James Wenley – ‘Dr Drama’
I suppose it won’t be a surprise for my teachers and contemporaries to learn that I have gone on to complete a PhD in Drama at the University of Auckland. But this would be a surprise for the 2006 version of me, living my Year 13 year and wondering what life outside the college gates would hold.
Sure, I was ‘Mr Drama’ at school. I’d become (in)famous for a series of roles including Pharaoh in ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat,’ Hitler in Stage, Freddie Mercury In Hamilton’s winning House Choir performance and the villainous Bill Sykes in ‘Oliver.’
But I didn’t think I’d become Dr Drama. That was never part of the plan. At College graduation I was harbouring ambitions to go to Drama School overseas and become an actor. I was shortlisted and got very close but in the meantime, I went to The University of Auckland to do my undergrad. It was there that I had the revelation that what I really loved was the behind-the-scenes aspects of theatre, of seeing a project through from conception to closing. I began putting on work – producing, directing, writing. I formed a theatre company, Theatre of Love, and I also became a theatre critic (www.theatrescenes.co.nz). But it was only after completing my Masters in Drama that I decided I wanted to do a Doctorate too. HouJMy mission is to promote a wider awareness of the theatre of Aotearoa/New Zealand. My thesis, entitled ‘Finding Ourselves: New Zealand Theatre’s Overseas Experience’, allowed me to write a mini-history of NZ theatre by researching plays and productions from New Zealand that have travelled internationally. The thesis presents a 75-year cultural history of New Zealand theatre, examining how we’ve conceived of national identity in drama, and how this has been received by the world.
While studying, I have also had many incredible teaching opportunities in the University’s English and Drama department. I am in the fourth year of running a course for third-year medical students called ‘Performing Medicine’, where we examine the intersections between the medical and the theatrical. Last year I got to design and teach a brand-new Stage One Drama course called ‘Taking the Stage: Performance and Presentation Skills’, which helped 175 students develop their skills in public speaking, acting, improvisation and devised theatre making.
I am passionate about drama education: it fosters creative and collaborative skills, lets us imagine other lives and keeps us connected with our humanity. My Drama 100 course felt like the culmination of everything I’ve been working on up to this point, including my own performance and public speaking experiences at the College and even the Boys’ School.
Indeed, there’s a lot that I credit to my time at Saint Kentigern, like the leadership opportunities that are on offer if you step up. Leading Hamilton House in my last year was hugely influential. Also, the excellence of the teaching staff – I have such fond memories of my English, Drama, Classics, History, Media and Photography classes. I owe a lot to my then Year 13 English teacher, Flora Mather, who sat me down at the start of the year and showed me that if I worked hard it would be possible to become DUX. And of course, the superb performing arts programme. I was a Theatresports coach and even got to direct the Senior School production ‘Pressure’.
I think I benefited a great deal from the College becoming co-educational, which ushered in a cultural change and a greater emphasis on the arts. It was only in my final year that I felt accepted for the course I had been charting. It even became a schtick with the younger students that when we passed each other on the grounds we’d give each other a high five. I like that legacy.
It’s been great to venture back to the College from time to time, whether it’s to see a production, take part in a Theatresports competition, or more recently, to use my academic credentials to talk to the drama students about ‘Epic Theatre’.
Recently, I was asked if I wanted to sponsor a cup for the Performing Arts Awards. I feel a bit silly having my name on it, but I know how much it will mean for the recipient to have what they do recognised and validated. No doubt there will be many strong contenders for ‘The James Wenley Cup for Outstanding Contribution to Drama’.
Having finished my thesis, I find myself once again at a critical transition point, uncertain about where I will find myself next as I attempt to make a path in theatre and academia. Perhaps it will seem obvious in retrospect, but the journey is all.