During Bonnie J. Monte’s 33-year tenure as artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, her name has become synonymous with the institution. In February, the theater announced that this year’s season will be her last.
Monte says she is experiencing “a mixed bag of emotional ups and downs” and that this year “is going to be so chock full of things that I need to deal with, and pay attention to, that I’m actually leaving the future until it arrives, and then I will deal with it.”
During her reign, Monte has racked up quite a list of accomplishments. She has directed more than 90 productions. She led the charge during a major renovation and expansion of the company’s main performance venue, the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre at Drew University in Madison, and the creation of the Thomas H. Kean Theatre Factory in Florham Park (the organization’s support facility for behind-the-scenes operations like costume design, set creation and rehearsal). She landed a partnership with Saint Elizabeth University to use its outdoor amphitheater in Florham Park as a second performance venue. She took the organization’s budget from $800,000 to $4 million. She established Shakespeare LIVE!, a touring company that has brought the Bard’s works to approximately 700,000 students.
I recently talked to Monte about the pieces that will be presented during her last season, what stands out to her from her career at STNJ and the legacy that she’s leaving behind.
Q: I was so sad to hear that you’re moving on.
A: I’m sad to see me go, too.
Q: How are you feeling about this life decision that you’ve made?
A: I have not regretted the decision from the moment I made it. I think it is the right time for me to change things up for myself. I will never use the word retirement. That’s not really in my vocabulary. That’s not what I’m doing.
I’m simply going to be stepping away from this position that really is 24/7. I’ve been doing that schedule for 33 years now and that doesn’t count the many very long-hour days I had at other jobs before I came to the Shakespeare Theatre. So it’s been a very long time since I’ve felt any degree of freedom in my life whatsoever.
Not that I regret a single moment of it. My life at the Shakespeare Theatre has been spectacular. But I am at the point where I am tired of both helming the ship at the same time that I’m trying to be an artist. So artistry won.
I felt that it was a good time, and we were in a good position for me to transfer leadership … And so after a lot of thought I made the decision to announce that this would be my final season. It’s very bittersweet. It’s a much more difficult thing than I thought it would be, to give up something that you’ve built for 33 years, and I don’t feel that I’m done. I’m very happy about the board’s decision to ask me to stay on as artistic director emerita. That will allow me to continue to have some small part in keeping the institution where it needs to be and it will give me much more free time for writing, which is another of my passions, and to do things that I don’t even remember how to do. Like, I don’t understand how to relax anymore, that’s just not part of my life. So I’m going to have to relearn some things. I haven’t had an afternoon, for example, to go shopping at the mall, if I wanted to. I just haven’t had time to travel. I haven’t had time to do so many things. And a lot of important things in my life had been neglected. So I really felt that time was flying and I needed to make the decision fairly soon as to whether I should try to keep going a while longer.
But I wanted to go out when I was on top. I wanted to go out when the theater was in good shape. And I want to make sure that in this final season, I can get it into even better shape and make sure that we’re basically fully recovered in this kind of post-pandemic struggle that all the theaters are going through. So I felt that giving a year’s notice was really the best thing that I could do both for myself and for the institution.
Q: When you were in the planning stages of this season, did you know that it would be your last or did you decide afterwards?
A: Both. I start thinking about the season a year ahead of time anyway. So choices changed once I made the definitive decision to have this be my final season, in part because I was erring, really, on the side of much smaller shows, for the most part, because of all of the financial struggles that the theaters are going through, because their audiences are not fully back yet. I have to be very grateful for the fact that, again, my board and a number of my staff members encouraged me to pick some of the shows that I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and to be able to do them in this last season as artistic director without worry about finances, to some degree. A couple of people have stepped forward with some really special sponsorship gifts to help make that possible. Everybody encouraged me to make the choices that I wanted to make artistically this year.
Q: Tell me more about this upcoming season.
A: I’m going to (direct) the first three shows, which is just crazy, but I really wanted to leave the second half of the season open to make sure I was going to be very available to help my successor transition in. I’m going to do “The Rose Tattoo” by Tennessee Williams, which is a very big-cast play. I’m going to move pretty much immediately into a play called “And a Nightingale Sang” by C. P. Taylor. That is a beautiful little play about a family in London during the Blitz in World War II. It’s a gorgeous little piece that doesn’t get done as often as it should and I’ve always been in love with it and just haven’t had a chance to schedule it until now. Then, I’m moving right from that into “Waiting for Godot.” So three very different styles of dramatic literature, three very different kinds of plays. And I’m pretty excited about all of them.
After that, we’ve got a really wonderful piece called “A Man for All Seasons,” which one of my longtime friends and colleagues is going to direct, Paul Mullins. Then, Brian Crowe (STNJ’s director of education) is going to end the season with “A Midwinter Night’s Dream,” which is Shakespeare’s “Midsummer” with some adjustments that another colleague of mine, Joe Discher, and I made years ago, and we only have ever done the production once. People loved it when we did it 20 years ago. And then we have a whole new kind of thing at the outdoor stage: We’re going to do a play called “Shipwrecked!,” which is this kind of crazy, wild adventure of a gentleman who gets shipwrecked — it’s very similar to the “Around the World in 80 Days” kind of genre — and he has some unbelievable and questionable adventures out in the middle of the planet. Great show for families.
Q: When you make any kind of change, there’s a lot of reflection that comes with that. What are some things that are standing out to you as you think back about everything that you’ve done at Shakespeare Theatre — all the people you’ve worked with, the productions, funny times, mistakes?
