Kate Shindle on Why She’s Stepping Down as Actors’ Equity President

Kate Shindle, who has served as president of Actors’ Equity Association for nine years, is stepping down after a tenure dominated by the coronavirus pandemic that for a time idled all of the labor union’s members.

Shindle, 47, said she expected to remain active in the labor movement, but that she was eager to resume working as an actor. The Equity presidency, leading a union that represents more than 51,000 theater actors and stage managers nationwide, is an unpaid, volunteer position. Because of the time required to manage the crises facing the union’s members, Shindle has worked so little as an actor that she hasn’t even qualified for her own union’s health insurance coverage.

Her departure comes amid significant turnover in the theater industry. Charlotte St. Martin recently left her position as president of the Broadway League, which is the trade association most often on the opposite side of the bargaining table with Equity, and the heads of many nonprofit theaters are also leaving their positions.

“It feels like it’s time,” Shindle said. “We’ve accomplished a lot. And I think turnover is good for organizations. I’ve never been one who wanted to stay until the members threw me out.”

Shindle, a former Miss America, will wrap up her third and final term on May 23. These are edited excerpts from an interview.

Equity imposed very strict rules during the pandemic that had the effect of limiting performance around the country. In hindsight, how do you think about Equity’s role in the state of theater over those years?

At the forefront of my mind, for most of those inflection points, were a couple of things. First, how little we knew when Covid began that we take for granted now — how it was transmitted, for example. Second, in many respects, if you had designed an industry to be completely leveled for a period of time by a highly contagious pandemic, I can’t imagine designing one better suited to it than live performance.

There came a point when everyone wanted to get back to work — me included, by the way — but we really had to grapple with the fact that we might be able to reopen an industry that was pretty safe for 22-year-old dancers who would be likely to survive Covid if they contracted it, but was that the industry we wanted to reopen, that was only safe for some of our members? What about seniors? What about those in our industry that are disproportionately and permanently immunocompromised because of the AIDS epidemic? We had to reopen an industry where we had enough safeguards in place that people could do their jobs without risking their lives.

Labor organizing and activism feels like it’s on an upswing. How has that affected Equity?

The arts industry doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The things that workers are waking up to around the world permeate our industry as well. The murder of George Floyd and the resurgence of Black Lives Matter really mobilized the majority of our membership. How do we reopen an industry that puts discrimination, harassment, racism, bullying and all those types of associated behaviors on an even footing with other reasons that we would tell an employer that there will be no Equity members at their show tonight unless they remedy that?

How do you assess the state of the industry?

We’re still in recovery mode. I was so excited at the end of last season, which for my money was just about the best Broadway season I can remember. It feels like a time where we as an industry are trying to tell stories that haven’t traditionally gotten the platform. But there might need to be some continued evolution on things like marketing.

Something that doesn’t get talked about a lot, but is never far from my mind: I don’t think we can overlook that there is a lot of politically motivated fear-mongering about cities, especially cities with Democratic mayors, and perhaps part of the reason that some of the audience has not come back as fully as we hope is because we have got to push back on that.

As a result of the pandemic, the idea of “the show must go on” has changed. We see more performers calling out sick. How do you think about that?

I think it’s really important. I’ve sat across the table from employers who point out that people are taking mental health days, or calling out, at a higher rate than they used to, and in my opinion it’s now probably closer to what the rest of the world accepts as reasonable. When I first started, we were still talking about those stories of a performer running offstage, throwing up into a bucket, and coming back on again and continuing their show. I don’t think that’s something to celebrate any more.

What are the challenges facing your successor?

Wages are going to continue to be a topline issue. “Will there be a strike” will be asked more often than not in the next few years, because people are fired up. There’s a battle on many fronts, but at the core of it is that it is a moral imperative for people who decide that they want to produce theater to build their structures around living wages for the artists that work for them.

One of the final things you had to deal with was the Israel-Hamas war. Equity’s National Council opted not to issue a statement?

We were lobbied for both a statement in support of Israel, and also a statement in support of cease-fire. I actually authored a draft for our council to consider if they voted to issue a statement, but we never got to that — the question of “do we make a statement” didn’t pass.

We try to take positions that are appropriate for us, that don’t make us out to be the foreign policy experts that most of us aren’t. I know that members more and more want to be part of unions that reflect their values — that’s not brand-new, but it seems to be growing. Personally I think that it’s pretty clear that it’s imperative that there be some kind of cease-fire as quickly as possible. But as to how we navigated that, with members whose opinions were directly opposite of one another — I think we handled it as best we could.

What’s next for you?

I’m auditioning all the time. All I ever wanted to be was an actor, and it really feels like time to refocus on my own career. I miss singing as much as anything. I want to be in a rehearsal room, getting new pages.