OHIO theater alum Dale Ricardo Shields’ impact leads to prestigious Paul Robeson Award
There are many words one could use to describe Dale Ricardo Shields – actor, advocate, director, production manager, Bobcat – but lifelong learner and educator seems most appropriate.
Shields, a 1975 BFA graduate and a 1995 MFA graduate of Ohio University’s School of Theater in the College of Fine Arts, was awarded the prestigious Paul Robeson Award on June 26 in a celebration in New York City for his dedication to leveraging theater to go beyond the stage and for his commitment to the freedom of expression. This honor was meant to be bestowed upon him for the 2021 year, however, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he was unable to receive the award until this year.
The award is given by both the Actors’ Equity Association, the national labor union representing more than 51,000 professional actors and stage managers in live theater, and the Actors’ Equity Foundation, which supports the professional theater community. The Robeson Award has been given annually since Paul Robeson, a notable performer and civil rights activist, himself received the first award in 1974.
“The Paul Robeson award has definitely been the biggest thing I’ve won and a great honor,” Shields said. “It has been a long journey to get here with a lot of ups and downs, but I’ve never stopped learning along the way and have tried to pass my knowledge onto others.”
Shields, who is originally from the Cleveland area, got his start in the arts at an early age. Both of his parents were singers, and he has fond memories of seeing shows at the Cleveland Playhouse.
He was active in theater in high school and found a great mentor in his high school drama teacher, Stephanie Sell, an OHIO alumna who encouraged and recommended he go to Ohio University.
Once he got to OHIO, Shields wanted to learn everything possible about the theater industry to help set him up for success. He took classes and volunteered to work in all facets of theater whether it was acting, stage management, lighting, or more.
“I always knew there was an artistic direction to my life,” Shields said. “I look at the world through an artistic lens and am constantly educating myself, and that has helped me become the man I am today and a better man.”
According to him, by understanding how to put the entirety of a production together, it made him a better worker, person, and creator. It wasn’t just his work ethic that he credits for his success, but also the mentorship and support of three of his greatest teachers – former OHIO Theater Director Toni Dorfman, Professor Emeritus of Theater Dennis Dalen and the late Bob Winters, College of Fine Arts professor emeritus and Athens community arts advocate.
“When I was teaching BFA actors, I had a term I used for those students who demonstrated the kind of independence and determination that was necessary for them to be successful in the profession,” Dalen said. “I called them rebels and meant it in the best sense of the word. A rebel was a student who always asked questions and never accepted what was taught to them simply because a teacher told them something. They were students who knew that they had to own what was taught and students who created work for themselves outside of the classroom. Their independence and extra-curricular work eventually led to their eventual success even if it wasn't in acting. Dale was and is a rebel, a rebel with a cause. He is very deserving of the awards he has been given.”
Following his undergraduate career, Shields pursued acting and moved to New York City. He was fortunate to be hired as an actor and work with The Negro Ensemble Company which opened opportunities for Shields to work with other Black artists. Following his work there, he found his way to The New York Shakespeare Festival where he started teaching. During his six-year teaching tenure at The Public, he represented the U.S. at the International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People festival in London. The New York Shakespeare Festival, part of the Public Theater, expanded Shields’ knowledge greatly and allowed him to work on notable shows, as well as work with the incomparable theater producer Joseph Papp. But what really influenced him, wasn’t only the art but the knowledge everyone around him had on the history and types of theater.
“I realized while there that there was so much I didn’t know about this industry that I wanted to,” Shields said. “I wanted to have these insightful talks with artists and be able to discuss and understand how theater is attached to different types of cultures.” This thirst for knowledge is ultimately what led Shields back to graduate school and back to Athens.
He began graduate school at OHIO and between his courses and previous experience teaching at the New York Shakespeare Festival and the South Bronx Community Theatre, it led to his interest in becoming an educator. While in grad school, he worked as a production manager and taught non-major acting and stage management.
“Dale's talents not only in directing and stage management were apparent in his first year, 1993, back at OHIO as a graduate student, the same time I started work as the new director of the School of Theater,” Dorfman, who is now a professor at Yale University, said. “What Dale Shields already could do then - and continues to do in every production of his I've seen - is foster an ensemble committed to one another, the demands of the piece, and to the audience.”
As Shields’ became an educator, it was important to him to ensure that his students knew all the ins and outs of the business and had a similar experience as he did learning as much about the industry as possible. He also encouraged them to make big mistakes and know that failure sometimes is the key to learning.
“I always told my students that if they’re going to break a window, throw a grand piano through it rather than a pebble,” Shields said. “I wanted them to know it’s ok to go for it and to make big choices.”
He first started teaching at OHIO during grad school and stayed a few years following. He also taught around the country including at Playwrights Horizons Theater Company in New York, the College of Wooster, Denison University, Macalester College, Susquehanna University, Randolph-Macon College and SUNY Potsdam. Aside from teaching acting, directing and stage management, he also taught Black theater history.
In 2012, he was invited back to OHIO by Winters to direct the musical “Ragtime” for the community theater organization, Ohio Valley Summer Theater (OVST), which partners with the University every summer for a major musical production. It was a full circle moment for Shields who began working with OVST during his undergraduate career under Winters and has taken on various positions in the organization including actor, production manager, and director. In addition to “Ragtime,” he also directed “Man of La Mancha” for OVST.
“For Dale, the theater is a holy place filled with truth, beauty, and goodness. When you wake up the morning after you've seen a Dale Shields’ production, you're still thinking about it, a radiant moment, an irresistible build, a cool transition from one beat to the next. Dale is an artist and a great soul, and he's been inspiring me for thirty years now,” Dorfman added.
Today, Shields is semi-retired but continues to have an interest working in theater. His main focus is on a project he began at the start of COVID when the arts and education were unable to be in person. He created his own website, iforcolor.org, dedicated to providing insight and resources important to him that he wanted to educate the greater public on such as Black history, banned books, and theater. Through this website, he is able to provide information for free to the general public on specific topics, people, and relevant discussions happening in our society. He also continually researches new and trending topics that are of interest to him and shares this with a community of people.
“I spent the last three years of COVID researching and continuing to learn,” Shields said. “The arts weren’t able to happen and I was cooped up in my home so I thought rather than looking on the downside, I could better myself and share with people everything I had learned. To me, it was really about providing access to information in a new way.”
In addition to the Robeson Award, Shields has also been widely recognized for his work, including being awarded the Ebony Bobcat Network Legend Award from the Black Alumni Association in 2022. As an educator, Shields has taught workshops and classes for several programs and institutions across Ohio and the United States, garnering him prestigious awards that include the 2017 Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award, the 2017 AUDELCO/“VIV” Special Achievement Award, The Actors Fund 2020 and 2021 ENCORE AWARD, and a 2015 Tony Award nomination for the Excellence in Theatre Education Award.
“OHIO helped me to connect myself and my art together and I do my art in the same way I live my life with open mind and open heart,” Shields said. “I was lucky enough to be in an institution that set me on the path of discovering who I was and not put me into a pigeonholed or make me something of their design. I was allowed to become Dale and am still becoming him today as I continue to learn.”