Working with empathy and empathetic in its approach: This is Empatheatre -a South African theatre company with a pioneering and vitally innovative approach in terms of process and presentation/staging of its productions. Its productions are devised in collaboration with storytellers and researchers from multiple spheres – which include theatre practitioners, marine biologists, fisher people, scientists, memory keepers and witnesses of oral testimonies and heritage. They gather with the united purpose of bringing essential stories to theatre – often stories which have been forgotten, side-lined or effectively erased – always with tremendous empathy, care and consideration – to the people whose stories they are sharing – who have often been silenced – and to the audiences who are receiving the stories. The audiences become part of the journey as they participate, where possible in after show talks [talk-back sessions], on the theatre floor. This dialogue and interaction is core to Empatheatre which is grounded in research-based, theatre-making methodology but which is cognisant of the life of its work –on the theatre floor and the need to ultimately be experienced as lived experiences by viewers. This is theatre which is layered with protest, raising public awareness but is ultimately about healing – for performers and viewers/participants.  Its productions transcend being “issue” plays, driving home a message. The company embraces the magic of theatre to transfigure their stories –through movement, voice, sound, props, lighting. The company involves crafters, artists and sound designers to create thrilling and vital theatre experiences

Empatheatre which has been on the boards for a decade [since 2013], was recently honoured by the prestigious Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards [theatre in Cape Town and surrounds]. The company received the Innovation in Theatre Award at the 58th FDC awards [for productions in 2022]. Although much of the work of Empatheatre engages with the physical environment – climate change, the ocean, decimation of the land, dovetailed with that is the company’s commitment to the social landscape, the people in South Africa, dispossession of land, traditions, culture and the ruptures in communities which continue to fester from the legacy of compacted racism of Apartheid.

The co-directors of Empatheatre are Neil Coppen, Dr Dylan McGarry and Mpume Mthombeni. Coppen muses: “The core of the company’s vision is to tackle complex difficult problems in relation to the environment and in relation to each other to try and find a way to forge dialogue around these things and allow people to see the problem that we are exploring; the very wicked problem; in all of its complexities, rather than just reduce it to stereotypes or a simplistic kind of Twitter feed understanding of something”. Read on for more, in this conversation, as Neil Coppen shares insights into the company and its work:

The genesis of Empatheatre                                                 

When was Empatheatre established? What sparked you to establish Empatheatre? 

Neil Coppen: Empatheatre was established ten years ago [2013] by myself, Dr. Dylan McGarry and Mpume Mthombeni. We co-founded the company. We had all worked together before and shared a similar sensibility and will to create theatre which really impacted on the society from which it was born from. We combined our brains together and our very different skills sets and knowledge systems experiences and tried to devise a new methodology and way of working which was subsequently called Empatheatre. So Empatheatre is a methodology: The way we work and apply ourselves to each project but it is also as the name of the theatre company which the three of us run.

Dylan is an educational sociologist. He is no longer based in Durban. He lives in Makhanda. He is a lecturer there. I am a theatre maker, Mpume is an actress, theatre maker, storyteller; a Sangoma, a traditional healer. She uses stories and words for her healing work. 

From the first work, we collaborated on, we knew that we were on to something interesting and potentially impactful and we decided to formalise it into a company explore it. We and have done about eight works together as Empatheatre… A lot of the productions run for five or six years. There are smaller projects and satellite projects. They generally stay in circulation for a long time and tour South Africa – and now the world.

Social and physical landscape and environment

Part of the citation at the Fleur du Cape Theatre Award was that Empatheatre uses “theatre to connect us with ourselves, each other and the planet”. Is all the work of Empatheatre, connected to the environment, in some way?

Neil Coppen: No, not necessarily- environments are social as well- not just the environment as in saving the oceans, elephants or whatever. We are very interested in how human beings impact the environment and how the environment impacts human beings and the way that people are often separated from the environment through policies and laws that keep them from their environment that has ancestrally been theirs for centuries. 

