My Life as a Teaching Artist

By Huw McKinnon

As a Teaching Artist for Bell Shakespeare the most important – and happily the most fulfilling – part of my job is continuing the tradition that was built into the very foundations of the company by John Bell of making sure that we give students all over Australia access to the very best experiences of Shakespeare both in the theatre and in their classrooms no matter the obstacles. Be they geographical, or financial, or even language barriers the company believes in the value and transformative power of a practical and interactive approach to Shakespeare and his stories and I’m really proud to be at the forefront of delivering on that commitment.

And it’s not about talent or skill, or dramatic flair. As a Teaching Artist I’m not travelling the country trying to turn an entire nation of young people into McKellens and Denches. Quite often I find myself in a classroom in a remote part of Australia gently trying to encourage a group of painfully shy students to stand up and say just a few words in front of their peers for the very first time. And we share Shakespeare with them to help them do that. We show them these grand stories and these complex characters to reassure them that they are not alone in the struggles and the questions and the moral conundrums that they are grappling with. And indeed, that they actually have quite a lot in common with these characters and stories. More than they would ever have realised had we not gone to the effort to reach them.

But there are some students in these areas – sometimes in the most out of the way and unlikely parts of the country – who are already well on their way to making that leap. They discovered a joy in Shakespeare well before we met them and they love these stories and they love the poetry and they love the puzzle of bringing it to life. And they are dying to take the next step but they’re not exactly sure how. If you grow up in a farming community in regional Western Australia for instance, opportunities to perform are few and far between. It’s unlikely that there is a bustling local community theatre scene. And sometimes these students attend schools that are many hours away. Their learning is all done remotely and they only see a real life teacher a few times a year. But they have still fostered this love and talent for performing Shakespeare. The John Bell Scholarship is designed for these students. To foster their talent, encourage them, and give them access to a pathway in the performing arts that had previously seemed invisible or entirely inaccessible.

Every year we conduct auditions all over Australia for students in years 10, 11, and 12 and three very lucky recipients are given the opportunity to come to Sydney for a week and immerse themselves in the world of Shakespeare and theatre. They participate in workshops conducted by Bell artists, including one very special session with John Bell. They are invited to observe rehearsals, they attend a Bell show at The Sydney Opera House, and they are given an insight into the inner workings of Bell Shakespeare. This is undoubtedly an unforgettable – and probably life changing – experience for a young person from regional Australia. Some of whom have never been to Sydney before, let alone seen a performance at the Opera House.

However, the real value for me in the John Bell Scholarship goes back to the original ethos of Bell Shakespeare and John’s founding approach to making Shakespeare accessible to anybody who wants to be involved. Yes, the program aims to identify and reward a few very talented individuals. But just the process of auditioning alone is a priceless experience for all the students who are involved.

Imagine you were 16 years old and you lived in a small country town. You have severely limited access to theatrical experiences or opportunities, and despite this you have somehow discovered this passion for Shakespeare. But you have no one to share it with, no like minded souls with whom to explore that passion. The opportunity for somebody like that to spend some time with a professional actor who has taken the time to come visit them in their school and work on their soliloquy with them, or just chat about Shakespeare and theatre and listen to what it is that excites them would be priceless and might be just the thing they need to keep the flame of their passion and creativity burning.

The John Bell Scholarship and Teaching Artist programs are only made possible through the wonderful generosity of donors like you. If you wish to learn more about our education programs or make a donation please contact our Philanthropy team (02) 8298 9017, or email giving@bellshakespeare.com.au