By Tania Fisher
Sitting down with Roger Hendricks Simon is always an interesting experience. Director Oliver Stone put it most succinctly when he referred to Roger as “that wonderful actor and teacher in New York” after working with him on the 2010 film “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.”
Indeed, anyone who has ever met, been taught by, or worked with Roger Hendricks Simon, would heartily agree with Mr Stone’s statement. After working professionally in the industry myself for over 30 years, it’s refreshing to know one can still be impressed by people like Roger. With The Simon Studio now in its 41st year, and a career that spans over some 50 plus years, this accomplished theatre and film actor, director, and teacher, has a packed schedule as ever, with June being a particularly busy month.
On Sunday June 23 the world premier screening of feature film “Love in Kilnerry” will be held at Village East Cinema, 189 2nd Avenue, in which Roger has a major role. This will be the first of three new feature films coming out this year in which Roger appears in featured roles. Then on Friday June 28, Roger directs his Simon Studio in their annual Shakespeare “Bard at the Bar” at The Players in Gramercy Park, and, as always, his classes continue in The Simon Studio.
Roger doesn’t pull any punches and his responses are always thoughtful and downright honest. After our lunch together he invites me to sit-in on one of his classes to watch him in action.
I gladly observe him mold and inspire his students who no doubt all aspire to become one of the famous names such as John Travolta, John Lithgow, Samuel L. Jackson, James Earl Jones, Debra Jo Rupp, and James Woods, to name only a few, who have been taught and/or directed by Roger in the past.
Roger’s own career started when he attended Yale as an actor, all the while harboring a desire to enter their directing program. “By the end of the first year of a three year program, half of those directing students had flunked out, they were Phi Beta Kappa English majors, not theater oriented, so there were openings and I got in.”
Roger, of course, enjoyed great success, and from the 60s through to the 90s was known across the globe as a theater director, only occasionally acting, as he says, “usually because someone remembered me from the old days.”
Roger explains, “It was really because of my son Dan that I got into film acting.” Dan Simon was working as a cinematographer at the time on the 2007 feature film “Sublet,” when young newcomer Director, Georgiana Nestor, needed an older actor to play the lead and asked Dan if he knew anybody, suggesting, “What about your dad?” Roger auditioned and got the role, citing, “I found it incredibly easier than I thought, because from all those years of teaching it was relatively easy to go right into getting back to acting. The irony here is that now I’m known as an actor and no-one’s thinking of me as a director anymore!”
What’s refreshing to see is that there is still genuineness in Roger’s approach with his students. He is always honest and truthful and never minces his words. Students get current practical guidance in his Studio with Roger emphasizing that they are not there to merely perform a speech, or have a monologue down-pat, but to have a fully rounded experience, knowledge base, and sincere understanding of the life of any scene they’re working on.
Roger has always been adamant about instilling this kind of real-world truthfulness in his students. “With The Simon Studio,” as it’s been said before, “you get Roger Simon, not a disciple.” What that means for those students lucky enough to be under his personal training (although he has Associate Directors) is that they have direct access to his vast amount of global experience in the industry. Roger’s students are privy to his sharing of impromptu, well-worded explanatory advice that is both practical and relevant on just about every aspect of the industry. There are no embellished stories or wistful memories here; Roger delivers good, clear cut advice to those learning or honing their craft.
Training at a reputable company such as The Simon Studio gives both experienced and novice actors the chance to stretch themselves in not only contemporary work, but also the classics such as Shakespeare. The Simon Studio will once again perform its annual Bard at the Bar this coming June 28th giving students the opportunity to perform time honored pieces in front of an audience that contains industry professionals. Roger believes; “There should always be a mix and balance between classical and contemporary, which is why the Studio presents Bard at the Bar annually; to emphasize that the classics are something you never give up and always goes hand in hand with contemporary film and TV work, as is mixing theater with on camera work.”
Roger Simon was born in Manhattan in 1942. The family moved when he was 9 years old to Westchester County (Scarsdale. NY) and remained there for his formative years. He was lucky enough to have John Hemmerly as his drama teacher who, as Roger recalls fondly, was the most influential drama teacher/director he’s ever had.
