Neil Coppen

writings/ plays/ poetry/musings/travel journals and newspaper columns

You’ll find me in the Summer when the snow melts.


Dear Goose

You’ll find me in the summer when the snow melts. I took a tumble in the winter, tripped on an oversized ski- boot, clapped head and teeth on a mountain root, concussed, descended, confused into the snow. While down there I started to piece together the bones of Mozart’s thirty-five year old fingers in-between searching for my misplaced memory.

Days before in a cabin, all scented with cow-pat and cigarette smoke, we watched a moth-eaten moon hitch a ride on a ski-lift while drinking beer and playing a children’s card game .Turning and overturning picture cards (daisy, sea shell, pine- cone) in an attempt to uncover the matching pair.

 I fared dismally.

 Daisy…………..daisy?……fuck pine cone!

The three Austrians beside us played with a terrible intensity while a cassette tape they had exhumed from a kitchen draw provided the soundtrack. A warped radio broadcast they had recorded in their teens. Something eerie about news relayed ten years after the fact.

 My imagination satelllited skyward. I saw the cottage in long-shot, saw it drifting backwards in time. Watched the men grow younger: bellies flattening, shoulders rising, fighter pilot fantasies reborn. Memories glorious (building a trout dam in the summer of 2001) then devastating (watching it washed away by the first heavy rains.)

You asked me to tell you my life-story.  Start at the beginning you urged. What amounted was sketchy anecdote. I couldn’t assemble them just like I couldn’t remember where the matching sea shell, pine-cone or infernal daisy card lay. Recollections brittle and disintegrating like the autumn-leaf page of a poem I discovered yesterday in central park.

Later that evening, wedged between mattress and ceiling-rafter (while you plotted and re-plotted emergency fire- escape routes in your head) I clenched my fists against the cold and sifted through the pantry of my skull searching for a jar of something pickled, something preserved. Something as elusive as the bones of Mozart’s 35 year-old fingers or as simple as the twin image of a playing card.


I stepped outside hoping the cold might resuscitate something. Villages twinkled in the valley basin below. War time Austria? The mnemonic trace of a reincarnated self or something recycled from a movie musical (Von Trapp’s escape from nefarious Nazis).

Memories: reels of images spliced together from a myriad of fictions. I’ll write again I decide. Not to record or articulate but to remember. To disentangle my dreams from the over wrought dreams of celluloid others.

Sing: You’ll find me in the summer when the snow melts, thawing in a luminous pasture, fat cow grazing on my unkempt hair. A daisy sprouting from my left nostril.

Thank you for the memory, for remembering


Austria, January 2 2013

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26° 12′ 15.6″ S 28° 3′ 43.7″ E


Below is a short story I wrote for Vaughn Sadies StreetLights exhibition which took place at GoetheonMain (25 May to 2 June 2012). The project explored the city of Johannesburg through its lighting strategies, examining the role artificial light plays in shaping and defining the way people either move through, or occupy, these public spaces.

Under the guidance of editor Libby Allen, ten writers were approached to contribute text-based responses to the multi-faceted project. The departing point being to place themselves for a chosen period of time at the site of their assigned streetlight. The focus of their experience was to meditate on the interplay between light and space.

26° 12′ 15.6″ S 28° 3′ 43.7″ E

Too far from the ground to eavesdrop. You could say I’m not a very reliable narrator, but then who is these days. Words seldom reach me, the traffic too persistent. My stories gleaned from murmurs amongst the exhaust pipes. My pool of light a mise-en–scene of the mundane. A supporting cast which includes pedestrians, hawkers, pavement gamblers, shoppers and stragglers who seldom linger long enough for intrigue to play out.

There are a few principals worth mentioning: my pavement once provided the stage for a man and his finger accordion. He would take his cue from the security door rattling shut over Tazim’s supermarket shop front and then play ‘till sunrise.

There was also a girl who lived in the flat above this same supermarket with her siblings and father. As a child she used to dote on me. Come twilight she would stand in her pyjamas, staring upwards. My underwhelming act of illumination never failed to elicit a gasp. Why me? There’s not much setting us stooped poles apart from one another, not much going for us in the way of idiosyncrasy. What purpose she assigned to this ritual I will never know.

 Perhaps the moment my bulb flickered to life she would make a wish. Children are sentimental like that, granting purpose to random things. She might have imagined that, were it not consecrated by her, a moment might turn tragic. That either the world would end or she would drop down dead. There are no stars here, cities are short on whimsy. I might consider myself a substitute of sorts.

In times less distant, I’ve played moonlight for this girl. Now a teenager, her vigil no longer a matter of life and death. My location more to do with the opposite sex.  She would meet the butcher’s son after sunset, concealed (or so she thought) by the zinc roof extension erected around me.

Her father, never far off, noticed one evening two silhouettes on the street below and stormed the tryst, leather belt in hand. The butcher’s son, clutching pants, went hop-scotching down the nearest alley, petrified. I followed the row from street to flat, watched as it played itself out, a dumb-show of shadows from behind tatty curtains.

