Three-time Tony Award-winning producer and actor Ron Simons is a highly influential Broadway producer who with a long list of credits that including the Tony-award winning revival of Porgy and Bess, the all-black Broadway production of A Street Car Named Desire starring Blair Underwood, and Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, which won the Tony award for “Best New Play.”
As the founder/CEO of theater and film production company SimonSays Entertainment, Simon’s mission is to ‘Tell Every Story,’ with a particular focus on narratives that dig deeply into the outsider’s struggle for dignity and acceptance. His critically acclaimed roster of films includes “Night Catches Us” starring Kerry Washington & Anthony Mackie, “Blue Caprice” and “Mother Of George” which all premiered to critical acclaim at the popular Sundance Film Festival..
This multi-talented creative and businessman began his career as a software engineer at Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Microsoft, and holds an M.B.A. from Columbia Business School and an M.F.A. in acting from the University of Washington. Combining his entertainment experience with an extensive business background, Simons has become a highly sought after actor, filmmaker, producer and a leading pillar of his community. He is a recipient of the Heritage Award from Columbia College’s Black Alumni Council, 150 Distinguished Alumni Award from University of Washington, and is a Johnson & Johnson Leadership Award Fellow.
N’Digo recently sat down with Simons, recently nominated for his 4th Tony Award for the August Wilson hit Broadway show “Jitney”, under the category “Best Revival of a Play,” to talk about his career path and he balances it all.
How did you end up transitioning from being a software engineer to acting and producing for stage and screen?
I’d wanted to be an actor since I was in high school, but as the only member of my family to have graduated college with retired grandparents and a mom who had me at a slightly older age, I felt the need to become the family breadwinner. My parents and grandparents generation didn’t plan for retirement as much as many do today. People planned on pensions and social security saving the day. But the dream never died. I referred to my desire to become an actor as “the dream deferred”, as Langston Hughes used to say. I tell folks that when I left corporate America I followed the advice of Nike (way before their commercial aired) to “just do it.”
Was there an “a-ha” moment when you knew for sure that you’d be able to make a living doing this?
You mean an artist can make a living acting? Seriously though I’m like most actors working today. That is to say I audition and I get cast when I get cast. I wouldn’t say that I am making a living as an actor despite having graduated in 2001. Only this year did I get cast as a recurring role in a TV show. I make money through various channels in my life; acting is but one of them.
Can you explain what the role of the producer in a theatre production entails?
Well there are different types of producers for Broadway. There are lead producers, co-producers, and then there are investors. Most frequently I’ve been a co-producer, which is to say that I’m an advisor to the lead producers as well as having either invested or brought money into the production. My first lead producing opportunity will likely come from transferring to the production of “Turn Me Loose” to Broadway; that’s an off-Broadway hit that ran last year at the Westside Theatre about the life of civil rights activist and groundbreaking comedian Dick Gregory. As a lead producer you have to do all things associated with making the production happen including hiring legal, a general manager, a PR film, an Ad agency, finding and contracting with a theater among many other things.
Having being nominated for your 4th Tony for August Wilson’s “Jitney”, can you talk a little about the importance in bringing it to Broadway finally?
August Wilson is one of our nation’s greatest treasures. I think he was the finest playwright of his generation. That this play was the first of his ten play cycle to be written, and the last to appear on Broadway strikes me as ironic; the universe has a funny way of working things out the way they’re supposed to work out. It’s a travesty that it’s taken this long to bring the full cycle of his plays to Broadway but all things happen for a reason though the reason may not always be clear. I’m just lucky to have been a part of making the production happen. To be honest, it was news to me up until a couple of years ago that the play had not been on Broadway as of yet – it has been performed around the country. This production is one of the productions of which I am most proud.
You’ve worked extensively in all film, television and theater. Can you talk a little about the subtle differences as far as performing in each medium?
I think that there are differences for stage versus screen. The chief difference between the two is how big you can be and still maintain believability. The camera catches every subtle eye movement, every twitch of the hand, when you crinkle your brow, or grimace your lips. So it’s very easy to overact for the screen and appear to be a caricature. And then there’s the fact that you are mic’d and every whisper and moan you make can be recorded. On the other hand, if you’re in an 800 seat outdoor Elizabethan Theatre whispering will get you nowhere. The people in the very back row paid their money to see your performance as well so your performance must carry to the back row and possibly compete with the sounds of the city. Also it’s unlikely that the audience will see subtle movements of the face or hands from the back row. You can be bigger than you would need to be on screen. The challenge is to maintain pursuit of your character’s intention regardless of how loud or softly you speak need to speak to fill the space.
Can you briefly tell us a little about your company SimonSays Entertainment?
SimonSays is a film, Broadway and recently television production company that I founded in 2009. Its motto is “Tell Every Story®.” I founded the company specifically to create works telling the stories that are often omitted by Hollywood. Which is to say that we tell the stories of underrepresented communities. That may be people of color, the disabled, LGBTQIA, seniors, women. We are dedicated to producing work that has high artistic integrity and that has commercial viability. And given the current political climate it’s more important than ever that we tell all our stories and celebrate the diversity of our culture, and remind ourselves that it’s through the diverse fabric in our society where we find our greatest strength as community.
Who are three of your biggest influences and/or inspirations in the world of theatre?
Well, August Wilson for his extraordinary storytelling, Paul Roberson because of his commitment to the quality of his art and willingness to use his art to break barriers and achieve justice and my high school acting teacher/moderator Mr. Hall who fanned the earliest embers of my passion for acting.
How do you balance all you do and maintain peace of mind?
It’s a challenge every day. The things that help me most are meditating, sitting quietly in a room listening to meditative music, exercise, and spending time with my dog helps relieve stress.
Best advice to aspiring playwrights?
Read, read, read. Go see as much theater as you possibly can. Know what voices speak most strongly to you and why. Build a network with other aspiring playwrights where you can share your early drafts and comment on one another’s work for not only support but growth. I also recommend finding a mentor or two who has travelled the road ahead of you. If you’re a woman of color connect with another woman playwright of color to understand how her gender and race impacted her journey.
Any favorite affirmations or quotes you swear by?
Anyone who knows me will tell you that if you ask me how I’m doing I’m going to reply “I’m blessed and highly favored.” Which is not only true, but since words have power I believe it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
What’s next for Ron Simons?I’m working to bring three shows to Broadway. One is a musical about the Temptations premiering at Berkeley Rep this fall then Broadway in 2018. I’m also a lead producer on “Turn Me Loose” starring Joe Morton (Papa Pope on “Scandal”) about the life of Dick Gregory and I’m still hoping we might find a Broadway home to transfer “Jitney” into this year. I’m working on my first sci-fi film called “Entangled”, another film about Buddy Bolden and Billy Strayhorn called “Daydream” and an epic film about this extraordinary African-American named Eugene Bullard who led an extraordinary life but ended his days in obscurity working as an elevator operator in an NYC NBC building – an inspiring tale of courage and service. I’m also finally making inroads into TV with two projects we are developing.
For more information on Ron Simons, please visit https://www.simonsaysentertainment.com/.