Shakespeare tells us what it is to be human

Few contemporary Australians can look back on a longer or more successful theatre career than John Bell. Here he shares some initiatives of the company he founded, Bell Shakespeare, and acknowledges a great debt of gratitude to two teachers at Maitland Marist Brothers (now St Peter’s Campus, All Saints College).

Some years back I was invited to a schools’ festival to watch two days of primary school kids performing Shakespeare. Secretly, I decided I would rather have my toenails pulled off, and made some lame excuse.

But the school persisted and sent me a DVD of the kids in action. I was totally bowled over by what I saw. I contacted the school and a couple of weeks later found myself sitting in a hall of the John Colet School, a little school in Belrose in Sydney’s upper North Shore, watching a couple of hours’ worth of Shakespeare performed by 5 to 10 year-olds. The kindergarten babies played fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 7 and 8 year-olds played scenes from The Merchant of Venice and Henry V while the oldest kids gave us slabs of Macbeth and King Lear.

All the shows were fully staged and costumed and the air was thick with excitement. The kids knew the stories and knew what they were talking about. Every year they took on different roles as they advanced in age and got to know certain plays and speeches by heart.

In this remarkable school, the students not only perform Shakespeare on a regular basis; they study Sanskrit and sing Mozart as well – only recently they did a production of The Magic Flute and sang extracts of Handel’s Messiah.

This is, of course, all on top of the regular curriculum. The results are remarkable. I have rarely met youngsters so articulate, confident and sociable. A lot of this comes from spending so much time being creative and collaborative and working with the best, most challenging material.

The school’s academic success is notable and by the time the students come to study Shakespeare in high school, it is a second language to them – they’ve been acting it for the last six years!

I happily agreed to become a Patron of the school and every year I look forward to my trip to Belrose to watch the kids perform and answer their many questions about Shakespeare in performance. It goes without saying that the teachers and parents are a dedicated lot who put a lot of time and effort into the annual Shakespeare Festival.

We at Bell Shakespeare perform a lot for schools – not only in some 35 theatres around Australia but in over 300 schools as well, to some 70,000 students each year, plus another 80,000 online. But we also do our best to encourage kids themselves to perform. That is the very best way to understand and appreciate Shakespeare. Once you start to speak it out loud and move around in a space, addressing other actors, it all starts to drop into place.

While we’re on the road, we audition teenagers who are interested in acting as a career and we choose the most promising two or three to join us for a week in our rehearsal studio to get a taste of professional theatre.

We also give scholarships to enable twelve teachers from remote parts of the country to join us in our rehearsal space because we realise how hard it can be to teach Shakespeare in the classroom and what a difference a good teacher can make.

My great passion for education goes back to my days at Maitland Marist Brothers and the great debt I owe two of my English teachers, Brother Elgar and Brother Geoffrey, who set me on a career path and inculcated in me a love of Shakespeare and other great literature.

We try to catch kids young before prejudice sets in. We have special Shakespeare shows for the youngest primary classes and find they love the exotic and quaint language, the stories and the characters. When they hit adolescence a lot of kids decide that Shakespeare (and a lot of other things) is uncool, and bad teaching can turn them off for life.

It’s the same in the theatre – an enthusiastic and inspirational director will get the best out of his cast and bring the play alive; a dull director will make it heavy going for everyone.

Every year, Bell Shakespeare takes up fortnightly residencies in remote indigenous communities. Part of our job is to combat truancy by involving the kids in theatre games and other creative activities. We use Shakespeare as a teaching aid and find students are fascinated by the stories and by comparing Shakespeare’s myths and legends with their own. They translate sections of Shakespeare into their own languages and teach us their language along the way. A performance might end up spoken with bits of pidgin, bits of Shakespeare and three or four local languages.

Another place we use Shakespeare as a teaching aid is in juvenile justice facilities: at present in two in Sydney – one for boys and one for girls. The program is so successful we would like to see it replicated in many other such facilities around Australia. Young people in this situation respond to the strong stories and big ideas in Shakespeare’s plays and enjoy playing games with the language. One young man, when questioned as to why he enjoyed acting Shakespeare, replied, “When I go out there and act Mark Antony in front of my friends, my parents and probation officer, I feel I’ve done something classy....I start to feel some self-respect, and when I respect myself, I start to respect other people.”

For the same reason, Shakespeare and other theatre workshops have a long history of successful rehabilitation in prisons in the USA, Britain and parts of Europe.

Shakespeare is difficult, but so are a lot of worthwhile things, and putting in the spadework yields dividends. Nothing can beat the exhilaration of a great live performance of Shakespeare. He remains a benchmark of what humanity can achieve and provides us with a kind of secular bible, telling us what it is to be human. His understanding of the human heart and mind is unsurpassed, as is his ability to empathise with people of all classes, all ages and both genders. I have been fortunate to have spent the bulk of the last sixty years daily in his company and I can trace it all back to those sparks of imagination ignited in a classroom of Maitland Marist Brothers.

A good teacher is the best friend you can have – because he is a friend for life.

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John Bell AO, OBE Image
John Bell AO, OBE

John BellAOOBE is an Australian actor and theatre director. In 1990, Bell founded the theatre company Bell Shakespeare. He has been named an Australian Living Treasure.

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