Just a squeeze of Marian Monta’s hand. That’s what Kent Smither says is the best compliment he has ever received.
Nearly a decade ago, in a dark theatre while Smither’s production of “Macbeth” took the stage at the then-University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg, he was sitting next to Monta, his former theatre professor and longtime mentor.
To him, she was the most important person in the audience that evening.
In the middle of the show, she reached to lay her hand over his and squeezed — a voiceless “bravo.” Smither, who graduated from UTPA in 1977, said “that was the best review I have ever gotten in my life.”
Marian Monta, a beloved figure in the Rio Grande Valley’s university and theatre community, died Wednesday, July 15, at the age of 88 after a life that can only be described as overwhelmingly full.
A woman of uncompromising standards, unmatched wit and an incredible capacity for affection, it’s hard to overestimate the number of lives Monta touched in the Valley after spending decades of her life here as an educator, thespian and mentor.
“Almost every Valley theatre person has a Monta-connection in some way. Valley theatre has her genome, her DNA,” Smither said. “I don’t think you can over emphasize the impact she had in theatre.”
The students she had during her 36 years teaching theatre arts at UTPA, now the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, know that praise from Monta was unsurpassable.
Salma Ghanem, who graduated from UTPA in 1987, says her best achievement is being called Monta’s “no. 1-and-a-half” — Monta’s daughter, Susan Smith, was always first.
For Brian Warren, a graduate theatre student in the late ‘90s, he will always cherish the moment when Monta “informed” him that he was a theatre major.
Warren was an English student at the time, and wandered into the theatre department once just to give it a shot. It is because of Monta that he has not left ever since.
“After my audition, she just turned to me and informed me ‘you are a theatre major now,’” Warren said, who is now an associate theatre professor at UTRGV with 18 years under his belt.
Monta’s dedication to the program began with her passion for art, but ended with great love for her students.
Monta joined UTPA as a theatre professor in 1971, the same year she moved down from Virginia with her daughter.
As the chair of the communication department for several years, Monta was instrumental to the growth of the university’s theatre program, and in designing its curriculum which currently has nearly 250 students enrolled.
When she began teaching at UTPA, there were fewer than 50 students in the program.
At one point, Monta was acknowledged for writing and receiving the most grants for the school among the staff.
She spearheaded the funding and design of the department’s second performance house, the Albert L. Jeffers Theatre in 1985, which is now where nearly all of the program’s productions take place.
Monta’s passion for teaching took her around the world, and that teaching even propelled some of her students into space. She had been invited to lecture on every continent, and before leaving Virginia, taught some of the Mercury Seven astronauts at the NASA Langley Research Center.
She was also the first woman to attain a doctorate in her field at Cornell University in New York.
“Much of the Rio Grande Valley’s theatre lovers have lost a mother,” Ghanem said.
Smith said though she was her mother’s only daughter but never felt like an only child.
“So many of her students and her godchildren were all just so important to her, and she probably takes just as much pride in what they do, than of what I do,” she said.
Monta’s students have continued her legacy, though. Monta retired in 2007, and many of her students are now theatre teachers and professors, and aim to teach the same principles they learned from her.
“I know that her imprint is on Valley theatre, because I can’t think of anyone who has not been taught by her, or taught by someone who wasn’t taught by her, or someone who worked alongside her,” Smither, a retired theatre teacher from Edcouch-Elsa High School, said.
Monta’s far-reaching roots into the area’s theatre community is evident in the upbringing of Elsa native Valente Rodriguez, who is now best known for his role as Ernie Cardenas on the sitcom “George Lopez.”
Rodriguez was introduced to theatre by Smither in high school, then joined UTPA’s theatre program, where he was trained by Monta, who became his lifetime mentor. He graduated in 1984 and says “I wouldn’t be an actor if it wasn’t for her.”
‘THE THEATRE IS MY CHURCH’
The theatre was Marian Monta’s church, and she was a fire and brimstone preacher. It was well known on campus that taking a course with Monta, or working in a production with her, was not for the faint of heart. She seldom restrained her biting wit and demanded the utmost of her students.
“As a professor, she terrified a lot of students,” Warren said, chuckling. “But everyone knew that she had their best intentions at heart… she was blunt, but in a way that you know she was just trying to make you better.”
