Richard Monette was an actor, a director and, for 14 years, artistic director of Canada’s Stratford Festival. He was an enormous inspiration to so many actors and theatre artists of all levels within the profession and his productions were cherished by audiences from across Canada.
Richard literally catapulted to theatrical fame at the age of 19 in a Crest Theatre production of Hamlet. Reportedly (and Richard loved telling this story) the reviews the next morning read, “If you are Richard Monette, stop reading this now.” Of course he read it, and if anything, it fuelled him on to prove the critics wrong. As an actor he was known for his big full voice and compact physique, exceeding especially in great romantic roles, Romeo, Henry V and of course as Michel Tremblay’s defiant and audacious drag queen — Hosanna. With razor sharp wit thinly masking the deepest pain within, Hosanna was the perfect marriage of an actor and a role, and in so many ways exemplified Richard Monette’s art in its prime.
Born in Montreal, from working-class French Canadian and Italian parents, Richard from an early age developed a great love for English drama. One could say he reinvented himself through Shakespeare — becoming one of the greatest classical actors of his day. Was it a transformation or an escape? One can never really be certain — but I think Hosanna touched something very personal and deep within a man who led such an active public life and yet remained, at least to me, a deeply private man. He was a “theatre person” in every sense of the word. On the outside he’d roll his eyes and have the ready remark (always funny, always witty) but in his eyes you could see the cost: the hurt, the pain. Richard felt things deeply and cared deeply about theatre in Canada.
In 1980 when the Stratford Festival was embroiled in a controversy over the firing of its first Canadian artistic directorate, Richard famously at a meeting of the board of directors shouted from the back of the theatre, “You fucking pigs! How do you sleep at night?” A recording of that notorious meeting can be listened to on the CBC website in their Stratford archives. It’s extremely moving. Richard’s passion and dedication to acting, to Shakespeare, to Stratford is heard in the challenge of his voice — releasing into the tension-filled air the expressed desire for Canadian actors to be respected, acknowledged and valued. With all the fervour of Henry V leading his troops into battle, and the mouth of Hosanna to boot — it is a moment captured in time that was quintessentially Monette. It’s incredible to consider that eight years later he would be invited to direct a glorious Taming of the Shrew for the Festival, and four years after that, Richard Monette would be announced as the Stratford Festival’s next artistic director.
That was Richard — like Hosanna — defiant and controversial, and yet willing to take the reins and be accountable for the theatre he loved. As a director Richard’s productions were characterized by great ensemble playing, sumptuous design and popular appeal. However, for most of his tenure at Stratford, critics found his populist approach somewhat conservative and questionable for English Canada’s leading classical theatre. Yes, Richard did musicals and melodramas, he wanted the theatres full. It’s important to remember that Richard took the reins of Stratford at one of the most financially threatening periods in the company’s history. It was during a recession and the theatre was faced with the potential of closing its 500 seat Tom Patterson Theatre. When asked what his vision was for Stratford, Richard often said, “To keep the doors open.” It was that kind of pragmatism and directness that made him so successful in the job. During the 14 years of Richard’s “reign” not only did the doors stay open but a fourth theatre was built dedicated to experimental productions and new Canadian plays. In his first season alone he managed to turn an accumulated deficit into an $800,000 surplus. And that success continued over the course of his tenure, including the establishment of The Birmingham Conservatory for actor training and a $50-million endowment fund. Alongside the productions of Camelot and Gigi were productions of Shakespeare’s lesser known works, in fact during Richard’s time, the entire canon of Shakespeare’s plays was presented on the Festival’s stages. He included works by Mariveaux, Marlowe, Timothy Findley and Tennesee Williams and numerous Canadian plays, including my own, for which I am forever grateful.
Richard often talked about planning a theatre season like a great meal. Variety was the order of the day, “from soup to nuts” he’d say, likening a playbill to a great dinner party. “You don’t want to eat all one thing. Some plays are meat and potatoes and others are dessert.” Richard Monette lived his life “soup to nuts.” In describing him he’s hard to pin down or describe in one cogent or consistent way. The man who was famous for playing Hamlet also appeared in the first production of Kenneth Tynan’s nude review Oh Calcutta in London. The man who loved acting more than anything also suffered from great stage fright, a phobia which eventually stopped him acting altogether. I remember when he was rehearsing Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, terrified that he’d get on stage and start singing, “They’ve sewn a costume to her face.” Of course he didn’t but I think Richard performed the role only one or two times, his health and his stage fright got the best of him and he was unable to go on.
Richard’s later years were marked by ill health, the strain of running a company like Stratford, and if you think being an artistic director is all opening nights and galas you are so wrong; it is brutally hard work, long, long days and nights and an enormous responsibility. Richard took it all on. He cared for the people in his company and often, in a place like Stratford where local businesses and tourism are dependant upon the Festival’s success, Richard felt like he had an entire community to watch out for.
I was lucky to have spent six seasons with Richard at Stratford and I am having great trouble trying to imagine the place without him. I wasn’t a close friend and in so many ways we were worlds apart. Sometimes he’d look across a table at me and in his most perplexed voice imaginable he’d say (playing with me, always Hosanna), “I don’t know why, but all the actors like you.” He was funny, odd, shy… very shy, honest as the day is long, but terribly afraid of hurting others or infringing on another’s creativity. He was warm, distant, approachable and detached. Funny and sad. Sexy and confounding. A gay man and a gay artist who was reticent to identify himself as one. Perhaps like many great artists he was a mass of contradictions and that’s part of what gave him such enormous appeal. But when all is said and done — and it will take a long time for Monette’s legacy to fade from our theatre history and lore — he was just so… unique. Richard is a mass of stories, quotable, memorable and theatrical. “If you are Richard Monette, stop reading now.” Less than a year after completing his artistic directorship Richard died of a pulmonary embolus in hospital in London, Ontario. He was 64 years old.
The next day actors at each Festival performance spoke from the stage, commemorating their friend and colleague and in their sad and tremulous words, he was so honoured, then silence and then applause. Later that day after all the performances were through the company gathered and mourned and told stories of Richard. I was stunned by Richard’s death. It made me feel so very sad that Richard had so little time to reap the rewards of all he had sown. But the actors who worked with Richard carry him with them in spirit and in all the performances they have to give, and all the stories they have to tell.
Many years after his first ill-fated Hamlet he was again playing the part, but this time sharing the role with Nicholas Pennell on alternate evenings. Apparently during one of Richard’s performances someone cried out from the stalls, “Monette — you are a bullshit actor,” and without missing a beat, Richard said, “Wait till you see Nicky Pennell in the part.”
Hosanna. Hamlet. Richard Monette. “Away Melancholy.” How he lived!