Neil Coppen

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Interview with South African Theatre magazine.


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. 


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Extract from the book:Theatre Directing in South Africa


The following is an extract taken from the book: Theatre directing in South Africa which contains interviews with ten South African contemporary theatre directors/creators ; Simthembile Prince Lamla,  Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom,  Greg Homann,  Amy Jeptha,  Pusetso Thibedi,  Lara Foot,  Zinzi Princess Mhlongo, Brett Bailey, Bheki Mkhwane and myself. 

The book was written by Roel Twjinstra and Emma Durden and is a collaboration with the drama department of UKZN (Howard college) and UKZN- Pietermaritzburg campus. Published by Jacana.


Neil Coppen

“We have to attract and excite new audiences into our theatres and to do this we have to compete with the relentlessly visual- realms of film and television. It is for this reason that I often employ and reference cinematic devices in my plays. Working cinematically simply means I am working in a story- telling vernacular that younger generations have access to.”

When he was a boy of six years old, Neil saw the theatre production Singing in the Rain at the Natal Playhouse, and was transfixed as whole worlds transformed and evolved before his eyes. An obsession with theatre was born.

His mother was a nurse, but now spends her time as Neil’s’ co-producer at Think Theatre, a company with emphasis on development and educational theatre. Neil Coppen calls his father a creative entrepreneur who carved a niche for himself in various professions and business ventures including law, politics, timeshare, community and eco- tourism and technology. Neil comments “we come from a family of inventors, jewellers, artists and florists”.

He notes “my father inspired me to multi -task and work across disciplines and take creative risks, and my grandmother made me want to be a storyteller”.  As a child he spent a lot of time with his grandmother who was bedridden, and would tell stories that focused on her own childhood and her father’s experiences in the prison camps of the Second World-War.  

One could say that from my Grandmother’s stories was born my first real impulse to write. In my later exploits as a theatre-maker I was consoled by the idea that my grandmother’s stories (in fact any stories that interested me) could be replayed or relived every time a group of actors set out to perform them on a stage.”

As a child, Neil wrote small scripts for his sister and himself.  He notes how many of his plays have children at their centre, where South African life and history is viewed through the eyes of child (or child- like) protagonists: “This allows me as a theatre-maker to utilise more fantastical and imaginary theatrical conceits. Think Tin Bucket Drum and Tree Boy .This allows me to take a whimsical or off- centre approach or lens on what is often a cruel and brutal reality. “

Throughout his childhood, Neil was exposed by his mother to various aspects of the performing arts. He encountered opera, ballet, contemporary Dance as well as the works of Shakespeare, Athol Fugard and Mbongeni Ngema. He joined a community drama group headed up by theatre activist Kessie Govender (the founder of the Stable Theatre), and it was here that Neil came into contact with work- shopped and devised theatre practices.

During this period, the Coppen family had become friends with theatre-maker Nicholas Ellenbogen, who ran the Theatre for Africa Company, and allowed the young Neil to sit in on rehearsals and later travel to his first Grahamstown festival to sell programmes at the door of the theatre. It was during this festival that Neil came into contact with the work of South African theatre legends: Andrew Buckland, Ellis Pearson, Mbogeni Ngema and Yael Farber.

After high school, Neil chose not to study Drama or theatre making but rather obtain a Creative Writing degree through UNISA. During this phase he worked predominately as an actor for various theatre companies around the country. He also began to travel the world and immerse himself in a range of diverse experiences: teaching at a theatre summer camp in New York, working as a dialect coach and stand- in on film sets, producing a large scale musical project and working as a free -lance journalist and travel writer. He says that all these experiences have shaped and inspired his work as a playwright and theatre-maker. He is most fascinated by the concept of ‘total theatre’ and comments:

“Peter Schaffer’s play Royal Hunt of the Sun inspired me with the notion of ‘total theatre’ in the way the visual symbols and elements were as seminal as the text was.  Most playwrights focused exclusively on dialogue without considering the overall visual impact and context of their plays, but Schaffer was adamant that music, lighting, sound design, costume, set were important tools to creating a powerful and immersive theatrical experience.  I loved Schaffer’s notion that theatre should be a visceral and all- encompassing experience for an audience and I set out to achieve this in the work I created by paying equal attention to the text, design, lighting, score, sound and staging conventions.”

Talking about his work Abnormal Loads, Neil notes “I wanted to free up the theatre, avoid pandering to the idea of South African drama as static, a bunch of talking heads around the kitchen sink or one location. I wanted to show audiences that stage plays can be as dynamic and engrossing as the big budget stories one sees in the cinema. I adopted various cinematic devices of flashback and flash- forward, close- up and long- shot and attempted to whirl the audience through time and history while keeping track of the fated trajectories of four (hopefully) well -developed and believable South African characters.”

