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Ellen Burstyn and André De Shields Reflect on Shakespeare, Art, and the Cosmos

The pair are starring in John Doyle's production of As You Like It at Classic Stage Company.

On the surface, it seems like there's not much to bind Ellen Burstyn and André De Shields, who currently costar in John Doyle's new production of Shakespeare's As You Like It at Classic Stage Company. Though the pair bring decades of acting experience to the production, their paths to this moment have been very different. While Burstyn has acted on Broadway before, she has largely made a name for herself on the big screen, in films like The Exorcist and Requiem for a Dream. De Shields, by contrast, has earned his legendary reputation mostly as a stage actor in The Wiz and Ain't Misbehavin' and as a choreographer.

The characters they play in As You Like It are slight departures for both performers as well. Instead of tackling a lead role as he did with King Lear in a 2006 Classic Theatre of Harlem production, De Shields inhabits a supporting character: Touchstone, Duke Frederick's court jester and one of Shakespeare's wisest fools. As for Burstyn, in what is in fact her first official try at Shakespeare, she plays a typically male role: the melancholy philosopher Jaques, who delivers the famous "seven ages of man" monologue.

During the course of a conversation with TheaterMania, Burstyn and De Shields found some fascinating points of connection regarding their experiences with Shakespeare and their worldviews.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Ellen Burstyn as Jaques in John Doyle's production of As You Like It at Classic Stage Company.
(© Lenny Stucker)

Ellen, is this really your first Shakespeare production? I was looking through your credits for film and theater and saw no Shakespeare until this production of As You Like It.

Ellen Burstyn: The only Shakespeare I ever did was a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream two years in a row in my garden in Rockland County on the Hudson River in the 1980s. I had all the actors from the Actors Studio come out, and we made our own costumes. There was no director, no stage manager, and the audience was our friends and we were outdoors. I was playing Titania, and the fairies moved the audience around the different parts of the garden and the house, and it was one of those events that everybody who was there still talks about. It was quite a wonderful day. So I can't say I never did Shakespeare, but I never did it in a theater professionally.

What was your first experience with Shakespeare, André?

André De Shields: I had an equally unique and phenomenal experience with my first time with Shakespeare as Ellen did with hers. It takes me back to my college days at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was Titus Andronicus. However, we didn't use Shakespeare's title except parenthetically. The title of the play was "Vis," which is Latin for violence or power. And the director's conceit was to do it as a mute performance with the exception of one line which Aaron, the character I played, spoke when his child was going to be sacrificed and he said, "Give me my baby." The rest of the play was done as a dumb show. We took the Shakespeare text and expounded upon it with only grunts, emotionally understanding the text. By the end of the performance, the audience understood that this was about the spoils of war, conquest, power, and possession.

Ellen: When I was 19, I took a train from Houston to New York and I had in my lap the collected works of William Shakespeare. The play I read on that journey was Titus Andronicus.

André: Ah! So there's the connection. [laughs] That's why John Doyle could not resist putting us together in this production of As You Like It!

André De Shields, left, as Touchstone along with Hannah Cabell as Rosalind in As You Like It.
(© Richard Termine)

André, you've done choreography and dance in addition to acting throughout your career. How do you feel that your involvement in different artistic disciplines has informed your approach to Touchstone in this production?

André: As soon as I knew that this was going to be my journey in this production, I immediately went to alchemy, which is where we get the term "touchstone." You always have to have a litmus test when you are turning or attempting to turn base metal into gold. That's what alchemy is about. And that is what the life of a creative artist is about. The kind of base metal that we're turning into gold is to take the prosaic and make it exceptional.

All of Shakespeare's plays have some element of the elite, and in order to understand that particular part of society, you have to have some aspect that represents its opposite, its conscience, its truth teller. That's the role that all of Shakespeare's clowns play. The way the show has been excised, a lot of the political drama from 400 years ago is gone, because it doesn't resonate for us in the 21st century. So in many ways, Touchstone is a series of non sequiturs. I use kinds of physical and grammatical dance to make those non sequiturs sensible for the audience.

Ellen, what led you to finally take the plunge with this production, especially with a part, Jaques, normally played by a male actor? And do you personally identify with anything in Jaques's melancholy monologue?

Ellen: I knew John Doyle before. We did a film [Main Street (2010)] together. And he asked me to play Jaques. I told him the story of my train journey to New York and how that book of Shakespeare's plays that I had is the only book I've ever read Shakespeare's plays from. John took the book and brought it into the production. I come onstage and open that very book to start reading it.

[Regarding the monologue,] well, I'm interested in the cosmos. I want to know what's out there and how connected we are. It's so exciting, what's becoming available to us now in understanding, and I would be kind of melancholy if I had such a bleak point of view [as Jaques does].

André: Ellen mentioned the cosmos. That's very important to those of us who understand that we're not cosmic orphans, that the life that we assume that exists beyond us doesn't necessarily have to look like us. But we have to take that potentiality into existence because as an actor, we have to be able to embrace the possibility that everything exists all the time everywhere. We have to be intellectual, sensual, sensorial, cerebral, visceral, highbrow, lowbrow, middlebrow...

Ellen: Empathic.

André: Empathic, right. We have to be feminine, masculine, and everything in between. And now in the 21st century, as is embodied in Jaques, we have to be nonbinary, gender-fluid.

Bob Stillman and Ellen Burstyn in As You Like It, which runs through October 22 at Classic Stage Company.
(© Richard Termine)

For tickets to As You Like It, click here.