Remembering Denise Walsh MZNM, 19432014

By Kristan Mouat | Posted: Tuesday April 1, 2014

Denise will be remembered fondly by her extensive Logan Park High School whanau for her immense contribution to our Kura over 47 years as HoD Drama, House Dean, teacher, director, stage manager, playwright, caregiver, school garden designer, colleague, and friend.

A slideshow of Denise's recent times at LPHS is viewable here.

Denise touched thousands of people's lives and was a much loved teacher and inspiration. Her funeral was a celebration of her life and her whanau appreciated the large turnout of staff, ex-students, parents and friends. Visits and tributes on Facebook and the website, as well as emails, letters and cards have provided a great deal of comfort to Peter Neville and their family.  

The following essay on Denise, written by Head Girl, Helen Prime, won a regional writing competition in 2013 and captures some of Denise's magic. 

Denise Walsh: a painter of visions, a sculptor of ideas, an author of plays and an all round inspiration to thousands of students and several generations without a doubt.

Denise Walsh has been teaching for over forty seven years; first as a Shorthand/Typing teacher at King Edward Technical College, which specialised in the education of students and adults, ‘Second Chance’ learning and technical courses, then as a Drama teacher at Logan Park High School, where her dedication and contribution to both teaching and theatre became an undeniable fact.               

How did a humble Shorthand/Typing teacher come to have such a great influence on the entire region of Otago, and far beyond it, and become known internationally as an outstanding playwright and Drama teacher?

Denise literally invented the teaching of Drama as a specialist subject in Otago High Schools, her love and passion for theatre resulting in it becoming a subject in its own right. She has also written and created many of the standards used in the NCEA Drama Curriculum, not only in Otago, but throughout all of New Zealand and was the main driver in seeing Drama become a career subject.  

One of Denise’s first productions was in 1977, at Logan Park High School, a production of The Music Man, in which she helped direct a cast of up to one hundred students, purely for her love of theatre. Because of the success of this performance, end of year productions directed by Denise became an annual highlight in the school calendar. After this, Denise started a Shakespeare production with the English Department of Logan Park High School. This, like the end of year productions, was a huge success and drew a lot of attention to Logan Park High School and to Otago. It was the first time drama productions in this quantity and of such high quality, were produced at a secondary school. Building on the success of these productions, in 1982 Drama became as a school subject in its own right at Logan Park and was taught by Denise. This was a significant milestone for the teaching for drama, and the theatre culture of Otago as it was the first time Drama had been recognised as a subject in any Otago secondary school. Many productions, from Junior and Senior shows to street and community theatre followed, many of which were written and directed by Denise herself. These productions also became a huge success throughout all of Otago.

During her time teaching, Denise has been pouring time, imagination and dedication into the development of all things theatrical in Otago. She was the President of the Otago One Act Play Society, the Otago Theatre Federation, and as a result, the President of the New Zealand Theatre Federation. Denise has also been on the executive of the New Zealand Association for Drama in Education and of Speech New Zealand. She was also invited to India for an International Women’s Playwrights conference. A secondary schools section for the One Act Play competition was just one of the results of the wave of interest in secondary school drama that Denise had stimulated.  She also wrote several of the One Act Plays for the competition. In her many respected and influential roles within Otago theatre organisations, she has helped Otago’s theatre culture to flourish.

 As well as teaching in secondary schools, Denise has been actively involved in the teaching and presenting of plays for intermediate and primary schools around Dunedin and Otago. Her Gifted and Talented programme saw her senior drama students teach theatre to the young pupils of North East Valley Normal School once a week.  She has also been helpful to other groups within the school, with their own productions such as Stage Challenge, with advice on choreography and costume. She has adjudicated and advised in international drama competitions, such as the Toyama International Drama Festival in Tokyo, and this involvement has made her well known in the theatre industry internationally, as well as helped put Otago on the map.

