At a time when funding for the arts is contracting, it is significant to note that we have also lost a man whose perseverance and creativity pulled The Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario out of deep financial debt.
Richard Jean Monette was born in Montreal in 1944 to a French-Canadian father and Italian mother. It was the latter from whom he acquired his theatrical temperament. He grew up on Durocher Street, near McGill University, speaking three languages – English, French and Italian.
He studied here, in Montreal, at Concordia University (then Loyola) and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts Degree (Honours). At the age of 19, he made his professional debut as an actor playing Hamlet at Toronto's Crest Theatre. But Monette became well-known in Canada for the lead role in Michel Tremblay's play “Hosanna” - a play about a transvestite in denial of his sexual predilections. (At the time it was thought to be a metaphor for Quebec’s struggle with the issue of separatism.) In 1994, Monette joined the Stratford company and during the next 15 years played Caliban, Hamlet, Romeo, Edmund, Price Hal, Antonio and Mercutio, to name but a few. He was also on Broadway in a short-lived play, “Soldiers,” in 1968 and in 1970 he was in the original London cast of 'Oh! Calcutta!".
In 1994, he took over as Artistic Director of Stratford and under his guidance the Festival flourished. He stayed for 14 seasons, making him its longest serving Artistic Director. During this time he added a fourth stage and an acting school, developed a program for promoting new plays and created a 50 million dollar endowment fund. There are those critics who would say he lowered the standards of the classically oriented roster of plays that, up until his time, were traditionally staged at Stratford. But under Monette's leadership, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival became financially profitable. In his first year as Artistic Director he turned an accumulated deficit of more than 1million dollars into a surplus of 800,000 dollars.
Monette championed the musical at Stratford, recognizing that if the Festival was to not only survive but flourish, it had to deliver a more diverse theatrical landscape. Thus, he earned criticism from some who saw the musical as far too commercial to be staged in a venue that was solely created for classical theatre. In an interview with critic Richard Ozounian last year, he said, “I had my priorities straight. I took care of the money, I took care of the audiences, I took care of the future.”
Monette was strong. He persevered. He had no problem steering from an all traditional season to one that included musicals and comedies – and the public responded. It applauded his efforts by turning up in droves, hungry for good theatre. In the festival's 50th season in 2002, attendance reached an all-time high of nearly 700,000 visitors. Monette also promoted Canadian authors - Timothy Findlay's “Elizabeth Rex” for example, directed by Martha Henry and later made into a film, was a total success for both Stratford and Findlay.
Monette was temperamental, passionate and flamboyant. He enjoyed a good sense of humour and loved the theatre. He had a tremendous love and respect for the profession and for those serving it (although he apparently thought theatre critics to be somewhat “obtuse”).
One of his last productions in 2007 was a Monty Pythonesque Comedy of Errors in which he had an actor march across the stage in a penguin suit sporting a sandwich board that read, “For the Critics”. This did not stand in the way, however, of his winning the prestigious Herbert Whittaker Drama Bench Award for Outstanding Contribution to Canadian Theatre from the Canadian Drama Theatre Critics Association in 2006.
Monette expressed his passion for the theatre in more ways than one. He made headlines when he crossed the then Stratford board of governors in the chaos following Robin Phillip's 1980 resignation as artistic director. A temporary four-person actor directorate slated to replace Phillips in 1981 was replaced with British director, John Dextor. At the annual general meeting that December, Monette addressed the board members who were sitting on the stage of the Festival Theatre. He felt they had acted in an unethical manner and in no uncertain words said so. “You pig!” he shouted at Robert Hicks, then president of the board of directors. “We have spent our lives in this theatre, we have given of our time and we care about art. You talk to us about money all the time. You have no morals. I don't know how you can sleep. I care deeply and passionately about this place and you should address yourselves to your consciences and to your hearts.”
Oh, yes. He cared passionately!
Monette was the recipient of the Queen's Golden and Silver Jubilee Medals, an honorary doctorate from the universities of Windsor,Western Ontario and Concordia University. He was named a Member of the Order of Canada in 1997.
Richard Jean Monette died in London, Ontario, September 9, at age 64 – far too soon. Who knows what theatrical gems his tenacious spirit, loyalty and wit would have provided us in his later years.
One can only imagine a party of thespians waiting for him (wherever it is that theatre people rest after their long journey). I can see them now, with outstretched arms and scripts at the ready – a long line of Stratford's past artists – its brilliant first great director Dr. Tyrone Guthrie, performing artists Butchie Blake, William Hutt, Susan Wright, James Mason, Alec Guiness... What a party!