Kate Shindle and Greg Reiner

President of Actors' Equity and NEA Director of Theater & Musical Theater
Headshots of a woman and a man side by side.

Kate Shindle, photo courtesy of Actors' Equity. Greg Reiner, photo by Da Ping Luo.

Music Credit:  “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T, from the cd  Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive

Jo Reed: From the National Endowment for the Arts, this is Art Works. I’m Josephine Reed

Today, a discussion about the current challenges, artistic innovations, and the evolving landscape of theater, with two guests who have insights into the sector nationwide.  Kate Shindle, President of Actors' Equity since 2015, brings knowledgeable observations from the frontlines of actor and stage manager advocacy. She’s joined by my colleague Greg Reiner, the Director of Theater and Musical Theater here at the NEA, who shares his expertise on national funding and grant-making. Together, they offer a comprehensive view of how the theater sector is adapting to post-pandemic realities, addressing financial pressures, and audience engagement...while also discussing the undeniable cultural and social value of live performance and the strategies being employed by theaters to not only survive but thrive in this new era.

And since you can’t know the actors without a playbill, we’re going to begin with a little bit of background about both organizations—beginning with Kate Shindle giving a brief history of Actors’ Equity.

Kate Shindle: Equity was founded in 1913, and at the time, there were performances all over the country, as well as in New York. There were tours, there were people acting in shows. But often, there were fewer provisions and protections than folks wanted. For example, one of the founding principles of the union is that if you go on tour, and the tour closes, the producer will get you home.  That we be paid for rehearsals and not just for performances, that actors don't need to provide their own costumes, for example. A couple decades later, Equity merged with Chorus Equity. Just about 102 years ago, I believe, we had our first stage managers on contract. So, the full history of the union would probably take the entire hour. But those are the most important highlights, I think. 

Jo Reed: What's the union's mission today? 

Kate Shindle: Equity exists to negotiate wages, benefits, working conditions, safety, primarily for actors and stage managers working in live theater across the country. We cover Broadway shows, we cover big national tours, we also cover small, not-for-profit storefront theaters in markets of all sizes around the country. We have about 2000 employers. There's a very broad range of types of work that they do in terms of the size of the show, the size of the space, the size of the audience, how many Equity contracts they have for a particular production. But our primary mission has always been to look out for actors and stage managers. More recently, we've been organizing other kinds of work that many of our existing members already do, like the lecturers at Griffith Conservatory in Los Angeles. Many of them were Equity members before they unionized. It's a public sector contract, but it is live performance, and it's an essential live performance for the people who visit the observatory. Instead of having a prerecorded message or a speech that they listen to, these lecturers go and do it in person. So, it's pretty exciting. It's an exciting time to be a labor leader in this country and presumably around the world, and we're just trying to look out for live performers who need us and come to us asking for that. 

Jo Reed: Greg, walk us through the NEA grants for theater. How much funding is generally given to theater from the NEA annually? 

Greg Reiner: Sure. This year, I'll start by saying we are at a record high. We have seven million dollars this year to give out to theaters around the country. It had been at about six million for the last several years, but with our record high budget overall this year, we had a record amount of money to give away to theaters. It was, of course, very much needed at this time, where we're really trying to invest in sustainability, in the future of the theater field, which includes, very importantly, compensation to professional artists, such as actors. 

Jo Reed: Walk me through the process. What's the top funding that's given to any theater, any one production company annually? What are the restrictions for receiving an NEA grant? 

Greg Reiner: Our grants range from ten thousand dollars to one hundred thousand dollars. So, one hundred thousand dollars is the top. They're matching grants, so they do have to be matched with non-federal funds. The process is a peer review process where we put together artists and theater makers and one lay person per panel from all over the country. So I'm always looking for panelists from every single state in the union and in our territories to serve on these panels. They're peer review. They read about 50 applications each and then rank and score them, and we talk about them in a panel meeting. 

Jo Reed: I'm going to throw this to you first, Greg, and then you, Kate, how would you describe the state of the performing arts pre-pandemic, focusing on theater, obviously? 

