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André’s Odyssey: De Shields’s Ecstatic Performances Take Him from Madison to a Tony

As an undergrad, André De Shields appeared in Madison’s famously provocative Screw Theater and learned the philosophy that would take him to the top of the acting profession.

André De Shields

Long before he took audiences to hell and back in his Tony-winning role in Hadestown, André De Shields ’70 learned how to provoke — and that was a skill that would take him places.

As a UW student, De Shields joined an avant-garde campus troupe called Screw Theater. He appeared as Tiger Lily in the famous nude production of Peter Pan (which, even more famously, never completed a performance, as it was shut down by the police). He grunted like a caveman through Vis, a version of Shakespeare’s ultraviolent Titus Andronicus.

“We were the bad boys on campus,” he says.

The productions were intensely emotional, and they taught De Shields that the best acting involves what he calls the three e’s: entertainment, enlightenment, and ecstasy. “That’s the trinity,” he says. “That’s the divine triangle about why I do what I do.”

Vis, he remembers, “was lit by campfire, and the audience sat around the rim of a hole on street level. I spoke the only line in recognizable language because we did it as primates, and we grunted the entire performance, with the exception of one line, when [my character] says, ‘Give me my baby,’ because the child was about to be sacrificed. And we all run up the ascent, grunting and growling and howling, and the audience screams and runs off. And that’s the end of the performance.”

The experience taught him the power of live theater. “In my entire career, that was one of the most moving experiences I have had,” he says — though not everyone felt that the power of theater was a good thing. “We only got to do it a few times because the regents didn’t approve of that, either.”

André De Shields portrait

After leaving the UW, De Shields performed one ecstatic role after another, including that of the wizard in 1975’s The Wiz: The Super Soul Musical “Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” which won seven Tony awards. He performed on Broadway in Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Stardust; he was Hud in Hair and “Horse” Simmons in The Full Monty, and in 2018, he began appearing as Hermes in Hadestown, a musical retelling of the myth of Orpheus. The next year, he received a Tony for best actor in a musical and a Grammy award for best musical theater album.

The honors may have taken decades to arrive, but De Shields always believed that they would come eventually — as long as he kept pursuing the three e’s.

“I knew at the core of my soul that I would one day receive the best that my profession could offer me in terms of legitimacy, and that’s the Tony award,” he says. “Now I could not say it’s going to happen in 2019. I had no knowledge of that. But I did know that if I would only continue, if I would only persist, it would happen. [Now,] when I’m celebrating the 50th year of my being a professional performer, I’m invited to join the private club.”

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