Untangling the myths surrounding an artistic genius

In 'Becoming van Gogh,' Charles Monette confronts the painter’s demons, and the art they inspired

BRATTLEBORO — Vincent van Gogh is usually seen as a tormented artist who went crazy. But Charles Monette has written and is starring in a new one-man show that attempts to portray the Dutch painter in a different light.

For two weekends - Nov. 6 through Nov. 16 - Acting on Impulse Theatre Company presents the world première of “Becoming van Gogh,” based on the Post-Impressionist painter's diaries and letters.

The production is directed by Mac Gander, who also helped edit Monette's script. Performances are at 8 p.m. at Hooker-Dunham Theater & Gallery on 139 Main St.

A Sunday matinee is set for Nov. 16 at 3 p.m.

On Nov. 7, a benefit performance is planned for Kindle Farm School in Newfane.

“When people hear about the show, they usually ask me if I am writing about the guy who cut off his ear,” says Monette. “But I believe it is a misconception to envision van Gogh as a starving artist who never succeeded in life.”

Monette says he hopes to blow the cobwebs from an ossified portrait of the artist as a madman, and present a more complex and affirmative representation of the painter.

“Van Gogh was a remarkably accomplished man,” Monette adds. “Besides painting some of the most beloved pictures in the world he was a brilliant writer, a linguist, and a minister.”

Monette explains he was inspired to write “Becoming van Gogh” after reading “Van Gogh: The Life” (Deckle Edge, 2011) by Steven Naifah and Gregory White Smith.

“I think it is a terrific book with an affirmative point of view, and it changed my way of thinking about van Gogh,” Monette says.

Of his play, he explains, “Mostly [it] is in Van Gogh's own writing. I would say 61 percent of what you hear will be his words and 39 percent mine.”

Monette was born in New York City and grew up on Long Island.

An infantry sergeant in the Vietnam War, Monette took point on patrol for four months until he was wounded in a firefight with the North Vietnamese. He recalls the date: June 15, 1971. He would leave the war with a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, and an Air Medal (for combat aerial flights over Vietnam).

Monette has lived and worked in Southern Vermont for more than 30 years. He moved to Brattleboro in 1980 to work for Williams & Frehsee Inc. as a master carpenter to build passive-solar homes. He later worked for the Brattleboro Design Group.

Monette began acting in Brattleboro theater groups when he discovered that this was his love and vocation. He was president of the Vermont Theater Company for two years and now leads Acting on Impulse.

From acting, Monette moved on to directing and writing. He wrote five plays, including one based on a lesser known Sophoclean tragedy, “Philomedes,” which in Monette's revision is “Phil October.”

“It's a peace play about about a homeless Vietnam vet with post-traumatic stress disorder who lives in the subways of New York, something I can relate to,” says Monette, who also suffers from PTSD.

After Monette decided he needed more formal training in theater, he applied to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and was one of 16 chosen for a six-week program. Monette attended New York University where he graduated magna cum laude in 1995 with a master's degree in educational theater.

From 1995 to 2005, he was an assistant professor in the Communications and Art departments at Landmark College in Putney.

He also is the author of more than 500 poems and wrote the column “Charley's War” for Vermont Views Magazine ( ).

From 2007 until 2010, Monette taught at Kindle Farm School's middle and high schools, which specialize in special education for boys and young men.

Now a self-described free agent, Monette gives writing lessons and carpentry assistance at no charge for those who cannot afford to pay.

Monette admits, however, that there has been a dark aspect to his past also. In his dealings with PTSD and related mental traumas, Monette has often had a difficult time adjusting.

“I've been homeless, drifting around the country four or five times when I got home from 'Nam,” he says.

In his most recent bout with mental illness, he says, “I was on a locked unit at the VA in Northampton for PTSD and later depression. I was evicted from my apartment on Larkin Street while in the hospital, for good reason again, related to my PTSD episode. I lost everything because of it. I lost the woman I love, my apartment, and my job. It has taken me a long time to get back on my feet.”

Monette credits his ex-wife, Belle Coles, and his children Devan and Simone for being a great support to him in this ordeal.

“They made frequent visits to lift my spirits and to give their love under arduous circumstances,” he adds. “After three months, my older sister, Pat - my angel - came and rescued me, saving my life [by] taking me to her home in Levittown, Long Island. If she hadn't, I might still be in the VA hospital.”

Monette says he has been drawn to tell van Gogh's story because, “The more I read his story, the more parallels I found with my own life. In this play, I hope to lessen the stigma associated with illness like manic depression and schizophrenia.”

Monette also sees a physical resemblance between himself and van Gogh, a similarity he says others pick up on as well.

“Years ago, when I was working on the tech crew in the Rocky Mountains, a foreman named Gene kept calling me van Gogh. I asked him why he called me that, and he said I looked like van Gogh. Gene invited me to his cabin, and this guy who seemed so rough had all these watercolors around his room. He was a serious artist and painted. Gene showed my the mistake of having preconceptions about people,” Monette explains.

Although Monette kept his hand in theater writing and directing, “Becoming van Gogh” is his first stage appearance as an actor in 19 years.

In addition to writing and starring in “Becoming van Gogh,” Monette is building the set for the production. He also set out to learn to paint, to better assume the role.

“For the past nine weeks, I have been working with Heidi Lorenz who teaches art in Goshen, N.H. I met her at Amy's [Bakery Arts] Café and said I needed to learn painting for this play, and even though she is an accomplished teacher, she agreed to take me on,” he explains.

So far Monette has finished dozens of canvases, often designing and constructing interesting frames. From Lorenz, Monette had gotten the confidence to paint onstage, but beyond that he says he has found painting has been a thrilling, therapeutic experience that has made a big difference in his life:

“The miracle of painting is that it has taught me to focus.”

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