Greg Reiner: I would say artistically, before the pandemic and after the pandemic, it's thriving. There's incredible artistry happening around the country that's very inspiring and worth supporting and seeing. Structurally, there were some challenges prior to the pandemic that were really exacerbated by the pandemic. People talk all the time about the subscription model and how that had been in decline. There's just the competition. There's so much competition for people's time and their leisure, and so that's a challenge. Funding has always been a challenge for at least the last couple of decades. I was talking to a managing director of a theater recently, and she said especially now, between what they can charge for tickets, between what they can get in philanthropy and public support, there's about an average of 20 to 30% of a budget gap that they have to figure out how to fill. That’s where their focus is, on figuring out how to fill that 20 to 30% on average. All these trends were just exacerbated by the pandemic, and then we just lost a couple of years of audience building. So, every year you lose some audience, but you generally replace them. But with the two years of closures, they weren't replacing the people that they would’ve naturally lost anyway. So we're already behind 10% or so on those audiences and donors. So there's a lot of catch up with that, as well as just keeping building the new audiences that you would normally have been doing in a regular season. 

Jo Reed: Kate, did this assessment echo what you’ve seen 

Kate Shindle: In 2019, we had record employment in terms of work weeks. We went from record employment to 100% unemployment, and we stayed there for much longer, I think it's safe to say, than anyone expected. I think Greg's right. Fortunately, we're an industry that is lousy with creative problem solvers, and I think that there are issues to be solved. I am certainly not an expert on how the subscription model either evolves or is replaced by something more exciting, but I know that there are smart people all over the country thinking about how to do that. I've never worried about whether people would want to sit together in the dark and collectively experience storytelling, but the business model obviously has its challenges. As Greg points out, I think it's absolutely right, there's a lot of competition, especially when you have everybody spending a year and a half watching everything on their devices. 

Jo Reed: I'm going to go to you in turn again, and I'll start with you, Kate. Would you describe Equity's work during the pandemic? Because this really was an unprecedented crisis for your union membership. 

Kate Shindle: Oh, <laughs> yeah. It was an unprecedented crisis, and it was a moment at which I think we all realized that all hands-on deck was maybe half of what we needed. When the shutdown originally happened, we started talking to our employers about how they were going to survive, how they would have any tools to keep their subscribers engaged. For the first time, I believe ever, we said “Okay, you need to keep your subscribers engaged,” and everybody in our membership is out of work. It's not just their theater jobs got canceled, all the side hustles got <laughs> canceled, too. All the conventions and the going and singing on a cruise ship, and doing concerts and master classes, and waiting tables and tending bar, everything went away. So we allowed our employers for the first time to make deals with us where they could use their archival recordings that they had preserved using the clauses in their contracts that allow that and make them available to their subscribers, just to have some content. In exchange for that, they'd send a little payment to the actors and stage managers involved in those projects and a health contribution. Because that was the other thing, our healthcare system at Equity is workweek based. So, unless there was an employer who was going to keep people on payroll, and a handful of employers did, everybody was going to lose their health insurance. So then, in addition to dealing with all the shutdown specifics, we shifted pretty hard to advocacy, and that was everything from COBRA subsidies to expanded unemployment protections, because we knew that not all of our members were working on an Equity contract at that time, but that all of their 1099 work that supplements their theatrical living had probably gone away as well. So fortunately, we had some success in partnership with a lot of other organizations, unions, and employers in extending unemployment protections to people who were being paid on 1099. Arts funding was a huge and constant pursuit. Because obviously, the theaters where we work were going to experience just a drastic loss of revenue, and they would need startup money in order not only to get themselves operational, but also to start employing our members again. Those are probably the big ones on the advocacy front, and it felt like not that long before theaters wanted to try reopening. So then we had to <laughs> put into place safety provisions and testing and masking, and it's easy to forget that when COVID started, we knew so little about it, whether COVID could be spread by someone passing a prop to someone else, whether masks were necessary. It was astonishing, even in hindsight, how much we all had to adjust, not just at the unions, but everybody in our industry. If there was an industry that was tailor-made to be shut down by a highly contagious pandemic, it's live performance, where you not only have close contact and nothing like social distancing when we're doing it right, but then you're adding in 1500 people to the building's ventilation system when it's time to do the show. 

Jo Reed: Greg, can you talk about how the NEA adapted its granting during the pandemic to support theaters? 

