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Tin Bucket Drum Questions with Neil Coppen

By February 18, 2019No Comments

Neil Coppen’s play, Tin Bucket Drum, was recently awarded the English Academy of Southern Africa Olive Schreiner Prize for Drama (2019). The Olive Schreiner Prize for drama forms part of a larger annual competition in creative writing of English expression, which includes prose and poetry. The award is named after Olive Schreiner, the South African author and activist. The competition’s adjudication panel was unanimous in its decision to score Tin Bucket Drum as the winning entry for the play’s “astounding content and contribution in breaking new ground, as well as its depth of thinking in addressing socio-political issues in contemporary South Africa.” The adjudication panel was also impressed by the play’s innovative use of the one-hander technique in line with Africa’s long tradition of storytelling using multimedia in a way that greatly enhanced the performability of the text.
In the following interview, educational sociologist Dr Dylan McGarry chats to Coppen about the writing and reception of one his most beloved early works.
What inspired this story? Where and how was the initial story seed planted and what was it that compelled you to eventually sit down and write it?
I was in my early twenties and mostly working as an actor at the time. I had become increasingly frustrated with being a passive vehicle for telling other people’s stories. At the time, the sorts of plays I was being cast in were mostly English and American ones. I was at a music concert in Durban and a friend of mine Mike Mazzoni, who headed up a local percussive group called Interittmo Drummers set me a challenge: to close my eyes during the performance and see if the drumming inspired any ideas for a theatrical collaboration. That night I closed my eyes during the drummers’ performance and in the darkness was visited by the image of a small child marching triumphantly while banging a tin bucket drum. At the time I wasn’t entirely sure why she was marching or who she was for that matter but over the next few months the image and story percolated into what would eventually become one of my first plays: Tin Bucket Drum.
You could say the plays I write stem from a combination of my political curiosities and frustrations. When I look back at the South African zeitgeist at the time of writing: president Jacob Zuma was deeply entrenched in the arms deal debacle, Robert Mugabe was cracking down on neighbouring Zimbabwe, newspapers were full of harrowing stories of communities being bullied by governments to sign away their ancestral land to mining companies and the South African nation, ten years into democracy, seemed to be waking up to the fact that it’s rainbow ideals were fast disintegrating. All these threads seemed to combine, albeit allegorically, in the writing of the play.
The play is almost constructed like a ballad in its celebration of the life of a folkloric or mythical heroine.
Exactly. With the original cast and collaborators: Wake Mahlobo (percussionist), Ntando Cele (actress), Karen Logan (director) and myself, we set about composing the story text as one long narrative song (as one would an opera libretto) defined by a series of percussive movements, sounds, rhythmic motifs and refrains. The Censor for example has a military marching drum that announces his arrival and departure each time. For Nomvula, the little Drummer girl, we settled on more organic tin and wood sounds; the heart-beats of the various town folks are denoted by recognisable and distinctive instruments/percussive surfaces. We used instruments to denote character just as Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev did with his Peter and the Wolf composition.
There’s also a sort of homage to radio theatre in the way you staged the production by having the percussionist clearly visible on stage.
We referenced the Foley artists of old radio-dramas and films by lighting the percussionist on stage so that the audience is constantly aware of the source and origin of the play’s soundtrack and effects. While the actress would mime the action on stage, the percussionist would orchestrate its exact sound in time to her choreography. When these two layers work in seamless synergy, the effect is quite magical. I learnt with this play how much the audience like witnessing the mechanics of storytelling. Cinema you could say tries to conceal those mechanics but theatre tends to celebrate them.
There is a strong use of light and shadow in the design. Can you tell us more about the use of shadow in the design?
Again much of the design was born from the creative challenges we had thrown in our path in the devising of the work. I didn’t imagine at first that that I would need to consider things that could be packed down into the boot of a car for touring purposes. For example the baobab tree is a central image in the story but to physically build a tree to the scale I wanted would have been impossible for the reasons mentioned above. I discovered that when you shine a shadow light on a cut out of a baobab (40 cm high in our case) you could enlarge its shadow several metres behind on the wall of the theatre thus achieving scale yet minimizing expense and hassle. This worked for the Censor character, in the way we could manipulate and enlarge the performer’s shadow to a monstrous scale. We spent weeks experimenting with various cardboard cut outs, gauzes, light sources and angles to get it all right.
