An Interview with Actor & Tony Award-Winning Producer Ron Simons
By Tracy Poindexter-Canton
He has acted on stage, film and television, and is a University of Washington alum. He has produced independent Sundance films, including “Night Catches Us,” set in the Black Power era, starring Kerry Washington (of Scandal fame); “Mother of George,” depicting the cultural issues facing a Nigerian couple adjusting to a new life in Brooklyn, and “Blue Caprice,” a drama inspired by the 2002 D.C. sniper shootings. He has garnered three Tony Awards for producing the Broadway hits “A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder,” “Porgy and Bess” and “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike;” and the list of projects and accolades keeps going.
I recently spoke with Ron Simons, founder and CEO of SimonSays Entertainment, a film and production company based in New York City, about his artistic journey, his recent visit to the Inland Northwest and his company’s commitment to narrate stories rarely told.
Q: When did you become interested in acting and producing theatre and film?
RON SIMONS: My acting interest goes all the way back to my high school days at the University of Detroit High School. We had a drama club called the Harlequin and I was very active in that club. And then when I went away to college to be a pre-med student, I ended up studying both theatre arts and computer science and then when I graduated, it was between going to Yale School of Drama and going to Silicon Valley, and I chose Silicon Valley.
Then many years later I decided after I had gone to work in the corporate sector for quite some time, and had gotten my M.B.A. in marketing, that I wanted to go back and study theatre. So I left corporate America and started acting on stage in Seattle, and eventually decided to pursue my M.F.A. in acting at the University of Washington’s Professional Actor Training Program.
When I graduated from there, I moved to New York City and became an actor. I became a company member at the Classical Theatre of Harlem, and then after getting an agent I started doing film and television work. Then around 2009, I decided that I should produce work, so I started a production company and made my first film, “Night Catches Us.” I’ve since produced or executive produced four more films, one of which was a documentary [“25 Years to Life”], the others were narrative films.
In the middle of that, I started producing Broadway shows. The first was the Broadway production of “Porgy and Bess.” Then I produced “A Streetcar Named Desire” – an all-black production of that. Then I did “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” and then the most recent one is “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” which is still running on Broadway.
Q: You recently served as the keynote speaker at Eastern Washington University’s Lavender Graduation (A celebration for area LGBTQ students and allies). What was your message to those students?
SIMONS: Basically the theme of the talk was release the fear. Do not let fear of what society might think you are capable of, or should be doing, interfere with what it is that you feel you are destined to do.
Q: Are there any artists in particular who inspire your work?
SIMONS: From an acting point of view, I’ve always said that I would have loved to have the career of Forest Whitaker. His career is one that I follow with interest because he takes non-traditional roles that aren’t always necessarily written as an African-American character, whether that’s “Good Morning, Vietnam” or whether that’s “Prêt-à-Porter.” I just feel that he’s a very diverse actor who is very talented. I thought that he was phenomenal in “The Last King of Scotland,” of course, “The Butler”; “Phone Booth” is one of my favorite movies. I think he’s shown himself to be an actor and an artist with high artistic integrity who consistently delivers quality work.
Q: What has been the hardest role you’ve had to play or the most difficult project you’ve worked on?
SIMONS: I think the most challenging role that I’ve played was probably the lead role of the Duke in [William Shakespeare’s] “Measure for Measure” at the Pearl Theatre in New York City. It was the first time I’d had a lead role in any production and it’s the third largest character in Shakespeare’s canon.
It was a non-trivial part to not only study and learn, but also to portray and I was a replacement. I had to start with very little lead time so it was a very steep learning curve. I think that the first one [film production project, “Night Catches Us”] was very challenging because I didn’t know what I was doing and I had to produce a period piece with a relatively minute budget. We had to cut corners in many ways and because of my lack of experience, I think that I made tons and tons of mistakes, which had I had more experience would’ve made my life a little easier.
Q: Have you ever experienced a creative block and how did you overcome it?
SIMONS: Sure. I also write so I’m currently writing a one-person show and a screenplay and sometimes inspiration just doesn’t come. So when inspiration isn’t knocking at your door, you really can’t force it. You just have to make space for it to come. So that means I need to clear my mind of distractions, give myself time and permission to not stress about the work or try to grind the work out, or try to force creativity. I just need to open the door to creativity and invite it in.
Q: What advice can you give to aspiring African-American artists?
SIMONS: I would encourage them to study the craft and the art form that they hope to achieve success in and try not to be discouraged and give up hope when things don’t work out in the timeframe that you want or in the way that you expect. For example, when I came to New York as an actor, I hoped that one day that I might win awards that would show the rest of the world that, in many ways, I was worthy of being on the boards, but I had to let that go and just follow the art. I didn’t know I was going to be a producer. I didn’t plan on being a producer. The opportunity arose and I made a decision. So, I really see it as the universe validating my decision to follow what I’m supposed to be doing right now; maybe not two years from now or five years from now or 10 years, but I think that for the awards that I’ve been fortunate enough to receive, to me, says that I must be doing the right thing that I’m supposed to be doing right now.
Q: What projects are you currently working on?
SIMONS: I’m developing a one-person show that I am looking to workshop hopefully by the winter of next year. I’m producing a new play called “Turn Me Loose,” that is starring Joe Morton, who plays Olivia Pope’s father on “Scandal.” It’s a one-person show about the life of Dick Gregory and it’s an opening project for the Apollo’s fall season. I’m working on a new screen adaptation of [Anton] Chekhov’s “The Seagull” starring Annette Bening. I’m also working on developing two web series pilots. I’m working on a narrative feature about a disabled young man who has cerebral palsy – a coming-of-age story of a young, gay man. And I am working on the tour of a number of projects, so I’m producing the national tour of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” which is the show that I currently have running on Broadway.
Q: Anything else that you’d like Black Lens readers to know about you and your production company?
SIMONS: Our [SimonSays Entertainment] mission is to ‘Tell Every Story®’– that’s our registered trademark, so we seek to tell stories about underrepresented communities that are largely ignored by Hollywood and studio film machines. If you’re interested in following film, television and plays then check us out on our website, www.simonsaysentertainment.com and like our page on Facebook.