Greg Reiner: Yeah, we were very fortunate to have been given by Congress a much different kind of latitude than we normally have. So first, there was the extraordinary funds that we had above and beyond what we normally give out through the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan. The latter of those, with American Rescue Plan, was 75 million dollars added to our budget to give out in emergency grants, which was, of course, highly competitive. But there were a lot of other smaller things that aren't as flashy as that that made a big difference that we were able to do, such as converting project grants for shows that were canceled into general operating support, just so they could keep open and still use that money. Extending grant periods longer than we would normally be able to do. So we had kind of an unprecedented flexibility, and we did everything we could to make sure that theaters within what we are able to do were able to use the funds that they've been awarded by us. We immediately had an FAQ out on our website. We did a lot of webinars and seminars just to get the word out about this flexibility and the things we were able to do. Aside from us internally, in another part of the government was the Shuttered Venues Operators Grant, which in our conversations with the field, is the reason maybe 90% of these theaters are still in existence, because of that unprecedented level of support that came in funding for these venues that were closed. It's one of those things, both that and the American Rescue Plan funds that nobody ever dreamed was possible. I always say the line from “Evita”, the musical, “Evita”, “Politics is the art of the possible,” and it was vital. We just would not have anything left in the theater in the way it is now if we hadn't had those two kinds of extraordinary supports that we were able to do. 

Jo Reed: Okay, here's another question for you both, and I'll throw it to you first, Greg, how would you describe the current state of theater?  What is its financial stability?  What are you seeing in the way of artistic innovation?

Greg Reiner: Yeah, on that financial side, it's tenuous and there's no way to sugarcoat it. I will say to your last question, artistic innovation is still very exciting. The level of playwriting, because I get to read script samples when they're submitted to us for project support, is extraordinary. The kinds of writers being produced, directors working. Also, people are taking wonderful artistic risks in many ways, and putting people and stories on stage that haven't always traditionally been there. So that's really exciting. You have theaters like the Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut, where they’ve left their historic space and they're doing theater in and around the community of New Haven in a way that's engaging the community, that they never had done before. So there's a lot of real exciting artistic innovation happening. But again, on that financial cash flow side, I think it behooves all of us to be really clear about the challenges. When I speak to managing directors around the country, they talk about their projections. They've got sometimes three months, six months where they know they will run out of cash if they don't have some kind of extraordinary intervention, or they get the good luck to have a hit play where people are coming and they can charge more for tickets, frankly, or philanthropy steps in. So, even the large institutions, which I won't name, have confided to me that they're running on cash. They can't get credit from their banks anymore because they're not considered a credit risk. So, they're running sometimes 32-million-dollar organizations on weekly cash, which you would never be able to run a for-profit, or have to run a for-profit business, like that. But we expect the nonprofits to do that, and it's really a challenge that I wish they weren't in, and we're constantly exploring ways that we can, in our corner of the world, help alleviate that. 

Jo Reed: Kate, what have you seen? 

Kate Shindle: Greg pointed this out earlier, the challenges that existed pre-pandemic were exacerbated by COVID and certainly the long period of shutdown. I agree that the work that's being done, not just because people had a lot of time to sit and be creative <laughs> quietly by themselves, but also because there's a focus, a definite focus toward giving a platform to different kinds of stories, the work that's being done is exciting. Last season on Broadway was just about the most exciting season that I can remember, and I've been in New York for a long time. I know that that's going on across the country. I try to remember that we've seen contractions before. We've never seen anything like COVID. But after 2008, for example, there were suddenly a lot of four person plays with movie stars running for 13 weeks. So, when the economy contracts, when people have less disposable income, theaters and theater makers have a way of adjusting programming and things like that. So in some respects, we've seen a version of this before. But one of the things that I think is so important and that people haven't talked about enough, and we've been pretty consistent about this, is how vital theaters are to the local economies of communities of all sizes all across the country. I don't just mean Equity theaters, although, of course, I think every actor, stage manager should be protected by a union contract. That's the ideal. But when I was on tour in 2016, 2017, it was just witnessing case study after case study in real time. Look at Durham, for example, and what DPAC (Durham Performing Arts Center) has meant to that area. You look at the Smith Center in old Las Vegas. I mean, we could all name areas where perhaps the downtown was in need of some revitalization, and the answer is a performing arts presence. Because I'm sure you are both well aware, but maybe <laughs> one or two people listening to this might not know that Americans for the Arts tracks this pretty closely. Every time someone sees a nonprofit live art show, they spend another $38 or so in economic activity beyond the cost of the ticket. They're paying for dinner. They're paying for drinks after the show. They're paying for parking. They're paying for childcare. So I think there is a tendency, or has been a longstanding tendency in our country, to view the arts as a luxury and the restaurants and hotels as a necessity. The reality is that there are easy to find examples close to where you live, no matter where you are standing when you listen to this, of all of those things being part of an ecosystem of which the arts are an essential part. Now, obviously, the ways in which people work, the common practice of going to the office has shifted as well. So, I imagine that those downtown areas, large and small, will continue to evolve. But I don't think that historically we've talked enough about how dependent small businesses are on that performing arts space drawing in people. We've got to continue to make that case, and that it is worthy of investing in that hub, not just for the jobs on stage, backstage, front of house, but for the entire area around the theater. 

