Neil Coppen

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Abnormal Loads Interview with Sihle Marcus Mthembu

April16

 

What were the early days of performing like?

 I never trained as an actor so I learnt largely by doing– flailing in the deep end so to speak. Durb’s was very kind to me and provided a great platform for launching my career. I loved performing but there just came a point where I wanted to communicate stories in a different way, channel and depict the world as I saw it. I think acting is wonderful training for anyone who wants to be a writer. As a writer you are inhabiting characters in the same way an actor might. I suppose the difference is that the writer is tasked with channelling and keeping track of several voices at one time. My head tends to be a noisy place.

You’ve won critical acclaim for acting, writing and directing – which do you find comes more easily and why?

To me these different crafts have so much in common. To be a director one has to understand the mind and requirements of the actor and it has certainly helped to have worked as an actor myself. In the same way writing is an extension of acting: understanding the psychology of characters, their motivations and sub-texts, how they might interact and respond to one another. When writing a new work I am always visualising the design and staging concept, so my process you could say is pretty inclusive of all theatre -making aspects.

What initially made you want to become a writer?

Story telling has interested me since as long as I can remember. My grandmother, who inspired so much of what I do, used to tell wonderful bed time stories inspired by her life and I found myself turning them into short stories whenever we were given creative writing exercises at school. The impulse to put into words what I was hearing or experiencing in the world around me eventually surpassed any other aspirations I might have had for myself. This really is the only thing I know how to do or have wanted to do. Not many people have a calling as clear and unavoidable, so I count myself fortunate and only a little bit cursed.

How old are you, and how old were you when you wrote your first play?

I am 30 and was probably six or seven when I wrote my first piece. After my first visit to the theatre I was hooked. I immediately began writing and rehearsing my own stories roping my sister in as a co-star. In standard-six when I arrived at high school I was fortunate to have a fantastic Drama/English teacher who encouraged me to write my own play for an up and coming supper theatre evening. It was called The Seat (was an adaptation of a short play script I had found in the Library) which I rewrote and localised. It was about three pensioners sitting on a park bench reminiscing about the past and received a very positive response (from my mom) on its premiere. The second play was about two hobos living in Durban and in retrospect came off as a light-weight version of Boesman and Lena. It was awful.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your personal background?

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. 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. 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.

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 that no University system could have offered: 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.

How many plays have you written since then and which has most excited you?

I’ve written about six full length plays in total. Each one has been a hugely important learning curve for me. Tin Bucket Drum is perhaps the most enduring and popular of my plays (It finally heads off on tours to the UK and New York this year) and I have a soft spot for it because it never seems to lose its relevance or appeal. Abnormal loads my latest play is the one I have carried with me the longest and is my most ambitious and personal story to date.

What do you think was the most valuable lesson you learned from working as a playwright locally?

It’s hard everywhere in the world being in this profession whether you are a novelist, screenwriter or playwright. Theatre is considered a bit of a niche so one is constantly having to find ways to excite local audiences enough to be able to make a living from it.  This is tricky because one never is entirely sure what’s going to ensnare the collective imaginations of audiences at any given period of time.  I’m not interested in pandering to mass sensibilities in terms of sitcom scenario and stereotype. I have pretty twisted unconventional sensibilities.

I’m fully aware that what I do is absurd, to spend so much time devoted to the imaginary, to caring obsessively about the non-existent. It does however keep me interested in the world, I’m generally excited to wake up each day, to go outside, to engage people in conversation. One never knows where the next story will emerge from. My interests are broad and I tend to cast my net wide.

You have received the Standard Bank young artist of the year award tell us a little bit about that experience and what it was like for you?

It was extremely helpful in introducing my work to new audiences from outside of Durban and opening up future possibilities. Writers are often riddled with insecurity and self-doubt (something that comes with sitting alone in a room for so many hours of the day) one hopes, though is never quite sure, that their story finds acceptance in the outside world. Every bit of affirmation from beyond the writing desk (or rehearsal room) goes a long way in encouraging us to keep on keeping on and try even harder on the next attempt.

What appeals to you the most about being a Playwright?

