Neil Coppen

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Interview with South African Theatre magazine.

July12

1.) What is your earliest memory of theatre?

I was five  or six years old when my parents took me to see the musical Singing in The Rain at the Durban PlayhouseI insisted they take me back several times after that just to see if it would rain on cue in the same place. Sure enough the onstage deluge occurred night after night  and after that I was convinced they stage manager had a hot -line to God.

2.) Which is your favorite theatre to perform in and why?

I’ve always been a huge fan of Market Theatre, but sadly think the institution has lost some of its vision and enthusiasm of late which makes it increasingly difficult to collaborate or propose new ideas there. The theatres within the Market have passionate staff running them and are versatile spaces. I’ve always found the JHB audiences that frequent The Market to be diverse, critical and engaged. My work always grows substantially from these sorts of audiences and the feedback and thought they bring to the party.

The Rhodes theatre in Grahamstown has also been a great space to work in over the years whenever I have work premiering at National Art’s festival, it’s generally the only space that cope with the technical demands of my work and I love how it’s both intimate and epic at the same time.

3.) How would you describe your journey as an artist in the entertainment world?

I feel incredibly blessed by the opportunities I have been granted over the years. It’s also tough and a constant struggle to fund new work, to find sufficient time and resources to write new work, to try convince theatre companies to invest in the work, to coax audiences to come watch the work etc.  Make no mistake, I’m a hustler like everyone else in this industry. I’d say my professional life is made up of 40% doing what I love(making theatre) and the other 60% taking on a variety jobs to fund the more risky passion project’s I tend to get involved in. It’s a constant juggle. One has to remain incredibly versatile and optimistic at the same time. There’s this misconception that it gets easier with the more success you have but in my experience the challenges remain the same as when I was starting out. If anything funding pools have grown smaller and artistic directors, more conservative in their curatorship.

4.) What is your favorite Theatre production of all time and why?

One that comes to mind instantly is Theatre Complicite’s piece screened at Cinema Nouveau (sadly I never got to see it live on stage) several years back called The Disappearing Number. At the time, I was creating Abnormal Loads and trying to look at theatre in more cinematic terms and this piece reminded me how limitless the possibilities are in bringing a story visually to life on the stage.

I was fortunate enough to attend my first National Arts theatre festival in the 90’s and was exposed to many wonderful South African story-tellers and works over this period. I’ve seen so many brilliant plays over the last twenty years that I would hate to list one over the other because they have all meant something to me at different times or periods in my life.

5.)  We’re going to put you on the spot; who is your favorite actor/actress that you have ever worked with and why?

I could go on for hours with this list but some of the most memorable experiences I have had making theatre are with the likes of Mpume Mthombeni, Khutjo Bakunzi- Green, Ntando Cele, Sandra Prinsloo, Janna Ramos-Violante, Menzi Mkwhane, Jenna Dunster and the actors from the Big Brotherhood Community Theatre Group.

Why? Because they are all committed, brilliant professionals and compassionate, idiosyncratic beings who enrich my life and work immeasurably.

6.) What achievement of yourself are you most proud of?

Seeing the recent sold-out houses around the country for our local adaptation George Orwell’s Animal Farm has been hugely affirming. It reminded me that contemporary political/protest theatre still has a vital function (not to mention a committed and hungry audience) here in SA. 

I suppose I’m proud (and grateful) of the fact that I’m still here, somehow finding the way and means to tell stories that mean something to me and the audiences that come to the work.

7.) What advice do you have to give to aspiring directors?

The below list is really just an accumulation of “notes to self” I have made over the years. In no particular order they are…

1.) Broaden your area of interests and influences. Watch as much theatre and cinema as possible, read literature, study history, politics, photography, architecture, painting and psychology.

2.)The pictures you put on stage are as important as the words you put in your character’s mouths.

3.) Sermons are best left to pastors. Respect your audience, don’t patronize them.

4)Experience and immerse yourself in worlds outside of your own. Travel, explore, interrogate and learn from how others shape and tell their stories.

5.)Know the difference between homage, inspiration, plagiarism and appropriation.

6.)We live in the age of collaboration, leave your ego at home. Only work alongside those who push, challenge, teach and inspire you. Call on, and trust in their skills….you don’t always know best.

7.) Good directing begins with the casting. Casting I’d say is 80 % of the hard work done.

8.)Don’t rush to make a new work just because you feel you have a good idea, let the idea grow over time. Keep note books, folders and nourish them daily. Stories only get richer with age.

9.) The first technical rehearsals on stage will always make you doubt the work you’ve made, see it with fresh eyes and enthusiasm in the morning.  

10.)Subvert stereotypes, strive to create empathetic theatrical experiences, set out to shift audience perceptions and challenge assumptions.

11.)Deplore mediocrity.

12.)  Seek TRUTH in every word and gesture. Reality television is a showground for the insincere, forced and sentimental, not the stage.

13)  If there is something you feel you are better at or would rather be doing ….do that instead.

8.) What has been the biggest challenge for you to overcome as a South African artist?

As I mentioned earlier this is a somewhat Kamikaze profession to be in. We do it because we love it and because we really couldn’t imagine ourselves doing anything else with our time and talents. Everything about writing/ directing/producing a play is challenging, taxing and certainly character-building.

I’ll never forget a pearl of wisdom the great Pieter Dirk Uys imparted to me during an Abnormal Loads Dress rehearsal. He saw I was buckling under the strain of it all and walked over, patted me on the back and said: “Just remember Neil, it’s theatre not chemotherapy!”. I always cling to those words during my darkest Dress Rehearsal hours.

9.) What does theatre mean to you?

Theatre means many things to me. It’s a shamanic art. In its purest form, theatre can offer a transcendent space for both performers and audiences to connect and build something within. Storytelling has enormous power, dangerous power even. Just look at how many fantastical myths and ideological fairy-tales the human-race has called upon to perpetuate terrible injustices against one another. For me theatre offers us the opportunity to create new stories: counter-narratives and mythologies for us to learn from- preferably less nihilistic and more tolerant ones.

Of course we must comment and reflect on the terrible injustices within our societies, but at the same time we must also endeavor to present alternatives, by this I mean collectively imagining and depicting how the world could and should be around us.

On a less cosmic scale, you could say that theatre encourages an audience to see a problem or culture or conflict in a far more empathetic light. I am a believer in the transformative power of empathy as a starting point for the conversations we need to be having here in South Africa. Theatre offers a platform for a diverse group of people to come together and share in something outside of themselves. Once we’ve removed our blinkers and armor’s, opened our ears and imaginations, we are for more receptive to imagining and actualizing new way’s forward together. We all need to work harder to tap into this sort of incredible potential the medium offers us.

This may all sound overly idealistic but with our most recent theatre project ULWEMBU (focusing on street level drug addiction in Durban) we were able to see some very exciting results emerging in the way the play was able to shift perceptions, policing and even policy-making in the city of Durban. This is the sort of story-telling that excites me and the sort of theatre-making I intend to hone and focus well into the future. 

-end-

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