Don McKenzie

Story by Lisa Kiyomoto-Fink

School of English, Film, Theatre, and Media Studies, 2017

From Timaru to Oxford University, Don did it all - establishing Victoria's Drama Studies programme, Wellington’s Downstage Theatre, and Wai-te-ata Press along the way. Theatre student, Lisa Kiyomoto-Fink, investigates the man behind these feats.

Fiercely Inspirational

Hair and hands flying, the Professor breathlessly finishes his lecture. His piercing blue eyes sweep the room as he sternly reminds you that there are to be no extensions whatsoever on the upcoming assignment.

Professor Donald Francis McKenzie (1931-1999) was “fierce on deadlines … but everybody still wanted to be in his courses,” laughs David Carnegie.

I’ve talked to three of his former friends and colleagues from Victoria's Drama Studies (now Theatre) department: David, Roger Robinson, and Philip Mann, to try and figure out just how Don did it all.

Don McKenzie was electrifying and inspirational. As Dean of Languages and Literature in the 1960s, he was well ahead of his time in pushing for an interdisciplinary BA in the creative arts.

“A great actor – when he wasn’t acting”

Don's life achievements were extraordinary.

Among other things, Don was awarded a fellowship of the British Academy in 1980, the Gold Medal of the London Bibliographical Society in 1988, and an Honorary Fellowship of the Australian Academy of Humanities in 1988.

The Australian Academy of Humanities (1999) described him as “the most inventive bibliographer of his generation”.

Not to mention, he was a founding member of Wellington’s Downstage Theatre. “He was such a thespian at heart, loved drama and the theatre."

"The funny thing was, he wasn’t very good at acting. In his lectures he was a terrific performer – he was a great actor when he wasn’t acting,” says Roger Robinson.

Twenty Ways to Get Things Done

“I was convinced there were about four of him,” laughs Roger. “One at the Press [Wai-te-ata], one at Downstage, one in his office, and then ... one more for wherever here was.” Oh yes, Don was also the founder of Wai-te-ata Press.

He began Wai-te-ata Press in a garage in the early 60s, obtained a magnificent old hand-printing press on permanent loan from Cambridge University Press (now in the Library), and hand-set type to hand-print music, essays, and poetry until he left for Oxford in 1986.

It seems he never slept; “always seeking to find 30 hours in every 24” (McKitterick 1999).

But Don wasn’t just focused on furthering his own craft. Phil Mann tells me, “he was extremely generous. If you had an idea, he’d come up with 20 ways to realise it”.

It’s well documented that he wrote nuanced references for any student that asked, and served on many academic boards and committees.

Pushing the Boundaries

In fact, the School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies (SEFTMS) today wouldn’t be around without him. ”He was interested in everything - theatre, visual art, editing texts and the history of text, film, Shakespeare on film,” says David Carnegie.

These wide-ranging interests inspired Don to release resources from the English department to establish other disciplines.

Art History, Linguistics, and Drama Studies were all originally offshoots of Don’s English department. “He was planning 10, 20 years ahead in intellectual structures,” marvels David. '“Don really looked outside the narrow bounds of the norms at the time."


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