Being able to apply my imagination to telling original stories as opposed to having to write copy for the back of cereal boxes is a huge plus. The opportunity to spend time researching things which have always interested me. To pursue every thread of my curiosity and spend hours each day grappling with the psychology of human beings (while hopefully learning how to be a better one.)

What appeals to you the least?

It’s very hard to make a living as a writer. I am a natural born procrastinator and have ADD which makes sitting at a computer for extended hours very trying. I’m also not nearly as prolific as I should be, I like to grow my stories over long periods of time—I’m pretty obsessive about doing as much research as I can before I start writing .

 It can also be an intensely lonely and interior process. Over long periods of writing one can turn into a bit of a social reject. It comes as quite a shock having to interact with real human beings when you are so used to imaginary ones.

There are a lot of emerging young playwrights in South African literature, what do you think this signals?

I think there are really exciting young playwrights emerging and perhaps it signals the urgency with which young South Africans wish to have their stories heard. We are all born with and shaped by stories so I suppose until the world ends the impulse to retell, rediscover, or invent them will always be there. Theatre has also been one of the most accessible and effective mediums of story-telling in South Africa. It has immediacy to it that you can’t get from sitting in front of a DVD or film screen.

Unfortunately a lot of live theatre, the world over, is a pretty torturous experience and it’s hard work to try correct the perceptions many have formed about the medium off the back of some pretentious student play they saw during their Varsity years.  I suppose with a DVD you have the option to turn it off, theatre is less easy to escape once you locked into your seat.

The play is a good mixture of comedy and drama, how do you actually find this balance in your work?

I don’t want audiences watching my work to ever feel like they are wading through the Sunday newspapers. Three people I admire for their senses of humour and imagination in this country are Zapiro, Desmond Tutu and Pieter Dirk Uys. Humour, they have taught us, is a South African coping mechanism and that, unlike folks such as Shuster, it’s possible to laugh while at the same time reflecting on who we are and where we’re heading.

I suppose life is never just funny or tragic, it’s an off kilter combination of both. A friend of mine just returned from New York and said a new genre has become all the rage in the States and it’s known as the Dromedy (Dramatic comedy). I suppose if we were to box things into genres you could say I have been dabbling in South African Dromedy this past year.

The idea for this play is partly influenced by you meeting a re-enactment group in Dundee tell me about that experience and how you went from that initial contact to this complex story?

Around six years ago I met a re-enactment group called the Dundee Die Hard’s who were active in re-enacting battles from South African History (particularly focusing on the campaigns fought in Northern Kwa-Zulu Natal.) I attended a few of their performances and became fascinated at using the idea of re-enactment as a metaphor for exploring our individual relationships to history. There’s something rather telling (if not absurd) about grown men running about dressed up as their ancestors, firing blanks at one another and fighting battles whose outcomes have been pre-determined centuries ago. In many ways I feel we are still fighting those same battles and certainly still grappling with their consequences here in the present.

At the same time I was thinking about writing a satirical comedy set in small South African town. I had met a variety of small town folk over the years who soon began to take life as characters in my head. As the various ideas and story strands began to merge I wasn’t sure if it was a novel, screenplay or play I had on my hands. Initially it felt far too ambitious to fit on the stage but after I won the Standard Bank Young Artist Award (and was commissioned to create a new work for last year’s Grahamstown festival) I thought I’d give it a bash.  Before writing the play I went to live in Dundee with artist Vaughn Sadie for three months on a VANSA residency and this first-hand account of small town life gave me the confidence to sit down and finally pen the play.

What took so long for the production to get from NAF to Playhouse?

This is a pretty ambitious production in its scope and hugely expensive to tour (There are over 15 people in our company). Straight theatre productions (as in non- ABBA- musicals or revue shows) in this day and age are rarely staged on this scale. If AL flops I will be resigned to a decade of corporate theatre hell to recuperate the cash our production company has invested in the show. I suppose I’m not very business savvy in my creative choices. I submit in to the demands of my vision and rarely think (during the creation process) of the long-term cost implications of touring a production of this size.

