Actors often think of theatre as a way of life. But Broadway legend André De Shields cautions that theatre must be used as a way to life, otherwise there’s no way to strike a healthy balance between the highs and lows that come with the work.
“[I] can leave the theatre and live a very successful, joy-filled life because I have understood that theatre as a way of life is finite; you can achieve it,” De Shields says. “When I did my first professional show, Hair in 1969, I achieved that dream. So the question became, ‘What do I do with my life in the theatre?’
“Theatre is supposed to be an infinite experience,” De Shields continues. “It is not destination-oriented. It is an endless revelation of one joy after another. I understand that theatre is the catalyst of a significant life. It is a tool I use for surrendering to my destiny as a performing artist.”
The flip side of that blessing, De Shields warns, is that if performers make theatre their reason for being, the life they have outside of that world will start to degenerate or become less valuable. That’s what has happened to the character De Shields plays in A Life in the Theatre. “Robert, cannot leave the theatre or he will self-destruct,” he says.
However, De Shields points out, Robert’s life in the theatre is fulfilling. “That’s why actors get paid much less than we deserve and much less than what we’re worth and work much harder than people in other professions; that’s why we stay in theatre — because that’s where we are healed,” he says. “That’s where we experience the rare moment of ecstasy.
“There used to be two places to achieve that — one was the church and the other was the theatre,” he continues. “But church has become another industry, with televangelism, so the only other place where people come together in the dark for community and communion is the theatre.”
According to De Shields, the purpose of theatre is to explore what waits for us in the darkness, to hold things up to the light. “What’s the first thing that happens before the play?” he says. “The lights go down. That’s when you give yourself over to the possibility of magic, transformation, healing, beauty and danger. … Being a performing artist is as important as being a politician, journalist, linebacker or the Secretary-General of the United Nations, if you understand that the purpose of the performing [artist] is to hold things up to the light.”
Not that all actors have such lofty goals in mind. A Life in the Theatre also tells the story of John, a young actor who can’t wait to get out of the theatre and on to bigger things. “He is using theatre as many of our contemporary actors do, as a launching pad to another medium,” De Shields says. “Nobody’s right; nobody’s wrong. You always get what you deserve, but there are those of us who choose this process of constant toil as our art and our life and it is gratified.”
De Shields has some words of advice for young actors. “There are only two guarantees in this business, and they’re not fame and fortune,” he says. “They are rejection and insecurity. If, when you are hungry, you can make rejection your food and nourishment, and, when you get lonely, you can make insecurity your companion, this is for you. If you take exception to any one of these, for your own sake and the sake of everyone else in this profession, please do something else.”
For those that remain in the theatre, De Shields says, “[To paraphrase] Marianne Williamson, ‘We have no reason to be timid, we are all children of God. How dare we not be brilliant, just to make someone else feel better? We are here to be brilliant. Not good, not great, not alright — brilliant. That’s why we’re here.’”