"I don't have health insurance right now," Kate Shindle said. "I'm two weeks shy of coverage. But I have no problem with our members knowing that."
Shindle's candid admission inspired momentary surprise. How could this impressive and accomplished woman — a Broadway actress, a beauty pageant winner and a licensed real estate agent — not be insured? But in conversation with Shindle, her warmth and candor, as well as her honesty and engagement in the conversation (twice she wrote down book titles this reporter recommended) eliminated any surprise from her admission. Former Miss America and President of Actors' Equity, Shindle is open and transparent — much like the windows that provide a stunning view of Times Square from her office in the Equity building.
"I think it's better," she said of sharing her status as an uninsured actor. "I'm OK with [members] knowing there are a lot of things we have in common."
Shindle won a three-way race for President, defeating incumbent Nick Wyman and council member Larry Cahn. But, she said, "There's no part of me that wanted people to vote for me because I'm a girl." Founded in 1913, Actors' Equity Association represents more than 50,000 actors and stage managers. According to its website, it "seeks to foster the art of live theatre as an essential component of society and advances the careers of its members by negotiating wages, working conditions and providing a wide range of benefits, including health and pension plans. Actors' Equity is a member of the AFL-CIO and is affiliated with FIA, an international organization of performing arts unions."
Shindle is the youngest member to serve as President, but public life is nothing new her. Following her victory in Miss America, she made her Broadway debut in Jekyll & Hyde, playing ensemble members as well as understudying Lucy. Her stage credits also include Sally Bowles in Cabaret, Vivienne Kensington in Legally Blonde and The Mad Hatter in Wonderland. She has also served as the eastern regional vice president of Actors' Equity and was an associate producer of A Christmas Story the Musical.
The fact that she is a working actor, she said, provides a different perspective to her role as President.
"The industry, as you probably heard, can be tricky in terms of how you balance the different parts of your life and cobble together a living," she said. "I think that by the time you feel like your career is stable to take on something like [being President], they're often older [and] they have a lot of experience, but they don't have as many friends who have just gotten their card or travel to work and taking the tiered tours or the short engagement tours."
Emphasizing that she hopes to involve the next generation of actors, she added, "I think that there's a generation of actors on Broadway right now who have become pretty visible and aren't necessarily engaged with the union as much as I'd like them to be. I want to create opportunities for our members to realize that even when they're not in a show that Equity's a continuous community... I think there are also people who know that they pay dues, they have work rules and protections, but beyond that, they're not exactly sure if they have a question, where to go.
"One of my broadest goals is, to the extent that we can because we have limited staff and limited resources, to create a place where people feel welcome beyond the day they show up for an audition."
The emphasis of social media in professional lives is one aspect that Shindle hopes to further incorporate into Equity. When a member suggested starting a Facebook group for people under the age of 40, some expressed concern about division of the membership, but more than 1,000 people signed up in three days. Reflecting on the response, Shindle said, "It tells me that there is a community out there — a sub-community of Actors' Equity that is not feeling like they're as connected to the union as I would like them to, and certainly not feeling connected to the part of the broader labor movement."
Reflecting on the lack of connection, Shindle said employers of actors are given the opportunity to have much more time in-person with actors than the union does.
"Throughout any kind of public life I've had, I always felt that it was better to just talk to people, and if you don't know, say, 'I don't know,' and if there's something that needs to be worked on, say something along the lines of, 'That probably needs to be worked on. Let me see what I can do.'...There's an emotional challenge of identifying with people I've never met who are very focused on the issues that effect their daily lives, which are certainly not the issues that might affect the daily life of someone who's on Broadway," she said. Shindle's public life, and education in being a public figure, began at the age of 20 when she won the title of Miss America. While a student at Northwestern University, she competed as Miss Illinois on the platform of AIDS education. Following her victory at the national level, she traveled throughout the country, addressing state legislatures on AIDS and talking to students about sex education, and she also created an initiative to educate and raise awareness about HIV/AIDS prevention in schools across the country. She has also penned a book about her experience: "Being Miss America: Behind the Rhinestone Curtain."
"Talk about figuring out how to fit into a mold," she reflected on her time. "That's a very easy trap for young women to fall in, when they meet well-meaning people who want to make them that. And what my friends and mentors did was help me to bring out the parts of me that were most relevant to that job. I wasn't perfect at it.
"When I first landed in that position, I learned pretty quickly that the emphasis on advocacy and activism was my favorite part," she said. "At a pretty formative age I learned decisively that when you say things and talk about things that you're passionate about and you do it diplomatically but firmly, people applaud that. At least they support it."
Shindle's devotion to communication extends to the stage door; she recalled talking with fans at the stage door of the Palace Theater when she was performing in Legally Blonde and the importance of asking them questions: where they were from, what their interests were or if they performed.
"I'm curious in general about people, but I also love the impact that it has when you do something beyond pandering to people — actually taking time to listen to them. I think that a lot of tension can be mitigated if you just ask people questions and listen to what they have to say and think about it and respond. Conversation's a really powerful thing."
Shindle's experience as a working member of the theatre community, as well as her devotion to honest conversation, extends to aspiring actors. "When I meet with students or parents or kids that come to New York for a workshop, they often ask if we think of doing anything else. And I say, 'Yeah. About every two weeks,'" she said. "I think it's valuable to take stock of where you are and not just be so focused on a dream that you become unable to look at what the landscape of your life actually is."
Shindle went on to say she hopes Equity can play a vital role in what she called a "grounding influence" for actors.
"It's easy for Equity to be treated like this third party that's just exerting its will from an ivory tower. And it's not the reality. Everyone here who is on the council and populates the committees was also a working member...We can provide a framework of rules and protections that allow people the ability to not worry about that stuff, so they can focus on their job or the show they're performing. They know how the can earn enough weeks to get health insurance coverage. They know that if they have a problem, there's someone at the union they can call so they can dedicate as many of their resources as possible to actually working in the business. I think it's by working in the business that you start to understand if working in the business is the thing you want to do for the rest of your life." (Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)