Neil Coppen: Vanguard and visionary


Making new track through a wild country

I acknowledge that there are very few artists whose work is such a true reflection of their character as Neil Coppen’s is. Along with Dylan McGarry and Mpume Mthombeni, the co-founders of the avant-garde Empatheatre, Neil’s work generally follows a research-based, theatre-making methodology to address complex societal and environmental issues. In 2022 the company was invited by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to present their hard-hitting play, Lalela Ulwandle (Listen to the Sea), at the 27th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Egypt. A true vanguard, the award-winning theatre company, Empatheatre, leads the way in creating work that gives a voice to the silenced, whether it is the ocean or the women we know.  I’ve had the honor of working with Neil, a deeply empathetic human who leads with compassion, integrity, and generosity. Neil, along with visual artist, curator, and overall trailblazer Vaughn Sadie, through the award-winning Karoo Kaarte, have transferred skills and methodology that will influence my practice far beyond the project. I aspire to do the same for others.

TIFFANY: As an organization, Empatheatre has many amazing accolades to show for the valuable work that you do, which one stands out and why?

NEIL: We were very excited to get the 2022 Bertha Artivist Award and grant. It was also great to be acknowledged locally with the recent Fleur De Cap for Innovation in Theatre award.

TIFFANY: Tell me more about Isidlamilo, how was this story conceived, developed, and then staged?

NEIL: Both my long-time collaborator Mpume Mthombeni and I hail from Kwa-Zulu Natal and our work as theatre makers and storytellers has been greatly inspired by this province and its people. But for all its beauty and magic KZN has always been a land of extremes…there’s this underlying sense that things could erupt into chaos at any moment, and here I refer to chaos due to political instability or forces such as natural disasters.

Isidlamlilo/ The Fire Eater was literally born during one of these eruptions and by that I mean the writing of the play was set in motion during the July 2021 riots. We were just coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic when this massive wave of civil unrest swept across the province. For several days we were surrounded by the sounds of gunfire and helicopters hovering overhead. Malls and factories were looted and set alight and toxic plumes of smoke blackened the skies and poisoned the rivers. In the absence of any sort of police protection, armed citizens began patrolling the neighborhoods and erecting makeshift barricades across road entrances and exits. It was an incredibly dystopian and terrifying moment in time and I remember calling Mpume and saying: “I don’t know what to do with this anxiety. I don’t know where to put it.”

From out of our conversations, we resolved to return to an interview that had haunted us from an Urban Futures Centre project we had been a part of years before. The interview was with a woman at the Thokoza Hostel who had served the IFP as an assassin in the 1980s when Kwa-Zulu Natal was dragged into a prolonged civil war in the build-up to the first democratic elections.

There was something about Zenzile Maseko’s (who would go on to become the protagonist of the play) story that helped articulate the current moment we found ourselves in, helped us to grapple with the political messiness, the disappointments, deceptions, and frustrations that had led to a recurrence of this mayhem.

All art, I believe, is born from the channeling of a series of questions and anxieties and I suppose this play became a way for us to mold the raw materials of that moment into something more tangible… something more constructive than stockpiling canned foods and watching the news.

The first scene of the play we wrote was Zenzile’s final ‘I’m still here’ monologue. That speech was literally written with the sound of helicopters and police sirens wailing outside. The only way I knew how to move through the fear was to write…to let Zenzile be my guide. While most of us imagine the apocalypse as a distant future event, Zenzile it seemed had survived it every waking minute of her life. She knew exactly what to do in moments such as the one we were facing.

Around ten years ago Mpume and I collaborated on “Tin Bucket Drum”, a one-woman show that toured globally, offering a more simplistic political allegory of the time. The notion of revisiting the one-woman format together and tackling issues that excited and terrified us at this point in our careers was hugely exciting. There is a potency of a one-woman vehicle in which Mpume holds the reins, she is a master of this sort of storytelling. Those who have seen her in action will know exactly what I’m talking about.

TIFFANY: Why was this an important narrative for you to share with the world?

