James Wenley: Academic & Critic puts discourse on the desk in new play

By Madeleine Smith
Image by Connor Crawford Photography

It was only last year at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where Kiwi Dr James Wenley sweet-talked his way past security, and into the historic Bank of Scotland building. There, he stood in front of a large portrait of another James Wenley, the treasurer of the Bank of Scotland. Not quite a coincidence, but in fact James’ Great-Great-Great-Grandfather.

The treasurer’s desk will join James (the descendant) on stage for his solo performance in Dr Drama Makes a Show debuting on 18th-22nd of February, as part of ‘Summer at Q’ in Auckland, Auckland Fringe, and on March 3rd-5th at the NZ Fringe Festival in Wellington.

Recently equipped with a PhD from the University of Auckland and his recent appointment as a theatre lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington, he is putting his knowledge of theory to test by making and starring in a show of his own. 

TEDxAuckland sat down to chat with Dr Drama ahead of his Auckland performance to talk on what audiences might expect from his most unconventional theatre class yet. The stakes are high on James’ performance; not only does this mark his first proper stage performance in over a decade, but he will be confronting the politics of putting his white, male body centre-stage as he explores themes of performance, masculinity, whiteness and Pākehā privilege.

“There’s a lot of contention around the work that I can only speak for myself,” James explains. “But I hope that audiences will go away being able to think about how some of it could apply to their own spaces. One of the things that I’m looking into is some aspects into my family history. That whole idea that its really important to know where you’ve come from.

“The show begins in a similar way I would start a lecture in my own classroom and then I take into some strange unexpected places from that. I have, in theory, the qualifications around this that should allow me to this – so what does that mean for me as an academic? As a lecturer? As someone who writes about theatre, to then be putting myself on stage.

He hopes audiences come prepared to offer an opinion, to maybe add to the conversation, prepared to leave asking their own questions on these matters. He also hand-on-heart promises to not drag anyone up on stage.

James’ PhD in 2018, looked specifically around how New Zealand theatre is being performed internationally.

How has New Zealand attempted to represent itself on the global scale, in the marketplace for theatre? So much of it is tied into representation and specifically for work that is identifiably of this place, how is that then received.”

“Theatre from Aotearoa is nimble, we don’t necessarily have great resources and were not well-funded. And that comes with it’s own problems; but the art that is made from that is, I think, really interesting, that you can do so much, without very much.”

He explains how, ironically, that’s one of the strengths of Kiwis on the international stage - the work itself is unique.

“There are times where our work is definitely ‘Kiwi’, some audiences will really love that, but for others, there might be a disconnect. One of the issues that I dig into is to what extent do you frontend nationality and how relevant is that?

For James, returning to the stage isn’t nerve-racking, but familiar. After years away from the practice, he’s returning to a familiar space.

“I think I’ve always used what I learnt when I was a performer and I apply that to my lectures and that is where I feel the most in my element. The lecture hall is my audience and I am the performer and so that is actually quite comfortable but because this is personally revealing, there is vulnerability there.

Presented by Theatre of Love and directed by Rachael Longshaw-Park (An Organ of Soft Tissue), Dr Drama Makes A Show is touring this summer to Auckland and Wellington.