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Highlander Profile: Drama Teacher Jonathan Monk

Thursday, October 26, 2017

“Y’all quit looking at me,” Jonathan Monk, Heathwood’s new Middle School and Upper School Drama teacher, told the “The Addams Family Musical” cast during a rehearsal. “I won’t be standing here during the performance. You need to look at them,” he said, gesturing to the sparse audience of waiting parents. “I’m going to soak cotton balls in water and throw them at you if you keep looking at me.” The students laughed. Belser Auditorium sizzled with energy and joy.

After rehearsal, Heathwood senior and cast member Christina Altman said, “Mr. Monk is super cheerful about everything. I loved Ms. Engle and was really worried when she left, but if anyone can replace her, it’s Mr. Monk.”

The admiration is mutual. Monk said, “I have found Heathwood drama students to be curious and willing to take creative risks. I see how hard most students work. They are comfortable both leading and following. They seem prepared for drama because of this, and also because most students possess a good sense of humor and a working knowledge of the world.”

Monk, a Columbia native, worked as an actor in New York City for ten years before coming back to Columbia to teach acting to high school students at Trustus Theatre’s Apprentice Company and to middle school students at Alcorn Middle School.

He’s known since sixth grade that he wanted to be an actor, so he made himself an Actors’ Equity card on the back of a spaghetti dinner flyer. “I knew the card was something that made you legitimized as an actor. Twelve years later, I had a real card,” he said.

He acted in many Columbia community theatres as a teenager to great success, including being in a play that ran at Piccolo Spoleto. “Because I was basically working with adults from a very early age, I felt supported and like I had extra family. The true idea of what it’s like to be on a team was ironed into me,” he said. Sometimes he would be in two plays at once, acting in one while rehearsing in another. He still managed to be class Salutatorian at Cardinal Newman, so he understands how to guide his students into both academic and extracurricular successes.  

Then it was on to Carnegie Mellon University, which is renowned for its musical theatre department. He said, “When I was at Carnegie I was working with classmates who would go on to win Tonies and other awards.” He studied alongside Leslie Odom Jr., who later won a Tony for his performance as Aaron Burr in “Hamilton,” and Megan Hilty, who has been nominated for the Tony award for Noises Off. “I can’t turn on the TV without seeing someone I know,” Monk said.

From there he went to New York where he had an agent and some wonderful experiences, including singing on the stage with Liza Minnelli at a benefit concert. But the life of an actor in New York City is a hard one, with 400,000 actors vying for 550 acting jobs. He primarily supported himself by acting in commercials, which can be very lucrative. He also worked at a suicide hotline and as a waiter in a private club that catered to celebrities. “While I enjoyed getting to meet everybody at the club, I learned how incredibly thankless a waiter’s job is. Everybody should have to serve in the army or wait tables for six months because you otherwise can’t understand what other people go through,” said Monk. “As a result, I know I tip too much now.”

He wrote a show for himself. “It’s a clown show—not face paint, but I do wear a red nose,” he said. The character tap dances in flippers and sings, and is Monk’s comic vision of who he will be in forty years. “It only lasts an hour because if you are doing a one-man show for more than an hour, nobody wants to look at you so you need to get out of there.” He performed this show, which he titled, “Heathcliff’s Back,” for two years around the New York area and also in Martha’s Vineyard. He is working on a revival of the show, which will play at Trustus Theatre in 2018.

Monk keeps in touch with EG Engle, Heathwood’s much beloved drama teacher who left at the end of last year to join her husband in New York City. Monk and Engle are acquaintances through the Trustus Apprentice Workshop. He said, “EG and I communicate regularly so that I can give her updates on how things are going and get valuable information about how she ran the program. It helps me honor the traditions she established and takes a lot of the guesswork out of my transition. She established a strong robust drama program and it is an honor to be her successor.

“What has surprised me is that the students I’m working with on the Addams Family are so passionate and so focused that they are off book (have memorized all their lines) three weeks ahead of schedule—and it’s a full-length musical!” Monk said.

“The most surprising and wonderful thing was being corrected by a student on the angle of the accent on the first ‘e’ in ‘Molière,’ an excellent French playwright. Also another surprising thing was a student who knew both Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou were in the original ‘Sweeney Todd,’” he continued.

Heathwood’s community spirit and parent generosity have also made Monk feel welcome. He wasn’t sure how he was going to build the set for “The Addams Family Musical.” “I’m not one who likes to ask for things because I feel like I’m being a burden, so I would rather try to do things myself. But behind my back Janis Corley, the chorus director, asked around to see if there was anyone who could build a set. Janet Noble said that her husband, Richard Noble, could and that he would be happy to build us a few platforms. I found this out on my birthday and that was the best birthday present I could ever get!” Monk said. “It was truly not about helping me but parents, including the costume volunteers, showing the kids how a whole community can come together for a group project.

“What I want to teach and to foster is for the kids to understand teamwork and community,” he said. “It’s about the importance of building the students into good people.

 “I’m thankful every day that I get to school and see that pond. It’s wonderful to come up to my classroom to begin the adventures with my students here,” Monk said. “I’m truly so thankful to be in a place where the arts are valued. It is one of the most amazing experiences, and I feel it on a daily level. I am thankful for it.”

Tickets for “The Addams Family Musical” go on sale November 1 and can be purchased at the Plaid Peddler and the school receptionist’s office. Shows are at 7:30 p.m. on November 15, 16, and 17.