Neil explains that his plays are a product of a long incubation period of research, devising and writing.  Abnormal Loads took him five years of research and preparation before he produced it at the National Arts Festival 2011, where he was featured after winning the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Theatre.

Neil likes to focus on character studies and stories which fall outside the norm and which offer audiences more complex alternatives to what they have come to expect. He says he is constantly looking and exploring the idea of ‘freedom’ in his narratives. Examining his characters’ relationships to the societies they live in and under. He believes it is the duty of theatre-makers in South Africa to work very hard and subverting stereotypes and reductive clichés as opposed to simply pandering to audiences’ expectations of them. “We are a complex, contradictory, beautiful and pretty fucked- up nation and people” says Neil, “and theatre–makers should embrace this, use their platforms and stages to interrogate these notions both critically and imaginatively.”

Neil is currently working on several new stage plays and screenplays set in and around the province of KZN while collaborating with a variety of Community theatre groups and emerging playwrights in the region. He is one of the twelve South African playwrights commissioned to write a new work for the Royal Court Theatre in London. Coppen’s newest play NewFoundLand will open in the new-year alongside his anticipated local reworking of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Abnormal Loads Interview with Sihle Marcus Mthembu



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.





In September last year, a day before Iain Ewok Robinson (KZN poet/performer and activist) was scheduled to perform at the Hilton Arts Festival he pulled out. His absence he hoped would draw attention to the inclusion of an Israeli theatre company in the festival programme while showing solidarity with the oppressed Palestinians.

Robinson and I have always enjoyed healthy, if not heated, discussions and shortly after his boycott of Hilton I wrote him a long letter part criticism and part inquiry.

I was asking why he had stood up school audience with barely 24 hours-notice and left a cultural festival (which has supported him over the years) in a programming lurch. I deemed his no show as an “ultimately ineffectual action.”  In the letter I asked Iain just how successful he thought his boycott action really was and wondered if there was perhaps not a better means of getting one’s message across by using the platform of an arts festival to educate audiences on the cause.

Many South African artists are faced with a similar dilemma and there seems to be an argument that rages every few months in the national press whenever a South African (be it individual or organization) decides to perform on Israeli turf or host Israeli artists here in South Africa.

As we enter ISRAELI APARTHEID WEEK (5-11th of March) Iain and I thought we would open up our ongoing conversation to a public platform.

Comments are of course welcome and encouraged and we hope the below discussion sheds light on a predicament and responsibility many South African Artists find themselves facing at one time or another.

 NC stands for Neil Coppen and IR for Iain Robinson.

 NC. So let’s start at the beginning.  Why the boycott? What do such sanctions achieve? Why is important, more so than ever, for young South Africans to take action now. How does it all work? Are we expected to boycott all aspects of Israeli culture, even those critical of the current political regime?

IR: Right then, from the beginning.  The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is modelled on the same movement employed by the South African anti-Apartheid activists that was used to bolster the internal resistance within South Africa, and ultimately weaken the international economic and diplomatic support that the Nationalist Government enjoyed, thereby strengthening the resistance activities being directed by South African struggle leaders from both inside and outside the country.  Simply put, we choose to boycott because we have been asked to, by a coalition of Palestinian civil society and human rights groups.  This movement is being led by the victims of Israeli Apartheid and all action undertaken by BDS is directed from within Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.  As was the case with South Africa, the Israeli government would not be able to operate such a legislated and comprehensive system of separation on an ethno-religious basis if it did not enjoy the economic and diplomatic support of both international private corporations and public enterprises.  That is to say companies and governments who continue to do business with the Israeli Government despite proof that these relationships lead directly to human rights abuses and breach of international law.  For example, the machinery that the Israeli Defense Force uses to conduct its illegal program of house demolition is not manufactured by Israeli owned companies, but rather by compan17NAT8hm7ZgONLJ Content-Disposiitish construction company JCB (  The fact is, like South Africa, Israel, in isolation, cannot maintain its system of Apartheid, and the BDS movement is about global solidarity in enforcing such isolation. 