In many ways, we work with stories around the environment but not always. It can be the social environment, such as the city, for example; the way in which urban and rural spaces work. One project was around migrant women, moving from rural areas from other African countries into more urban spaces in South Africa and seeing the ingenuity and difficulty that it takes to adapt to a foreign country and foreign city; in which you don’t share a language. We did a project around street level drug addiction and we looked at drug use in the city of Durban- around the homeless population

The core of the company’s vision is to tackle complex difficult problems in relation to the environment and in relation to each other, to try and find a way to forge dialogue around these things and allow people to see the problem that we are exploring; the very wicked problem; in all of its complexities, rather than just reduce it to stereotypes or a simplistic kind of Twitter feed understanding of something. We really hope to allow audiences to empathetically invest in other world views and other views and perspectives in a situation. So that’s really the core of the company’s vision.

Empatheatre birthed in Durban

Would you say that Empatheatre is very much connected to Durban? Durban reverberates so much in terms of ocean and land and also because of the uprisings during the pandemic and the history of a ruptured landscape. Are you all based in Durban?

Neil Coppen: No not at all. Mpume and I are from Durban. Dylan was living in Durban at the time when we established Empatheatre. We connected and created the company in Durban, yes, but it’s become a much more kind of national and even international family of practitioners that all work on projects. So although a lot of our stories have been set in Durban, in a lot of the more recent projects we have been branching out and having been working with other communities- such as in Namibia. I’m doing some work in Oudtshoorn at the moment. Although it’s not Empatheatre, it still uses a lot of research based principles. So, we are all over the country right now. We have done a lot of work in the Eastern Cape and in the Western Cape. I did Boxes – an Empatheatre production [2019], with Quanita Adams and Mark Elderkin, in Cape Town. That was a very much a story about Cape Town and the complexities of kind of segregation within this city and social housing…

So, Empatheatre is not Durban orientated although as it’s been our home for a large portion of our careers, Durban has definitely played a role in the early work, shaping the work and in the assembly. As a playwright myself and Mpume being a Zulu woman from Durban, we’re very interested in the people and cultures and worlds immediately around us so that [references to Durban] often features in the work. But lately, as I have said we have been working more nationally and even internationally.

Dialoguing – empathetically connecting with audiences- experimental theatre laboratory of empathy

Experiencing, rather than watching: We experienced Lalela uLwandle (Listen to the Sea -isiZulu) in Cape Town in 2022 at Magnet Theatre. I say ‘experience’ because that is how we engaged with the piece- with after show talk- on the floor at Magnet. Is this core to all of Empatheatre’s productions – the engagement with audience – with talk-back sessions after the shows?

Neil Coppen: Yes the talk-back sessions are integral to most of Empatheatre works. Sometimes in festivals, time doesn’t allow the kind of depth and length of dialogue, post show that we would like. But, we believe it’s very important that the audience is able to unpack what they’ve seen, to be in discussion and dialogue with one and another, to be sharing insights with the performers. It holds us accountable as theatre makers. The feedback that we’re getting, also tests the authenticity of the pieces we are doing: Does it ring true? Do you identify the story what works. What did you connect with? We are an experimental theatre laboratory of empathy. We are constantly trying to find new ways to test and push the work we do and how we can kind of empathetically connect with audiences and hopefully shift something within them and their understanding around it the problem that the play, that the story it explores. So dialogue afterwards is very important. It is a very democratic process where everyone gets to contribute. You are just a passive recipient of information. Often these are very healing beautiful moving conversations that we’re all able to have with each other. As Empatheatre, we are very aware that the way we glean information these days, tends to be through social media and algorithms; simply enforcement what we already think; that we already know. We believe that our storytelling and the storytelling, we care about and work with is really there to challenge that kind of enforcing stereotypes or what people think they know in a situation but really showing them what they don’t [know] and how complex these things can be and how many perspectives and viewpoints converge. Talk-back is a very very powerful part of the kind of healing work we tried to do with theatre.

