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.

NewFoundLand by Neil Coppen



NewFoundLand is the latest play by Neil Coppen and focuses on the intertwining lives and dreams of two South African men Jacques: an Afrikaans anesthetist based in a Pietermartizburg community hospital and Sizwe: a choreographer and student at UKZN who has received a calling (Ukuthwasa) from his ancestors to become a Sangoma.

Both men have been raised in conservative communities and are attempting to forge spaces for themselves separate from the cultural, historical and religious forces that seem to bind them to the past.

When Jacques and Sizwe meet for a casual sex hook-up, what is meant to be a brief exchange turns into a profound journey into shared consciousness, and an exploration into the seemingly invisible materials that exist between religion and science, medicine and faith and memory and forgetting.

Coppen’s play has been described as a hallucinatory and unusual exploration of sexuality,love and loneliness in contemporary South Africa, and asks the question is forgetting a way of healing or an ultimate form of denial?

NewFoundLand has been developed in conjunction with Britain’s premiere playwriting Institute: The Royal Court and Coppen was recently invited to London for a staged reading of his work at the theatre as part of the New Plays from South Africa: after 20 Years of Democracy program.



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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Extract from Key Note Address for Grahamstown Schools Fest 2009


The creative process can be hell on earth. I won’t lie to you, trying to tell a great story is the hardest thing I know. It’s agonising, reduces me every time to a dribbling, chain-smoking wreck. It takes huge amounts of focus and dedication. Years of research, sitting in a room, alone, wrestling with words and images and trying to make sense of things.

Of course your hard work will pay off. I love the part where the script gets taken into the rehearsal room and ideas that have been living in your head emerge in the flesh. In this part of the process the script and idea is re-worked with suggestions from actors and director. The creative process, contrary to popular belief, is not a place for rampant egos and creative dictatorships—let’s leave that to the politicians please.

It must be the opposite– an open, collaborative, sharing space. A space where ideas are encouraged to meet and never compete .If it is your project then you have to honour the people that work on it, inspire everyone from the person who works at the box office, to the stage sweeper to the actors to the technicians to invest in your vision.

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Tree Boy tells a deceptively simple story: set in 1960’s South Africa, an eleven year old boy’s mother dies, his father is unable to cope with the loss and turns to alcohol, they move from a farming area to an industrial town and hope is born again through the example of the life cycle of trees. Voila! But the script is something of a banyan tree, spreading its branches into related territory and sending its many roots into the earth. Read the rest of this entry »

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3 shorts extracts from ‘TIN BUCKET DRUM’



The table is turned to form a podium, and the narrator now slinks into the light as the tyrannical Censor wearing Military hat. The use of under lighting casts a looming shadow onto the behind screens. The Censor speaks in nonsensical evangelical rhyme. Gesticulating wildly and pounding fists on the podium for additional emphasis.

* Visual reference: Norman Catherine’s terrifying comic Apartheid policeman.

Censor: Good citizens, I have summoned you all to this urgent meeting

For it has come to my attention

That once again the silence has been disturbed

Censor whacks the table for emphasis, percussionist provides the sound.

By a hearts… Beat!… Beat!… Beating!

On each utterance of ‘Beat’, ‘beat’, ‘beating’ -He bangs fist on podium and percussionist accompanies him with drum

And it’s this, this Beat, Beat, Beating

This unlawful

Silence defeating


That has caused you all to stop,

With blatant disregard and in defiant fashion

Awaken and regard

Your own false and foolish passion

Good people of Tin Town -Who has led you to depths of such Sin?

Who has unleashed The Tyrannical beat the Rhythmic Devil’s?

The percussionist growing a bit cocky, rolls drums for emphasis, the Censor shoots him a disapproving glance to which he quickly shuts up.

That sounds and pounds within?

Who is it that sits amongst us today…. Eh?

He scans the audience suspiciously

Pulls you into this depravity

Who dares to challenge the Almighties

Sacred and Silent Decree?

Who is it that chooses to threaten this state?

Defy our leader?