Jo Reed: You can't see it, but my head is vigorously nodding <laughter>. Go ahead, Greg. 

Greg Reiner: I was going to pick up on what Kate was saying. In these communities, how important of a cornerstone these theaters are to the communities, to the life of those streets that they're on, and the neighborhoods. Again, to just point out, we're talking about when people think of theater, they think often Broadway and commercial theater. If you look at the grosses, the commercial theater’s actually doing close to where they were pre-pandemic. Correct me if I'm wrong, Kate. But when I look at the grosses, that's what I see, in a way that the nonprofit theater is still struggling. I think part of that is the nonprofits are trying to do more than just provide entertainment value to their communities. Anchor regional theaters are trying to do something for their community that is not just a play on a stage, not just a fun night out, although it will be a fun night out. But they are trying to have education programs. They're deeply invested in their local communities. Many theaters use their spaces for COVID vaccination sites, as one example. They're really partnering with their local communities and in a way that is super important to support, and just for us all to be aware of, the role they play in their neighborhoods. 

Jo Reed: Indeed. In fact, regional theaters, LORT, local and regional theaters, have more Equity contracts than Broadway and commercial tours combined. Isn't that true, Kate? 

Kate Shindle: I think so, yeah. I mean, it’s a moving target, because a lot depends on the programming. But we often talk about LORT as probably our biggest employer. 

Jo Reed: How is the NEA working to address this in a post-pandemic world? What have you seen, Greg, in terms of grant applications or grants that you give? How are you trying to confront these post-pandemic problems? 

Greg Reiner: Well, we've seen record numbers of grant applications. Our numbers are higher than we've ever had. I've had to add extra panels this year. So the need out there remains quite strong. Most of these applications that we receive proposals for are worthy of some level of funding. So we're doing the best we can to stretch that in a way that's meaningful to the grantees. Something I'm excited about that we're working on to address the larger systemic challenges is we're partnering with the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, which was recently reconstituted, to do both a series of listening sessions. So that's starting next month, actually, just over Zoom with different sectors of the theater. So that will be the leaders of the large theaters we talked about, but also leaders of small companies, of theaters for young audiences, arts journalists, union leaders. So, just to get a sense from all parts of the sector, of the ecosystem, what the challenges are. That's going to lead into a convening that we're, again, working with the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities on sometime in August, where we're going to get leaders in the room together and really try to come up with some solutions and recommendations for policy both for the President's Committee that reports up to the White House. We're also talking to our fellow funders and other parts of the government about how we can best bring all of our collective forces together to address this challenge. 

Jo Reed: Kate, I'm wondering, is there a shifting landscape for the way Equity is operating, not that its overall mission is changing, but is it rethinking strategies to move forward 

Kate Shindle: When I think about our employers, it's interesting, because the not-for-profit employers, especially the large institutional ones, have historically just been more stable. When we work for a commercial producer who's putting up a Broadway show, it's more like a startup. So they're just different pressures. They're different considerations. I think that the macro answer here is that the NEA does an extraordinary job with the funding that is allocated. I recently heard, and again, something that you both probably know, that Canada funds the arts at about $12 per capita. Here in the US, we are struggling year after year to make incremental progress toward $1 per capita. It feels like we should at least be able to get to $1 per capita. The value of the NEA funding is not just the actual amount of the grant or the actual amount of the matching grant, it's that having the NEA stamp of authenticity on a theater's work allows them to go out and fundraise because they've been given that great honor. It would be tremendously helpful to these arts leaders who, again, are just contributing so much to the economy to have more money available for the NEA to grant. I'm sorry to sort of skip right to the end, but that seems like it would be helpful to everyone. Yet, I know it's harder than it sounds. 