I get by on the faulty faith that if something is good then people will automatically want to watch it. So we’ll see how this one goes. Speak to me in a few months’ time and there’s a strong possibility I may be writing copy for cereal boxes.

One of the things that from watching the play that I thought was rather risky was the sheer length of the play, most local dramas tend to want to be as short as possible. Is this a decision that you take self-consciously as playwright, to create this very elaborate narrative?

The play is an hour and a half which I don’t think this is an unreasonable duration to ask an audience to sit through. Most films are longer and one seldom complains if they are engrossed in the story being told. AL is a pretty epic tale, with four narratives that develop and overlap over several generations. I tried not to be indulgent but there’s a lot of stuff one has to cover and develop.

I was intrigued how someone like Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude could fit the entire life stories of several generations of one family into a few hundred pages. At the end of the novel you genuinely feel like you have truly lived through a century(without the boring bits) and shared intimate moments with a variety of complex characters. So you could say I tried to set myself that challenge for the stage .The two hander model for theatre is a pretty standard one—two characters in a box-set yakking for an hour and a half.

I wanted to free up the theatre, show audiences that stage plays can be as dynamic and engrossing as the big budget stories they see in the cinema. I adopt various cinematic devices of flashback and flash forward, try to spin the audience through time and history while keeping track of the fated trajectories of four (hopefully) well -developed and believable South African characters. It’s not to say I have succeeded but it’s been a hell of an interesting challenge.  The research took around five years and I ended up with a family tree for each family group that spanned my entire study wall.

Let’s speak a little bit about the creative process this is not just a play in the conventional sense but it is very much an audio-visual experience. What was the idea and the motivation behind that?

I like to think I only work with mediums that contribute and enhance the universe of my story. As a theatre maker I experiment with most of the story-telling modes I have at my disposable, be it text, set design, lighting, music and sound. We live in a visual time and to excite younger audiences (which is a big part of my mission) I’m not opposed to embracing the tools of our age. On saying this I think a lot of audio-visual stuff in theatre and dance is totally unnecessary and distracting and you have to be very cautious with when and how you decide to use it.

A lot of theatre-makers seem to think by projecting a few random images (downloaded from the net) across their stage might help save their play. To my mind there’s nothing more unpleasant than going to the theatre and being bombarded by a wannabe MTV editor launching an audio-visual assault on the audience to try and make up for the non-existent script or concept. I turn on the TV when I want that sort of experience.

must ask then, how difficult it is to direct a play like this because you are essential conceptualising everything from the lighting and the set and directing this thing on stage where everything is moving and no one is standing still?

It’s a mammoth pressure but at the same time liberating to grow the script, staging and design together and see things through from beginning to end. As I’m working on the narrative I am constantly thinking about how this is going to work and move as a play on the stage.

Because I grow plays and story ideas over several years, by the time I get into the rehearsal room I have a pretty clear idea of how the story should move, look and feel and this frees up time with the actors to really experiment and play.

In an interview we did earlier you mentioned the importance of having a good cast, tell us a little bit about the casting process. When you had this script done and you wanted to start looking for actors did you have specific people in mind? Because it must be a nightmare to cast these characters because of the complexities.

Casting a play is everything and I auditioned several times in Durban, Joburgh and Cape Town to settle on the right actors for the roles. I wasn’t just looking for actors who were adept at learning lines and remembering moves (the meat puppet variety) but rather seeking a series of multi-talented co-collaborators who were willing to invest 100 percent in the process. I think people underestimate the challenges that come with creating new work and the difficulties of transferring something from page to the stage. It’s demanding on performers who are tasked with bringing characters to life for the first time while having to contend with me constantly revising and rewriting their lines as we go. We have no reference points to draw from, no movie version or source material to turn to in times of need. I also tend to find so much of theatre acting these days phoney and insincere so I have a tendency to want to work with actors with a more filmic sensibility.

In Abnormal Loads Vincent, my protagonist, was a tricky role to cast. I’m asking the audience to side and empathise with a depressive, anti-social loner with zero people skills. Malcolm Purkey aptly labelled Vincent an existential wimp him after seeing the show in Grahamstown last year and I’m quite fond of the summation.

