Essay competition winner

By Helen Prime | Posted: Friday November 22, 2013

Helen Prime and Charlie Hilton received awards from the Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute for their entries in the Year 12 essay competition. Helen and Charlie won a cash prize of $500 each and also $500 each for the school. This is Helen's essay.

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 benefitted 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.

Most recently, 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 last year from her teaching job at Logan Park High School, Denise remains 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.