Tuesday , November 23 2021

Theater Interview: Bonnie J. Monte, Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey

I first heard of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey (STNJ) when I interviewed Benjamin Eakeley about their autumn concert series. I decided to check in with them again as they gear up for their winter show, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, running from December 8 through January 2 in Madison, NJ. Their main stage, the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, has not hosted in-person performances since A Christmas Carol in 2019.

Adapted for the stage by Jeremy Brooks and Adrian Mitchell, A Child’s Christmas in Wales is a popular offering by the STNJ. It is based on the classic story by Dylan Thomas about spending holidays in Wales during his childhood in the 1920s. The play serves as a reminder about what we can cherish about spending the holidays with family and friends.

Bonnie J. Monte is director of this production as well as Artistic Director of the company. Over the 32 seasons spent with the Shakespeare Theatre, she’s directed over 80 productions. Monte and I met on a conference call to talk more about her career, important projects she spearheaded, and takeaways from A Child’s Christmas in Wales.

Are there Shakespeare plays you want to revisit? Is there a Shakespeare play that you haven’t done yet?

There’s a couple that I’ve done several times because I’m fascinated by them! I feel that I haven’t quite perfected them in terms of what I want to do with them.

There’s a bunch that I’m actually not interested in directing. I tend to let other directors who have a vision for those plays do them instead. I’m not sitting around dying to do Troilus and Cressida. I have no desire to be somebody who can claim to have directed the entire canon. 

Photo of Bonnie J. Monte speaking to cast at rehearsal
Bonnie J. Monte addressing the cast at the first table read on November 9, 2021, as Robert Long listens

Are there any veteran actors you’d love to have back at STNJ in the next few seasons?

I have such an incredible company of actors, many that I work with constantly. There’s a core company of about 100 people and a larger, amorphous company of anywhere from 300-400 that work with us regularly. I haven’t been able to work with Bob Cuccioli, Laila Robins, John Barker, Kevin Isola — Gosh, so many! There’s a ton of people I’m dying to work with and get back in the rehearsal room with. 

With the pandemic, theaters were switching gears and retooling activities. Is there anything from your long career with STNJ that you’re glad you put in place? Things that have come in handy during the pandemic?

I had to fight to get both the outdoor stage space and our backyard stage space. Those were tough battles in my life here as the Artistic Director, in trying to build support to procure them. One is a space owned by St. Elizabeth’s, but brokering that partnership took a couple of years. Purchasing the facility we have in Florham Park — it ultimately ended up being one of the few theaters around that could work during the first year of the pandemic. There was not a day that went by in the pandemic where I didn’t say, “Getting this building was the smartest thing we ever did.”

I don’t think we would have made it through the pandemic had we not had the spaces. The building itself was so large that it was very safe. The ability to perform outside and also to build a COVID-safe performance space — it was very open-air and allowed us to get the work done in a protected and healthy way. 

Photo of Cameron Nally and Dino Curia wearing hats as they speak to Jeff McCarthy
From left to right: Cameron Nalley, Dino Curia, and Jeff McCarthy in rehearsal

Why do you think A Child’s Christmas in Wales is one of your “most requested holiday offerings?”

It’s very much like A Christmas Carol, [as] it really does transcend all belief systems. It’s an incredibly appealing play for everybody no matter what your beliefs are and your religion. It embraces all the good parts about humanity. People get very moved and inspired. It reminds them about what the true meaning of the winter holidays are, which again are basically the same for every religion or non-religion. 

It is about the good part of the human spirit, and innocence. In a world where innocence is in such short supply, to be reminded about what a beautiful thing that is, is great. There’s music. It’s incredibly fun and funny, yet moving. People just go nuts over it.

I was amazed to find we have an audio recording of Dylan Thomas reading it. As a director, do you find value in having access to an author’s recordings?

We do a lot of research work and table work prior to getting up on our feet and putting the play together. The cast and I did listen to a couple of Dylan Thomas recordings. We didn’t purposely listen to A Child’s Christmas in Wales. I didn’t want to influence the young actor who’s playing Dylan Thomas and how he would say those words, particularly because we all knew that Dylan Thomas was a very affected, over-the-top reader of his own work. They’re not readings that we would think were very good in today’s world. It would be way over-the-top. 

Photo of the cast of 'A Child's Christmas in Wales' at a table during rehearsal
The cast of ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales in rehearsal’

Tell us more about your collaboration with Robert Long, the Music Director for this show. 

We brought him in to work with us for the first time on A Child’s Christmas in Wales. This was back I think in 2013. Since then he’s come and worked with us on A Christmas Carol. For a show like this where the music has its base both in early holiday music as well as [in] traditional folk music, Bob is the right guy to go to because this is where his career has led him.

He’s very much apart of the church community and he’s been the director of a choir at a number of places. He’s worked in some amazing cathedrals and churches in the city. This kind of music is very much a part of his wheelhouse. He’s a great guy to collaborate with! At the same time, he has a great understanding of how to make a song work from a theatrical point of view as well. 

Is there a scene or part you really find meaningful whenever you bring this to the stage? 

For me, the opening moment and the closing moment of the play are the two moments that get me the most. They open a door to a world that we all want to remember. In the closing moments, it turns the light out on a world that we loved, but in a good way. [These] are also the parts that are filled with Dylan Thomas’ poetry, which is gorgeous. There are a lot of songs that are very moving. There’s fun stuff. In terms of what inspires me, it’s those two moments. 

What’s been your approach as a director to the rehearsals?

We’re [at] the end of our second week as we’ve been in rehearsal for a while. It’s very much an ensemble piece, so it’s a very collaborative process. It’s basically an empty stage with a ton of furniture that comes on and off, and a lot of shredded paper that stands in for various things, particularly snow, waves, and ice. I’m really encouraging the cast to be inventive with me as we play around and come up with fabulous ideas to bring this to life for the audience.

For schedule and tickets, visit the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey website.

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About Pat Cuadros

Pat Cuadros is a frequent reviewer of all things Washington, D.C. She also covers events in Canada and London. Her highlights include interviews with Juliette Binoche, Daniel Davis, Fran Drescher, Derek Jacobi, and Ndaba Mandela.

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