A: Of course, one thinks of all of those types of things. I have to be frank, for as much as I feel right about this decision, it is painful. It’s absolutely painful because I love this place. It’s my home. It’s a very difficult decision. So I try not to think about it too much, to be absolutely frank. I try to think mostly about doing my job in the absolute best way that I can, in this final season, and to go out with a bang, and to give my audience an absolutely spectacular season of theater. That is what I’m really focusing on.
Ever since the news kind of hit the airwaves that this will be my final season, there are tons of people that are writing and calling. And so, of course, on a daily basis I’m being confronted with the reality of the fact that, yes, this is my last season. There’s a tremendous appreciation for everything that has happened here over the past 33 years, and the enormous amount of people who have helped me make everything happen. I’m trying to take the time to write to every single person who reaches out to me, and that includes many of my audience members, to thank them for everything that they’ve done. So it’s sad, it’s painful, it’s bittersweet. There’s a lot of moments where I go, “Well, that’s the last time I’m going to be doing that.” Every day is a kind of roller coaster ride of very big ups and very big downs. I would be lying if I pretended that this is all some big, celebratory “yay” kind of thing. It’s not. It’s a very hard thing to let go of.
Q: I was going to ask you about people who have reached out. That’s a testament to the impact you’ve had and your legacy.
A: It feels very, very good to know that so many people are reaching out to me. A lot of them are so upset, which is flattering, obviously, but what I am finding is that I’m spending much of my time comforting everybody else. Which is good, because that keeps my mind off of me. I’m trying to keep everybody not just comforted about my departure, but comforted about the future of the institution. I’ve gone to great lengths to make sure that I am not going to leave this institution in anything but great hands.
Q: I was wondering if you had a hand in the hiring process.
A: There was no way anybody was going to keep my hand out of having some kind of say in what was going to happen next.
Q: What are you hoping for in the future for the organization?
A: This theater has a reputation, which I’m very proud of, for being a little different than many other companies. Meaning that this is the place that people consider home. They are deeply emotionally attached to this theater as their creative home. To some extent, it’s been run in a very strong kind of matriarchal fashion where there’s a sense of family and I have purposely built it as a home. Of course, it is an institution, but there is a reason that there’s such tremendous loyalty, both from the audience side and the artist side. It’s because it’s been run in a very … I’ll use this word, “motherly” way, without any of the implications of non-professionalism. We have prided ourselves on the fact that we have set standards for the field, but there is a caring factor here that I don’t think exists in a lot of other places. I think that the thing that people are quite concerned about is, is that family, home feeling going to go away? And I don’t think it is. In my continuing relationship with the theater, I will certainly make sure that that does not happen either.
I’m kind of feeling like I’m going to go from the role of mother to grandmother, not that I like that word necessarily. Certainly my involvement is going to remain, and therefore, I can’t imagine that the character of the institution is going to change that much, either. There will certainly be changes, because there’s going to be a new leader who will bring their own instincts and their own preferences and their own style to the role of artistic director, but I don’t think that the nature of the institution itself is going to change.
Q: So you’re going to be an emerita artistic director. What does that mean?
A: I will probably continue to direct at least one show a year. I will probably continue to do master classes for the company. I may continue to write for the company. I will probably volunteer and come in and make sure that our theater factory is moving along in its evolution as a work of art. That is something I feel very attached to and not done with personally.
I don’t want to get in anybody’s way. I don’t want in any way for it to feel like I’m infringing myself on the new leadership. I’m just going to kind of quietly go in and make sure that the building is doing what it needs to do, in terms of evolving artistically, aesthetically.
Q: What are some accomplishments that you’re most proud of? What do you want people to remember?
A: The first big thing was the expansion and renovation of the Kirby Theatre. That was the first big capital campaign which began almost from the minute I got here back in late 1990. I recognized right away that if we did not address the problems of that performance space that we were not going to ever move, in terms of upward, in the world of art.
The fact that we changed the mission of the theater right away, where the use of classics in terms of arts education became a major focus, as well as professional artists training — that has really turned us into one of the best teaching theaters in America. That is something I’m really, really proud of. And the fact that we have literally changed the landscape in New Jersey, in terms of what kind of an education a kid is getting. There was really almost no Shakespeare getting to these kids from the outside world when I came here over 30 years ago, and that was so upsetting to me. That’s why we began our touring company Shakespeare LIVE! That’s a very big deal for me. And the fact that through our professional training programs, we have really created generation after generation of American, prominent theater artists. The graduates of our program have gone on to many other theaters across the world. The fact that there are six or seven artistic directors in place, now, who I trained makes me very happy, very excited. It’s been very edifying to see actors and directors and designers and administrators that are working all over the country who began with us.
Q: Anything else you want to share about how you feel or your plans?
A: I’m very excited about the fact that I’m going to have more time for writing. That’s certainly very high on my list of things to look forward to. But I’m also really looking forward to waking up in the morning and not having an 18-hour day ahead of me. I just don’t even know what that feels like anymore. That sounds so simple and silly, but that is something that I’m truly excited about. It’s going to be a very interesting little journey and we’ll see what happens. I think I’m going to mostly just want to sleep for a week once I finish up at the end of December. Then I’ll figure everything out.
Q: Then go to an island for a week.
A: Oh, my goodness, just going to New York City would be a treat at this point. Anyway, yes, it’s a really mixed bag of emotional ups and downs these days. But I’m, as I said, in no way feeling that I’ve done anything but made the right decision.
Q: I’m happy to hear that. Congratulations, I guess?
A: There’s not really a word for what I’m doing. I’m not sure what that would be, but I guess “congratulations” is okay. I don’t know.
For more on the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, visit shakespearenj.org.
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