Denise has taught and trained countless professional actors and groups, many of whom have gone on to succeed in and bring home prizes from national and international drama competitions in Germany, Japan and America to name but a few. She has taken groups of students on overseas trips, which have represented the New Zealand Theatre Federation over twenty years. Students under Denise’s training and direction have excelled, winning the Otago Sheilah Winn Shakespeare competition on numerous occasions. In a quote from a Logan Park High School end of year magazine,

“...we would be nowhere without our scriptwriter/director/producer. She has probably received more ‘thank-yous’ and corny presents than anybody in the history of the world, but she deserved all of them”.

As well as producing excellent student group performances, Denise has nurtured the talent of individual students, many of whom have won Special Individual prizes in these competitions. This is a demonstration of her extraordinary dedication and ability to teach, a gift which has aided many Otago students in the world of professional theatre. Some of Denise’s students have also obtained scholarships at universities in the United States, and several have been accepted into the London Shakespeare Globe Programmes. 

As well as teaching students who perform to a very high standard, Denise herself has produced top quality work through her play writing, and is well known both nationally and internationally as an outstanding author of countless award winning scripts and productions. Denise started writing in the late 1980’s and has produced many scripts such as It’s In Your Own Hands, which is a play about suicide from the point of view of those who have and some who are trying. The play won Best Youth and Best Overall at the Otago Southland Festival in 2002. It also won Best Youth and Best Overall in the South Island Finals. These plays are performed not only in Otago, but throughout all of New Zealand. Denise has always written her plays on serious and relevant topics, and all of Denise’s plays have reflected the struggle of growing up. As “Playmarket”, a website dedicated to New Zealand playwrights, sums up,

“Denise's works reflect a very genuine appreciation for the wide range of issues that teenagers must face as a part of their journey into adulthood.”

Otago citizens, both parents and teenagers, both actors and audiences, have benefited from these thought provoking and insightful plays, as an aid to understanding an adolescent’s developing mind and body.  An example of this would be Spirals of the Mind, a play which discusses and explores the growing issue of anorexia. 

In 2013, Denise received the Insignia of a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for Services to Youth Theatre, in recognition of her passion and dedication to theatre and play writing, and of the many things she has contributed to it, regionally, nationally and internationally. 

But despite this recognition, of achieving so much through the success of her students and writing and producing so much top quality work, of receiving enough awards to cover an entire classroom with, and all of the recognition and opportunities that come with this success, Denise’s love and priority have always been the local community, in Otago. Despite retiring at the end of 2012 from her teaching job at Logan Park High School, Denise remained actively involved in the drama department of Logan Park, mentoring and coaching the One Act Plays as part of the Otago and New Zealand Theatre Federations.       

Denise Walsh has revolutionised drama for secondary schools in Otago, by introducing it as a subject, writing the standards for it and getting drama recognised as a career option, not only in Otago but throughout New Zealand as well. She has put the region of Otago on the map and made it known for success in theatre through her extensive and outstanding achievements as an author and producer of countless award winning plays and students. She has allowed the theatre culture of Otago to flourish through her roles as president of the Otago One Act Play Society, the Otago Theatre Federation, and the New Zealand Theatre Federation, as well as being on the executive of the New Zealand Association for Drama in Education and of Speech New Zealand. Denise’s contributions to Otago and New Zealand, through theatre, have been without a doubt, influential, inspirational and invaluable for over 40 years.

Denise Walsh: painter of dreams, sculptor of success, author of so many wonderful plays for youth to enjoy, picture of inspiration, dedication and contribution to the subject she loves.

The following Obituary was written by Murray Lynch, Playmarket:

The death recently in Dunedin at the age of 71 of the well-known writer and director of plays for young people, Denise Walsh, was announced by the playwright’s agent, Murray Lynch, Director of Playmarket, the New Zealand playwrights’ agency and script development service.

Denise Walsh is only the second New Zealand playwright (after Bruce Mason) and one of the few internationally (Harold Pinter and Noel Coward in London’s West End, Eugene O’Neill and Neil Simon on Broadway) to have a theatre named in her honour. The performing arts auditorium at Logan Park High School in North Dunedin, where until recently she was a long-serving teacher, is now to bear her name.

