All Joel’s world’s a stage

Founder of Bell Shakespeare, John Bell, long ago recognised the breadth and depth of life captured in exquisite language by William Shakespeare. Bell Shakespeare is renowned for transporting the Bard’s dramas, unconstrained by time, place, gender, nationality or culture. John Bell and company take Shakespeare to the schools and sometimes his magnanimity is rewarded big time!

Enter Joel Okumu, a 17 year-old Ugandan who completed his HSC at St Francis Xavier’s College, Hamilton, last year. Joel is blessed with a deep resonant voice, imposing stature and a wide smile − and he oozes talent and confidence.

Mentored by his drama teacher, Kirsten Beletich, Joel entered the John Bell Scholarship event. Kirsten prepared Joel to play Othello and the ghost of Hamlet’s father. These monologues require maturity, insight and impeccable delivery. Joel Okumu obviously displayed all these and was awarded the scholarship. There was great rejoicing by Joel and his family, Kirsten and the College community!

When he was just five, Joel came to Australia with nine siblings.  He could speak four languages but not English. His mother died when he was young and the children were reared by an older sister. His was a difficult childhood compounded with memories of an earlier life of cruelty and hunger, violence and poverty in Uganda. He flourished at St Francis Xavier’s College, becoming a student leader and a member of the Solidarity Team.

 I was intrigued by Joel’s penchant for acting in general and Shakespeare in particular. Joel explained that he was continually acting out roles in his head, sometimes delivering imaginary lines to imaginary people when alone. He went further, taking on a character and walking into shops to see people’s reactions to his characterisations.  He demonstrated − what confidence does it take to walk into a shop as the Hunchback of Notre Dame?

I asked him to share how his back story influenced his interpretation of characters.  “Sometimes,” he said, “I see characters from a view of deep sadness whereas others would see, maybe, disappointment.  Often I see humour in situations whereas others may see the character as a joke − someone to laugh at, rather than laugh with.”

What about preparation for a role? Kirsten shared her experience here. “Joel never leaves things to chance. He prepares himself in so many ways. He reads and reads about the character, he does deep-breathing exercises, he stretches and limbers up, he goes away into a quiet space and mentally gets himself ready.”

“Do you really do all this?” I asked.  “Oh, yes,” he said, “I have to give my best.” 

The scholarship experience is over now but Bell has referred Joel to The Hub, a collective of professional actors teaching methodology, film and television acting and theatricality. Does he enjoy it?  Absolutely!  And this young thespian is studying business in conjunction with his acting.

His family supports him unreservedly and there is no doubt in my mind that one day, the name Joel Okumu will be up in lights!

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