By Rebecca Nichloson, Black Enterprise
Ron Simons, founder and CEO of SimonSays Entertainment, is a force to be reckoned with in the world of film and theater. His critically-acclaimed roster of produced films include Night Catches Us; starring Kerry Washington and Anthony Mackie, Gun Hill Road, Blue Caprice, and Mother of George; all of which premiered at The Sundance Festival. He’s produced numerous successful Broadway productions, such as the Tony-award winning revival of Porgy and Bess, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike; which won the Tony award for Best New Play.
In addition to producing, Simons is also an actor, having performed in theatrical works, film, and television. The multi-talented creative and businessman started his career as a software engineer at companies like 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’s Professional Actor Training Program.
BlackEnterprise.com caught up with Ron Simons to discuss SimonSays Entertainment and producing, his corporate background, and his education.
BlackEnterprise.com: SimonSays Entertainment values artistic integrity, as well as commercial viability. Can you talk a little about that?
Simons: My first project, Night Catches Us, was a film about two former Black Panthers who reunite in 1970s Philadelphia. It was a period piece. I’m very proud of that film. It was a labor of love for everyone. But there are some things that I might have been able to do differently, had I been more savvy and in the industry longer, that could have made that film commercially viable. All of my projects have, so far, creative integrity, but they haven’t all been commercially viable. I’ve learned a lot of lessons between my first film and my more recent film.
What motivated you to get an M.B.A in addition to an M.F.A in Acting?
Before I got my M.B.A., I was in corporate America as a software engineer. I developed knowledge-based systems, or artificial intelligence systems, for fortune 500 companies. I was encouraged by my current employer to get a Ph.D. in computer science, which they would pay for, and then come back to work for the company because it was a small AI company and most of the staff there had Ph.D.’s from Stanford. So I reached a crossroad where I had to decide if I wanted to go deeper into the technology side or more into the business side. I decided that business would be more in tune with my goals of leadership, so I ended up going to Columbia Business School. When I graduated from Columbia I started working at Microsoft and was there for a number of years. Then I reached a crossroads in my career when I was offered a promotion with the company. This little voice in my head had been quietly murmuring—I refer to it as the dream deferred—about acting. So, I thought that was a good time to get my head out of the sand and decide that leadership and entrepreneurship was going to be my goal or whether I wanted to move into the arts.
How has your corporate experience impacted your role as a producer?
SimonSays Entertainment, as a producing entity, is the nexis where all the paths of my life meet; where I can leverage my storytelling skills as an actor, my business skills as a business man, everything I’ve ever learned in corporate America and my analytical studies in computer science. In my job as a producer, I have to touch upon so many different areas. I’m a creative producer, so for me it’s all about story. My acting has helped me tremendously in that regard. Alot of producers don’t know story because not all producers come from the arts, in terms of writing or acting or directing. So they have the technical side perhaps, but maybe don’t have the artistic side. Also, there’s times when it’s important for me to understand the technology. When I deliver a film, it has to be in various formats and these formats are fairly technical. Producing uses all that I’ve ever learned, ever done in my life.
There has been a decline in movie-going, along with what some are calling ‘the golden age’ of television. Has the audience shift from film to television influenced your business?
From a percentage standpoint, the answer is yes. I’m not abandoning film. I’m developing content for film, as well as television, as well as the web. I’m a content provider. My goal is to create content for the variety of platforms that are emerging. I have developed content for film. I’m now developing content for television [and] for the web. I’m developing educational content that is going to be delivered through CDs. I’m expanding and highly diversifying my content. One of the things you learn in business school is that if you diversify you lower your risk.
To learn more, visit www.simonsaysentertainment.com.
This article was written by Rebecca Nichloson.
