Neil Coppen

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Extract from Key Note Address for Grahamstown Schools Fest 2009

March23

The creative process can be hell on earth. I won’t lie to you, trying to tell a great story is the hardest thing I know. It’s agonising, reduces me every time to a dribbling, chain-smoking wreck. It takes huge amounts of focus and dedication. Years of research, sitting in a room, alone, wrestling with words and images and trying to make sense of things.

Of course your hard work will pay off. I love the part where the script gets taken into the rehearsal room and ideas that have been living in your head emerge in the flesh. In this part of the process the script and idea is re-worked with suggestions from actors and director. The creative process, contrary to popular belief, is not a place for rampant egos and creative dictatorships—let’s leave that to the politicians please.

It must be the opposite– an open, collaborative, sharing space. A space where ideas are encouraged to meet and never compete .If it is your project then you have to honour the people that work on it, inspire everyone from the person who works at the box office, to the stage sweeper to the actors to the technicians to invest in your vision.

The truth is if you are looking at entering into the creative arts as a profession, you are one of millions who do so daily around the world. You will be one a trillion dancers, actors, writers, singers, artists who vanish down the merciless bath plug– a system that doesn’t care much about you, that won’t let you buy that dream house, or look after you in your old age, or give you perks and company cars like all your friends who pursued more sensible careers in law and business. On top of that you will find that there are thousands of other people out there that do exactly what you do and, more often than not, seem to be doing it better. So why you might ask do it at all?

Well here’s the catch to go into any of these professions and set yourself apart from the herd you have to be a little demented in the head. This is after all a lifestyle not a career. You have to want to be more than a Barnyard Cabaret singer, or high kicking cruise line dancer or soapie actor. You have to want to be the best at what you do, set out there with the intention to rattle the world with your unique voice and performance style.

So how do you start nurturing your own voice? Well you can start right now while you’re at school and your teachers can start by helping you out.

When it comes to launching school productions and musicals for example don’t put on High School Musical! Write your own high school musical, that’s what I did when I got to matric, I said let’s not do Grease for the hundredth time, let’s tell our own stories, stories about here and now and get the musicians to create their own music. I was lucky enough to have supportive teachers who allowed me that opportunity.

Teachers have a responsibility to make schools launching pads, experimenting grounds. Don’t spend all that money on rights, feeding the monstrous corporation that is Disney by putting Disney World teenagers– about as real and convincing as Mickey Mouse– on the stage. All this does is make robots out of young talent. We have to start looking to ourselves, telling our own stories, taking bigger creative risks.

To do this we have to know what mediocrity is and it’s everywhere. Stamp it out. The television for a start is a huge perpetuator of crap in this country and sadly one of the primary sources that young theatre makers seem to glean most their ideas. My advice- stay away from it! This stuff is out there to debilitate the brain long enough for you to sit through hours of Glo–mobi commercials. Televisions primary role is to sell you things, not enrich or enquire or inspire. Don’t waste your time watching anything that doesn’t inspire you, read a book instead. Life is too short.

So often when I go to the theatre I see the carnage that TV has wrecked on creativity, sitcom stereotypes slapped on the stage, broad soapie melodrama and reality television insincerity. This type of writing or experience doesn’t begin to excavate the human condition. These shows reduce people to cardboard cut outs or mannequins with hair dos.

The same rich madams and poor maids, evil Nigerians and racist boer farmers, the same cheating kugel housewives, and fast talking Indian cars salesman and fat cat BEE businessmen, the moffie hairdresser side-kicks.

This is of course how all advertising works and what starts to happen is we become immune to the bigger picture, skim over the huge range of complexity that is really out there. Eventually we stop asking questions about what really makes others tick, what struggles they truly face, what dreams they dream. We retreat into the sheltered little bubble of self and forget about the rest.

Writing and creating work against these clichés is a very tricky thing, a far more time consuming endeavour which is perhaps why so few people ever attempt it.

It’s far easier, as you know to stick with what works. You see we are taught from the moment we toddle into the world, to put people into these types of easy to define little boxes, to give them a label and not look any deeper. This is doing a grave injustice to our understanding of one another especially in a country like South Africa.

In my opinion it’s one of the greatest problems facing this country and the world today ,and if anything, we must band together, channel our vast resources of creativity to combat this, turn it on its head. Honour humanity by wanting to know more about it.

Of course the beautiful thing about great works of art is that they enable us to hold up a looking glass to humanity, allowing it to see itself for what it really is and not what it thinks it is.

So you see being in this profession comes with responsibilities, responsibilities I hope you take upon yourselves. We have to use our short time on this planet to make this world a more bearable place, to dissolve prejudices, to enrich understanding, to break down boundaries and stimulate debate.

Theatre, to my mind, is one of the best possible platforms and mediums to achieve this.

It’s why a new theatre company I hope to start will be called the ANT FARM ALARM. It’s based on the idea that we live our lives looking at the ground, rummaging for crumbs and been shuttled helplessly from one point to another. Too often it seems we are stuck in a routine day to day and never journey off the over trodden track.

In short we live like ants, all locked up in one big plastic Ant farm. The Ant Farm Alarm then signifies the bell that rings in your ears, the reminder, “the wake-up call” that happens when you realise you are living like an ant when you should be living like a human being with compassion and will and imagination and heart.

All the work I create I hope in some way reminds people of these things. To look further, live more furiously, to step outside themselves for an hour or two. This is an overly ambitious task, and certainly I fail more than I succeed, but why settle for anything less?

You see theatre and all art forms can be a revelation, in fact not can be but MUST ALWAYS BE. We must shake the foundations beneath an audiences feet, we must rattle their consciences, piss them off, challenge, inspire, enlighten and invigorate them. We must teach but never preach to them. We must show them alternative ways to live, encourage empathy, make them feel what it’s like to stand in another’s ill fitting shoes for a few hours. We must believe art has the power to transform and make it our responsibility to ensure that it does. We must respect our audiences with truth and remain firm in our commitment to it.

Truth must shine in everything you do. Now I’m not merely suggesting we put on depressing kitchen sink dramas about everything that is depressing about our planet. There is room for escapism, for whimsy, enchantment and imagination. There is room for fantasy and fable, for myth and magic, these are the types of stories that have shaped the world as we know it.

These things all exist in the everyday and one of the true wonders about great theatre and great art is that it can reveal this to people who never imagined such a thing existed in their daily lives.

posted under theatre
One Comment to

“Extract from Key Note Address for Grahamstown Schools Fest 2009”

  1. On June 2nd, 2010 at 12:34 am Bruce J. Little Says:

    A piece of resonant writing. Thanks a bunch.

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