Monday, September 15, 2008


Richard Monette was the first actor I knew who achieved stardom working in Canada. There might've been others who preceeded him or succeeded concurrently. But Richard was special.

When I arrived in Toronto in the early 1970's to pursue an acting career, Richard was already well-known for his 1968 Crest Theatre performance as "Hamlet". It was a piece of work still described with awe and endlessly compared to the Geza Kovaks and Stephen Markle Hamlets mounted shortly thereafter. To my generation of Canadian actors, tackling "Hamlet" was how you made your name -- sort of on a par with landing the guest lead on "Flashpoint" these days.

Richard had grown up in a blue collar family in Montreal, attending Stratford at the age of 15 and realizing in an instant that he wanted to become an actor and one who was good enough to perform on that stage. After studying theatre at Loyola College (now Concordia) he went right to work on achieving his dream and never let up.

The play that made him a star was Michel Tremblay's remarkable theatre piece "Hosanna", the story of a drag queen coming to terms with his sexuality and his true self. The English language version of the play debuted in the spring of 1974 in Toronto's Tarragon Theatre, then an intimate 150 seat space. It was an instant sensation.

It's hard to describe what it was like seeing that production because even decades later your memory is overwhelmed by the sheer power of the text and the masterful performances of Monette and co-star Richard Donat as Hosanna's biker lover Cuirette. The final revelations and climactic nude scene were like a finishing body blow to the senses after the emotional pummelling that had preceded it.

I was fortunate enough to appear in the English language premiere of another Tremblay play, "Bonjour La, Bonjour", a year later and for an actor, being handed that kind of writing was like being tossed the keys to a Ferrari. It was dramatic text that leaned perfectly into all the emotional corners and charged down monologue straight-aways with all the power you could want -- or had the courage to test.

Monette's performance was the kind that makes stars overnight. When the play ended, I knew I'd been in the presence of greatness and held back when the actress I was with offered to introduce me to Richard. I had no idea what I would say to him or why he would even have time for somebody like me.

My assessment of the man couldn't have been more wrong. He was warm and funny and completely self-effacing. We immediately connected, recognizing each other as working class kids who shouldn't have been in this artsy theatre world -- but were.

Six months later, the same production of "Hosanna" opened on Broadway. I was in New York that fall, finding an agent, studying and making the rounds of auditions. And I managed to cadge a ticket to opening night. As a testament to how important the play had been to Canadian theatre, several Canadian actors, directors and critics were also there to lend their support.

The play was just as electric the second time around, but in the much larger Broadway theatre, some of its nuance and impact was inevitably lost. The theme of coming to terms with one's sexuality was also old news in a town that had become a safe haven for Gay America, while the sub theme of Quebec identity didn't even register. By the time the curtain came down, you knew the reaction would not be good.

Therefore, the opening night party was subdued as we all did like they did in those old Broadway movies and waited for the first newspaper reviews to come out. When they arrived, they were tepid at best.

We were all disappointed. Even though Richard made the rounds of all the downcast and, in his endlessly positive way, assured us the notices could be overcome; it still felt like the chance to make New york take note of the theatre revolution happening in Canada had not been missed so much as casually overlooked.

Urjo Kareda, then the theatre critic for the Toronto Star (and later artistic director of the Tarragon Theatre) spotted me sipping a beer on the sidewalk as a friend I was talking to had a smoke. He asked me what I was doing in New York and I started to run down the auditions and -- He suddenly grabbed me, dragging me off the ground and slamming me into the wall of the restaurant. "You can't leave!" he screamed, "You're not allowed to come here and be like them!"

I said okay, mostly so he'd put me down. But some part of me believes one of the reasons I've stayed in Canada is Urjo made leaving feel like an act of treason.

That's the kind of passion and belief that typified Canadian Theatre at the time and it was a feeling that Richard Monette never lost.

A short while later, he joined the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, becoming its staunchest defender in its darkest hours, challenging everyone from fellow cast members to the Theatre's Board of Directors to share his unwavering passion for the importance of the work done there.

In time, Richard moved on to directing and eventually returned to Stratford to take up the mantle of the Theatre's Artistic Director. By then, the place was at its lowest ebb, nearly bankrupt both artistically and at the bank. Most who take over theatres of that size and with that many problems and competing agendas last a couple of years at most. Richard stayed for fourteen seasons and when he left, Stratford had been returned to its former glory and was making a profit.

Our paths last crossed a few years into his reign in Stratford. I had written a script about the Festival's founders, Tom Patterson and Sir Tyrone Guthrie and visited to do some final research.

Richard showed me around the main stage, then under renovation, like a kid with one of the world's biggest toys. He showed me an unearthed part of the original foundation where the now-legendary members of the original company had scratched their initials into the just poured concrete. Then he told me about his first experience of Stratford when he was 15.

As he talked, he seemed to become that teenage boy again, brimming with the excitement of discovering his true calling in life. He also remembered meeting Tom Patterson on the night train back to Toronto. Tom had been the first person to whom he'd revealed his epiphany and they had shared a sip or two from the flask Patterson perennially carried on his hip.

To some that anecdote might sound a little unseemly. But those would be people who don't understand the camaraderie that develops among we fellow travellers in the Arts. There's an understanding of how infrequent the spark takes in another and how essential it is to celebrate the moment and make it memorable.

Having known both Tom and Richard, I can clearly picture them sitting on that night train, passing a chrome hip flask and talking about their love of theatre. It was a moment of mentoring that Richard never forgot and offered to others for the rest of his life.

Richard Monette died last week in Stratford, but the work he did and the artists he inspired will continue to carry his spark to other artists and move audiences for years to come.

"Good-night, sweet prince; And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest..."

1 comment:

CAROLINE said...

I was really sorry to read of his passing. He really is one of a kind. Are you still in town? Call me if you are, happy to help re: our discussion at the Ink drinks.