The girl corrupted by puberty, her father by unemployment and booze.  He was a terrible insomniac, he began to curse me for his sleepless nights. I could hear him drunk and shuffling around the flat into the early hours. “It’s like it’s always fucking day in this place,” he yelled, before craning out the window and firing a single bullet into my bulb. 

No one came to repair me. The new place down the road gets all the cherry-picking attention these days. The accordion man, undeterred, sought his lime light a little way along, his song an eerie trace of its former self, and the girl quickly discovered how obliging my darkness was with her fledgling desire.

I became redundant, shabby with wheat glue and photostats: an advertising board for muti men and their remedies.  Bold assurances that enemies could be banished, penises enlarged and scorned lovers won back. Telephone numbers by the dozen announcing pain-free abortion with free cleaning- as if that were a discount of some sort.

The last time I recall seeing her she was staring up at me, not in awe or anticipation but with moist eyes and cell-phone in hand.

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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Little Foot Early Concept Art


The following stills depict some initial concept art for the theatre production Little Foot which I am in the process of designing. The production is written by Craig Higginson and directed by Malcolm Purkey and will premiere at The National Arts festival in 2012 before transfering to The Market Theatre in JHB.

Featured in these pics is Mlondi Zondi as Little Foot. Photography by Val Adamson. Digital tweaks Colwyn Thomas. Art Direction and concept Neil Coppen. 



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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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Absence makes the vine grow longer


You left me with…

1.) A green piggy bank (in the shape of an elephant). Loot from one of your car-boot sale trawls.  A relic from some Afrikaans bank promotion in the 70’s.

2.) A fridge full of inedible leaves. Watercress wasted on me—my resourcefulness with salad stuff extends to boiled eggs and iceberg lettuce- what does one do with watercress?

3.)A wobbly vintage bed side lamp, fond of conking me on the head during late night reading sessions.

4.)An ID photo, carefully placed amongst our shelf of Chinese wind-up toys, solemn eyes to keep a tin army in check.

5.) A Jasmine vine on the balcony which, in the absence of your patient fingers, now competes with fellow tendrils to topple the TV Ariel and strangle me in my sleep.

6.)A sculpture you made in second year: A concrete cast of your upturned hands, left outside to cup the evening rain.

Each morning I wake and empty two generous palms-full.

The African Aurora


Sweet Aurora

For months I have been trying to pen you this letter yet have found myself inhibited by a paralysis of the imagination.  I suppose a more benign term might be post project daze.

They say Aurora, ninety percent of writing is imagining what it is one wants to write. If this is true ,then I have been spending ninety nine-percent of my waking, dreaming, scheming hours imagining. A luxury for sure. Who wouldn’t leap at the opportunity to suspend reality in order to inhabit a semi-imaginary one. To resign oneself to the company of the non-existent. Reality during such periods slips into the background, is seen as nothing more than an inconvenience…. something to brave when the fridge is bare and a trip to the grocery store is a  matter of life and death.

I imagine at your age this is what your day-to-day must feel like, though you never have to actively set aside the time. Your pass is unlimited and integration seamless. There is no distinction between what is real and what is imagined, no boundary or border post you need ever flash a passport at.

The other night I went to visit Lorkin Greenstone, a whimsical little man with almond shaped eyes, quite similar to you in age and loveliness. Lorkin joined his parents and I at the dinner table and regaled us with tales of Buttercup cottage:  a fantastical plot of fictive real estate if I might say so myself. He proceeded to describe every detail: the hills, forests, rivers and bat-infested caves. When it came to the wolves, he would crouch his voice in a whisper, careful not to let the beasts (salivating around the next corner it would seem) overhear him.

I miss your stories Aurora, often wonder what topsy-turvy universe you have imagined for yourself over there. I am always dreaming up ways to reach you and figured if I could just crack an invite to Lorkin’s Buttercup cottage I might be able to swim across the river and find you living in the imaginary realm next door. I’d know it was you of course by the gargantuan butterflies and pink unicorned ponies strutting around the paddocks. Read the rest of this entry »

Will Brecht’s Donkey Understand? : Notes on a Conference


All this talk of beauty

Brecht’s stuffed donkey

Actors in falsetto

flailing about in three interminable acts of crisis.

Artistic arsonists

Setting mountains on fire

So they may weep

and in turn inspire

Modalities, meta-text, sub-text, intertext–tual, Sexual, Meta-sexual


(There’s one for the PHD)

Collaboration… interrogation… provocation

Self….. sacrifice….mutilation…congratulation

Hypothetic… thermic…academics

And if not scraping the century old mould from the kitchen sink

Then off plundering the mythic imaginary.

That endlessly recyclable realm of post-modernist-modernisms.

So removed and obscure that you dare risk meeting any part of yourself  inside of it.

Hoary tales made heady with whimsy

Unfamiliar with cliché


Too depressing…recent…..relentless.


Glen miller records on a scratchy gramophone.

Surreal fairy-lit French circuses, butcheries and freak shows.

A mass of rock cuts off the rest of the continent

As onwards the Southern tip wafts

in an un-complex cosmos.

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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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