Actor and producer Ron Simons has made a name for himself in both theater and film. The Quintessential Gentleman recently chatted with the founder and CEO of SimonSays Entertainment to talk about his most recently-produced play, Jitney, his background, upcoming projects and more.
You started your career as a software engineer and you’re now one of the top producers on Broadway. That’s quite the transition. Can you walk us through that?
What I’m doing now is actually kind of in line with what I was doing in high school where I acted in a number of plays. And when I graduated that’s what I wanted to be – an actor.
When I got to college I took acting classes, which I loved, but I also loved computers, so I did a computer science double concentration. After college, I applied to the Yale school of Drama but didn’t finish my application. I needed to earn income, so I applied to a bunch of technology companies including Hewlett Packard (HP), which is where I eventually worked. But a few days after I was offered the position at HP, I received a phone call from the head of admissions at the Yale School of Drama, who encouraged me to complete my application submission. She pretty much hinted that I would be accepted into the program if I completed my submission. I was at a fork in the road at that point, and at the time I needed to financially support others and myself, so I chose to work at HP.
I eventually enrolled at the University of Washington School of drama, professional actors program and I graduated from there in 2001 before moving to New York City and getting an agent. I was a bit disenchanted by the projects I was seeing green lit while working as an actor, and thought “you know what? I can do better than a number of these things out there.” So I started producing, and when I say I knew nothing about producing, I knew NOTHING about producing.
I bought a bunch of books and did some research because the first project that came to me was not a play, but a film which ended up being Night Catches Us with Kerry Washington, Anthony Mackie and Wendell Pierce. After that, I produced my first Broadway show, which was Porgy and Bess, followed by another Broadway show, and then several more movies before another Broadway show. Now here I am, several projects later.
Congratulations on the recent Broadway premiere of August Wilson’s play, Jitney.
Thank you. It’s been a hell of a ride to be perfectly honest. It was spectacular on opening night and it continues to grow, but you know, the first rehearsal I had gone to was really, really good. It had this incandescent quality that happens when all the participants in a production work at their highest capacity and somehow deliver near perfect performances, and that’s what I experienced. Opening night was kind of magical, I have to say.
How did you first become familiar with Mr. Wilson’s work?
I did my first August Wilson play in grad school at the University of Washington, so we’re about to perform August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. The director Valerie Curtis-Newton comes backstage just as we’re about to go on and says “Ok everybody, August is in the house, break a leg,” and then leaves. I was like “Wait what?” August Wilson was in the theatre on the opening night watching all of us students about to perform his play. It worked out really well, because at the after party, the director asked me to give August a ride home, as if I would refuse. It was about a 15-minute drive to his house, which was the slowest I’ve ever driven, and I used that time to explore and ask him questions about his process – how he works, how he writes and where he finds his inspiration. I really wrung every minute out of that drive.
So did he offer any gems that you can share?
He told me his new play at the time, King Hedley II, was supposed to be premiering in the Seattle Repertory Theatre in about three months, and he shared that he hadn’t yet written it. I couldn’t believe it and I said I didn’t understand. He told me vignettes and scenes come to him and that he writes them down. He said his office had stacks and stacks of vignettes and scenes with different characters, some of which I was familiar with, and he said when he gets the deadline for a play’s premiere, that drives him to finish the play. So what he led me to believe is come time to do the play, he goes into his office and he goes through those stacks of papers and constructs these vignettes into a play and that’s how he works. I always thought that writers who were brilliant like him always did an outline, that they knew exactly where the story was going to go, you know, and then they fill in the gaps, but that is not at all how he worked.
Tell us about the process of getting this project produced?
Anthony Chisholm, one of the actors, contacted me about producing it for Broadway, and I agreed that it was a good idea. Some time went by and then [director] Ruben Santiago Hudson had been thinking about doing a production of Jitney. He shared what he was thinking and started a conversation with the Manhattan Theater Club. That really got the ball rolling. My friend, Eric Falkenstein, who was one of my fellow lead producers with me on “Turn Me Loose,” asked me if I was interested in producing. I said, “Yeah, of course I am interested.” I got involved with the production and then it was full steam ahead. From that point on it was pretty smooth sailing, and it has been a blessing. I couldn’t plan it as well myself. That was probably my most drama free production to date.
How did you get involved with your first play, Porgy, and Bess?
A friend of mine asked if I was interested in Broadway. I had not done a Broadway play and I said that I was interested. I was so busy with the film that I didn’t have time to really research it and do the diligence that I usually like to do with projects.
I didn’t get a chance to do research until literally the week before we opened. I joined the team at five o’clock the night before we opened. I didn’t know what I was doing. I had a very quick learning curve because I was able to come in as a co-producer on that project and I learned so much just by being in the room. That is where my education began in earnest for being a Broadway producer.
Can you talk a bit about your production company, SimonSays Entertainment, and any upcoming projects?
SimonSays is a company that I began in 2009 and our mission is to Tell Every Story. There are three things that we look for: The first is a great story and as part of that, more importantly, is a great story involving underrepresented communities. That can be black folk, Latinos, Asian, any people of color, women, the disabled, and the LGBTQ community. It can be the stories that are often overlooked by Hollywood. The second thing is, it has to have high artistic integrity and the third thing is, it must be commercially viable.
We practice what we preach. All employees of the company are people of color. In fact, except for me, they’re all women of color. I don’t know how that happened, but the best-qualified people I could find at the time I was looking all happened to be women.
We do stage and screen projects but we are now developing a couple shows for television, and one may start off as a web series.
We’ll be announcing a new feature film shortly, that I am really excited about, that’s written by actor/writer Joe Morton. We are moving Turn Me Loose to Broadway, pending the theater while we are raising money for that. It’s a two-hander but mostly features Joe and is about the life comedian and civil rights activist, Dick Gregory.
We’d love to transfer Jitney to another Broadway theater but unfortunately none is currently available so we are looking into other options
Aside from producing, there are other things I invest in. I don’t produce when I work with producer Scott Rudin’s team, I just invest. I invested in The Front Page, the upcoming Hello Dolly!, Fish in the Dark, and The Glass Menagerie with Sally Fields to name a few. Those are projects that I do on my own because while they’re great stories, they don’t fit under my company’s mission or under my brand. They are good stories and I suspect that they are going to be recouping on a financial level.
What are your thoughts on the representation of people of color in entertainment, specifically film, television and theater. In what ways can strides continue to be made?
There aren’t enough! Especially producers. I host panels for aspiring producers of color for Broadway and film to give potential producers a peek into the world of producing in the hopes that others will take up the torch.
With all of these projects you’re working on, what do you do in your downtime? Any hobbies or personal pursuits?
Though I haven’t read a novel in five years, I love to read. The bulk of my reading these days has been scripts and screenplays. I’m working on changing that. Other loves include travel, meditation, hanging out with my dog.
What is your definition of the Quintessential Gentleman?
A man who understands that style is a frame of mind. Relationships are about giving and that a gentleman carries respect with him wherever he goes. Essentially everything NOT found in some of our political leaders.
August Wilson’s Jitney is currently playing at The Manhattan Theater through March 12. Get your tickets here.