To be more specific about the cultural aspect, the call for BDS is very clearly aimed at Israeli cultural institutions that are directly or indirectly linked to the Israeli Government program of ‘hasbara’ or ‘explanation’.  Again, this simply means any cultural activities or programs that are recognized as an attempt by the Israeli Government at ‘whitewashing’ or legitimizing its criminal activities.  The Israeli Government makes no attempt to hide this work, collectively titled ‘Brand Israel’, spending in the vicinity of 26 million US dollars a year to keep a vast and well oiled propaganda machine running.  Referring back to the question of BDS, the money Israel is able to spend on such a campaign is readily available in the form of large scale capital loans from the United States, totaling approximately one third of the entire annual US foreign aid expenditure.  The Israeli Government describes itself as ‘fighting on two fronts: against the Palestinians/Arabs and world opinion’

(  The cultural boycott is intended to counteract this propaganda campaign and meet it head on by protesting, boycotting and highlighting such attempts.  

The Israeli/Palestinian conflict has always been depicted as one of equal sides locked in a battle, as if they were evenly balanced and neither side held ascendancy.  This has long not been the case and it is only in the last 10 years or so, through both an increase in Israeli brutality and Palestinian passive resistance, that the reality of the inequality of this situation has come into global focus.  Social media has played no small part in disseminating new truths that were for years subject to distortion and misrepresentation through media control and manipulation on behalf of ‘Brand Israel’.  A very recent example is the 2010 attack on the Turkish ship the Mavi Marmara in which nine peace activists were killed by the Israeli Defence Force.  When that story broke, the passengers who survived were detained for 72 hours before being released and able to tell their story.  While they were detained, the IDF was free to tell the world media their version of events with no conflict from the victims of the attack.  By the time the activists were released the world already believed, wrongfully, later to be retracted by the IDF, that they had been armed and that they had attacked first.  The truth that was to come out was that the Mavi Marmara and other vessels of the Freedom Flotilla that were sailing to break the illegal siege of Gaza, were heading away from Israel, in international waters, when they were boarded by the IDF, constituting an act of piracy under international maritime law.  This kind of controlled propaganda campaign, backed by the authority and strength of an armed military presence is exactly the kind of target that BDS is targeting.

Young South Africans should recognize more than ever in this situation the absence of a freedom that we enjoy daily, and remember how it was won and why.  This is detailed in the wording of the BDS call to action itself “Inspired by the struggle of South Africans against apartheid and in the spirit of international solidarity, moral consistency and resistance to injustice and oppression;” (BDS call -

NC: Many might argue that a boycott is a reductive sort of action to take in that it lumps artists with politicians and punishes them for the sins and stupidity of the select few.  Are we not silencing some valuable voices in the process and is this not perhaps counteractive to the cause? 

 With this in mind I quote Sinai Peter, an Israeli actor and artistic director who writes:

“If you boycott everything Israeli, all you achieve is to create a tool to delegitimize Israeli art, Israeli Culture, and by extension, the Israeli’s right to survive. We should draw lines between us and evil and conduct a very severe struggle against the occupations, against the settlements, against the non-proportional retaliation of the Israeli army in Gaza, against all kinds of aggressive methods that are used by Israel (and by its fundamentalist rivals) from time to time. One should speak out against them very clearly through art and literature, buy you should do it together with us. You should not avoid us. You should not boycott us. If you do so you will push Israeli society to become much more monolithic—and much more narrow minded and right-wing.”

IR: While the ’sins and stupidity of a select few’ continue to serve the interests of a select minority, however unwittingly or unwillingly, they should be targeted and resisted, even more so by those who are living within the safety and security that those sins provide.  The most valuable voices are ones that will not be silenced, regardless.  Art and Culture do not exist in some kind of a vacuum that separates them from society, on insulates them in any way, while still giving them a space to criticize and create discourse around injustice.  How could you knowingly engage in the freedom of expression and enterprise that artists enjoy, at the expense of an oppressed population?  What kind of line is Peter suggesting?  Is BDS not a very clear and well defined strategic line in this struggle?  While Israel exports and promotes culture in the name of democracy and dialogue it continues to enforce a cruel and brutal system of separation on a subjugated occupied people.  How can this hypocrisy be seen as anything other then a blatant attempt at disguising its criminal actions?  The BDS call is by no means to boycott ‘everything Israeli’.  Its target, again very clearly defined, is the propaganda machinery employed by the Israeli Government and its ‘Brand Israel’ campaign.  A good example is the recent international support enjoyed by a group of 60 Israeli artists who refused to perform in a new theatre built within an illegal Israeli settlement

(  They were called ‘back-stabbers’ by their own government, and praised by the those who stand in solidarity with Palestine.  In talking about the collective crimes of the Israeli Government Peter says ‘One should speak out against them very clearly through art and literature, but you should do it together with us.”  Who is the “us” that he is speaking of?  In light of the fact that many Israeli human rights and cultural activists have endorsed and continue to support BDS, has Peter not missed the line that has been quite clearly drawn by his own colleagues?

