Actor and director Richard Monette first went to the Stratford Festival with a friend from Montreal as a 15-year-old schoolboy. As he watched As You Like It, he had an epiphany that he later compared to the conversion Saul experienced on the road to Damascus. "I want to be an actor. I hope I have talent, and if I do, I want to work on that stage and I want to do Shakespeare," he said to himself, in a moment that he never forgot, a moment he considered akin to receiving a vocation from God.
He achieved his thespian goal and more, creating both classical and contemporary roles including an unforgettable performance in Michel Tremblay's play Hosanna. Plagued by chronic stage fright, he eventually switched to directing, bringing an actor's timing, sensibility and emotional range to his work on the other side of the stage. He went on to become the longest-serving and possibly the most financially successful artistic director in the history of the Stratford Festival. "I know I'm maligned in the press for this," he told theatre critic Richard Ouzounian in 2007, "but I had my priorities straight. I took care of the money, I took care of the audiences, I took care of the future."
A friend to actors, directors and audiences, he made the festival more artistically daring in the early years of his tenure, and more populist in the latter ones. Before he died last June, magisterial actor William Hutt said of Mr. Monette: "He has prolonged my life and my career." Another iconic actor, Christopher Plummer, called him "the man who wouldn't quit" during a gala celebration when Mr. Monette retired as artistic director in 2007. "The single most important thing he will be remembered for is that he saved this theatre," said Mr. Plummer.
Richard Jean Monette was born in Montreal in the last year of the Second World War, the older of two sons to Maurice and Florence (Tondino) Monette, parents whom he later revealed as alcoholic (his father) and high-strung and addicted to prescription drugs (his mother). He grew up on Durocher Street, in the area east of McGill University, speaking three languages - English, French and Italian - and believing in multiculturalism.
He studied in English at Loyola High School and then Loyola College (now part of Concordia University), graduating with a bachelor of arts degree (honours) in 1967. He was an accomplished actor by then, having performed in several student productions - including the lead in An Unemployed Jester is Nobody's Fool, a play written by another Loyola student. The role won him the best actor award in a one-act festival at Toronto's Hart House Theatre that was sponsored by the Inter-Varsity Drama League. Festival adjudicator David Gardner, then a producer with CBC Television, hired him to perform in a CBC drama that led to another engagement as the juvenile male lead in Young Love, an adaptation of an Ivan Turgenev novel.
While in Toronto, Mr. Monette met directors Marigold Charlesworth and Jean Roberts, who asked him to audition for a production of Hamlet they were mounting at the Crest Theatre. He got the title role, making his professional stage debut at 19 opposite actress Barbara Chilcott (Gertrude), playing one of the most difficult roles in Shakespeare's oeuvre. During rehearsals, he told The Globe and Mail: "I've been playing Hamlet in my mind for years. All I can say now is that mine will be a young Hamlet." A wise decision that perhaps foretold his later success as a director.
He was accepted into the Stratford Festival company in 1965, the beginning of a primary theatrical relationship that lasted until the end of his life. After three summer seasons, playing small parts in Henry IV, parts 1 and 2, and Julius Caesar, he acted for Theatre Toronto and played Peter Dolund in Soldiers at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, a production that went to Broadway in New York. To widen his performance credits, he went to Britain in 1969, where he performed with the Welsh National, Regent's Park and Royal Shakespeare Theatre companies and bared all in the original production of Oh! Calcutta! the satirical revue exploding sexual taboos that was created by British drama critic Kenneth Tynan. He got the nod for a leading part in the outrageous - at least for the times - Oh! Calcutta! from Clifford Williams, who had directed him earlier in the title role in The Drummer Boy at Theatre Toronto. In London, he fell in love with Oh! Calcutta! cast member Domini Blythe, an affair that spanned several years and both sides of the Atlantic until they both realized that he was gay.
By 1972, he was back in Canada and acting at The St. Lawrence Centre in Toronto, at a time when cultural nationalism was nurturing the literary and theatrical arts. He broke another theatrical mould when he won the lead role in the first English translation of Michel Tremblay's play Hosanna, at The Tarragon Theatre in 1974. He had learned that Mr. Tremblay was working on a new play, in a conversation two years earlier with Québécoise actress Monique Mercure (when she was starring in Mr. Tremblay's Les Belles Soeurs at the St. Lawrence Centre) and he was determined to be part of it.
"I met Tremblay first," Mr. Monette told Globe drama critic Herbert Whittaker in 1974. "Then I met Bill Glassco [who was slated to direct Hosanna at Tarragon]at Stratford and asked if I could read for it." Nothing happened but the actor, who was now a baby-faced 30-year-old, kept lobbying until finally he was given an audition.
He spoke in the French accent of his youth and drew inspiration from the mannerisms of the women in his own family, and delivered such an emotional whammy that he got the part of Hosanna, a male transvestite with a penchant for dressing up as Elizabeth Taylor in her Cleopatra film role. He also received rave reviews in Toronto and elsewhere when the production toured the country and then moved to the Bijou theatre on Broadway in New York. He played the part again in a revival at Toronto Workshop Productions in 1977 and directed another revival at Tarragon a decade later.