Greg Reiner: I would just say on top of that, the economic argument, which is super important, there's also just the health and wellness argument and what we bring to communities. I'm thinking about at the recent NEA Arts Summit, what the Surgeon General was talking about with the loneliness epidemic in America right now. What better way to address that than getting people in a room to experience a piece of live art together in a communal way that only the theater, I think, can, in such a powerful way. 

Kate Shindle: Absolutely. Sometimes I get so focused on the economic argument that I have to remind myself that, yes, the arts do have cultural value <laughter> and human value as well. 

Greg Reiner: It's a “Yes, and.” 

Kate Shindle: It is a “Yes, and.” 

Jo Reed: <laughter> Well, there's been a wave of leadership transitions in the theater community, and I wonder how this has altered approaches and conversations about where theater is and where it's going? I'll throw that to you, Kate, and then you, Greg. 

Kate Shindle: There has been, and I think that the leadership turnover is attributable to a couple big factors. One of them is the realization during COVID, after George Floyd was killed and all that ensued, that it was time for some people who look like me to make space. So, I think that's been a very real consideration. I think that there have been folks that would’ve probably retired or transitioned out who stepped aside earlier so that people our industry has not historically given as much opportunity to could have a chance and could be set up for success. I also believe, and just sort of looking around at the leadership of the arts unions, COVID was really, really hard. I ran for re-election, I submitted my petition in March of 2020. Our election was in May. So, I'm now coming to the end of the term that started as the world was shutting down. When I look around at the national officers and also the top staff at the other arts unions, there has been a ton of turnover. I think it really just took a toll. We were shut down for such a long time and we're very careful in reopening, frankly, and a lot slower than a lot of folks wanted to reopen. Us included, frankly. But we had a general sense that when we reopened, we needed it to be better than the industry that closed down. There would be less value, praise, romanticizing of people working through illness because of what we had all been through. But also, and I've said this elsewhere, we had to take into account that we have a lot of people with young children who couldn't be vaccinated for a long time who work in our industry. We have a lot of seniors who work in our industry, and importantly, a disproportionate number of folks who are permanently immunocompromised because of the AIDS epidemic. Until we could reopen an industry that was reasonably safe for all of the above, it felt like we weren't there yet. And then we got there. But it's been very intense for everyone, and that's why I think there's been so much turnover, including me, coming up. I'm not running for re-election this year and there will be a new leader of Equity.

Jo Reed: Greg, you travel all across the country to theaters around the country. What have you seen in terms of the leadership transition and the new conversations, perhaps because of that? 

Greg Reiner: The leadership transition in theater is something we on my team spent a lot of time thinking about, and both sides of it. We have a generation of leaders who have been extraordinary, who’ve gotten theater through so many times, and there's a wealth of institutional knowledge that is super important to preserve and pass on. One of the listening sessions I mentioned is going to be just recently retired leaders of theaters, to get their perspective on what happened and what can be done better, what mistakes they might've made, what are they most proud of. But on the other side of that are this new generation of leaders who are also extraordinary leaders, and in many cases, they are historic firsts for their organizations. The first African American managing artistic director, first woman of color leading an organization, and so on. It's super, super important to support them as they start out in a very challenging time. They've been coming into power--many of them started right before the pandemic even, and never got a chance to produce their first seasons. Now they're dealing with a once in a lifetime, once in a generation challenge that they're having to face as new leaders. So we're really looking at how do we support this generation of leaders? Because they deserve a chance to succeed. They haven't been given the kind of safety net that might've existed in previous generations just because of when they started. We want to see, especially those folks who are historic firsts at their organizations, they deserve every opportunity to succeed and serve their community in the way that the leaders before them have.

Jo Reed: Well, one issue that is in the discussion is streaming live performance. I really would like you both to address its impact on theater. There’s a great deal of apprehension around it but can streaming used to enhance the allure of live theater? And if so, how is fair compensation for both creators and performers ensured? I'll throw that to you, Kate, and then you, Greg. 

