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Interview with Neil Coppen writer/director of NewFoundLand

By October 18, 2018No Comments

The following interview is featured in the published play text of NewFoundLand by Junkets.


Dylan McGarry (DM), educational sociologist and theatre maker, chats to Neil Coppen (NC) about the creation of NewFoundLand (2017-2018)


DM: Creating Newfoundland was a long and careful process, from its early incarnations as part of the Royal Court residency you participated in. Can you tell us who or what inspired this story?


NC: The play had been circling in my head for years before I was granted the opportunity through the Royal Court writing residency to shape it on the page. I suppose the play formed through the meeting of two men: Sizwe and Johan, who were to become very close friends of mine and in many ways co-authors of this project through the sharing of their life stories and assisting me with my research. I met Sizwe and Johan at different times ”“ funnily enough both at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown ”“ and what struck me was the way that their stories and experiences seemed to mirror and parallel each other in unusual ways. Johan is Afrikaans and Sizwe is Zulu, but they were both young gay men embarking on very similar life journeys, grappling with their sexuality and identities. They were both healers of sorts, both fighting to find a place and purpose in highly patriarchal and conservative cultures. Their parents were extremely religious and their struggles for acceptance were ongoing. 


DM: Can you talk a little more about your comment of finding the parallels between the characters’ lives, as opposed to dwelling on the more obvious differences?


NC: We are so often taught in theatre or creative-writing classes to focus exclusively on difference, what is opposite, what causes and creates friction or conflict between two characters (necessary for drama). Yet I’ve always believed that finding commonality or what is shared in our experiences is as important and as intriguing a premise for a successful play. By examining binding factors over the more obvious divisive ones, I believe the playwright can help counteract many of the limiting stereotypes that are often perpetuated by South African theatre and cinema. The more I talked to these men, the more excited I grew about conceiving a theatrical scenario whereby they would be able to share a space and reflect on their experiences, joys, struggles together. The irony is that the real-life inspirations for both characters ”“ at the time of going to print with this text ”“ have never actually met in real life. Theatre allows us to contrive such imaginary meetings and, while cultural clashes and misunderstandings are inevitable, the same dynamics can show us that listening and empathising with one another is key to forming new and more meaningful relationships with one another. In South Africa we are all products of a terrible, divisive history; we are still indoctrinated to see and dwell on only what separates us. I don’t want to perpetuate this in the things I write or put on stage when there are much more interesting nuances out there to focus on. 


DM: Could you explain this writing/research/creation process and how the story emerged and took shape? 


NC: When I explained my play concept to Sizwe and Johan, they both agreed to participate and what ensued was years of research and many long interviews about their lives, childhoods, world-views and innermost thoughts. Obviously, I’m not an Afrikaans or Zulu man, and in order to begin to write a play such as this I would need to ensure these characters had a basis in the real world, that they felt authentic and fully rounded. I visited Sizwe in Ulundi and became very interested in his ukuthwasa and the complexities that were arising within his family around his accepting this ancestral calling. Similarly, Johan allowed me into his workplaces to observe the process of anaesthesia and gain a better understanding of the science of his work ”¦ the science of sleep, so to speak.  It was probably the most intensive research period I have ever embarked on for a play. Before I could begin to write, I needed to educate myself in so many different areas of science, philosophy, religion and cultural practices and beliefs that were relatively foreign to me. Each rabbit hole I spiralled down would ultimately lead me to a whole new line of enquiry. I would not have ventured into these areas, were it not with the support and constant guidance of Sizwe and Johan. I owe a lot to them for the realisation of this play.


DM: I remember towards the end of the writing/reshuffling process you created what was affectionately known as ”˜the paper dragon draft’ whereby you printed an existing draft of your play and quite literally cut it up and reassembled it to get to the structure you were eventually to settle on for the final staging. You did this with pens and highlighters and sticky-tape and the play you arrived at literally snaked around your house and trailed off into neighbouring bedrooms. 


NC: When I was accepted on to the Royal Court residency, it granted me the necessary time, space and courage to weave these many story-strands together and really challenge myself as a writer in the process. While I had seen much exciting structural/narrative experimentation going on in cinema, I was frustrated that playwrights were seldom taking the same risks in theatre. Writing a play about memory, time, dreams and hallucinations really allowed me to experiment with narrative and time in a nonlinear fashion, and it was hugely liberating working with a sort of dream-logic as my structural starting point. Such a logic allowed me to really study how the subconscious and memory work and to experiment with things like repetition, surrealism, the story folding back on itself. It’s a structure that really requires the audience (or reader) to act as co-detectives, piecing together and making sense of the narrative as it unfolds. I only really cracked the play’s conceptual code when I came to the realisation that the play was a series of unwanted memories that has essentially tried to suppress. What we see onstage is everything that has been hidden deep in the silt of his subconscious, rushing now to the surface. Getting the structure right was time-consuming, and the play took over twenty drafts and many years of rewriting and reimagining. A big breakthrough, as you mentioned, was what we collectively named the ”˜paper dragon draft’, whereby I printed it all out and then literally hacked it to pieces, shifting scenes around and forming a new and less literal chronology and series of timeloops. My connection with you really taught me the value of dreaming; and at the time of writing this play, I learnt how to draw inspiration and meaning from my own unruly and nonsensical subconscious. I found taking the story out of the computer and laying out the pages in front of me really enabled me to see the story unfolding in a different way and gave me the necessary courage to cut and reshuffle scenes and ideas to arrive at a version that felt ready for the rehearsal room.


