FUN HOME's Kate Shindle Chats Equity, Trump, & Life on the Road
On New Year's Day, 2003, I was swallowing down pancakes at Julia Murney's annual pancake party, when I started a chat with Kate Shindle. I'd met her a few times at events and parties before, but we'd never had a real conversation. I asked what roles she wanted to play and she immediately said "Yonah in CHILDREN OF EDEN, but no one will ever cast me because I'm too tall." So I recommended doing a concert of it. Little did I know that this idea would launch my next 10 or so years in New York producing benefit concerts.
Kate produced the World AIDS Day Concerts of CHILDREN OF EDEN and PIPPIN with me and I've always considered her to be one of the most formidable presences in the Broadway community. Living a few blocks from each other in Washington Heights, we'd frequently find ourselves on the A Train to 181st, chatting about life and the business, and hatching ideas for new benefit concerts.
I frequently asked her when she was going to run for office. Kate was Miss America in 1998, and having seen her speak at rallies following the passage of CA's Prop 8, ending marriage equality for citizens of that state, there was always something electric about what happened when she stepped behind a podium.
Twenty years after singing so hard, her earring flew off during the Miss America pageant, Kate is now the President of Actor's Equity Association - the union representing stage actors and stage managers all over the country. And now, as if that's not enough, she's about to visit the nation's capital starring in the first national tour of Broadway's Tony Winning Best Musical, FUN HOME. Kate took a break from her cross-country drive to chat with BroadwayWorld.
JM: It's one thing to be the president of the actor's union and also working on a show in New York, quite another to be touring at that time. What have been your biggest challenges, and what advantages has this given you?
KS: Touring is always a challenge, frankly. Partly because you have to pick up and leave your life and live this transient life on the road. But generally I've really enjoyed it. I've bought a car so I could drive the tour this time. And I've been staying half the time in company housing, but for longer stays, I've been getting an apartment with a kitchen. That quality of life stuff - not being herded through an airport every few weeks, being able to cook for yourself - that makes touring feel a lot more like home.
In the advantages column, I'd strongly place having the opportunity to go to Equity's various liaison cities like Cleveland, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and now Washington DC to find out what life is like for our members there. I believe it's around half of our Equity membership lives outside of an office city. So that's a lot of people who aren't rehearsing from 10-6 every day as their full time job. They're fitting it around other jobs or nights and weekends and it leads to different requirements, salary needs, health insurance needs, and I'm looking for patterns between the various communities. What is everybody asking for?
JM: And are you finding patterns?
KS: There are some things that emerge pretty quickly. First thing almost every community says is "We're not like anyone else, here's where we are unique" And they are unique but there are also commonalities. I think that one of the most compelling arguments that I keep hearing has to do with local hiring. And frankly it's one of the reasons that I live in New York because I always find it very frustrating to be an actor in a smaller city or community who is only competing for supporting or ensemble roles because the leads all get jobbed-in from New York. And it makes financial sense for theatres to hire locally.
I know that they're trying to sell tickets, but I also see South Florida for example, or Boston, or Chicago or Philadelphia as communities that do use outside actors, but also really celebrate and cultivate their own local communities. They're proud of it and that works. So I've been talking to our staff about how we may be able to deploy our liaison communities to advocate for more local hiring in their own localities, so that's one example.
JM: You recently spoke at the National Press Club about the President's potential slashing of the NEA from the current budget. How has your work in the union informed your opinion on importance of the NEA?
KS: I think that we can all agree the NEA is pretty important. If anything, being president of the union has front-burnered it for me, in a way that it wasn't before. Many of us, when we start working at a particular theatre, don't spend a lot of time understanding where the money is coming from. To that end, Equity has started working with CTI [the Commercial Theatre Institute] to put together producing day long producing workshops for our members so if they want to produce their own projects they can, or if they just want to understand the business better - which I think makes us all more conscientious artists - then that's an option as well.
I hadn't spent much time delving in to how funds are leveraged by theatres to get NEA grants. The NEA may provide a relatively small amount of funding to a theatre, but it provides as well, a sort of incentive so they can turn around and for every dollar that's raised, raise up to 8 matching dollars from public and private money. And that seems to me to be a huge success story.
NEA funding is given out in every single congressional district in the country, so I have a feeling this is a winnable battle and where we'll keep the fight up.
JM: As an artist, a labor leader, and as a woman, are there other parts of the President's agenda which concern you currently?
KS: I think we could make a shorter list of parts of the president's agenda that don't concern me. I think the LGBT issues are of great concern to me, partially because I'm doing FUN HOME and that's on my radar. But as a human being, I'd hoped we grew out of some of that. I am not as concerned about marriage equality as some are because the President has gone on the record and said that's settled, but then you see some of these so-called advocacy groups in places like North Carolina, who feel emboldened by the confirmation of Gorsuch who I'm not sure is as conservative as everyone seems to think he is, but we'll see. Until they start making rulings on some of these issues, I think some of these ultra conservative organizations are going to try to re-litigate religious freedom as it pertains to baking cakes for weddings you don't support, I mean, can't they just let people live?
The NEA, this Russia situation concern me greatly. And some of the other issues Equity has adopted recently are healthcare, voter rights, civil rights, we recently drafted a resolution for responsible gun legislation reform - and that's something we haven't even started talking about yet with this new administration. They're all things I care about, the union cares about and that we need to keep working on - not the least of which by the way is worker's rights and the right of unions to organize - which is a pretty important issue in the "right to work" era.
JM: You did a great deal for several HIV/AIDS organizations in the past, are you still heavily involved in HIV/AIDS Work? If so, do you fear Ryan White funding may be in danger with all the budget cuts?