Mothusi Magano is a respected film and television actor and he brings a wonderful intensity and restraint to the role, he walked in and nailed it in the first audition. It was not necessarily his stream of inner consciousness monologues (which he delivered beautifully) but rather in his silences that Vincent was revealed to me for the first time. Magano doesn’t need to talk to act, he can sit still in a chair and still manage to convey the characters complex inner life and profound sense of detachment. The camera teaches one to do that, stage often expects actors to emote everything to the back of the room which can be incredibly annoying for audience placed on the receiving end. On saying this it could have backfired, too filmy often doesn’t always translate on the stage and I hope we managed to get the balance right.

Jenna Dunster, Vincent’s love interest in the play, is also from a television background and this is her first professional stage role.  She sent a tape from Joburgh and I knew instantly that she was going to play Katiren. She’s balls to the wall, committed, fearless and very funny young actress. She has such warmth that I knew she could help endear this potty-mouthed, promiscuous daughter of a NG Kerk dominie to audiences.

With the character of Moira, I have known Durban actress Ally Cassels (Dame Ally Cassel of Durban we call her) for years and I wrote the role with her firmly in mind.

We cannot talk about the state of South African theatre without mentioning the issue of funding. As a pretty well established young playwright, what would you say has been the biggest challenge you have faced in getting productions of the ground and how do you navigate this thorny funding maze to get your projects made?

I don’t want to whinge because everyone in this industry (any artistic industry) faces the same woes and tribulations. It never gets easier and is often a thankless slog. One writes fifty proposals a year and is lucky if one gets accepted. No amount of awards or acclaim really changes that. I think the bottom line in this country there is loads of worthy talent out there and a very small pool of funding so it gets spread really thin.

I have been fortunate that the Standard Bank Award enabled to initiate a piece as ambitious as Abnormal Loads. In this current economic climate such an opportunity is extremely rare. I don’t reckon I will be given this sort of opportunity again which is why I chose to take on a project of this nature.  Despite the grant it still took months of scrambling around and calling on huge favours from funding bodies, patrons, fellow theatre companies and friends who could assist us in keeping costs to a minimum.

I could never pay my team of actors or crew the salaries they truly deserve (no theatre company could). When you tally up the hours for the time and energy poured into these productions there is very little financial reward at the end of it all. I personally have yet to profit from any of my theatre work. So why do it at all you might ask? Well my answer would be this business is pure unadulterated lunacy and one enters into it fully aware of the fact and with the knowledge that you can only succeed if fuelled by a sort of Kamakazi passion.

You are also adapting this play into a screen production; tell us a little bit about that and how that process is coming along?

I am currently in the process of adapting the play into a screenplay. I initially conceived this story as a film and am looking forward to fleshing it all out onto a larger canvas. The landscapes of Northern KZN I reckon would provide the perfect cinematic backdrop for such a story. Producers who have circled the project are naturally weary because of the historic scale of it all and obviously theatre allows one to take more suggestive liberties than film does. The film version would be a significant departure from the stage play in the sense film allows one to get away with less talking more showing which appeals to me more and more as a storyteller.

The play also deals with the love affair between Vincent and Katrien, this is still a very ‘toasty’ subject in many conservative communities, this idea of multi-racial couples. But yet you sort of approached it without really taking sides on the matter, why? 

Who am I to take sides? My job as a writer is to present the situation and characters and let the audience draw their own conclusions, which they will automatically do according to their intelligence, upbringing and world- view. I hope that a contemporary South African theatre audiences would find the controversies of such a relationship more passé then taboo. 

I’m certainly not trying to shock. I truly believe there is nothing truly provocative left in this scenario. I think Katrien despite being the daughter of a NG Kerk Doominie father has not inherited his limited worldview. She has formed her own opinions and ideas about the world around her.  I am reminded of a great Zulu idiom which an elderly gentleman in Dundee taught me: “Umfundisi akamzali Umfundisi” which loosely translated means:  a minister doesn’t give birth to a minister. 