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Unpacking the baggage of history is not without comic drama by Niren Tolsi (First published in July 16th Mail & Guardian)


A week before the start of the National Arts Festival, an Anglo-Zulu skirmish unfolds on a hill made of pencil cedar. There is bloodshed and death, which appears to ooze down the richly textured slopes, and there the violence recedes — replaced by maids on all fours, their fastidious scrubbing somehow unable to erase the past’s stains from lingering in the air.

The rehearsal space of the Playhouse complex in Durban’s Mayville suburb is a flurry of activity as the rest of the 12-member cast rush through costume changes on the sidelines or scramble to their next mark in writer-director Neil Coppen’s Abnormal Loads.

At the back of the room, his chair leaning against a wall lined with story­boards, Coppen, the 2011 Standard Bank Young Artist for Drama, is still. At times he mouths the actors’ lines — wincing when they stray from the script.

Occasionally, he scribbles notes on to a piece of paper. The young dramatist, who recently turned 30, is meticulous about detail — whether in research or in rehearsals. Read the rest of this entry »

Retracing History by Mary Corrigall (published in The Sunday Independent, June 05, 2011)


Mary Corrigall chats to Neil Coppen about his new play, a black comedy that deals with history

IF ANY set of events best encapsulates the manner in which South African history is contested, it would have to be the debacle around Andries Botha’s notorious R3 million sculpture of Shaka. Not long after Botha’s likeness of the Zulu warrior king took its position outside Durban’s new airport, it was removed. It was said that King Goodwill Zwelithini and his royal household felt the statue was a poor representation of Shaka. They believed it cast the celebrated Zulu figure as a herd-boy rather than a powerful warrior. In a seemingly absurd gesture, a task team of historians and researchers were formed to investigate its appropriateness, as if it was something that could be quantified and verified.

Playwright Neil Coppen observed the shenanigans with amusement and interest. For almost six years he had been working on a novel centred on the politics and impact of history on the present. The narrative was still fragmented, its essence still embedded within numerous newspaper clippings he had been collecting. The stories were as absurd as they were revelatory of the status quo, such as one where a statue celebrating Read the rest of this entry »

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


(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. Read the rest of this entry »

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Interview with Bronwen Vaughan-Evans - Memento Mori


On a visit to Bronwen Vaughan-Evans studio earlier this year I found her paused in the post-coital catharsis of her last exhibition home is where the heart is. She was sitting alone, in a now desolate studio, free of the imposing portraits and figures that had crowded the studio walls for the past eighteen-months. After so much time spent in their company, the sight of her, abandoned in that that Spartan white space, reminded me of a mother having just sent her grown kids off into the big wide world. Yet I recall how excited I felt at that moment, to catch the artist in that rare moment of solace, poised, catching breathe before commencing with her next journey/body of work which was to become Memento Mori (now on at Bank Gallery).

A handful of Vaughan-Evans’ portraits in home is where the heart is re-emerge in Memento Mori and wandering between the two, both their synergy and difference is striking. The portraits from the former exhibition–contained in separate room within the gallery– are far warmer in tone and temperament, at times intimidating in their scale and presence. Here we find each subject’s essence exquisitely distilled, lovingly etched out: eyes alive with strength, weakness, curiosity, fear, insecurity and fragility.

home is where the heart is (Michael)
Gesso and Oil on Board

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Manda Bala (Send a Bullet)


What do a philosophising frog farmer, a ropey plastic surgeon, a fat-cat politician and a professional kidnapper all have in common? You might be forgiven for thinking they are the odd ball line up of characters constituting the cast- list for the next Coen brothers film. These are however all too real peopleeach of whom plays a crucial role in the sprawling cycle of violence and corruption currently plaguing modern Brazil.

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Learning To Listen (A week with the KZNPO)


To the unseasoned classical concert attendee—such as myself—spectating a Symphony concert for the first time can be a pretty intimidating experience. At a Thursday evening concert’ held at the Durban City Hall in February (part of the Kwa-Zulu Natal Philharmonic Orchestra’s (KZNPO) World Symphony Summer Series) I was to learn the hard way—arriving in the somewhat inappropriate attire of slops, jeans and a t-shirt and then proceeding to burst into applause during the performance at the most inopportune moments (after and never between the movements-a disapproving audience member is quick to inform me.) Read the rest of this entry »

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