement.
“I feel very lucky that I went through the Miss America experience at a time when it was extremely focused on activism, because 90% of what I did during that year was focused on HIV and AIDS prevention. It taught me who I wanted to be, how it felt to have a voice that mattered and to fight for the things you think are going to make the world better. I’ve said many times that if I’d had a year of mostly signing autographs and taking pictures, it would not have been nearly as fulfilling.”
While her first Broadway show was Jekyll and Hyde, it was Cabaret that proved to be her first big breakthrough in the profession, appearing first in the national tour and then on Broadway as Sally Bowles.
“I worked my way up through that audition process for a couple of months,” Shindle remembers. “I met with the associate director, then did a work session for Rob Marshall, and then they flew me to London to audition for Sam Mendes. By the time I did that last audition, I’d probably read the script 40 times. I worked very hard. It was a stark reminder that just graduating with a college degree in theatre doesn’t mean you know everything about being an actor yet.”
Shindle balanced regional and Broadway work, including creating roles in the new musicals Wonderland and Legally Blonde. She says the sheer number of collaborators on a musical makes it the hardest thing she’s ever experienced.
“Everybody has to be working together for the good of the show,” she declares, “because if one person of that big group of people thinks their work is more important than the show, more often than not, the whole thing goes down.”
Noting the evolution of new musicals, Shindle points out how Legally Blonde changed from the time she first signed on. “It was a fun, fluffy musical,” she says. “In real time and then over the years, I have come to understand how much that show meant to people, particularly a certain generation of girls and young women. It’s magical to me that something that was so much fun to do also had a real impact on how young women wanted to occupy space in the world.”
Shindle tried her hand at producing with A Christmas Story the Musical and she found the experience highly informative. “Most of what I did was a) raise money and b) learn that producing was not for me.” She is quick to acknowledge how difficult it is to be a producer and how her respect for those who produce informs her work as union president and her role in government lobbying.
Shindle recently spent a year touring the US in the acclaimed musical Fun Home which, despite its Tony award for best musical, was considered a risky touring prospect due to its exploration of a closeted gay father and the coming out of his daughter. Shindle said it was widely embraced when playing large cities, but that she sensed palpable tension – and saw walkouts – in smaller markets.
Touring in the show in the run-up to and after the 2016 presidential election “felt like we were on a collision course with history”. The song Ring of Keys proved the dividing line for some audience members. “It’s when I really identified that we had become a culture that walks out on things we don’t believe in, to a degree I had not recognised before.”
The Fun Home tour also helped her work as union president, as she met Equity members across the country. “It allowed me to spend time with the committees of what we call our liaison areas,” she says, “cities of various sizes all over the country. I think a lot of us who occasionally perform in regional theatres fall into the bad habit of thinking we are regional theatre actors.” She observed that she has friends in New York who might go on as many auditions in one week as a regional actor might in a year.
Now, of course, Shindle and the union’s focus is how to find their way through the coronavirus crisis and back to work. She says: “The people who are making this theatre are going to need to reopen and they’re going to need seed money to restart the economic engine that the arts provide, especially smaller theatres all across the country [whose] profit margins are so razor thin that it is daunting for a lot of them.”
She speaks about meeting other theatrical unions, and with the epidemiology consultant that AEA has engaged to help guide it through the process of ensuring its members are safe when theatres begin to reopen. Acknowledging there were other plans on the union’s agenda for 2020, she says they have been reprioritised in the face of the current crisis.
“Whatever plans we had in January are still priorities,” says Shindle, “but they have to be put into their proper order. What’s happened so far has been very difficult, but I’ve said to a lot of people recently that I think this next part, the reopening safely part, the creative solutions to what we’re all facing together part, is going to be harder. We’ll see.”
Born: Toledo, Ohio, 1977
Training: Northwestern University, Illinois – BA in Theatre
• Jekyll & Hyde, Broadway and US tour (1999)
• Cabaret, US tour and Broadway (2000/2001)
• Legally Blonde, Broadway (2007)
• Wonderland, Broadway (2011)
• A Christmas Story the Musical, associate producer (2012)
• Fun Home, US tour (2016)
• Miss America (1998)
• Sarah Siddons Award (2017)
Agent: Stewart Talent
For more information go to: actorsequity.org