I have had the pleasure of working for Bell Shakespeare for 14 years as an actor, a director, a researcher and a teaching artist. I have no favourite out of these; there’s not one I love more than another.
I just love Shakespeare and any opportunity to delve into his worlds and characters; I’m in a constant state of awe thinking about his incredible output and creativity. What has taken me on the biggest journey however, particularly geographically, is the education work that Bell Shakespeare has generously offered me over the years. I’ve been right across the country from Thursday Island to Cape York
to Leigh Creek and many more. It often feels like I have worked with every other school across the width and breadth of this country.
However, there’s one spot I’d not had the opportunity to reach as yet with my work for the Company: the Eyre Peninsula on the west coast of South Australia – my home turf. I spent a week travelling and visiting towns I know like the back of my hand. These were places I grew up in, played school sport at, long before I was introduced to Shakespeare by my high school Drama teacher.
But I hadn’t been there in years. So I headed out from Adelaide for a week of teaching where I would drive almost 2,000km to deliver workshops in four different towns.
It was a five-and-a-half-hour drive to Cowell, along stretches of highway I had travelled hundreds of times. From Adelaide to Port Wakefield to Port Augusta (lots of ports over in these parts), then through Whyalla and onto Cowell, population about 1000. Cowell is a coastal village, famous for oysters, jade mining, agriculture, aquaculture and the general friendliness of the local folk. I had chosen to stay with friends for a couple of nights, parents of children I grew up with. They were so welcoming, and the sense of country living came right back to me as we settled in for an evening of conversation.
The next morning, I was up and ready for a John Bell Scholarship audition. A Year 11 student named Jordan who strangely enough (this is Eyre Peninsula for you) is the eldest daughter of a girl I once went to school with. Everyone is connected here, somehow, either by family of by shared history.
Then on to Whyalla for a workshop at D’Face of Youth Arts, a wonderful organisation that provides creative opportunities for the youth of the township, as well as parents and other adult enthusiasts who wish to see their children grow into artists and appreciate a life where art of all descriptions plays a part.
It was incredible. I love working with community arts organisations. They provide a space for artists who need a path, the actors and creatively minded that need a community and a place to be heard. Participants in the workshop ranged from a seven-year-old student to adults in their early 50s.
We covered a lot, from Shakespearean insults to character journeys and portions of Romeo and Juliet. We had a seven-year-old reading Romeo to a 45-year-old Juliet. There are so many passionate and hungry people – children and adults alike – who are keen to perform, be involved and learn different things.
Next stop: Cowell.
I was living in serious anticipation of this workshop. Without getting nostalgic, Cowell is a place close to my heart. My hometown is 30 minutes west of Cowell. I spent endless weeks and months in Cleve and Cowell. I wanted them to be good, these Year 8s, but I had to put aside my bias. But an hour and a half later, that bias was back again and rightly so; I can’t help but praise these incredible eighth graders of Cowell, SA. What an effort, what respect, what commitment and what focus. I had about 12 students, none of whom had experienced Shakespeare on any academic or performance level before. They jumped in head-first.
We started with warm up games. Then I lead them into insults and they insisted on keeping the hand-outs because they were determined to use them on fellow students and teachers alike. One teacher took a hand-out and said she was going to use it at the staff meeting on Tuesday evening. Brilliant! The insults though, are as much a lesson in articulation, vocabulary and wordplay as they are just about being bawdy or insulting.
This was one of my favourite workshops of all time. I’m not biased; they were just that damn good. Cheeky, intelligent, impassioned speakers, artists and deeply curious. I had too much fun. Truly, too much.
Back to Whyalla for two Lovers and Tyrants workshops with the Year 7s.
Year 7 is when things start to get interesting; they respond to any romantic content specifically, in a much more interesting way. Things are starting to get real and make sense to them on a personal level.
