Neil Coppen

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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.

2011: Highlights Package


I thought I might take a minute of two to highlight a few experiences which stood out for me in the year of 2011.

My criteria for the below choices was originality, audacity and craftsmanship. In short an experience (or cultural product) that challenged and pushed the boundaries of the medium it was created within. My list is of course entirely subjective and I’m certain to have omitted some real gems along the way but here it is…


Ex Durbanite Chris Letcher’s Spectroscope takes top spot followed closely by PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake. Letcher is an uncompromising musical genius and Spectroscope is a journey which enriches and unfolds with each concentrated listen. I’ve had this album on repeat for a few months and am yet to tire of this lush cinematic/schizophrenic soundscape.

Live Gig

It had been a tough Grahamstown festival, exhausted beyond the telling, I ambled in and out of theatres mostly unmoved by the work I was seeing. Perhaps my indifference could be attributed to my own post-project fatigue but catching Guy Buttery at the Rhodes Chapel managed to instantly restore my every frazzled fibre.

Perched on a stool, Buttery, messiah-like (How he must tire of this comparison) bathed in red light, the Virgin Mary painted on the back wall seeming to hover maternally over him, offered the nearest thing to a religious experience an atheist is capable of having. True to form, Buttery’s virtuoso combo of digits and strings warmed the icy cathedral, and kept the capacity crowd leaning in as if trying to get closer to the bonfire that was blazing up before them.

If Buttery doesn’t win the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for music in the next year or two I vow to outdo Werner Hertzog (who infamously ate his boot) and devour an entire ukulele instead.

Similarly Simphiwe Dana at the Sibiya Casino theatre earlier this year was majestic. Despite embarrassingly low attendance figures(the gig was terribly advertised) a gracious Dana and her band of accomplished muso’s took to the stage and indulged us with an intimate and passionate two and a half hour set– where artists of similar renown might have well taken one look at the meagre crowd and slunk from the stage after a few songs.


Both applauded and derided Tree of Life tops of my list. Sure Mr Malick doesn’t always know when to stop (The concluding syrupy beach scene re-union was a step too far) but Tree Of Life is a beautifully shot, unapologetically cinematic/operatic experiment that for the most part works and often awes. Detractors– and there are many– complained that nothing much seems to happen (bar the glorious formation of the universe mid-section) yet I savoured Malick’s gentle narrative, his profound observations on childhood and Emmanuel Lubezki’s breathtaking cinematography.  A deep experience and I mean that in both the poetic and pretentious sense.

 Wim Wenders Pina 3D, which I was fortunate to have caught at the opening night of the JOMBA festival, offered a cinematic experience unlike any other. I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t know much about Bausch and her company Tanztheater Wippertal , so Wenders film provided me with a suitably visceral and inspired introduction. Wenders was born with cameras for eyes, and his immortalising of Bausch’s dancers gliding through time, architecture and space was nothing short of masterful.

In the way of unadulterated pleasures Gore Verbinki’s Rango (which a reviewer aptly claimed was like watching Looney Tunes on mescaline) served up a surreal and irreverent treat. John Logan is a fine writer and Verbinski– away from the money mitts of producer Jerry Bruckheimer—harbours an irrepressible imagination. The product of their twisted imaginings is a bizarre take on wild-west lore which has more ideas in its opening sequence then the combined duration of Hollywood’s insipid annual output.

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Abnormal Loads Press Clippings 2011


“Abnormal Loads is a profound and complex piece of theatre.”

Margaret Von Klemperer, The Witness

“Ground breaking”

 Gayle Edmunds, City Press.

“Another Standard Bank Young Artist, Neil Coppen’s play Abnormal Loads not only highlights the non-intrinsic value of the arts in articulating the history of our country through the divergent viewpoints of those who experienced it, but is a showcase of the commercial potential of the arts. It is clear that this 30-year-old playwright will draw in the audiences both locally and abroad for many years to come.”

Maya Fisher French, Mail & Guardian Online

“Abnormal Loads is a structural triumph in a medium that is often infested by creative repetition. Coppen’s play tackles social prejudice and race relations without being bogged down by intellectual utopia. The confident and intelligent use of space and lighting is almost like seeing a film without compromising the intimacy of the stage. Abnormal loads does equally well as source material for a master class on creative complexity or a conversation starter on a blind date.”

Sihle Mthembu, Mind-Map SA

“One of the most astonishing productions at this year’s Grahamstown Festival. An insightful and nuanced drama set in a small battlefield town steeped in anecdotal history, memories and oral tradition, nestled in the shadow of a mountain.”

Illa Thompson, The Mercury


The Crystal Calligrapher

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The Divine in the Ordinary


Under the banner ‘Stone the Crows’ (named after his English grandmother’s frequent use of the expression.) Colwyn Thomas’s illustrative art has set about ensnaring the collective awe -and perhaps more pertinently sales- of both the general public and the discerning art set. With his work being snapped up as far a field as Berlin, Colwyn has become the illustrator to own before one has to plunder their life savings in order to afford the privilege. Neil Coppen treads where imperfect angels fear to. Read the rest of this entry »

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Gary Thomas


When I first lay on my bed and slipped in the Jeff Buckley-Live at Sine CD, I found myself submerged in something inexplicable, profound. Yes this was genius, I understood the word and for the first time I could place a sound alongside it. Not refined, produced, tampered with by the machine. Here was Buckley a dead man, live, living, breathing, wailing in my bedroom. Immortal Buckley, one man and his guitar, the sounds of clinking glasses from the bar, casual chatter littering the track. An exiled Lucifer lamenting for a lost paradise, angels powerless against the seduction. Fingers bled on strings.

This is how I come to Gary Thomas- a born bred now living in Cape Town Durbanite-a man who I would go as far to say is master in our midst. There is no niche, no market he panders to. Thankfully his music is far to complex to find its way to mainstream radio stations, the backgrounds of coffee shops and dinner parties. This is music that demands attention. Preferably a dark room, silence, hell a joint if you up for it. To listen is to be lost, transported, shaken. A musician who side steps the futile pursuits of ‘adoration’ rather and wisely so, seeking ‘appreciation’. This is craft, he is a craftsman not a rock star (the world has enough of those)

Thomas is a music addict, a compulsive listener but it’s to his credit that none of the songs are derivative, references only detectable through homage. Once thrown in the Gary blender a sound arises unlike anything one has heard before. One of the rarest things to find, let alone create- a new sound, a sound unlike all the others.

I imagine ‘twenty something’s’ in the future uncovering this early recording. Perhaps Gary is touring the world by now, has several albums under his belt, but this, this one- these mythical, unobtainable Kalk Bay sessions (the signed copies sell for millions on E-bay) the ones that came before the producing giants, the record label vultures swooped in. Before international recognition, acclaim, stardom. Before all that. When life was simple and Thomas was scraping by- an unsuspecting loafer with a supernatural gift.

I imagine one of these twenty something’s shifting through his dad’s old CD collection, pulling out this CD, slipping it in the player, lying back on his bed, eyes closed. What occurs takes the form of revelation. He finds himself drowning, battles to breathe, only once the CD ends does he swim to the surface- gasping. Blessed, now he will not settle for anything less. Anything less is a compromise. He throws out the kak he has been listening to in the past. A bar has been raised, the standard set.

I look forward to the day I can say ‘I told you so”. To own this album is to own a (minor/major- time will tell) piece of history. Not just a necessity then but a wise investment.