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Much Ado about Huw McKinnon – Bell Shakespeare

Posted by Jennifer (Jenn) Hampstead | Apr 24, 2020

Since 1990 Bell Shakespeare has been a national leader when it comes to Australian Shakespearean productions, but it’s their educational reach across our great land that deserves just as much applause! Recently, I was able to speak with longtime Bell Shakespeare member and Resident Artist in Education for 2019, Huw McKinnon. Huw has been a Teaching Artist with Bell for the past 10 years and is involved in the delivery of in-school performances, professional development workshops, teacher mentoring and plays a vital role in Bell’s Juvenile Justice program, as featured in the Grumpy Sailor documentary – Kings of Baxter. Currently in performance mode co-directing Macbeth for high school students, I caught up with Huw on his way home from teaching as yet another workshop in Campbelltown for our Fast 5!

Huw, teaching and mentoring are a big part of what you do. Who would you consider to be your mentors?

When you’re young you look back on those people who changed everything for you really quickly, and for me I was lucky, in that my first experiences at Bell Shakespeare were with John Bell. I would never have arrived at the situation I am now in if I had not had that time with him. In my first three months at Bell Shakespeare I learned more with John than I had in my entire time at acting school!

These days, now that I’m older I realise it’s not necessarily about learning from someone older and wiser because I’m learning a lot now from people who just do things differently to me. I think you spend a long period of your life figuring out how YOU do things and thinking that’s how it’s done. I learn so much from the teachers that I meet. The kinds of challenges they face on a day to day basis, and the patience and grace with which they face those challenges teaches me an awful lot about how to conduct yourself.

With ten years of teaching Shakespeare under your belt what are 3 key points you like to get across to your students and teachers about Shakespeare?

  1. I always encourage students to really interrogate why we keep going back to Shakespeare? Why do we still study him in high school? Because they always ask, “Why do I have to do this”? I get them to work hard to find the answer because it can get a bit clouded. Shakespeare was a revolution, not just in theatre, but in storytelling. He changed the way we think and talk about ourselves as human beings.
  2. The biggest mistake we make with Shakespeare is to think that every word he wrote is a priceless gem that has been bestowed upon us from the heavens, and it’s not. Make his words your own. If you’re playing Romeo, nobody wants to know what you think it was like to be a teenager in Italy 400 year ago because a) today’s audience doesn’t care and b) we know that you don’t know, so make it yours! Show us what his play does to you, and how you would respond!
  3. This may seem a little cynical but don’t forget what motivated Shakespeare. What did he want more than anything? It wasn’t to educate. He didn’t sit in his office dreaming that one day 400 years into the future we’d be studying and performing his work all around the world, no! What he wanted more than anything was to make money. The reason he revolutionised theatre and storytelling was because he needed people to go see his shows.

The Kings of Baxter documentary highlighted Bell Shakespeare’s Juvenile Justice Program what do you find are the benefits for the kids involved?

Since Kings of Baxter we’ve resumed our five-week programs, of two sessions a week. Which relieves the pressure of delivering something big at the end like in Kings of Baxter, though we still aim to deliver something that the kids can invite their family to, they get so much from those ten lessons, but mostly they see that you value your work and that you value working with them.

As Bell Shakespeare’s resident Artist in Education for 2019 what is different about your role this year?

I’ve been a teaching Artist with Bell for 10 years and I love delivering our programs and this year it’s been great to learn where those programs come from, what goes into creating them and to have input on how they’re created and what I’ll be delivering. I’ve been training new teaching artists and working to expand the Juvenile Justice Program, which has been amazing. Creating and refining content for delivery has been, in terms of job satisfaction, immensely satisfying. As a company we’ve recognised that we’ve been able to reach so many schools and so many teachers that have embraced what they’ve learnt and they’re ready for the next round. It’s been really interesting finding ways to keep expanding those opportunities for teachers and keep developing their learning helping them to take their students even deeper into these plays.

If you could have done anything else, what would it have been?

It’s funny, I wasn’t one of those kids who thought he was fated to be just one thing. I did ok at school. I was a good kid, pretty lazy but then I started doing drama and someone must have said, “You’re pretty good at that!” and when you’re a kid that means a whole lot, so I stuck with it. I think if I had to do it all again though, I would have liked to be a stay at home dad. I have three kids and I try to arrange my life so that I can spend as much time with them as possible!

View the Kings of Baxter trailer [Click Here] by Grumpy Sailor Pictures and Ronin Films.

Co-directed by Huw McKinnon and Amy Hardingham,Macbeth for High School Students is at Sydney Opera House 29 July-20 August 10am and 1pm daily and Arts Centre Melbourne 27-30 Aug 10 and 1pm daily. To download a booking form [Click Here]

For more information about Bell Shakespeare’s learning opportunities for students and teachers as well as performances and projects in the works [Click Here] 

All images © Clare Hawley

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