"I was at a low ebb when the role in Hosanna came along," he told Mr. Whittaker. "I had just turned 30, and that is a difficult milestone for a young actor." Although that play could have given him a huge leg up in the United States, he was determined, like Mr. William Hutt, to make his place in Canada and especially at Stratford, where Robin Phillips was preparing to succeed Jean Gascon as artistic director.
Mr. Phillips cast him in his first season as artistic director as Lucio the pimp in his dazzling production of Measure for Measure and as Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest. Over the next dozen years, Mr. Monette honed his craft as a classical actor on the stage at Stratford in Shakespearian roles such as Hamlet, Romeo, Henry V, Edmund in King Lear, Antonio in The Merchant of Venice, Caliban in The Tempest and Berowne in Love's Labour Lost. He also starred in the daunting one-man play Judgement by Barry Collins. He once admitted that it had taken him four months to learn the script, a task he compared to memorizing James Joyce's Ulysses.
As loyal as he was passionate, Mr. Monette made headlines of a different sort when he blasted Stratford's board of governors in the chaos after Mr. Phillips's 1980 resignation as artistic director, the subsequent and summary firing of a four-person directorate slated to replace him, and the appointment of British director John Dexter. At the annual general meeting that December, with the board sitting on the stage of the Festival Theatre, Mr. Monette jumped up from his seat in the audience, outraged by behaviour he considered conniving and unethical. "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 must address yourselves to your consciences and to your hearts."
After that, there wasn't much else to say, and Mr. Monette rarely graced the city of Stratford, let along its stages, for most of the next decade. Although primarily known as a stage actor, Mr. Monette appeared in several films, including Iceman (1984) and I've Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987) and made a good living doing voiceovers in commercials.
Although he camouflaged it well, Mr. Monette was prone to chronic and debilitating stage fright. After a panic attack in a preview of George Walker's version of Turgenev's Fathers and Sons at the St. Lawrence Centre in 1988, the affliction landed him in hospital, and led him to move from stage front to behind the scenes as a director. His first major production was The Taming of the Shrew in 1988 when John Neville was artistic director of Stratford. "My ace in the hole," he told journalist Martin Knelman in a Toronto Life profile in 1991, "was that from acting on it so often, I really knew the stage - details like it's seven steps if you enter from the door, or three from the centre entrance, or 14 and a turn if you come from the tunnel."
The play was a huge hit and he went on to direct more than 40 productions for Stratford in addition to work for other theatres across the country. He won a Dora Mavor Moore Award for his production of Saint Joan at Theatre Plus in 1990 and he ventured into opera when he directed Beethoven's Fidelio for Brian Dickie at the Canadian Opera Company the following year. He served as an associate director of the festival from 1988 to 1990 and artistic director of the Citadel Theatre Young Company in Edmonton in 1989.
After the recession of the early 1990s, the Stratford Festival's economic outlook was dire. The box office had been running a deficit for three years and the artistic triumphs were few and far between. In 1992, he was offered the job of artistic director, replacing David William, which he accepting thinking he might be there for three or four years. He stayed for 14. In 1994, his first season, he turned an accumulated deficit of more than $1-million into an $800,000 surplus. During his tenure, he showed that he could bring in audiences, reaching an all-time high of nearly 700,000 admissions in the festival's 50th season in 2002. But in theatre, financial success can be a harbinger of woe - he was criticized for being too populist in his approach by bringing in big production number musicals such as My Fair Lady and Anything Goes.
Nevertheless, on the artistic side, his highlights included a multiracial Twelfth Night (1994), King Lear (1996) and The Tempest (1999 and 2005) with Mr. Hutt in the title role and his first musical, Camelot, in 1997. His productions of Much Ado About Nothing and The Miser transferred to New York's City Center and he premiered a four-act version of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest in 2000.
After an absence of nearly 10 years, he went before the footlights again in 1997, when he played Domenico Soriano in a Stratford production of Eduardo De Filippo's Filumena. He planned to appear as Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady in 2002 but was forced to withdraw because of vocal problems after the first preview.
Other artistic highlights of his years as artistic director included Diana Leblanc's production of Long Day's Journey Into Night (1994 and 1995), later made into an award-winning film by Rhombus Media; Brian Bedford's 1996 production of Waiting for Godot; and the world premiere of Timothy Findley's Elizabeth Rex (2000), directed by Martha Henry, which was also made into a film. His tenure also saw extensive renovations of the Festival and Avon theatres; the founding of the Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre; the establishment of a formal program of new play development; the creation of a long-dreamed-of fourth venue, the Studio Theatre; and the establishment of a $50-million endowment.
When Mr. Monette retired in 2007, a grateful festival mounted a gala celebration in his honour at the Festival Theatre and arranged for him to collaborate in lengthy taped interviews with David Prosser, Stratford's director of literary services, on This Rough Magic: A Memoir, which was published by the festival in 2007.
Mr. Monette was known to enjoy a drink and a cigarette - especially both at once - and in recent years, he suffered from high blood pressure and underwent treatment for prostate cancer. He was hospitalized twice this summer in Stratford for circulation problems, but had returned home recently and seemed to be holding his own.
Richard Jean Monette, C.M., was born June 19, 1944, in Montreal. He died Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2008, of a pulmonary embolus in hospital in London, Ont. He was 64. He is survived by brother Mark and sister-in-law Judy. A memorial service is being planned at the Festival Theatre in Stratford for a later date.