Visceral and immersive – breaking the 4th wall

Empatheatre is theatre for activism on many levels – transgressive and rousing and celebratory – in the use and I think- critically – the acknowledgment of oral testimony in shaping narratives and from what I experienced with Lalela uLwandle- also very tactile. The crocheted coral reef – I wanted to touch it – and the soundscape heightened the immersion in the narrative. Importantly, it was not just about watching docu-theatre, with an ocean focus. It was a visceral experience. Can you talk about this – how you weave together – narrative (stories, oral testimonies), images, sound in creating work? You are working with a diverse collective of people – environmentalists, visual artists, theatre makers. Beyond the research is the challenge to create work for an audience to experience? Insights into process?

Neil Coppen: Yes, it’s very important that we break the 4th wall. It is not traditional theatre in the way people expect – that you are part of the show in a way of sitting in that circle. The circles are very powerful for storytelling-  to sit with the characters close up close and having them tell their story – creates a kind of a new and very important sort of intimacy. You can’t sit consider your phone in the back row or fall asleep. You really engage more deeply. It is interesting in finding devices and ways and configurations within the theatre to create a deeper sort of listening. I think as a public story telling outfit, we are very interested in how we get people to listen more deeply; more attentively, to stories and life stories that they very seldom consider into their daily lives and then that’s really the power and the challenge of the work we do. We work with activists. We work with researchers. We work with theatre makers, writers designers; a huge kind of army of practitioners, from very many disciplines come together on each Empatheatre work so it really is a highly collaborative process. And we believe that there is tremendous power in putting many heads together. We try to see the problem from multiple perspectives and to do that we need to see the problem from multiple perspectives and to do that we need to expose ourselves and interact very deeply with people who are professionals in there very many different fields. And by professionals I mean knowledge holders and they don’t just need to be academic or scientific knowledge holders but also traditional knowledge holders. Traditional knowledge systems have been largely discounted in policy fields. We are about trying to get people to listen -to how profound and important, traditional knowledge systems are and how much knowledge they truly hold; that we could all learn from.  

You ask about the new nuclear power plant in KZN – yes so many problems in our society and so much work for Empatheatre to do and that’s why we’re trying to work more deeply with so many practitioners. We acknowledge that we are one company doing this sort of work. There are many in South Africa involved in this kind of work, such as Magnet Theatre – working in a profound and insightful way. I think that South African theatre makers are very engaged in the world and country that they live in. We come from a long line of protest theatre and the history of theatre that has changed and challenged systems. We are trying to pick up the mantle and continue the work of our ancestors; our theatre ancestors; the ones that have come before and led the way.

Verbatim and documentary theatre vocabulary

Integral to Empatheatre is raising public awareness and reaching people in power, who write policy? And this goes back to the research-based methodology that you use in creating the works?

Neil Coppen: Empatheatre is very much verbatim theatre. It uses documentary theatre styles. It uses different ways of bringing real life stories, to the stage and honouring them and trying to share these stories  with as many people as possible, particularly people who are in power and who are often making policy that oppresses a lot of people; hundreds of thousands globally. So we’re very interested in how can we get these stories and voices into places of policy and power where they can really shift potentially how these policies are made. This can be around the environment it can be around the persecution or policing of drug use. All these complex types of problems. We try find other ways of looking for solutions and looking for them collectively with our audiences.

Isidlamlilo – (The Fire Eater) – leading a squad of women assassins during the terrible violence that erupted pre-democracy

Isidlamlilo (The Fire Eater) – Empatheatre’s new work – was on at National Arts Festival 2022 and received tremendous acclaim. When can we expect to see that production in Cape Town and can you give insights into this process of creating this one-person play, shaped by “true stories and testimonials”?

Neil Coppen: Yes, Isidlamlilo (The Fire Eater) is a very exciting new production which will be very proud of. It is a woman show featuring Mthombeni Pume. She is a tour de force. It is an hour and a 1/2 actually of her alone on stage, telling a truly remarkable, at times harrowing, often hilarious story, about a woman’s life in Durban growing up during the 80s, where she was embroiled in becoming an assassin for the IFP* and leading a squad of women assassins during the terrible violence that erupted pre-democracy. It is very closely based on a few people’s stories- actually one woman in particular but there are other stories and life stories, threaded in there. It has played to acclaim in Makhanda [formerly Grahamstown]. It’s has a Market Theatre run coming up – June 2023.  It tours internationally to Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands- towards the end of the year [2023]. The company is very busy with local and international tours but definitely a run is planned for Cape Town.

