James Wenley – The Act of Gathering Audience Responses: Surveying at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe


James Wenley

Victoria University of Wellington

The Act of Gathering Audience Responses: Surveying at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe

In 2019 I ventured to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to gather data on audiences attending New Zealand touring work at the Fringe. I selected five focus shows (Modern Māori Quartet: Two Worlds, Super Hugh-Man, Aunty, My Best Dead Friend and Working on my Night Moves) and enlisted attendees to participate in a survey emailed following the performance.  My particular agenda in collecting and assessing responses was to discover to what extent, if any, that national familiarity and proximity was a discernible influence on participant’s self-reported motivations for attending the performance or their interpretations of the performance. I also hoped to gather an expanded record of responses to the work beyond the critical archive: what meanings and identifications might individual audience members produce and report in relationship to a New Zealand work playing at Edinburgh?

Scholars have critiqued the absence of audience voices in theatre and performance studies and argued for the value of rigorous audience research. In this paper I share my reflections on designing and executing an audience research project within the challenging Edinburgh Fringe environment. I consider how I played the role of researcher, acknowledging that my presence and invitation to participate provided an added frame to the performance event. I discuss my interpretation of the traces of meaning collected from respondents produced by both the performance and research contexts. What happened when the researcher met the audience who were meeting New Zealand touring shows at the Edinburgh Fringe?

I will report on my results in the context of Creative New Zealand’s multi-year investment in funding works to tour to the Fringe, and argue that recording individual audience responses provides a counter narrative to the market-driven outcomes often privileged in the Edinburgh context of box-office, critical reception and interest from presenters and programmers.

James Wenley is a theatre academic, practitioner and critic with a passion for promoting the theatre of Aotearoa New Zealand. He is a lecturer in the Theatre Programme at Victoria University of Wellington. He completed his Doctorate at the University of Auckland, investigating the performance and reception of New Zealand drama toured and produced internationally. He is the editor and founder of NZ theatre reviewing website TheatreScenes.co.nz and makes theatre for his company Theatre of Love. A monograph on Aotearoa New Zealand theatre in the Global Marketplace is forthcoming from Routledge.