You mentioned cinema earlier. People often call you work cinematic. In what way would you say this is true?
You could say I work ”˜cinematically’ in the way I liberally employ devices more common to film than the stage. For example, for the shadow puppetry, I employed small shadow tableaux scenes that dissolved in and out of the hessian screens to reveal shifts in time and location. You could say I was working as a film director might, employing a cinematic long shot ”¦ establishing the scene (wide angle) before asking the audience to journey deeper into it with the actor.
So achieving the end visual results on stage comes from long periods of experimentation and collaboration?
Absolutely. Having time to play and improvise with lights in a dark space is integral to how my ideas for staging/storytelling take shape. The simplest effects in theatre are often the most evocative and what’s so wonderful about utilising shadow on stage is that the audience’s imagination are engaged and they are invited to play along with the story. The original stage version has been performed by three incredible women over the last decade namely: Ntando Cele, Thuli Zuma and Mpume Mthombeni.
Tin Bucket Drum toured around South Africa and the world for over a decade. It received rave reviews in New York and a 2015 version (directed by Jade Bowers) has returned from an acclaimed run in Prague. What do you think it is about this story that has made it endear for so long?
The thing I have learnt from my literary mentor-satirists such as Jonathan Swift and George Orwell is that human nature is tragically predictable and consistent. No matter how many centuries pass, or what continent we find ourselves writing from, we are likely to be commenting on the same patterns repeating themselves over and over again. Working in allegory means one never limits the story to an exact time and place because the themes of the story tend to outlast and single fleeting moment of time or history ”¦ Orwell’s Animal Farm is the perfect case in point. I hoped Tin Bucket Drum would be universal in this way. I wanted it to speak closely to our ongoing reality here in South Africa and on the African continent yet at the same time, appeal to audiences from across the globe who would just as easily be able to consider the stories ideas and concerns as their own. It’s a classic archetypal myth, told with imagination and heart and I imagine audiences, in the age of excess and spectacle and interminable ongoing televised narratives, respond to its earnest simplicity the most.
Can you tell us about how you managed to get president Jacob Zuma to watch the production? You mentioned earlier he provided some of the inspiration for the Censor character.
As I mentioned at the beginning of the interview, the Zuma Arms deal controversy inspired some of the writing of this play. The Censor is very much a Mugabe/Zuma/Amin hybrid. It’s the dream of any writer to have the object of one’s barbs sit in their audience. So often we are accused as theatre makers of preaching to the converted and I really wanted to challenge this notion. There’s also a valid criticism emerging in recent years that it’s not the oppressed that need to be confronted with these sorts of stories but the oppressors themselves. How else can we attempt to subvert the status quo if we are not trying to prick the dormant empathetic consciences of those in power? So naturally I wanted president Zuma and his cronies to sit through a performance but realistically never expected it to happen.
What happened?
In a twist of fate when I was recasting the production, Jacob Zuma’s daughter Thuli Zuma, who is a trained and very accomplished actress, asked to audition. Karen Logan, the director, flew down to Cape Town and ended up auditioning Thuli in the president’s residence, a grandiose boardroom with velvet curtains. Against any expectations she gave a courageous and convincing audition and seemed unfazed by the political nature of the piece and its rather unsubtle references to her presidential father. A week or so into our rehearsal, Zuma’s PA called with a request for him to attend the play.
What was that experience like?
I can only describe it as the most surreal evening at the theatre. We arrived to find helicopters circling, an army of police in bullet proof vests scouring the venue, sniffer dogs straining on leashes, more metal detectors than JFK airport post 9/11 and all the blue-light fanfare that accompanies JZ [Jacob Zuma] wherever he goes. I sat behind the prez throughout the performance, his shiny head obscuring my view of the stage. I felt just like Hamlet, where he sets out to stage a play to catch the conscience of his uncle king Claudius, who during the re-enacted murder scene, rises guiltily and flees the theatre yelling: “Lights ”¦ lights!” Unlike Claudius, Zuma only shifted uncomfortably in his seat and even shed a tear at the plays denouement. Afterwards while posing on stage alongside his daughter for a photo op, I caught him wagging a finger at her and whispering through a grimace: “You should have warned me before what this play was about!”
Of course Zuma persisted on leading the country to the brink of collapse and through more outlandish corruption scandals. What did this teach you?
I suppose the whole experience taught me that in order to “catch the conscience of the king” ”¦ the king ideally needs to have a conscience in the first place!

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