""""One of the most mortifying moments I experienced in my theatrical career was when I was asked to bring the entirely African-American cast of a new musical we were workshopping, a new piece by an African-American librettist and composer, across the street to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and up into the plush boardroom so they could perform a song or two for the board of directors. I wanted to say something, but I didn't. For one thing, it would take an invaluable 45 minutes to an hour out of the creative team's limited time together. But... every year we had to do the same old song and dance for the board to remind them that yes, we did do new plays and musicals, so yes, it was sometimes a good idea to expose the board to new voices, to the vibrancy of an exciting work in progress.
You all know where this is going, don't you? I led the team in. The talent in that team! The writer/composer himself and the cast, lauded veterans of the stage and the most promising members of the next generation of acting giants. And there was our board. White, as white as can be, white white white white. And very comfortable. They'd just been served lunch, I believe. My theater spared no expense in pleasing our board and catering to their demands (oh my god, I'm feeling such rage right now! I'm pretty sure we had a staff member who was mostly dedicated to help our richest board members get house seats to shows on Broadway and the West End. But I digress...)
The only black face in the audience seated at the conference table? The only person of color? The head of our education department, of course. My heart went out to her.
The cast sang a song from the show. They did it. And they brought it. Because they were and are professionals. And the very pillars of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion reverberated down to the parking lot. It was breathtaking.
And I had just been complicit in the remaking of a scene for the millionth time: black bodies and voices entertaining white audiences, an institution raising money on the backs and voices of black bodies.
I was too mortified to apologize to our writer and to our cast, none of whom, I should add, expressed even an iota of discomfort. They were professionals, and they shone. And come to think of it, they'd probably all become accustomed to this scene. "It's just how theater works," they might have thought with a shrug of their shoulders. Or maybe they seethed inside, for the millionth time, when all they were trying to do is workshop a new musical.
Well, I apologize sincerely now to our writer and those actors. I wish I had had the courage to put my foot down. It is not how theater should work.
I quit the American theater on Valentine's Day 2016, so I've been out more than four years now. And honestly I don't plan to return, which is why I can write with such candor.
The heart of the problem, my friends, is with the non-profit structure, which is capitalism on steroids. Who are the bosses ultimately in an American institutional theater? The board of directors. Who are the board of directors? For the most part, those members of the community not with the strongest attachment to the art form but those with the deepest pockets. Often they're really not members of the community. They often just drop in. They are sometimes mere tourists.
It's no wonder that that board meeting was held in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The theater, like most American theaters, had built its board of directors on the old opera model: You get the richest folks together, offer them galas and house seats and receptions and private recitals and showings (for which artists often don't get paid extra, mind you), you pamper them and make them feel more special and entitled than they already do, and then they'll write you big checks to support the kind of art they like, the kind of art they can bring their kids and grandkids to. AND they--not the artists, not the community--get to hire the institution's leadership.
It is a rotten model. Rotten to the core. How can any artistic institution claim to be working for and in the community with that model?
It's got to be torn down. It's got to be reinvented. And I have no idea what the next model will be. I really don't. And no, honestly I don't think government is the solution frankly. Some of the most bloated, self-satisfied, decadent theater I've ever seen was in Germany, where it was almost fully government-funded. Lots of bells and whistles and provocations and completely soul-dead.
I see amazing and galvanizing lists of demands recently being made and posted by theater artists of color. These are vital demands. But they don't address the central issue. As long as the ultimate bosses of an artistic institution remain the community's deepest pockets, nothing will change. Nothing. You'll be putting band-aids on a gaping wound. Sorry, but it's true.
So please figure something else out. Maybe for a few years you just avoid the institutions. You've already started. In the pandemic, so many of you are making amazing art without an institution. Find those who truly adore your work and ask them to fund it. Screw non-profit. Form a corporation and value your art art-making as a resource that profits you, your viewers/audience and your community. I have no idea.
But please don't return to a new version of the old. After the virus, after he's out of office, after police reform and nationwide conversations about race, after, after, after, begin something new. I can't wait to see what it is!”
Words: Pier Carlo Talenti
Video: Griffin Matthews
April Yvette Thompson