Saturday, September 13, 2008

Cimolino Remembers Monette

Antoni Cimolino writes in a special to the Globe and Mail:

"You arrive in the snow; you leave in the snow.

"Those were the words Richard Monette used every year to welcome the Stratford Shakespeare Festival company. Eventually, the veterans in the company would lead the newcomers in raising their voices to complete the sentence: '… we leave in the snow.'

"It was literally true: Festival rehearsals begin in the darkest days of February, and performances usually end by early November – just as the first snows start in Stratford, Ont. But over the years, I came to realize that Richard wasn't just talking about the weather. A Festival season has a cycle, and the lives of our artists follow that cycle.

"So, too, over the course of 64 years, did Richard's own life.

"We begin our work in the cold, in adversity. As Lear says, 'The first time that we smell the air,/We wawl and cry. . . . When we are born, we cry that we are come /To this great stage of fools.'

"Richard was born into adversity. His Italian-immigrant mother and French-Canadian father had little money and an abundance of personal problems. His aspiration to be a classical actor was an unlikely one. But he was determined, and at 19, to everyone's surprise, he landed the part of Hamlet at Toronto's Crest Theatre.

"The reviews were famously bad. The first line of the Telegraph review, titled Hamlet – A Tragedy, read: 'Stop reading right here if you happen to be Richard Monette.' Still, many of his future friends, including Martha Henry and William Hutt, saw the potential in his performance.

"The following year, Richard won a place in the Festival company. On the first day of rehearsals, Bill Hutt stood on the Festival stage, opened his arms and said, 'Welcome home, Richard.' For many years thereafter, Stratford would indeed be his home. Spring was in the air.

"As we begin rehearsals each year at the Festival, the weather begins to warm, energizing us as we examine those great texts, and shedding light on their darker corners. We work toward opening week, a time of great excitement and accomplishment that ushers in the longest days of the year. For Richard, joining the Festival was just such a time of growth and dreams coming true.

"Like so many actors, Richard was shy. For him, performance was a mask to hide behind – and he realized early on that this was holding him back. He tackled the problem by going to Britain and joining the cast of the nude cabaret, Oh! Calcutta!, a cure most people would consider extreme. But this was just one example of his commitment to improving himself as an artist. His library is stocked with a wide variety of well-worn books, their pages full of passages he has underlined. From philosophy to painting to architecture, Richard was forever developing his mind to serve his art.

"Above all, it is his voice that I will never forget. Those warm, deep tones reflected his kindness and generosity. They also had an edge that could cut glass, an edge he would use to expose the ridiculous or to affectionately poke fun. That voice was the channel of an electric energy and wit; to be around Richard was to have the circus come to town – every day.

"I first heard it in the 1970s as a teenager attending a matinee performance of Love's Labour's Lost at the Festival Theatre. A comedy about four pairs of adolescent boys and girls, this is a dense piece, filled with intricate wordplay. As I sat there waiting for it to begin, how could I know it was about to change my life? Then the lights dimmed, and out came an actor who made that difficult language as clear and simple as if it had been written that very day.

"Suddenly, I realized that my own adolescent fears and hopes had been anticipated by a writer called Shakespeare some 400 years before. And I wasn't alone. As I looked around me, I saw 2,200 others, mostly grownups, former adolescents, laughing along with me at Richard Monette's luminous performance. For the first time in my life, I understood my profound connection to humanity both past and present.

"Seeing what he could accomplish, it dawned on me that I, too, had to be part of this magnificent festival. So I went home and told my parents that I wasn't going to law school after all; I was going to be an actor. Some would say Richard Monette has a lot to answer for.

"As I followed his career, I marvelled at Richard's daring. He spoke clearly in a Canadian voice at a time when our country was still finding its own voice in the theatre. Whether he was performing at Stratford, or at the Tarragon in Toronto, in new plays or classics, he spoke to be understood. And being understood with nuance and vulnerability, he made enormous successes of new works such as Hosanna and Judgement.

"He was far away from the snows now, approaching the best of summer.

"In 1988, when I eventually joined the Festival company, Richard was directing his now-famous production of The Taming of the Shrew. He had decided to set this difficult play in Italy of the early 1950s, à la La Dolce Vita. I wasn't in the production, but I asked if I could audit rehearsals when I was free.

"Here was magic in the making. An extraordinary cast and a director on his first major assignment – filled with energy, detailed direction and passion. If Richard had a secret to his success, it was his faith and trust in his actors. The confidence he instilled in them was the key to one of the simplest yet most extraordinary characteristics of any Monette production: You always understood what the actors were saying.

"The opening night of Shrew was a revelation for its fresh, romantic and deliciously funny approach. It was clear to me even then that here was someone who should be the Festival's artistic director.

"In many ways, summer is when the Festival is at its best. Most productions have opened, the company has developed cohesion, and new excitement is building as rehearsals get under way for the late opener. Likewise, Richard's life was now in full summer.

"The early years of his tenure, and those immediately leading up to them, were extraordinary for their fast pace and magnificent volume of activity. I had started to work as an assistant director at the Festival, and after I played Romeo opposite Megan Follows in his 1992 production of Romeo and Juliet, Richard asked me to assist him on Antony and Cleopatra. From that time, a trust was forged between us that lasted for the rest of his life.

"I remember the early tests of Richard's resolve. During one crisis, Colm Feore, his eyes twinkling, told me, ;They can push Richard only so far before his sharp, pointy teeth come out.' Richard was tenacious through it all, determined to assemble the finest actors and the most interesting projects. I remember sitting in his garden, helping him plan renovations to the Festival and Avon theatres, and the creation of a new, fourth space, the Studio Theatre.

"We became great friends. He became godfather to my children, Sophia and Gabriel. Looking now at the photos of baptisms, birthdays and Christmases, I see that Richard was the ideal 'uncle' to any child. He never missed a birthday; he took childlike joy in celebrating Valentine's Day and Easter. He gave cooking lessons to my son and had long talks with my daughter.

"Looking at those photographs, I also see how rapidly he aged. From morning to night he thought only of the Festival; the role of artistic director literally consumed him. After his farewell gala at the Festival Theatre in September, 2007, a night of performance and tribute with such warmth from so many extraordinary artists, fall was certainly in the air.

"Fall in Stratford is bittersweet. As the plays finish their runs, the question of what happens tomorrow arises more regularly; actors wonder if they will return next season. The days shorten and the leaves fall in anticipation of the snows that come early in Perth County.

"Richard's health began to decline. The theatre lifestyle of heavy smoking, martinis and late nights had taken its toll. He was suffering from severe peripheral vascular disease, which made him virtually immobile and in constant pain. There was also evidence of possible lung cancer, and it was during his consultation with the oncologist that the pulmonary embolus struck.

"When he came to our home for dinner the Sunday before his death, he was more mobile and witty than he'd been in the past couple of years. My children commented that he looked five years younger.

"We arrive in the snow, we leave in the snow. Richard did not wait for the snow. Perhaps, seeing the extreme weather of winter approaching, he decided to leave us while it was still Indian summer.

"As a family, we have decided that he has now joined a brilliant theatre company. We imagine him sitting with his great friends Kate Reid, Susan Wright and Nicholas Pennell, while Bill Hutt opens his arms and says, 'Welcome home, Richard.'"

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