No stoppin’ Coppen

2010-11-13 00:00

ONE of Durban’s most hardworking theatre practitioners, Neil Coppen, has been named the 2011 Standard Bank Young Artist for theatre.

He is one of five talented young artists rewarded with the chance to perform on the main programme at next year’s National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, which runs from June 30 to July 10. The others are Nandipha Mntambo for visual art, Ben Schoeman for music, Bokani Dyer for jazz and Mamela Nyamza for dance.

Speaking at the announcement of the awards in Johannesburg, festival director Ismail Mahomed said: “Based on artistic excellence, accomplishment, and the promise of future achievement, the winners of the 2011 Standard Bank Young Artist Awards are five remarkable individuals who are on top of their game. Their creativity, talent and fortitude are making a significant contribution to the cultural vibrancy of our country.”

Speaking to Weekend Witness, Coppen (29) said he is deeply grateful to Mohamed and the festival team and very excited about having the chance to create a new work for Grahamstown next year.

“The script is still very much a work in process — it has been for the last four years,” he said. “It’s titled Abnormal Loads, features a large cast and is set in a fictional, modern-day battlefield town in KwaZulu-Natal.

“The play follows several rather dysfunctional characters who are all implicated in a chain of unusual historical events. I’m interested in exploring how involved and tangled our histories are as South Africans — how we all tend to inherit and lug about ancestral baggage from past generations. I suppose that’s what the Abnormal Loads of the title refers to.

“It will be a comedy of sorts. A tragicomedy very loosely inspired by Hamlet and focusing on a group of battle re-enactors. Did I mention it includes epic battle scenes?”

It sounds complicated, but then Coppen is not a man to shy away from a challenge. His most recent work Tree Boy, which played to full houses in Grahamstown and at the Witness Hilton Arts Festival, boldly mixes live theatre with puppetry and multimedia imagery.

Asked when his love affair with the theatre began, Coppen ponders a moment and then says it was probably around the age of six when his parents took him to see a Natal Performing Arts Council production of Singin’ in the Rain.

“I was totally enthralled when it started to pour with rain on stage. I think my father told me that the director had a hotline to some celestial being that made it pour on cue. I had seen magic before, but this took things to a whole new level,” Coppen recalls. “I think after that I dragged my mother to the theatre on a regular basis.”

After matriculating from Durban High School in 1999, he attended Robert McKee’s story workshop in London in 2004, completed a South African Script Writing Institute course at the Bat Centre in 2007, and recently obtained a creative writing degree through Unisa.

As an actor he has appeared in Twelfth Night, Oedipus Rex, Dangerous Liaisons, King Lear and Wit, which premiered at last year’s Grahamstown Festival, and has won leading actor awards for his performances in Hamlet, Proof and Dracula.

Away from the stage, he has, since 2005, served as artistic director of Think Theatre Productions, writing several educational and children’s theatre programmes, including Marvellous Mixtures.

His first “grown-up” play Suicidal Pigeons premiered at the Red Eye Art Exhibition in 2005, and in 2007 he completed Two … The Beginning of the End (co-written with and performed alongside Durban actress Clare Mortimer), and the multi-award winning Tin Bucket Drum, which has toured extensively throughout the country and will visit New York as part of the Ibewu theatre festival in 2011.

Asked why he continues to base himself in Durban, Coppen says: “There are so many stories and so many complexities in KwaZulu-Natal that interest me right now, so many significant talents who remain unrecognised, and I feel a sense of duty to base myself here and do what I can to tap into the abundance of talent and possibilities.”

And that’s precisely what he’s doing with the Umsindo community group in Umlazi with whom he is developing several new plays and screenplay ideas, and with visual artist, Vaughn Sadie, with whom he is working on the Two Thousand And Ten Reasons To Live In A Small Town residency, facilitated by the Visual Arts Network of South Africa (Vansa).

Coppen and Sadie will be spending three months in Dundee working with local residents, historians, community groups, historical re-enactors, tour guides and school groups to create a series of re-enactments in public spaces inspired by the tradition of replaying or repeating the past through performance. The idea stems from the regular re-enactments performed by the Dundee Die Hards, which the pair documented in 2008.

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