[*IFP- Inkatha Freedom Party –isiZulu IQembu leNkatha yeNkululeko]

Politics of the personal and the land- love letter to KZN

Can you talk about how the environment figures in Isidlamlilo? From what I can gather (I have not seen it), the fire-eater is renting a room in a hostel in Durban and confronting a Kafkaesque scenario as she has been effectively erased by Home Affairs and has been tagged as ‘dead’. The narrative traverses “the shifting landscapes of KwaZulu-Natal and while charting critical events in the provinces post-1994 trajectory through to its present day floods and insurrections.” So I take it that the landscape, land, erasure is cantilevered with the political?

Neil Coppen: Yes- the environment figures in how it traverses the shifting landscape of KZN, while charting critical events in the provinces in the post 1994 trajectory. So it expands a lifetime of a woman and that includes the arrival of HIV in in KZN, the many floods and insurrections, the political violence, the assassinations, the struggle for freedom. All these different major events that are integral to the country’s history – not just to KZN. It really is a sort of love letter to KZN, in looking at all its beauties and all its horrors and traveling that kind of that kind of landscape. And the landscape features very heavily in the piece, in the way of the rural area that the character was born in and longs for a kind of biblical Eden. She is living in a woman’s hostel in a tiny little room and she longs for this return to the rural areas, to be able to plant her own food and feed herself and her family and escape the griminess of the city.

So, ja, there is a lot of landscape as a character in the piece. It is a story of regeneration and redemption, re-invention. It is not just a bleak, harrowing at a very terrible series of events and political moments in KZN and tells histories. Like I said, it uses humour. The character is an incredibly complex often confusing protagonist and antagonist – all-in-one. And I think that makes it a very interesting play to watch.

Next for Empatheatre

What is next for Empatheatre?

Neil Coppen: We are off to New York shortly to perform for the United Nations. The company has just been in Rome performing for the United Nations, at another conference. We have the iIsidlamlilo tours in the pipeline. We are off to work in Namibia, to work with a community in the dessert, about their stories of forced removals from the ocean – to in-land; into the dunes of the desert. We are working with a research team in Cape Town. We have new works next year we have a work on space and the stars and different South African cosmologies and beliefs around the moon and the stars. So there’s a tremendous amount of projects constantly in the pipeline. We are also working on a new piece around waste pickers in Durban who re-cycle extraordinary volumes of plastic and have fascinating life stories and lived experiences and who are doing so much to combat pollution and climate change, in their own way and are very seldom acknowledged for the extraordinary work in this field. So this theatre piece will work with an existing research project, where we’ll really try and highlight the plight and the incredible resilience stories of these people that work within the informal waste picker industry. There is lots of International opportunity with iIsidlamlilo touring abroad. I’m heading off to New York and we’re going to be traveling a lot globally this year with work and there’s a huge interest for tours and to different points of the world right now and we are actually battling to kind of keep up in the scheduling with all the requests right now-conferences, festivals etc. It is tremendously exciting but if not a little overwhelming.

Communing around the circle of the sea. Audience on its feet, in appreciation and gratitude, after witnessing Empatheatre’s Lalela ulwandle – listen to the sea-September 28, 2022, Magnet Theatre, Cape Town.
Pic © TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen.
Coral reef: The knitted/crocheted coral reef in Empathetare’s Lalela ulwandle – listen to the sea- September 28, 2022, Magnet Theatre, Cape Town.
Pic © TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen.

✳ Featured image: Neil Coppen of South African theatre company, Empatheatre, which received the Innovation in Theatre Award at the 58th Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards [theatre in Cape Town and surrounds, productions in 2022]. Photo: Jeffrey Abrahams.

Related coverage of Empatheatre, on TheCapeRobyn:

The 58th Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards – winners [productions in 2022]: