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BWW Interview: Bonnie J. Monte, Artistic Director of THE SHAKESPEARE THEATRE OF NJ Gives Her Insights About the Metro Area's Classic Venue

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BWW Interview: Bonnie J. Monte, Artistic Director of THE SHAKESPEARE THEATRE OF NJ Gives Her Insights About the Metro Area's Classic Venue

We continue our series with leaders in the theatre arts to learn about their upcoming plans and find out how they are dealing with the Covid-19 outbreak. We had the opportunity to interview Bonnie J. Monte, the Artistic Director of The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. She gave us her insights about the Theatre and prospects for the future.

Bonnie J. Monte enters her 30th season as Artistic Director in 2020. Under her leadership for almost three decades, the Theatre has evolved into one of the most respected classical theatres in the nation. Ms. Monte has garnered national recognition for her highly successful revitalization of the institution and for her commitment to arts education; and during her tenure, The Shakespeare Theatre has become one of the leading training grounds for emerging professionals.

Since 1990, she has directed over 65 productions for The Shakespeare Theatre, including acclaimed stagings of numerous Shakespeare plays, as well as a number of plays from the Russian classic canon with a focus on Chekov and Ostrovsky. Her special affinity for Tennessee Williams resulted in highly acclaimed productions of A Streetcar Named Desire , Camino Real and Sweet Bird of Youth . She also directed shows for the Theatre's Shakespeare LIVE! touring company including The Myths of Ancient Greece: Old Echoes, New Ears , which she also authored. She has created a number of original translations/adaptations for the Main Stage including Pride and Prejudice , Marivaux's The Triumph of Love , Pirandello's Enrico IV , Ostrovsky's Artists and Admirers , Maeterlinck's The Blue Bird , Around the World in Eighty Days , and Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters (published by Playscripts, Inc.), and Molnar's The Guardsman.

Ms. Monte obtained a post-graduate conservatory degree in directing from The Hartman Conservatory and a B.A. in theatre from Bethany College in Bethany, West Virginia. She has Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degrees from Drew University and the College of Saint Elizabeth. Prior to assuming leadership of The Shakespeare Theatre, Ms. Monte was one of the casting directors at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York City, and before that, she spent almost a decade at The Williamstown Theatre Festival working closely with Nikos Psacharopoulos as his Associate Artistic Director. She is originally from Stamford, Connecticut.

Ms. Monte graciously answered our questions to keep Broadwayworld readers informed about The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.

We enjoy your recent "Diary of a Theatre" posts on your web site. Here's the link for our readers: https://www.shakespearenj.org/memorylane.html. Tell us what inspired you to create them.

The Diary of A Theatre idea came to me back in February when we were all discussing some of the fun things we planning on doing to commemorate this big anniversary season. We wanted to do a number of special things this year, and I recalled how popular my Artist of the Week feature was a number of years ago. The Diary seemed a great way to share some of my 30 years-worth of memories with my fellow artists and our audience members. The COVID-19 virus has given this weekly reach-out a whole new function now! It is serving as a wonderful little gift, providing people with a few moments of amusement, diversion and nostalgia, allowing them to forget about the virus for a few moments. So many of the Diary entries have helped evoke all kinds of memories in our readers - and then they write back to me and share their stories. Their feedback and tales have, in turn, helped me keep my resolve and kept me inspired to keep fighting to make sure that our theatre is still standing when the smoke clears! I am getting so much "fan mail" in response to Diary of A Theatre that I look forward to opening my laptop each day so I can read people's wonderful messages.

STNJ is treasured for its commitment to classic works. The 2020 season has an exciting and excellent selection of plays. What have you and your staff been doing to get ready for the season ahead?

Well, we find ourselves in a really weird position. Half of what we are doing is carefully and pragmatically lowering the company's pulse and heartbeat to very low levels to ensure that we can financially weather this virus-storm, while at the same time, we are doing everything we can to be ready to leap into action when the time comes. Those two tasks feel diametrically opposed, but it is indeed what we must do. We were/are so excited about this season's line-up of plays, so we're trying to figure out a way to make sure our audience gets the full array of productions, even if some of them will be happening in new and different time slots. We've got a wide range of game plans in place, each addressing a different time-frame, that will allow us to completely revive and get back to work the minute the virus-coast is clear. However, the problem is more complicated than that, for even if we can go back to work, it may not mean that people are going to feel ready to congregate in public places again. There are a zillion other factors that we are trying to anticipate so that we can get through all of this and be there for people on the other end, but so much is unknown - no one knows anything for certain anymore about anything; the only certain thing is that our staff and artists are dying to get back to work the minute it is safe to do so!

We recently toured your amazing facility at 3 Vreeland in Florham Park that creatively consolidates the functions of STNJ. It is brilliant! What would you like our readers to know about it?

Well, first I just want people to know that this extraordinary workspace for theatre artists exists here in Florham Park, and that it is not only a beautiful and conducive space in which to create theatre, but it is a unique workplace in a number of ways. I don't know of any other theatrical support facility quite like ours anywhere in America. We have taken an old valve factory and transformed it into a 50,000 sq. ft. work of installation art that has been created from the art that appears on our stages, and then as we work, we are surrounded by the art created by our colleagues. So, not only have we upcycled the building itself, but we are upcycling pieces of our sets and props that return to the building once a show closes and then become an organic part of this ever-evolving work of art. Best of all, every aspect of the building is created to function as an educational tool - even the very walls, on which young designers can create "shops" that line the hallways and exemplify the collaborative art of theatre. All of our props, scenery, costumes, weapons...everything is stored in a way that makes the very tools of our trade be a part of this overall work of art. We do tours of the building all the time, and those tours are part of our education programming as well - so many people have no idea what goes into the creation of a piece of theatre, but after a tour of our facility, they are amazed at being able to see, in just an hour's time, the complex collaboration needed to bring a play to life on stage. I am really proud of what we've created there, and I can't wait for the day when we can give our tours again. I'm also really proud that the building has now been officially named in honor of Governor Thomas H. Kean, who has been such a great champion of the arts. He has very graciously lent his name to our space: The Thomas H. Kean Theatre Factory - The Education, Production and Administrative Center of The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey!

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey Gala is an elaborate and exciting night for supporters and many more. We know that you have had to reschedule it for October. We hope that many of our readers will join you for this amazing event. What would you like them to know about it?

Well, we have always had a reputation for throwing a great Gala, but since we've been holding them at the Kean Theatre Factory, they have become even more special. We transform the entire building into a magical realm, and the events of the night take people throughout the building. Everyone ends up in our grand "ballroom" for the second half of the evening, which is our scene shop turned into a spectacular performance space, and we finish up the night with a terrific cabaret featuring an amazing group of performers, many of whom are well-known veterans of Broadway, film and television. It's consistently one of the best galas I've ever been to, if I do say so myself! Since we were supposed to celebrate my 30th anniversary season at this year's gala, I truly hope we can do it on our new October date! Tickets are on sale and people can purchase them online or by calling our box office.

Your company's commitment to classic theatre has garnered praise from critics, patrons and many more. Productions delight audiences both young and old. What are some of the challenges of presenting such exceptional works?

I think the biggest challenge is getting past the stigmas or prejudices that the words "classic" or "Shakespeare" evoke. Many people hear those words and either shudder, groan, or run for the hills. We try to get audiences to remember or realize that these plays have become classics by virtue of the very fact that they're so good; they've stood the test of time, and therefore, you're pretty much guaranteed that you're going to see a good play! And, we strive to emphasize how resonant and relevant these plays are for everyone, from every walk of life, no matter who you are or what you do. Again, plays become classics because of their universal appeal. We also stress that we do not present our work as "museum pieces" but as dynamic, vital, exciting productions that are as "new" now as they were when they were written. We also tend to try and bring our audiences classics that are not as well-known as those that are on the "greatest hits" list. For me, these hidden gems are the shows that people should really flock to because no one else is doing them, and this may be their only chance to see something like Sherwood's Tovarich, or Maeterlinck's The Blue Bird, or Ostrovsky's Diary of A Scoundrel - all of which we've done, and all were a huge hit with the audiences that saw them. People are scared of plays they've never heard of, and that's a huge challenge. I'm not sure what they're so worried about, I'd much rather see a movie that I haven't seen yet, or read a new book rather than re-read one I've already read, even if I loved it. That kind of hesitancy about unknown titles is not something I have ever personally understood. I also feel a tremendous responsibility to endeavor to make each production that we do, known or unknown, as artistically excellent as humanly possible - if we are the guardians of this work and want to keep these plays alive, we must produce them in a way that makes people see why they have survived. To do a great play in mediocre fashion does not help serve their longevity!

The Covid-19 Outbreak has caused major disruptions to the entire arts community. How have you remained connected to your patrons and supporters?

Well, we're doing all things that most theatres are doing - reaching out in a variety of ways to make sure they don't forget about us, and to reassure our patrons that we fully intend to be here for them when we can all gather in public places again. Our Diary of A Theatre weekly feature is one way of staying connected, and we employ social media a lot to keep people apprised of all new developments. We're also posting links to some wonderful exercises and activities that people (especially parents and kids) can do in their living rooms or playrooms - those videos "star" our very own Brian B. Crowe and his two children, Izzie and Xander! Soon, we'll be posting a video of our recent Shakespeare LIVE! production of Julius Caesar so that teachers can use it for their online teaching efforts. It will have a number of features attached to make it even more fun for online learning. And, as often as possible, I send our audience base a personal email to let them know what we are planning and where we stand. There will be a new one coming out soon.

We know that STNJ has a very bright future. How can our readers continue to support the theatre?

People can support us in three ways: like most arts organizations, this pandemic is going to threaten our very existence. So if people have the means and the desire to protect us, they can make a donation. That's the obvious way people can help. The most important thing is that when the time comes, that they return to the habit of theatre-going, and in fact, enhance that habit. Having people in seats is what we need more than anything else! And of course, last but not least, the more people can spread the word about the extraordinary quality of our work, the better.

Anything else you'd like our readers to know?

Well, just that all of us at The Shakespeare Theatre are taking inspiration from Shakespeare and his company of players. The theatres were shut down several times during Shakespeare's heyday in London because of the Plague, and his company managed to survive, and so will we!

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is located at 36 Madison Avenue (at Lancaster Road) on the campus of Drew University. For more information, please visit their web site at http://www.shakespearenj.org/.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Bonnie J. Monte


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