Kate Shindle: Even prior to COVID, I was curious about-- and just speaking about Broadway for a moment, about why more Broadway producers weren't looking toward those options. Because we have relatively long-standing provisions in our production contract that allow that kind of capture and distribution with appropriate compensation. What I've always heard is that some folks may be afraid that if people can access something on their device or on their television, they don't want to buy a ticket to see it in person. In my previous life, <laughs> something I don't usually talk about when I'm doing union stuff, I was Miss America. I traveled all over the country as an activist and working on HIV-AIDS issues, and years later, I wrote a book about it. One of the things that I wrote about was the moment in 1954, I believe, when that exact conversation was happening around Convention Hall on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City. There was going to be a broadcast, and then the organizers got very nervous about whether it would just wreck the gate receipts, and the potential to fill the place with a live audience. So they pulled out at the last minute. The following year, they went through with it, and for decades, “Miss America” was one of the top shows on television, and also had people there live in person. I think that it seems to be an argument <laughs> as old as television, and has been proven over and over again, that when people can access something, when they can get a taste of it in a more convenient way, they actually want to have a live experience more. Now, that's easy for me to say, because I'm not the one putting up the money for these shows. I'm sure that folks have good reasons for being kind of reticent. But when we had this last year, the Tony Awards during the writers' strike, we were obviously going to support the writers, because that's what unions do. We certainly didn't want to do anything that would compromise their ability to get the deal that they needed. But it's not the first time that a writers’ strike has coincided with the Tony Awards, and it probably won't be the last, realistically. Afterward, I said to a couple folks at the Broadway League “Listen, the impact of that broadcast being canceled could have been devastating,” probably would’ve been devastating. We're talking about shows that are going to go out on tour, that don't go out on tour, because that telecast doesn't happen. Thousands and thousands of work weeks, talking about shows that are teetering on the brink of closure, that get their lives extended on Broadway by a great performance on the Tonys. How is it possible that so much of the survival of our industry, including the licensing of these shows in the future to regional <laughs> theaters all over the country and schools, how is it possible that so much depends on one TV show that a few million people watch once a year? So it's a very long way of saying that I think that there is some innovation starting to happen around distribution. While I am certainly not going to be an architect of it, I think it's healthy. I think it's got to be a part of the industry going forward. 

Jo Reed: It was certainly a blessing during the pandemic, without question. Greg? 

Greg Reiner: Kate, I would totally agree with you. I've had the same question so long, why don't Broadway shows in particular do the same thing that we see in London? The NT Live has been so successful, and I think about the accessibility. Not everyone can get to a Broadway show to New York, or even when they come to their towns, if you're not in a big city that's going to have a tour stop. I would hope that even going back to that “Legally Blonde” <laughs> broadcast years ago, which I just happened to be re-watching with my partner <laughs> the other night, but it's really fantastic, to the “Hamilton” broadcast. I think we've clearly proven that that's not going to cannibalize. If anything, it increases the appetite. Even look at the “Chicago” movie that came out, and how successful that Broadway production continues to be. So I don't think there's any argument that it cannibalizes, I think it only increases access, and it's so important to us at the NEA. Our chair often talks about our mission is to help all Americans lead artful lives. So if you don't have access, and there may be just mobility issues too, or just isolation. I think of the Perseverance Theatre in Alaska that was able to use streaming to reach so many of those communities in rural Alaska, you can only get to by plane or a boat. So they can't just fly in even to Juneau to see a show. So their ability to do streaming was incredibly powerful for those isolated communities, including many tribal communities that all of a sudden had access to this art form they would not have had otherwise. So I think it's super important to be forward thinking about this. I think it's the future. The other thing is people often ask me “Why don't we have a national theater in the United States like they have in London or other places?” My answer’s always “Well, we're so spread out, where would you put it?” Already you're excluding somebody by putting it in D.C. or New York. But our national theater could be some version of streaming performances that go into live movie theaters or performance halls, where everyone can come together and appreciate art, and maybe it's a different regional theater every month that's presenting this show. Because our national theater is a collective national theater of all these incredible regional theaters that are doing work in and about their communities. 

Jo Reed: I think that is such an optimistic vision to have, and I'm on board with it, Greg. So, thank you.  Kate, you are near the end, as you say, of your tenure as Equity President, and I'm wondering what, in the time you have been, which has been, as we say, a very challenging time, what <laughs> are you most proud of accomplishing? 