KS: I hadn't even thought about the Ryan White funding before you and I talked, but yeah, I'm concerned about that! My activist work with HIV/AIDS really shifted once I moved to New York, more to a fundraising capacity - "Can you show up and sing a song for Broadway Cares, or come to a party thrown by one of our donors?" I'm on the Actor's Fund board of trustees as well as the Broadway Cares board, which is a recent development in the past two years, but it's put me more in touch with what AIDS service organizations do, in a way I haven't felt in a while - which is amazing. I've also recently signed on as an ambassador for the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation to advocate for AIDS decriminalization. I had no idea, and I consider myself relatively well-informed on these issues, but I had no idea these arcane laws are still on the books. Who would allow someone to be charged with a felony if they spit on someone without disclosing they had HIV? It's all based on outmoded fear, and totally disproven concerns about how HIV is spread, and so that's why it's a big priority for them right now. Why have laws on the books that just don't make sense?
JM: What's the most surprising or eye-opening thing you've discovered traveling the country now vs. when you did it as Miss America almost 20 years ago?
KS: It's a lot less sheltered this time. I don't mean to say I was whisked around in an ivory carriage, but my time was carefully scheduled. So I didn't have a ton of down time. I was usually only in a city for somewhere between 36-48 hours, and it was like that for an entire year. Now I get to spend a little more time exploring, hanging around. This time I'm driving place to place. You observe a different set of things when you're flying into the biggest airport in the area and taking a trip from there to your destination. You learn something else when you get out of your car at a truck stop in West Virginia. It's such a big country and we have such diverse lives and lifestyles. It's easy, even as an actor to travel from big place to big place, and skip all the in-betweens, so I'm really enjoying that part.
JM: You and I have had a few chats about casting and race. It's of course an important conversation everywhere, but here in DC, with a population that's nearly 50% black, I find it disheartening when I continue to see professional theatres casting almost all white actors. Is there anything Equity can do/is doing to combat this?
KS: Yes, we just recently began a job search for our first diversity director. It's obvious that someone needs to lead this conversation and there are a number of organizations trying, but we're one of the few national organizations that really has a voice everywhere. We've got a very active equal employment opportunity committee, but we've also got an executive director and plenty of counselors for whom diversity is a significant issue.
We had a plenary in May and we identified 3 strategic priorities for the union and on the last day we realized we should add a 4th basically, which is diversity, and diversifying the American theatre. And that should be the lens with which we should see all other issues. Some of these things aren't necessarily in the union's purview, but how do we encourage kids to study the arts when the arts in their schools look totally different than they did when I was growing up? Or how do we make diversity onstage something kids can see so that young children of color are seeing the arts as a viable career path. To the extent that we can have a conversation about not just whether theatres are doing THE COLOR PURPLE or that HAMILTON is coming to town, both which are great shows, but that when a theatre is casting MY FAIR LADY or OKLAHOMA, they're acknowledging that theatre is pretend and that caucasian doesn't have to be the default color.
JM: Now on to Fun Home...In your own words, what is FUN HOME about?
KS: FUN HOME is about so many things at once. To me, FUN HOME is about coming to terms with your past so that you can move into your future. To the audience, the show is about a family that looks perfect on the outside, but has a lot of things internally that they don't or won't or can't talk about. Obviously there are some really compelling LGBT themes about your own sexual orientation and identity and when you're not fully willing or permitted to embrace that identity, things can happen. We know what happened to Alison Bechdel. She's terrifically successful. She's got a very strong identity. But in this show we also see what happened to her father, who couldn't live his truth, for whatever reason. I think there are a lot of people like that. He died when she was a freshman in college and the family thinks it was a suicide, so his sexual orientation is one of the things that gets explored throughout the show. I think it's an amazing piece of theatre and a good show for people who like theatre. There's a lot to like in this show.
JM: And in consideration of your words about the NEA, why is this piece of art particularly so important?
KS: I would be very surprised if the Public Theatre, where the show was developed, didn't receive NEA funding. I don't know if this show recieved one of those grants, but I'm pretty sure they did and that the Public continues to. In terms of developing a show like this that goes on to travel the country at this particular moment, with this particular message of treating people with dignity and respect, is a pretty good case as to why the NEA has some great benefits. Art has a lot of ways of catalyzing conversation, and FUN HOME is certainly an example of a show that does that very well. People ask me fairly often how old do your kids have to be before you take them to FUN HOME? And I tell them our producers and our team have designated the show as PG-13. But it's not because it's explicit, it's just because you're gonna want to go home and answer questions if you bring a kid to our show, and not every person is 100% prepared to do that with a ten-year old. If I had a ten-year old, I'd bring them to the show. There's a ten-year old IN the show. I think that art can start conversations about difficult topics. And do so in a graceful and even humorous and entertaining way. It's a great example of that kind of catalyst.
JM: Anything else you want to tell us about?
KS: I'm excited about DC. I think DC is such a great theatre town. I'm excited about being there with this show, and hopefully finding some advocacy opportunities as well.
Kate Shindle bio:
Broadway: Legally Blonde (Vivienne), Cabaret (Sally Bowles), Wonderland (Hatter), Jekyll & Hyde. Elsewhere: Rapture, Blister, Burn (Catherine), After the Fall (Maggie), Restoration, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Gypsy, Into the Woods, The Last Five Years, First Lady Suite, The Mousetrap. Film/TV: Lucky Stiff, SVU, White Collar, Gossip Girl, The Stepford Wives, Capote. Kate is a longtime activist, former Miss America, author of Being Miss America: Behind the Rhinestone Curtain and President of Actors' Equity Association. twitter.com/AEApresident.
FUN HOME is running at the National Theatre April 18 - May 13. Tickets are $48-98.