A boy and girl (who were an actual couple) got up and performed their rehearsed piece from Romeo and Juliet. It was going along swimmingly. Their grasp of the text was excellent, they understood the textual stage directions with where the characters touch and when they don’t. They spoke beautifully. Then at the end, right on the line, “then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take…” they kissed! It came out of nowhere! The class erupted. I looked at the teacher – his head was in his hand, barely containing his laughter and I nearly fell over. These teenagers actually kissed in front of everyone!
Here’s three things I love: Shakespeare, teaching Shakespeare and working with young people.
I love doing this work and I love delivering it to young people. I love seeing their eyes light up, their confidence rise, their insecurities fall away; all from some theatre exercises with Shakespeare as a focal point. It warms my heart more than anything I’ve ever experienced.
Why is this? Well, I love to see people step out of their comfort zones and I love “growth”. I’m obsessed with hearing the words of this great playwright in the mouths of people who perhaps won’t even study his plays for another few years. They throw me curve balls, because they are cheeky; I throw them Shakespeare because I’m a hard taskmaster, and they delve, delve, DELVE!
Today’s final group at Long Street Primary were Year 5s. My highlight was doing some tableaux work with them. I asked them to show me what Hamlet might look like in the Middle Back Theatre (the local Whyalla theatre, where I used to see pantomimes as a kid and where once I participated in dance competitions). One student got down on bended knee, gave me the best ‘holding Yorick’s skull acting’ while his mate rested his grimacing face on his palm, playing Yorick. It was beautiful. It was genius. One of the students, randomly came out with the line “To be or not to be, that is the question.” I brought the rest of the group to immediate attention. I asked him where he’d heard that line, how did he know it, what’s going on?” “I saw it in Billy Madison and The Simpsons”. I asked him, “Do you know where the line came from?” He had no idea. I then led a discussion about the pervasiveness of Shakespeare in contemporary culture. They loved it. One student asked, “is there a balcony somewhere in Shakespeare?” I was in awe. Then we talked about Romeo and Juliet and created more tableaux.
I asked them to give me something from Shakespeare, generally. Any tableaux that has to do with Shakespeare. One group of boys presented me something so amazing I nearly fell over. One boy lying on his back, covering his head with a hoodie. Another lying on his stomach right next to him, holding his mate’s hand, then there’s three others lying next to the others with their hands crossed over their chest. Get this: the first was Shakespeare’s burial, his grave. The student had heard that Shakespeare’s head was stolen by grave robbers, so he was presenting it. The next was Anne Hathaway. The other three… Susanna, Judith and Hamnet; they had created Shakespeare’s family burial ground in the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford.
I travelled from Whyalla this morning to Port Lincoln; one of my favourite drives since childhood traversing beautiful fields, thriving agriculture and livestock and old homesteads that stand the test of time.
I took the students through warmups and asked: What do you know about Shakespeare and what do you know about A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Nil to nothing. PERFECT! We started with a moved synopsis, which is a condensed, physical synopsis of the play. We looked at the three worlds within the play: Athenians, Fairies and Mechanicals.
It was wonderful to deliver, reading the narrative aloud and watching these students grapple with moments of serious first-time discovery! “Hang on!” they said, “this is not a love triangle, it’s a damn square!”
Travel day, end of tour: I woke up, and when I did I felt fantastic. These weeks reinvent me, and I’ve had many with Bell Shakespeare; those post-week mornings where you know all you have to do is travel, but you really don’t want the drive or the reality check – especially during COVID time – where one is not sure of what lies ahead.
This work though; it’s what I care about. I love, more than anything bringing Shakespeare to young people, taking his works off the high shelf of privilege and aristocracy and making them (to the best of my ability) accessible to the youngest of our theatre appreciators, to our future boffins. Right now, there’s nothing I’d rather do in my life.
Learn more about Bell Shakespeare’s education offerings here.
This program is only made possible through generous support from our donors and the Cocoa-Cola Foundation. If you would like to help us give life changing opportunities to regional students, please consider donating to our Sharing Shakespeare giving program. A donation of $100 gives one student the opportunity to participate in a John Bell Scholarship audition masterclass and a donation of $12,500 covers the cost of one scholarship.