Roger expresses that even from his early days at Yale Drama School he felt a great pull to not just limit himself to acting, by taking on directing and teaching as well. Roger explains that he felt the best teachers he had in college (Middlebury) and Yale were those who were also simultaneously working in the industry. He believes the experience of working professionally and the sharing of knowledge through teaching go hand in hand and are beneficial to both the student and the teacher.
Roger lived and worked in London between 1968 and 1971 where he directed and acted at such prestigious venues as the Royal Court Theatre, Hampstead Theatre Club, Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, the Edinburgh Festival (Traverse Theatre) and across Europe at the Mickery Theatre and Dutch State theatres in Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and Arnheim, and the Nancy Festival du Monde in France.
Throughout 1978 Roger enjoyed directing and teaching assignments in India, Pakistan, Iran, Nigeria, and South Africa and it’s also the year he formed The Simon Studio. In 1988 Roger moved to L.A. (along with his wife Sarah and three children) to become the Founding Artistic Director of L.A. Classical Theatre Lab and was also in residence at Paramount Pictures as a freelance producer/director. Roger moved back to NYC in 1991 where he resumed teaching and directing at both The Simon Studio as well as other projects.
In 2003 his family made Poughkeepsie, New York, their permanent home and it’s also where Roger opened “Simon Studio North” and was concurrently acting and directing for the Half Moon Theatre Co.
Always a creative family who not only had their own individual skills and talents but also enjoyed working on fun projects together like the series of short films on opera and cooking designed for Emerging Pictures Opera in Cinema projects and a series of local historical plays funded by the city of Poughkeepsie and the TV series “Simon Studio Presents” for Time Warner Cable. Never a person to be doing just one thing at a time, during all of this great work Roger was also commuting back and forth to NYC for work at The Simon Studio in Manhattan as well as theatre/film projects there and elsewhere around the country.
While listening to Roger list all his varied endeavors, it occurs to me that the fact that his life path has taken, and continues to take, so many interesting twists and turns, may indeed be as a direct result from the influence of his own wife and children.
His son, Dan Simon, is an intuitively skilled film director, screenwriter and actor. His resume already lists an impressive body of work, including the feature film “Lonely Boys” 2016 (in which Roger has a small role) and his latest gem, “Another Year Together” 2019 in which Roger has a featured role. When I asked Roger if he appears in Dan’s films as a fatherly gesture or favor, he vehemently denies this suggestion, then let’s out a light laugh letting me know he’s about to land a clever quip on me, expressing that “If you wait long enough, you get work from your kids!” which is followed by a sparkly smile that lets me know he’s fiercely proud.
Roger explains that all his children grew up in the industry and were always surrounded by it. When referring to Dan, Roger says, “He grew up in the world, with the Studio, it was what he always did, he was always doing it. It was never a surprise that he’s become such a great filmmaker.” But in reality it is Dan who respects his father enough to actually ask Roger to appear in his films.
And the family talent doesn’t stop there. Roger’s eldest son, Noah, is a designer/painter who graduated from Carnegie Melton, and his only daughter Abigail is a professional ballerina, formerly with the American Ballet Theater and The Joffrey, and currently understudying the lead of Asia Broadway Group’s “An American in Paris” touring China, Taiwan and Paris.
Speaking of dance skills, Roger doesn’t let that opportunity pass him by either. A performance of The Nutcracker for the Chicago Ballet Conservatory saw Roger dancing the role of Drosselmeyer opposite daughter Abigail’s Sugar Plum Fairy and has been asked back for a repeat performance this December.