Her students even remember the phrases she said either in class or rehearsals, which have been dubbed “Montaisms” — of which, she had a trove of.
They even have their favorite Motasims, and recite them in a way she would be proud of: by taking a pause to get in character, and speaking with dignity — though, some sayings may lack some.
Warren’s favorite came during rehearsal once when he struggled to follow Monta’s stage directions. He remembers her explaining, “If you don’t move your a–, I’ll come up there and light a fire under it.”
Smither burst into laughter while remembering her telling a student once: “You are sucking light like the Black Hole of Calcutta.”
Other sayings were more tender.
When Rodriguez joined the theatre program, he said he tried to do as much as he could, loading up classes while balancing as many acting gigs as possible. “Nine women can’t have a baby in one month,” Monta told him.
When Monta retired in 2007, students and colleagues gave her a book with her Montaisms, aptly entitled with one: “The theatre is my church.”
Those pithy witticisms were one way she directed her students. Her students also say that she gave the best acting advice, and was creative in the way she got the best performance out of them.
Her best performance was getting the best performances out of others.
Warren remembers having to portray a surprised character for a play once, but his performance wasn’t meeting Monta’s standard.
“So she snuck up to me and threw some cold water on my face — ice cold water,” he said. “She then said, ‘Yes, there you go.’”
Monta, as a stage director, professor, mother, mentor and friend, made sure to not hold back what she had to say. The people she loved meant too much.
“Even though she could be very intimidating, she had such high standards of performance and work, that you just had to live up to her standards,” Warren said.
‘TOMORROW NEVER COMES, BUT OPENING NIGHT DOES’
Monta was a woman of preparation, until the very last act of her life. It came to no surprise to any of her students that she wrote her own obituary, and planned her funeral.
Since her mother retired, Smith said she always reminded her that when the time came, everything she would need was in a red folder; suiting her dramatic personality, Monta labeled it, “If I should die.”
Smith said her mother would often ask her to pull it out so she could walk her through what to do when the time came. It included the phone number to call, the headshots she wanted. Her obituary was written, with just the date of death left blank.
“Remember, if something happens to me, there’s a folder in the file cabinet,” Smith said her mom would always say. Last week, that folder didn’t return back into the filing cabinet.
Monta also requested that there be no flowers at her funeral; her will was for donations to be directed toward the three theatre scholarships she has for UTRGV theatre students.
“She was very committed to education, and she wanted to see that money was not a barrier for her student’s success,” Smith said.
Monta was more than just a professor to her students. She often invited them to her home for dinner, and stayed in touch with them for decades after they graduated.
She was also her student’s best advocate. Monta took annual trips with students to New York City, and often brought down professional actors and agents to the campus.
“She understood that since we were so far away, we couldn’t go,” Rodriguez said. “So she brought people to us… She made sure you realized that her commitment to you was 100%, and when you have someone like that behind you, that gives you a lot of energy, it gives you a lot of hope.”
When Rodriguez, who came from a family of migrant workers, moved to Los Angeles in 1987, Monta gave him $1,000 to get settled in. He tried to pay her back, but told him to invest in someone else instead.
“She knew what she was doing, she was getting me to a point where I was so thankful, that I would want to do that to others,” Rodriguez said.
Smither said there was a time when his wife — Catherine Smither, who died several years ago — was struggling to find a place to stay when they were undergraduate students. Marian helped her search for apartments, and let her use some of the theatre’s props as furniture.
Monta directed 67 plays and musicals at UTPA, and her last performance was, “Once Upon a Mattress,” in 2007, which was directed by Warren, who considers her as his second mother.
Ghanem, who is now the interim provost at DePaul University in Chicago, said Monta “just exuded life around her, I miss her on many different levels… She was a force to be reckoned with.”
Everyone who is able to tell a story about a special moment with Monta tells it with joy. Marian Monta may no longer be teaching in a classroom, or directing plays, but the spirit she instilled to her students will pervade through generations of the region’s theatre community.
“Marian lived and died with grace, and she handled every phase in her life with such dignity,” Ghanem said. “That’s really what I learned from her. Getting old, you get old with dignity.”