I met several teenagers like Katrien in the town of Dundee, who might have been the product of conservative old farmer volk yet were surprisingly free and dynamic thinkers.

It may be hard to believe but not all of us end up as carbon copies of our parents. Many youngsters set out to rebel against everything their parents are and believe. My research pointed me to several teenagers in these sorts of “one-horse dorps” who were in mixed race relationships and who despite the communities tittering were simply getting on with it and living their lives.

The same can be said for sexuality in these places. When I lived in Dundee it appeared that the town had a bigger and more vibrant gay population then Durban and there is surprising sort of acceptance that is forged in the unlikeliest corners of this province. In a weird way this gave me an inkling of hope for the future of our country.

So I suppose I like to focus on character studies which fall outside the norm and that offer more complex alternatives to what we have come to expect as South Africans. I also think it is our duty as writers to work very consciously to subvert stereotypes as opposed to simply pandering to an audiences’ expectation of them.

Vincent may be black but he has been raised by a conservative white colonial grandmother which again confuses the issues, blurs the boundaries and I hope rejuvenates our conversations around things like race and identity. Katrien may have a fundamentalist Afrikaans brother and a Doominie father but she is the antitheses of the both of them.

An audience member approached me a while ago after a performance of Abnormal Loads and said that this was the first grown up South African play they have seen in a last twenty years and I took that as a huge compliment, probably the greatest compliment of my career so far.

You have worked with a number of artists in bringing this play together, how important is collaboration in staging a show like this?

Collaboration is essential. Most of my projects are devised with a huge amount of input from outside talents. I like to learn alongside the people I work with. I suppose the writing part is so intense and solitary that when it comes to making the play you crave the fresh input of others.  When you don’t have a talent yourself it’s really handy (and healthy) to be able to call on the people who do.

One of my favourite parts is collaborating with musicians on the scores of my plays. I have worked with some of my favourite musos (and my sound designer Tristan Horton) holed up in a studio for weeks conceiving the sound and atmosphere to accompany the story on stage. If all goes well on my next project I will hopefully work with Chris Letcher, a musician and have a huge amount of respect for.

 

One of the things that I liked about this play is that it looks at the issue of identity in the social context of a small town and not in the usual upper-class suburban setting. Why did you do that?

Small towns in this county are a microcosm of the South African condition. All that complexity one finds in a sprawling urban cityscape is contained if far more claustrophobic confines, which is often dramatically interesting. I suppose it’s more manageable for a writer to scrutinize things under this sort of microscope.

You have all these cultures living and surviving, clashing (and occasionally thriving) on top of one another. Fear, discomfort, compassion, tolerance, prejudice is amplified in such situations and the playing fields are levelled in the sense co-existence happens across rickety fences as opposed to three story high walls. The thing about my fictional battlefield town of Bashford in the play is that it’s closely modeled on towns like Dundee and Ladysmith which are at the epicentre of South African history in the sense they are surrounded by hundreds of battle-field sites (including Insandlwana, Blood River and Spionkop). Such politically loaded terrains, where various histories and cultures have collided over time, are fertile grounds for new South African stories to emerge from.

Where do you literature is going locally and where can it improve?

This country is alive with stories and I think the one thing my generation of writers often fail to do is grapple with the here and now (I say this because I too am guilty). We are in desperate need for critical yet imaginative new voices to help untangle the present. As writers it often seems we feel safest dwelling in the past – perhaps this is because things tend to always seem clearer in retrospect? We have to embrace the complexities of the now and forge stories which resonate with new audiences.

On saying this we don’t have to omit humour, imagination or originality in the process. The simple fact is there are as many story- tellers out there as there are stories, the way in which the story is told, of course, is what makes all the difference.

What are some of the other projects and initiatives that you are currently working on?

I have several projects and new ideas in the pipeline. I am currently working on the design for a new play called Little Foot which has been commissioned by The Market theatre and is to be directed by Malcolm Purkey. It’s a challenging brief set in the Sterkfontein Caves at the Cradle of Humankind and involving really large visual sequences. I am also beginning work on a screenplay version of Abnormal Loads and a short film project set along the Durban Beachfront.

 

 

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