NEIL: I think Zenzile’s story shows how we can confront trauma head-on and gaze into its depths. When we do this a unique form of compassion emerges – a compassion that is born from truly recognizing and acknowledging things that aren’t always easy or comfortable, that as Mpume says, we all possess these contradictions. Zenzile’s love in this play emerges from a profound depth that’s shaped by her experiences. Her life, marked by episodes of revenge and rage, brutality and bravery, love and extraordinary loss holds lessons beyond the ordinary. Many South Africans possess similar narratives, where the ability to continue loving despite hardships is a deeply moving aspect.

TIFFANY: What is the most life-changing (to you personally) story you’ve told or helped tell?

NEIL: Each story, each life courageously lived and shared holds an exceptional place in my memory and heart. To watch the effect these stories have on audiences, to see how, when we perform these plays around the world be it Egypt, Rome or New York people are able to relate profoundly to them and draw the most striking parallels with their own lives and stories. A Palestinian woman in the Netherlands recently watched Isidlamlilo and afterward said she felt like she was watching a play about her own grandmother.  It’s a reminder of how storytelling transcends culture and language, a reminder of how connected we all really are. 

TIFFANY: Your work seems to focus a lot on highlighting marginalized narratives, heritage, and stories as well as environmental impact causes. When did this become important to you and why?

NEIL: We live in a world and country riddled with injustice, so many people and communities have been silenced for too long. So many people whose stories contain insights and wisdom that can potentially help get us out of the many messes and crises we currently find ourselves in.

The processes I try to involve myself in, in a small way, try to contribute to creating attentive listening spaces where some of these can begin to be heard by wider audiences. There is an urgency I feel, for the arts to create processes and platforms where these stories can travel beyond their origins.

It’s important for me to use what I do…the only thing I know how to do really…and the privilege I’ve inherited (on the backs of so many of these injustices I speak of) to do something, to find platforms and spaces where these stories can be witnessed and heard by more people. The theatre, I believe, is a particularly effective medium of empathetic communication.

TIFFANY: Isidlamlilo just had a successful European run, what’s next for Neil Coppen?

NEIL: We are about to celebrate 10 years of our company, Empatheatre, next year and we have big plans and tours lined up for the company both locally and internationally while developing two or three major new projects that we are currently in the research/development phase for.

Since the Isidlamlilo European tour, we have been receiving numerous invites for the production to keep touring internationally and are planning runs in the Western Cape, New York, London, Montreal, and Germany. Mpume and I are also very excited to begin working on a film adaptation of the play in the near future.

I am also lucky to be involved in another amazing annual archiving/storytelling/performance project Karoo Kaarte (a KKNK project), alongside you, and we are entering our third year so there’s lots of planning and prepping for our next festival outcomes.

TIFFANY: After all is said and done, what is the impact/legacy you wish your work will leave behind?

NEIL: As much as I would have liked, it would be naïve to think that the work I’ve collaborated on has been able to truly dismantle oppressive systems, challenged people to confront their histories, privileges, and prejudices…inspired the powers that be to rush home and rewrite more inclusive and humane policies. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop trying.

But perhaps there’s been a handful of people who might have sat in my plays over the last few decades and left with something having shifted. Maybe one or two experienced– for a fleeting moment– an epiphany, or found themselves shaken by inhabiting another’s worldview and perspective very different from their own. Maybe some younger audience members were inspired enough to return home after the play and resolve to build careers as storytellers or activists themselves. I dunno …whatever the shift…however small or seismic…it is a legacy enough. The beauty, and times frustration, of the theatre, is that it’s an ephemeral experience. What remains floating in the consciousness and consciences of our audience members, is a secret we are seldom privy to.

I’ll close with a perfect quote by my dear friend Quanita Adams, whom I worked on the Empatheatre production of Boxes with. When Quanita was asked by an audience member if she felt the theatre we were making had any impact she replied:

“For all the questions and comments and concerns of – what is the point, what do I believe, why do we not provide answers – my answer is the same – I am a pebble. My job is to get to the bottom of the water. A consequence of that drop, is ripples, seismic waves that radiate out, increasing in intensity and strength. At best it will gather momentum and become a wave, ushering in change. At a minimum, the same pebble dropped enough times will cause a steady stream and smooth stones. I can’t control the waves, the ripples, the tides. All I can do is get things going. Get to the bottom of the thing. Kick up mud and silt and things that have settled. The dirt.”

Banner image: A scene from Isidlamlilo / The Fire Eater by Neil Coppen and Mpume Mthombeni. (Photo: Supplied by Empatheatre)

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