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.
“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 clichÃ©s 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.