Kate Shindle: I've been thinking about that a lot, which might not surprise you, <laughs> because when you get to the end, you tend to survey the tenure. When I was first elected, if you wanted to sign up for an Equity chorus call in New York City, you had to come to Midtown and write your name on a wall. We've had our signups for those things online for such a long time now, because it's been nine years, that it's easy to forget about some of those things that actually were meaningful for people, not just in New York, but in nearby markets. Because it just changed the accessibility quite a bit.   One of the things that I am most proud of is the increased focus on organizing, sort of taking it right to the members, taking it right to the workers. But also, the Open Access initiative, which we've since made it permanent, was to simply create a way for people to join who had worked professionally as actors or stage managers, who had been paid to do it somewhere. Because prior to that, one of the only ways to join, the way in which most people joined, was to be hired on an Equity contract. In an odd way that I don't think anybody masterminded this, nobody planned it out, but we were giving our employers the ability to determine who joined our union, rather than saying “If you were a worker and you'd like to join our union, you don't have to be hired on an Equity contract first.” Joining a union is a very personal decision, and there are a whole lot of things that go into it; where you live, your type, your age, the kind of work you do, how much opportunity there is, and this didn't change any of that. It just meant that you didn't have to get over that hurdle of being hired on an Equity contract in order to be a union member, and that just feels massive. 

Jo Reed: Tell me what's next for you. What are you going to do? 

Kate Shindle: What I want to do more than anything else, and thank you for asking, is perform. I was really on a roll prior to COVID, and then as I said, all hands on deck was half of what we needed. What I want most is to walk into rehearsal and get new pages. Being an actor is all I ever wanted to do. Being an activist and a labor leader has been really cool, but I just want to get back to working on scenes and learning new music. It's not that there's been none of that, but since COVID, there's been very little, and I'm excited. 

Jo Reed: Greg, as director of the theater division at the NEA, what are you looking forward to for the rest of this year? 

Greg Reiner: That was not me. <laughter> I'm looking forward to all of the great work that we're going to get to see on stages around the country this year. Personally, my team is going to attend the Consortium of Asian American Theaters and Artists conference coming up in the spring. I'm really excited to hear how that goes. I am going. We have this convening coming up in August that I'm really excited to hear about, and continuing to travel the country. Like I said, I was just in Oklahoma City for the National Alliance for Musical Theatre, which was an incredible convening. As a side note, Kate, when I mentioned to Michael Baron, who's the artistic director of the Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma, that I was going to be talking to you, he said “Kate has always had a special place in my heart because she was the first--” since you mentioned it, I'll say it, “The first Miss America to make HIV-AIDS her platform.” That was so powerful at that time, because people weren't talking about it in the way that they are now. So, thank you for that. 

Kate Shindle: Thank you for telling me that. That's really meaningful. 

Greg Reiner: Oh, good. Thank you. So yes, I'm just looking forward to seeing the incredible artistry happening around our country and getting to support it. 

Jo Reed: With that, we'll leave it. Greg, thank you so much, and Kate, thank you so much. Thank you both for all the work you've done and continue to do. I deeply appreciate it. 

Kate Shindle: Thank you. 

Greg Reiner: Thanks, Jo. 

Jo Reed: That was the president of Actors’ Equity Kate Shindle and the director of Theater and Musical Theater at the National Endowment for the Arts, Greg Reiner. Many thanks to Ben Kessler at the NEA and Brandon Lorenz at Actors’ Equity for their help in putting this podcast together.

You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Follow us wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating on Apple. It helps other people who love the arts to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

President of Actors' Equity Kate Shindle and the Director of Theater & Musical Theater Greg Reiner discuss the current challenges, strategic innovations, and the evolving landscape of American theater. Shindle provides an overview of the history and evolving mission of Actors' Equity in safeguarding actors and stage managers, while Reiner discusses the NEA's strategic funding to support theaters nationwide, highlighting the critical need for sustainability in the sector. Both emphasize the creative resilience and artistic innovation within the theater community while exploring the significant financial and structural challenges faced by the industry during and post-COVID-19. They share optimism over the leadership transitions within the theater community, which focuses on the representation of diverse voices in leadership roles but also see the need to support these leaders who have stepped up in a fraught time. We also discuss the implications of digital streaming for live theater, considering its potential to enhance accessibility and audience engagement. And Shindle, who is stepping down from Equity leadership, reflects on her tenure while both share their aspirations for the future of theater in America.

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