Her own secondary education in the late 1950s was at Queen’s High School in working class South Dunedin where she was inspired by the English teaching of the well-known educationalist, Pat Harrison, and took part in some of her innovative drama productions.

Having trained in the early 1960s as a teacher of commercial subjects (typing and shorthand) she initially taught them at Linwood High School in Christchurch before returning to Dunedin in 1966 to a position at the city’s then technical high school, King Edward Technical College. In the course of her time there she obtained a Social Workers Certificate and became a Guidance Teacher. In 1971 she directed a production of Shaw’s Pygmalionfor the College.

The Technical College closed in the mid-1970s and the staff transferred to the newly opened Logan Park High School which offered a full array of subjects and courses and was zoned to attract the North Dunedin-dwelling children of academics at nearby Otago University. The Technical College had always had a strong reputation for its musical activities and these were resumed at Logan Park but Denise Walsh quickly set out to put the new school on the map in the drama field as well. By 1979 she had been appointed Teacher in Charge of Drama and the following year she completed her Licentiates from Trinity College (London) and the New Zealand Speech Board (now Speech New Zealand).

For its first decade, her major productions for Logan Park High School were generally of established Broadway musicals.  However, from 1979 onwards school teams were also entered in the annual One-Act Play competitions organized by the New Zealand Theatre Federation (now Theatre New Zealand) and by the mid-1980s Denise Walsh was beginning to write plays for these groups.  By the 1990s she was also writing the book and lyrics for the school’s major musical productions (and often for an annual junior production as well) with scores being written for them by Dunedin-based composers such as Anthony Ritchie and Michael Norris.

She first accepted an international invitation to show her work as writer and director in 1987, travelling to the Thespian Festival for North American high school groups held in Muncie, Indiana.  She returned to this festival on many occasions over the next twenty years and also took Logan Park High School groups to similar events in Australia, Canada, Germany, Monaco, Japan (where she also adjudicated at the Toyama International Drama Festival) and Korea.  More recently she was an invited New Zealand delegate to an International Women Playwrights’ conference in India.

As a result of her annual commitment to its One Act Play Festivals, she became involved with the administration of the New Zealand Theatre Federation, this country’s umbrella organization for amateur dramatic societies.  She was its National President from 1995 to 1999 and again from 2005 to 2008 and was made a Life Member in recognition of her long-standing contribution to the organisation. An accredited adjudicator, she was a member of the New Zealand Association of Drama Adjudicators.

Denise Walsh was one of the key teachers involved in the push for Drama to be accepted as a stand-alone subject in the New Zealand secondary school curriculum, a move facilitated by the replacement of the School Certificate / Sixth Form Certificate / University Bursary qualification system with the current National Certificate of Educational Attainment which now allows for credits in Drama achievement standards at all levels of the senior school.  She was an Executive member of the New Zealand Association for Drama in Education and also of Speech New Zealand, the umbrella organization for speech teaching and examining in this country.  A number of the students she taught at Logan Park High School won scholarships to study Theatre at American universities and to attend the Shakespeare’s Globe programmes in London.

In the late 1980s she served for a term on the Board of the Fortune Theatre, Dunedin’s professional theatre, and also directed a production at the city’s long-established amateur venue, the Globe Theatre.

Denise Walsh was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2013 New Year’s Honours list for her services to youth theatre.

She was undeniably one of the most prolific writers of plays for and about adolescents that this country has produced.  Playmarket holds scripts for at least two dozen of them.  Her time as a guidance teacher is reflected time and again in her choice of themes related to the teenage experience.  Among the better-known titles (and topics) are Audition for Life (body image), Family Secrets (incest), He Hou Toku Moemoea / This Is My New Dream (cross-cultural teen pregnancy), It’s In Your Own Hands (suicide), Spirals of the Mind (anorexia) and That’s Hardly Fair (gender relations).

Denise is survived by her staunchest supporter, husband Peter Neville.

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