Neil Coppen

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My Standard Bank Young Artist Award (Theatre) 2011 Q & A

October27

(Pics by Sean Laurenz)

1.) Where did your love for theatre originate, and when did you know that this was what you wanted to do professionally?

It’s a little bit of a cliché, but I really can’t remember wanting to do anything else with my life. I suppose the earliest memory I have is when my mother took me to see Singing in the Rain at the Natal Playhouse when I was six years old. The opera theatre with the stars in its ceiling, the hum of the orchestra tuning up before whole worlds appeared and evolved before my eyes.Particularly memorable for me was the scene where it poured with rain on the stage. I roped several relatives into taking me to see it again and again. I couldn’t understand how they timed the show with this deluge each performance. It was as if they had a hotline to some celestial being who made it rain on cue. I had seen magic before but this took things to a whole new level.So you could say this was the beginning of a very long and involved love affair, with my mother taking me to the theatre regularly. From an early age I was exposed to a wide range of styles including children’s theatre, opera, pantomime, contemporary and classical dance, Shakespeare, Fugard, Slabolesky Ngema musicals etc.At the time we were also family friends with the Ellenbogen Family (when they were living in KZN) and Nick and Liz invited me to sell programs at one of their Theatre for Africa seasons at the Grahamstown festival when I was around nine years old. This was another turning point for me in that I witnessed some of South Africa’s finest theatre makers at work.Out of watching theatre came the need to create and tell my own stories. I would sit for hours writing plays and then building miniature sets using my father’s Jenga blocks and brothers screen printing screens as gauzes.At the same time my passion for literature and cinema was growing and all these mediums began to fuel my future aspirations.

During my schooling career I was fortunate to have teachers who recognized my love for creating new work and who allowed me to stage my own material. By the time I matriculated there was no question of which direction I wanted my life to take.I worked as an actor (even dabbling in a spot of contemporary dance) for several years after leaving school, and decided to hone my interest in story-telling by obtaining a Degree in creative writing through UNISA. I threw myself into many strange and varied experiences during this time: teaching at a theatre summer camp in New York, as a dialect coach and stand- in on film sets, a producer of a large scale musical project, a researcher on a documentary film, a free -lance journalist and travel writer. All these experiences have, in rather unconventional ways, shaped and inspired the work I do as a playwright and theatre-maker.

2.)What does the Standard Bank Young Artist Award mean to you at this stage of your career?

I suppose for me this award offers a significant moment to stop and take a deep breath. It’s a very welcome point for reflection, to look back over my body of work while at the same time preparing myself for a future of new challenges and directions. I’m so grateful that I get to continue doing what I love, crafting stories, worlds and characters while working with inspiring people who care deeply about the same things that I do.On saying this, there are so many of my fellow artists that I feel are deserving of this award and it certainly cranks up the pressure in the sense one doesn’t want to disappoint.

I was glancing over the list of previous winners the other day and my elation suddenly turned to terror. These are all hugely influential people in my life and I keep waiting for someone to phone me up and tell me there has been a terrible mistake.

3.) What inspires you as a person and as an artist?

I am inspired by people, strange pockets of history and places. I draw much inspiration from fellow artists and friends who continually strive for excellence and innovation in their chosen fields. I am inspired by this country and others. I love to travel, to witness how stories are communicated and told from different perspectives and cultures.Most of all I am inspired by visionaries who throughout their careers have forged legacies that never lose immediacy or relevance.

4.) What do you hope to be the results after a year of being the Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner for Theatre?

At times living in KZN can be a little frustrating in terms of getting the work seen beyond Durban. I dealt recently with a Cape Town Arts administrator who scoffed when I told him I was a playwright from Durban. “Durban” he said “Sadly for you no one knows where the hell that is!”So this award is very affirming in that it helps me to lay some of my small town “fishing-village” insecurities to rest and gain the confidence to participate on a national level.While I enjoy working in different provinces, I have resisted relocating from KZN to Johannesburg or Cape Town. People often think I am crazy for not doing so, and I understand their reasoning in terms of industry, opportunity and recognition. But I have always maintained–or rather hoped– that it is not a question of which province (or dorp) you create from but the quality of the work that will determine its impact.Right now there are so many stories in KZN that go untold, so many significant talents who remain unnoticed (and criminally underutilised) and I feel a sense of duty to stay here and do what I can to tap into the abundance of creativity that exists.

This award certainly helps me to do this.On saying all this, I am also hoping this recognition will enable me to travel more and work with artists from around the country and continent.I am also very excited about being given the opportunity to create a new work for Grahamstown next year. The script is still very much a work in process (and has been for the last three years).It’s titled Abnormal Loads, features a large cast and is set in a fictional modern day battle-field town of Kwa-Zulu Natal.The play follows several rather dysfunctional contemporary characters who are all implicated in a chain of unusual historic events. I’m interested in exploring how tangled our histories are as South Africans and how we all inherit and lug about ancestral baggage from past generations. I suppose that’s what the Abnormal Loads of the title refers to. It will be a comedy of sorts. A tragic-comedy very loosely inspired by Hamlet and focusing on a group of Battle re-enactors. Did I mention it includes epic battle scenes?

5.)Who are your heroes, and with whom would you still love to share the stage?

I admire and look up to so many creative folks (be they actors, writers, theatre practitioners, film-makers, visual artists etc) from this country and abroad that it would be impossible to list them all. As a theatre maker I have been constantly moved and challenged by work from Lara Foot, Yael Farber, Brett Bailey, Greig Coetzee, Andrew Buckland, The Handspring Theatre Company, William Kentridge, Rob Murray of FTH:K , The Magnet Theatre Company and Robert Le Page.Janni Younge’s shadow puppetry also blew my mind a few years ago when she allowed me to sit backstage of one of her shows and observe her puppeteers at play.Ismail Mohammed and the Grahamstown National Arts Festival team are also people I respect hugely in the arts world. They have taken great risks to allow emerging theatre-makers such as myself the opportunity to have their work performed on a national platform and I can’t thank them enough for the exposure, encouragement and support.I am also in awe of the many talents (on stage and off) who I have collaborated with over the years. Certainly this award would not be possible without their considerable input and energies. So I share this acknowledgment with dozens of artists, collaborators and friends. My parents, family and partner have also been hugely supportive and patient with me along my creative journey.

6.) Is there anyone else that you would like to thank

I suppose I would love to acknowledge a few of my co-collaborators on the various projects who have been essential to the success of the work and who are also just flippen wonderful friends to me. In no particular order Marg’s and Trev Coppen, Vaughn Sadie, Karen Logan, Libby Allen, Clare Mortimer,Tina Le Roux, Nosipho Bophela,Ntando Cele, Wake Mahlobo, Greg and Angella Coppen, Kim and Grameme Watkins, Bryan Hiles, Shayna De Kock , Steven Stead, Greg King, Karen Van Pletsen, Guy Buttery, Tristan Horton, Tessa Comrie, Matt Wild, Colwyn Thomas and Greg Lomas.Also a nod is needed to Brandon Bunyon at Black Coffee productions and The Courtyard Theatre who have been extremely generous with the loan of time, advice and technology to make complex technical productions like Tree Boy possible.

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