All this off-spring talent was no doubt a culmination of genes provided by Roger and his late wife Sarah Levine Simon who sadly passed away July 4 2017. Sarah was an established opera/classical concert singer when she and Roger met in 1971. Sarah studied at Juilliard and won a Katherine Long Fellowship to study at The Met right after. She, like Roger, was also taking on multiple projects at the time involving herself in the extra chorus at NY City Opera and The Met. In her later years Sarah focused her skills on writing, becoming both playwright and author. Two of her plays, “The Portrait” (Theatre 54) and “The Dressmaker’s Secret” (co-writer Mihai Grunfeld, 59E59 Theaters) were developed and produced Off-Broadway by The Simon Studio between 2014 and 2017. Sarah’s first novel, “Winged Victory” and her second novel “Locked Out” (recently posthumously released – www.blackopalbooks.com) are also enjoying great success.
Meanwhile Roger is as busy as ever. With an eclectic mix of big budget feature films as well as independent features and shorts, he explains that although he likes to keep working doing what he loves, he never takes on roles as favors for ex-students or associates, but that he chooses projects very selectively based on the role, script, and Director.
Case in point; the short film, “When Father Went Biking” directed by an extraordinary young Czechoslovakian student out of NYU, Zuko Garagic. It’s an intimate look at what happens to an older man who lives with his daughter and whose mind is disintegrating. Roger expresses his thorough enjoyment of this project and can’t say enough great things about Garagic’s skills and talents.
Roger is also excited about the upcoming premier of the feature film “Love in Kilnerry” written and directed by Daniel Keith, on Sunday June 23rd. Roger came across this project when it was intended as a play a few years ago and after some initial readings at The Manhattan Theater Club, funding was eventually sourced and “Love in Kilnerry” was made into a feature length film. Its IMDb page describes it as being about elderly people in a small town exposed to a chemical plant leak that increases their libido, which makes it sound like a frolicking romp along the veins of the British “Carry on” movies. But more so, it is a tribute to older/senior people who perhaps don’t have the respect from people who think they’re not capable of doing certain things. Through the circumstances in the film, the characters are encouraged to take some huge chances from which they grow and end up enjoying more than they thought they would. Roger calls it “uplifting, emotionally moving, and funny.”
I guess Roger just can’t help himself when it comes to filling his days with extra-curricular activities, such as playing softball. The Simon Studio even had their own team that played in Central Park until the early 90s. Somehow, these “outside” interests were clandestine to circle back to his skills as a Director and film maker with his extremely successful short documentary film, “The Boys of Late Summer” (2019) about the Senior’s Softball League in Poughkeepsie.
“Some of these players travel as far as two hours away to be a part of the League; men between the ages of 60 and 88 who are still playing and still taking it very seriously” says Roger. An initial outsider’s condescending perception might be “old guys getting outside and getting fresh air” – but in fact these men are extremely competitive. Roger quickly realized this League made it evident that people over 60 hadn’t “packed it in” and were, in fact, creating a newfound respect for the older generation, which was Roger’s main reason for making this film along with his Co-producers Pedro Padilla and Davis Northern. This touching, human, and entertaining short documentary has been so well received that it was selected for screening at the 2019 Newport Beach Film Festival earlier this year and is quickly gaining momentum with audiences across the country.
All this current ongoing experience provides invaluable inside-industry information for Roger’s students of The Simon Studio and for those of us lucky enough to know him personally. In my opinion, it’s a testament to his students to take their career into their own hands by following Roger’s example of actively finding work for themselves, creating their own projects, and applying to audition notices on sites such as Playbill and Actors Access. It is my belief that the younger generation in particular are conditioned to expect instant gratification and many acting students new to the world of film, TV, and theater, may have such unrealistic expectations about the industry, and would do well to realize that having an agent doesn’t mean standing still and waiting for the phone to ring. Continuing to source their own projects the way Roger does often leads to meeting amazing directors and writers, and taking on satisfying roles that they might otherwise not have the chance to play, let alone audition for.
Indeed, Roger Simon sets a high standard and is a living tribute to the mantra that work and training go hand in hand all throughout one’s career, no matter what stage that career might be in. His energy and lust for the industry are both inspiring and rewarding for all those who are lucky enough to work or train with him.
Bard at the Bar at The Players, Friday June 28th – 8pm
For $10 ticket reservations Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
More info: www.thesimonstudio.com