DR DRAMA MAKES A SHOW
93KP Theatre, 93 Kelburn Parade, Wellington
03/03/2020 - 07/03/2020
James Wenley is Dr Drama – he’s a theatre lecturer and has a PhD, so he should know how to make a show… right?
Join James for his most unconventional theatre class yet as he digs into dramaturgical and societal structures whilst uncovering his own history, desires, and deepest fears. He promises to only explore subjects he is qualified to: performance, masculinity, whiteness, and himself.
Dr Drama Makes a Show makes an urgent inquiry about what means to own up to your past and present self to come to terms with your identity.
A postdramatic-metatheatrical-lecture-performance-solo about knowing the theory, but not knowing what to do with it.
Get ready for discourse.
VUW Theatre Department, 93 Kelburn Parade, Kelburn
Tuesday 03 – Saturday 07 March 2020
Price General Admission $10.00 Concession $5.00 Fringe Addict $7.00
Lighting & Sound: Michael Goodwin
Theatre , Solo ,
More ‘done to’ than ‘done with’ us?
Review by John Smythe 04th Mar 2020
As promised in the publicity, James Wenley (PhD)’s Dr Drama Makes a Show is a “postdramatic-metatheatrical-lecture-performance-solo about knowing the theory, but not knowing what to do with it.” It is infused with so much meta-aware critique of its creator and his creation that writing a review may seem redundant. But here goes, anyway.
On arrival we are handed a page of ‘Assigned Reading’ – an extract from Jenny Lee-Morgan and Jessica Hutchings’ ‘Introduction: Kaupapa Māori in action: Education, research and practice’ in Decolonisation in Aotearoa: Education, Research and Practice (NCER Press, 2016). It’s a dense piece of academic writing but comprehensible on about the third read. And it is some sort of provocation; a way of alerting our antennae.
The charming and rather charismatic James Wenley, who engages directly with his audience throughout, asks what we have taken from the extract before declaring himself a Pākehā Man who will therefore only speak of those things on which he is expert: Performing, Masculinity, Whiteness and James Wenley – the latter being his Great Great Great Grandfather, whose splendid 19th century desk takes pride of place in the modest performance space of VUW Theatre Department’s 93 Kelburn Parade studio.
While dismissing Aristotle’s archaic notion that drama necessarily involves character and conflict within a narrative, Wenley-as-performer is inescapably present in time, place and action, and it becomes apparent that he is a constructed character in conflict with himself. If you see his 80-minute quest to find a place to stand within his chosen art form as brave, as he negotiates the ideological minefield of ‘wokeness’ and bares his soul (and most of his body) in the process, then it may well be described as a ‘Hero’s Journey’. If you buy into his guilt-trip – more self-aware than Sophocles’ King Oedipus – then you may prefer ‘Antihero’s Journey’.
Mention of ‘no fourth wall’ is meaningless in relation to Greek Theatre, by the way, as ‘direct address’ has been the name of the game for the majority of theatre’s history, with ‘naturalism’ a mere blip on the timeline, relating to just one of the many genres in vogue at any one time.
Within the meta-narrative of constant critiquing of himself and his work – a splendidly authentic display of millennial existential angst in itself – Wenley traces the patriarchal lineage that brought his family to the Hawkes Bay, then his White Privileged self into existence, and so to this time, place and action. We are also made privy to his current circumstances, despite a censorious voice-over questioning whether this is included to elicit sympathy. Thus he pursues his stated aim, to make “an urgent inquiry about what means to own up to your past and present self to come to terms with your identity.”
So what are the terms of engagement for us, in the audience? There are not really any ‘get it moments’ to hook us in because everything is not only laid bare but also flipped over and turned inside out; over-analysed to death, one might say – which is clearly the point (at least I hope it is). We can certainly empathise with his apparent inability to find the legitimacy and self-acceptance that will allow him to ‘stand upright here’ within the aforementioned ideological minefield; with him we can feel the freeze, the petrification, it locks us into. There is plenty of intellectual meat to chew on, too, if that is to your taste.
In terms of structure, rather than achieving catharsis and resolution, I feel it drags us down into an inescapable and disempowering mire. I picture Wenley’s head as poking out of that metaphorical bog when he states he can only speak for and to himself. Given the mic is then opened for comment from ‘the floor’, this also might be intended as a provocation. The thoughts and feelings of his opening evening audience of university colleagues and students may or may not be typical of those revealed in subsequent shows.
In relation to the idea that an artist must limit themselves to their own gender/ race/ age/ socio-economic frame of reference, I am reminded once more of that memorable moment at a Writers and Readers Week forum in Wellington some years ago. Responding to the notion, from the floor, that a writer is supposed to ‘write what they know’, E Annie Proulx (The Shipping News, Brokeback Mountain …) was aghast: “That’d bore me shitless!” she exclaimed. “What I don’t know, what I wanna know: that’s what gets me out of bed in the mornings.” Or words to that effect. We are curious creatures, and obviously it follows that rigorous enquiry and research into the mysteries we want to solve must drive our creativity. If artists do not feel free to explore beyond the bubble they find themselves born into and share their discoveries, theories and further questions with the world at large, then we’re all doomed.
Also, I sense some institutions promote the idea that ‘conventional’ theatre is ‘done to’ an audience who have no agency in the process. I disagree. When we are drawn into an imagined reality and believe in it, to the extent that we relate to characters with a past, pursuing future objectives in a present that challenges them and so reveals their strengths and weaknesses, our empathising with them gives us a crucial role to play. That’s why good storytelling, unencumbered by censorious strictures, is the lifeblood of a healthy society.
Of course it is also essential that theatre keeps exploring new ways of engaging its audiences. But for me, Dr Drama Makes a Show in its current state is more ‘done to’ than ‘done with’ us, and handing the microphone around afterwards is a shallow attempt to ‘democratise’ an art form that has always considered enfranchising its audience to be a top priority.
Copyright © belongs to the reviewer
Face high five March 5th, 2020
It's getting hard to keep up these days with what or who is the most pretentious. The artist or the reviewer desperately trying to seem more intelligent than said artist.
In this case I'd call it a tie.