DM: The play has a unique structure and story-telling device; it’s dreamlike, yet coherent; abstract, yet a distilled narrative plays out. The conscious and unconscious elements meld seamlessly into each other. That is not an easy task. How much of your own subconscious guided you through the making of this work?


NC:  I spent so long researching and delving into these various worlds and characters, that, by the time it came to the writing, essentially all I had to do was learn to follow my intuition and honour the stories that had been entrusted to me. I was nourished by so many testimonials and new ways of thinking/imagining/being in the world, and my role was to make or highlight the unexpected connections between a variety of narratives and events. It’s not to say it was easy making these connections but a big part of the writer’s responsibility is in absorbing a wealth of information and then taking the time to connect the dots, the thoughts, excavate unusual parallels and see the synergy between the stories. 


DM: How do you summarise a play as vast as this? It seems to be about so many things. I suppose my question is, when people ask what it’s about, how do you respond? 


NC: These days I simply say: it’s a play about the universe, and then list things like: life, death, sex, family, healing, the subconscious, dreams, freedom, technology, faith, love, loneliness ”¦ If I’m trying to be more lofty and academic about it, I might rattle off something pretentious like: It’s a play about trying to form an identity that feels authentic and true within the complex and contradictory contexts of contemporary South Africa. (Laughs.) How’s that for an alliterative mouthful! 


DM: A recent review of the play claimed: ”˜It’s difficult to imagine a theatre production in which elements of Western ideology, African traditionalism, emigration, sexuality and identity not only co-exist, but feed into one another so successfully. In a South Africa that often seems divided, NewFoundLand illuminates a way towards a shared identity.’ Is this shared identity something you believe is realistic or even attainable here in South Africa? Would you go so far as to describe your play as play about reconciliation? 


NC: I prefer to think of the theatre as an arena of discovery and healing. To begin to heal, one has to probe and dig around historic and present-day wounds and that’s a messy, complicated and often painful process, as seen in the play. There are no easy answers. One can’t begin to arrive at, or attempt to propose, a neat summary or solution, or offer a mystical blueprint on how we should all just love one another and get along. I think the play shows that individuals, whatever background they stem from, are a universe unto themselves, shaped and determined as they are by a myriad of visible and invisible forces. I’m certainly not out to absolve or redeem anyone through the work I make. I mistrust the label ”˜South African reconciliation play’ because reconciliation in the South African context is so historically loaded. It’s such a subjective thing, its demands are understandably totally different for different sectors of our society and are seldom met or granted over the span of a lifetime, let alone over the duration of a play. I do, however, believe theatre offers us a space for coming together, contemplation, a space to imagine the unimaginable, to sit and listen and learn from one another. I suppose what interested me the most in the exploration of this play was this: What would it be like to watch two men from opposing (not to mention hyper-masculine) cultures, meet and find the space and time to be vulnerable and even intimate with one another? That alone felt like something subversive and vital to put onstage. We seldom, if ever, see South African men responding to one another in these sorts of contexts, certainly not with the necessary compassion and tenderness demonstrated between Jacques and Sizwe in the play. 


DM: All your work carefully handles and reflects the fractured psyche of contemporary South Africans, and this work goes even deeper into taboo conversations that sift through issues of gender, race and sexuality. What has been the most significant transformation for you in working with these issues through this story?


NC: A stimulating play or work of art can set us on a new path of enquiry; it can challenge us by making us feel things we have never felt before; it can open up empathetic reserves we didn’t know we were in possession of. It can allow us to truly see each other stripped of our armour and defence. I attempt to do that with all the work I create, and am fortunate to undergo a similar sort of education/enlightenment in the researching and making of the work, in the collaboration with actors and a creative team that help me bring the story to life on the stage. I have learnt so much about this country and its extraordinary people over the duration of this project. My own humanity and sense of place in the cosmos has been challenged and invigorated time and time again through this collaboration. 


DM: Finally, there is something almost shamanic about this work. Audiences from all walks of life respond by feeling they have undertaken a journey, one that took them to the depths of their souls. Why do you think the play has such a profound effect on such a wide range of South Africans from such diverse backgrounds? 


NC: It’s a work that deals with universal ideas and truths which audiences from all walks of life respond to. When you strip us all down to our core, we all share the very raw and real experience of being human together, though we are equipped with different tools and coping mechanisms by the societies, cultures, histories and beliefs that have shaped us since birth. Outside of all these things, our experience of suffering, loss, love, loneliness and the need for human connection is the same. Perhaps we forget this too easily, and sometimes a simple reminder of the fact, in the form of a play, can feel like an epiphany.

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