Place our sacred silence in danger!

Another fist on podium and drum beat.

We must find the courage, good people

Weed out the culprit

Sniff out the stranger.

He sniffs into the audience, then something catches his eye.

Wena (who is it)? Woza (come here)

He motions for the culprit to come forward with a twitching finger. Silence as Nandi offers the child forward. He takes it carefully, holds his ear to the babes breast. A heart beat pounds proudly (3x), he looks up at the audience- appalled.

This….this…. child?

How can something so small, so harmless, make a racket so awful

Such an insolent heart beat in one so young

Is not just unnatural……. It’s unlawful!

It’s shameful, a disgrace

When children born into ‘Tin Town’

Do not obey the rules, the laws

When children do not know their place!

He bangs his fist on ‘Place’. The lights snap to an alternate state as the Censor switches to Nandi by taking off hat and turning her back to audience with pleading outstretched arms.

Nandi: I will teach her then, Give me time! She’s barely four weeks old. She has much to learn about the ways of this Town.

Then back into the unimpressed Censor staring down at her.

Censor: In order for this child to stay

From us all, she must be hidden away

And with each and every passing day

Offer her a hand- strong and stern

Guide her along her Silent way

I recommend then

…that to make a start

You crush the unlawful rhythms in her soul

Silence the beating of her heart!

He bangs his fists a final three times on the podium. Lights fade.


We revert to a flashback- Umkhulu disappears behind the screen, re-appearing as the Censor. This time he dissolves menacingly through the gauze screen- back lit by a red light. He is accompanied by frenzied percussion that weaves in and out of his speech.

Censor: Good citizens of Tin Town, I bring good news

The way of the Silent Sir, you can’t refuse

A life free of all this Rhythmic sin

Free from the persuasive Rhythms that tempt you from this tin


Making monsters from the mundane

Stirring ancestors from their graves to inspire REVOLUTION



A sacred relative to ritual

Inspiring, unlawful, ungodly behaviors

Dancing ……Drinking …Promiscuity



That devours, consumes and ravages

Obscuring the mind

Turning you to wild undignified savages!

Good people, weed out your instruments of mass disturbance.

Rid this town of its cultural plague.

Burn the Story books, the dictionaries, the drums

Silence the laughter, the whispers, The songs

For the Almighty Silent Sir, HE HEARS ALL

Silence is the way to your salvation

Without it you fall

‘Good people

‘To drive the devil and his music from your town

To silence the noise in your hearts

You must first close the ‘Mine’ and ‘Bucket Factory’ Down


The narrator appears from various points behind the central table, playing three gossiping town members.

Person1: It’s the work of the devil!

She’s an incarnation of evil

Breaking our silence

With that Rhythmic upheaval

Person 2: I’ve heard her before

Tapping on fences

Rattling tins in the shed

This child has demons

Tormenting her heart

Tormenting her head

Person 3: She’s Mad

She’s Distressed

She’s Wicked

She’s Possessed

The neighbors chatter wildly as the Censor rises menacingly to his podium accompanied by military drums.

Censor: ‘Good people calm yourselve’s, Calm yourselves’

‘I have decided, that it be only fair

In the interest of ‘ALL’ of our safety

To remove this Nomvula from her mother’s care.

It is now the responsibility of this state

To aid her in a sufficient recovery

In other words………

With watchful eye, and beady ear……


Wena, Woza!

The Little Drummer Girl’ accompanied by her trembling mother step forward.

Censor: After much consideration,



It has been decided that the child is to be sent away.

Made to sleep by the well on the outskirts of the town.

Each day she will be forced to carry out an arduous form of community service, she will be made to do this until the first rain falls’

Censor switches to Nandi, by taking off hat and turning back on audience

Nandi: ‘But it has not rained in twenty years. She’s only a child, my only child.’

Then back to censor

Censor: We must Stop her before she commits further sin

Ticks one more pencil

Rattles one more tin

Stop her before she’s allowed to strike one more unruly blow

My mind has been made

The little drummer girl


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