From taking theatre to US prisons to bringing it home

Former Howick resident Karen with her husband Frank and her brood of ten homeschooled children. Photo supplied.

She takes Shakespeare behind bars in the USA.

Former Howick resident Karen Burnett Hamer has been using theatre to work with prison inmates.

It was Karen’s desire to change lives of the less fortunate that had her first approach the officials at the Colorado State Prison and get the nod to introduce Shakespeare to men and women who have committed crimes and been in trouble with the law.

Karen’s proud dad John Burnett says that one of her pupils, a former convict, was offered full time employment in professional theatre, on his release from prison.

Now after 18 years Karen has returned  home from Dallas, Texas with a crew of American actors to host Pride and Prejudice the Musical  from July 10-14 at the Playhouse Theatre Glen Eden.

Featuring an American cast with supporting Auckland actors and filled with catchy songs and engaging humour, the entertaining adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel has entertained audiences both in USA and Bath England—and is now in its 10th anniversary. The musical will be performed for the first time in Auckland for six shows only.

Interestingly, the successful playwright was invited twice to the Jane Austin Festival in Bath (birthplace of the English novelist) where they performed to full houses.

John is equally proud of the fact that his daughter, a former Macleans College student, won a two-year scholarship to complete a Master of Studies at Cambridge University in England.

And while commuting between the US and UK had its share of challenges for the mother-of-10, Karen managed to get her Masters in Applied Criminology and Management.

Interestingly, Karen has homeschooled all of her 10 children that includes a set  twins and three adopted children from Ethiopia.

Former Howick resident Karen.

“I don’t know how she manages to juggle all her responsibilities but she has a very supportive husband and wonderful friends who help her out,” says John, who volunteers at the blacksmith’s shop on Live Days at the Howick Historical Village.

“In fact none of the cast is paid and yet they were happy to volunteer their time and spend their own money for their flights to New Zealand.

“It speaks a lot of the relationship they share and how much they respect Karen for the work she does as a founder and artistic director of Tin Roof Productions Monument, Colorado a non-profit organisation that produces community and children’s theatre.”

And while American production designer and photographer Jana Bussanich arrived from the US a week earlier to work on the stage sets, Karen has just arrived with the crew and is excited about the vibrant new show they have been planning for the last two years.

“Getting everyone’s dates and booking a theatre that early in Auckland was a bit of a challenge,” says Karen, who gives credit to her sister who has always been in local theatre.

Karen finds pure joy in using theatre as a tool for transformation to help prisoners who may never get out.

“It helps them to dig deep into emotion and may even give them a spiritual impetus as they want to be something more than what they have done.

“It becomes a lifeline and it’s heartening to see some of them try and memorise different lines,” says Karen who volunteered with the women’s prison in Mt Eden more than 20 years ago.

“The joy of this partnership is beautiful.”


    • My partner and I saw Pride and Prejudice the Musical tonight at The Playhouse Theatre, Glen Eden and was really impressed. We thought the cast were professional actors even though it turned out after speaking to Elizabeth and Mr Darcy that they had regular jobs. They all had very good singing voices and the lyrics were very good too. Well done to all involved, worth seeing!

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