The arts and culture industries remain largely at a standstill in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, affecting millions of workers in an already delicate ecosystem. The Broadway Community Project, from industry veterans Greg Schaffert, Tiffani Gavin, Situation Interactive, and Playbill, was developed to shed light on the myriad fields and roles that go into making the curtain rise.
In the Broadway Community Project series, we shine a spotlight on the faces you may not see on stage, but are nevertheless critical in creating and maintaining a theatre production. These are just some of the arts workers who have put their stamp on an industry that contributed over $14.7 billion to the New York economy in 2019 and $877 billion in value added nationally; these are just some of the arts workers in need of relief through Save Our Stages, arts recovery plans, and beyond.
Today, meet Alan Simon, who created and continues to run On Location Education. Since its founding in 1982, the company has provided teachers to myriad theatrical, film, and television productions, allowing young performers to meet demands as both professional actors and students. Simon, who began as an on-set tutor himself, has ensured that after taking their final bows, children in such Broadway shows as The King and I, Matilda, Frozen, Mary Poppins, and Annie can return to their schools without missing a beat. As a member of the Broadway League, he has also been a key player in the organization's Broadway Speakers Bureau, offering college students a look into the many facets of the theatre industry.
Name: Alan Simon
Title: President, On Location Education
How did you get your start in on-set tutoring and education?
There was a recent article in The New York Times about the evolution and subsequent failure of the play Frankenstein, which rehearsed in the fall of 1980 while moving toward an opening in the winter of 1981. I was a substitute teacher in the NYC schools during the daytime, pursuing an acting career in the afternoon, and was therefore an ideal candidate to be considered as the on-set teacher for the young man playing the character of William Frankenstein. I had the necessary life flexibility and a working knowledge of the industry to be both academically helpful and not get in the way of the production team. That was my first taste of what it meant to be a teacher in this field. It was a year after Frankenstein opened and closed that a wonderful friend came to me and suggested that there could be a need for a company that could provide teachers to child performers balancing their professional commitments with their academic responsibilities. The Screen Actors Guild had just instituted written requirements to oversee the education of minors in movies and television, thus, On Location Education was born.
What is a typical day like for you on the job?
On Location Education’s goal in the beginning, which hasn't changed over the years, was to bring qualified teachers to the table to cover the scope of a student's brick-and-mortar school's curriculum. I'm an English teacher by training. While I also have a very good understanding of Algebra, History, and even basic French, I am not an expert in those fields. If I had ever been a professional child actor, I can assure you that my parents would have wanted said experts on the job, and to be more than just trying to stay one lesson ahead of me. This point remains true—balancing a child performer's academics with the awesome responsibility of leading or supporting the production of a Broadway show, two full-time jobs, is our company's goal. Ensuring that we reach that goal is how I spend my days.
What's your professional life like during the coronavirus pandemic?
Because of COVID, on-set teaching has become a hybrid of on-set personnel and virtual ones. At this time, Broadway is dark, an extended, unwanted hiatus, designed to avoid super-spreader events and passing on the virus. Necessity has become the mother of invention, and it's currently premature to assume what Actors' Equity Association and The Broadway League will establish for what a return to work will look like. When the industry is ready to consider the needs of the children on Broadway, we will likely see on-set education continue to evolve for the benefit of the children and all the players in the mix.
Did you have a mentor while developing your career?
I credit Dr. Ibrahim Abdul-Malik with being my mentor. I had met him by chance on a film shoot on which he was visiting his daughter, who—get this—was the skating instructor for Miss Piggy's human stand-in on the film The Muppets Take Manhattan. Dr. Ibrahim was the kind of teacher who could fill any bill: certified in math and science, fluent in Spanish and French, a well-regarded administrator who had been a principal in the NYC school system, a walking Google years before there was a Google. But it was more than his subject diversity and work vitae that was impressive. It was his ability to formulate the principle that as an on-set teacher, his job was to anchor the children he worked with in reality, not the fantasy of their acting roles required in the production environment. He was a fierce advocate for the children on The Tap Dance Kid, for example, both on Broadway and multi-national tours. He was primarily the teacher for the youngest of the children on The Cosby Show, but he worked with all of "the Huxtable children" at one point or another. He brought a grounding of academics and imagination, and he influenced me from those early days to believe in the mission of On Location Education and to see it for the blessing it was, and remains.
What are three skills someone in your position must possess?
Like everyone else in show business, being somewhat obsessive compulsive is actually a good thing. The devil, as it is said, is in the details, and the details are many. And they're never ending, as On Location Education is the conduit among the production, the children and their families, their brick-and-mortar schools, and the teachers who serve them and the show. And while I never studied business, I learned on the job how to run one and develop the necessary relationships within the industry that can promote our company's mission. It is also the selection of good people, both the office staff I've been fortunate to bring to the table and whom I rely upon to support the shows, the families, and the company's goals. And the teachers in the trenches who are there day-to-day and bring their respective senses of humor and academic skills to the table. I love them.
What’s the most challenging aspect of your job? The most rewarding?
I would say the most rewarding aspect is the continued respect of the industry for our company and the children employed by the shows. As to what might be considered challenging, it is the work itself of matching teachers and students, managing parental expectations with production realities, and otherwise attending to the aforementioned details of supporting both academics and state labor laws and keeping the production companies in compliance of union and state regulations governing minors in entertainment. It's our daily work, and we are up to the challenge.
What does it mean to you to be a part of the theatre community?
It means everything. As a student, we have many opportunities, through school, community, and summer camp experiences to act in shows or to be part of the crew. Thoughts of being a professional certainly run through our experiences, but it is clear that many of us will never get to that professional level, whether in New York or in regional shows. To have created a niche, educating the professional young performers who are both students and actors, has allowed me to be part of the production side of the theatre world and to play a role, however small, in the show being able to go on.
How can people learn more about on-set education?
We always welcome resumes of interested and qualified teachers and regularly conduct teacher orientations of the role.