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Starring an academic as an accidental actor

by Krista Habermehl, MA'05 | February 28, 2017

Patrick Monaghan, PhD’84, never thought he’d close out an academic career at the age of 60, only to take on a second vocation – as a professional stage and television actor, no less. And yet, that’s the path Monaghan pursued immediately upon retirement, after 25 years teaching Chemistry at Memorial University of Newfoundland, in Corner Brook, N.L.

The academic-turned-actor, who originally hails from England, returned to his “first home in Canada” – London, Ont. – in 2010, and is currently pursuing performance gigs in Toronto and the U.K. He recently played the role of Joe in Port Authority, a three-man play shown at the Campbell House Museum in Toronto this past spring, to positive reviews, with the Torontoist labeling his performance a “rich portrayal,” with “acting to savour.”

And he’s just wrapped filming the role of Thomas Lewis, President of the British Seafarers’ Union, in a TV drama/documentary called Titanic: The New Evidence, which aired in Britain in December and will air on the Discovery Channel in Canada in April.

Patrick Monaghan, PhD’84
Patrick Monaghan, PhD’84, just wrapped filming the role of Thomas Lewis, President of the British Seafarers’ Union, in a TV drama/documentary called Titanic: The New Evidence, which aired in Britain in December and will air on the Discovery Channel in Canada in April.

While it’s a long way from lecturing on organometallic chemistry, Monaghan is thrilled to officially turn his focus to a hobby that came about purely by happenstance – with the arrival of Ken Livingstone and a formal theatre program at Memorial’s Grenfell campus in the 1980s.

“I had no prior connection to theatre, no prior association with acting, nothing in my family or my friends. I was a philistine,” he joked. “It all started with the new theatre department.”

In 1986, Memorial hired Livingstone, a former Western professor and founder of Centre Stage Theatre Company in London, Ont., to develop courses and design a theatre for the university’s new School of Fine Arts. At the time of the school’s official opening in 1988, only first-year students were enrolled. There weren’t nearly enough bodies to fill all of the production positions, including acting roles. Livingstone, the first head of the theatre department, and later, director of the school itself, turned to faculty and staff, including Monaghan, to help out on a short-term basis.

“A number of profs and staff were in the shows early on, but more or less, everybody stopped after a while – except myself. I was asked to be in sometimes two productions per semester,” Monaghan said. “It was quite demanding, but I really loved it.”

He loved it so much, in fact, he began taking acting classes within the department, while continuing to perform in student productions. With so much enthusiasm and aptitude for the craft, Monaghan said he was mentored and encouraged by Livingstone, and acting professor Maurice Good, to put together a resume and dabble in paid work.

The effort led to some roles in England and in Ontario at the Fergus Grand Theatre. With success on his side, Monaghan was accepted into the Canadian and British actors’ union, Equity.

“I’m doing all these shows; I’m taking all these classes; I’m a member of the union; but it’s not really contributing to my career as a professor at the university,” he said. “So I asked to be cross-appointed with the theatre department – and they agreed. No teaching. No committee work. No assessing students, however. I wanted to work with the students like a peer – they were my colleagues. Once I was a member of the theatre department, I could officially pursue my theatrical interests on sabbatical leave.”

Throughout his academic years in Corner Brook, Monaghan played nearly 30 roles – mostly Shakespearian – in Memorial productions alone. He also acted in performances with Theatre Newfoundland, the Stephenville Theatre Festival and Rising Tide Theatre in Trinity, N.L.

Inspired by the historical ties between Ireland and Newfoundland, in 2001 Monaghan spearheaded a project to bring a play written and set in the Atlantic province on tour in Ireland. The dark comedy, West Moon by Al Pittman, was performed by Monaghan and fellow cast members in half a dozen communities around Ireland, including Inishbofin Island off the coast of Connemara. “That was wonderful – just fantastic. It’s an island of a 185 people and half of them were at the show. They loved it.”

While an unexpected interest, Monaghan said acting opened doors to new people and ideas and rounded out his years in acadamia. “I felt I was exploring a brand-new world, a world that was completely foreign to me. I learned more about the arts, more about literature. It is very stimulating being an actor because you’re faced at all times with new ideas – within the play, within your character.

“I’ve gotten a kick out of every role I’ve played; no matter how big, small or ordinary the play might be. I also get a lot of pleasure out of making people laugh. I could play Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream over and over again. I’d play that role at the drop of a hat – for no money.”

When faced with the prospect of impending retirement, Monaghan felt he needed a focus outside of teaching to keep his mind and body moving. And while the two worlds seem diametrically opposed, Monaghan said his background in science prepared him well for the rigours of acting.

“You have to analyze and think logically as a scientist and, ultimately, when you want to know about an element’s structure, you break it down into its pieces, atoms, and then you put it back together again. In acting, you have to deconstruct the character you’re playing. You have to break it down into idea after idea. So, there’s a kind of a deconstruction that has to go on to understand the character. Taking the lines and the ideas and then you put them back together again and – there you are – on stage.”

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