Having a Blast
As we pause to recognize Overture Center for the Arts’ tenth anniversary, renowned Broadway actor and Overture’s opening night star André De Shields shares how his journey in the arts has been molded and shaped by Madison’s own artistic evolution
André De Shields
PHOTO BY LIA CHANG
Be forewarned, I am a man who believes in signs and omens, and all that they might portend. That said, once upon a time, long ago, but not so far away, there was a young student of color at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who, more than anything, wanted to be considered an asset to his alma mater.
As any good storyteller would, I am going to begin at the beginning, which for this particular journey is Wednesday, June 25, 1969. That was the date of the long-anticipated opening of the Madison Civic Repertory Theatre. Brainchild of Vicki Stewart and two others, the Rep—an affectionate moniker that was quickly acquired—had its genesis in a modest room at the Madison Art Center, 720 E. Gorham Street. Michael Murdock, founding artistic director of what was then Madison’s newest theater, expressed the goal of the Rep as “vital, intimate and professionally oriented theater” … community theater to be sure. And so to demonstrate that objective, Murdock chose to initiate the Rep’s debut season with the Harvey Schmidt/Tom Jones musical The Fantasticks.
Long before the doctrines of multiculturalism, inclusion, ethnic diversity and nontraditional casting became embedded in theater industry vocabulary, Michael Murdock was practicing those very concepts in his directing of The Fantasticks; proof in point, yours truly was cast as the suave yet faux rapist and abductor-for-hire El Gallo. The production was well received, and it was not well received (you know how critics are). But I had a blast. During eighteen months of undergraduate life at the University of Wisconsin, The Fantasticks was the closest I ever got to performing in a main stage production. Why this event is important to the narrative I am spinning involves the evolution of the Madison Civic Repertory Theatre from an amateur house to jewel in the crown at the currently reigning Overture Center. But I get ahead of myself.
Fast-forward twelve years. I had graduated from the university and begun my professional career in Hair, the American Tribal Love-Rock Musical at Chicago’s Shubert Theatre (technicolor casting taken to its counterculture extreme). The Madison Repertory had officially dropped the word “civic” from its name, achieved semi-pro status, and introduced guest artist residencies. By this time Michael Murdock’s tenure as artistic director had run its course, and Joseph Hanreddy helmed the growth of the institution through 1987 and into its succeeding home in the Isthmus Playhouse at the Madison Civic Center. There the Rep achieved sanction from Actors’ Equity Association as Madison’s sole professional house.
Then in 1992, successor artistic director D. Scott Glasser began a process of seduction that resulted in my accepting his invitation in 1999 to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the Madison Repertory Theatre. We did so with a production of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s beloved comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner. Adorned with my badge of honor as poster boy for nontraditional casting, I relished portraying the outrageously eccentric and acerbic raconteur Sheridan Whiteside, a role that theretofore had been the exclusive domain of white actors. Director Glasser had acquired the Wisconsin Union Theatre for this precedent-setting production, which was heralded by many as bold and innovative, and by a stubborn few as too far out of the box. Again, I had a blast. Had it been the World Cup, the score would have been De Shields 2, detractors nil.
A surprising and nearly overwhelming course of events ensued, setting me up for a spate of recognition I had not allowed myself to even dream about: in 2000, the University of Wisconsin Alumni Association Person of the Year Award; in 2001 the UW Distinguished Alumni Award and in 2004, la pièce de résistance—the UW Doctor of Fine Arts honoris causa. Shout-out to associate professor of Afro-American Studies Sandra Adell for her tireless advocacy.
In the meantime, a juggernaut of an idea was fast becoming manifest, an arc of community effort that came into focus with the opening of the Madison Civic Center in 1980 and would culminate with the opening of the Overture Center for the Arts on Saturday, September 18, 2004. And who was my colleague in receiving a similar honorary DFA degree? None other than Pleasant Rowland, the philanthropist whose vision it was—along with her husband, philanthropist W. Jerome Frautschi—to gift Overture Center to the city of Madison, Wisconsin. The following is an excerpt from Pleasant Rowland’s interview as published in the September 2004 Special Collector’s Edition of Madison Magazine—“Opening Overture.”
“Dollars have been spent that no one will ever see, that are what gave [the Overture Center] this edge of excellence. It is really to this very point that this building feels like this city. I mean it is like when you put on a comfortable sport jacket and it just fits, and you feel that you belong in it and it belongs on you. I think when this community walks into that building, they are going to feel that it fits.”
On that splendid Saturday in September, as a member of the performing ensemble comprising “Stars Over Wisconsin: Gala Opening Night Celebration,” I learned what it meant to slip into a vision of pink Italian marble and ninety-million-year-old French limestone, priceless and comfortable as a favorite sport coat.
That figurative sport coat would soon transform into a full suit of magnificent attire. It was 2005, and Richard Corley had assumed the role of artistic director of the Madison Rep, as the now-celebrated institution prepared to occupy that venue within Overture Center, that had been especially designed to house Madison’s premiere legitimate theater. Once more the stars would align in such a way as to render indisputable that the universe was conspiring to assist me. I was Richard Corley’s choice to portray the Stage Manager in the play that christened Overture Center’s Playhouse—a third triumph in the name of inclusive casting. The play was the Pulitzer Prize–winning Our Town, written by Madison’s native son Thornton Wilder. Madison itself could have been the Midwest doppelganger to Grover’s Corners. The production was received with great acclaim and a smidgeon of controversy.
Our Town was a life-changing experience for me. The play’s deceptively simple structure and minimalist production values sowed seeds of contemplation that continue to nourish and nurture me. I am reminded of the calm and wise monologue, pronounced by the Stage Manager deep into act III—sage advice that I have adopted as a mantra in my day-to-day journey of theater as a way to life.
“Now there are some things we all know, but we don’t take’m out and look at’m very often. We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars … everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.”
Today, Overture Center is no longer an agent of the city of Madison but continues as a privately owned facility, run by a nonprofit. And there are numerous whispers decrying the death of the Madison Repertory Theatre. I do not mourn the transformation of the Rep. At best, it is a testament to solid community effort, and to the yet inchoate stature of Madison as a center of cultural excellence and thriving arts. At worst, it is a return to the Rep’s historic reputation as a civic-minded institution.
Imagine for a moment that this recital of events were the description of an ice cream sundae. Well, the finishing cherry was placed on top during the spring of 2007 when, on both days of commencement at the University of Wisconsin—Friday, May 18, and Saturday, May 19, in the Kohl Center—I was chosen to deliver the charge to the graduates. You guessed it: I had a blast.
And I left the throng of newly minted Badger alums with this reminder—Numen Lumen, which I translate to mean, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”
This story is a web exclusive component of a feature story on Overture Center's tenth anniversary that appears in the September 2014 issue of Madison Magazine. Read the full story here.