A Durban theatre company is drawing attention to the ocean through powerful storytelling

Rhodes>ELRC>Latest News

Neil Coppen, Dylan McGarry and Mpume Mthombeni, the co-founders of Empatheatre. [CREDIT: Jacki Bruniquel]
Neil Coppen, Dylan McGarry and Mpume Mthombeni, the co-founders of Empatheatre. [CREDIT: Jacki Bruniquel]

By Anna Southwell

Durban theatre company, Empatheatre, performed its play ‘Lalela Ulwandle’ at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh on 14 November. The intention of the cast and crew was to place an ‘acupuncture point’ within COP27 decision-making and spark deeper consideration of grassroots coastal realities of the climate crisis.

Theatre productions are “profound storytelling tools” that can improve how we make decisions around the critical aspects of our world, such as the climate crisis. Empatheatre, a Durban-based theatre company, planned to accomplish exactly that at the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Egypt this week, according to co-founder Dylan McGarry.

Empatheatre’s recent play, Lalela Ulwandle (“Listen to the Sea” in isiZulu), has been invited to COP27 by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to perform in Sharm el-Sheikh on 14 November, at the Capacity-building Hub of the Blue Zone as part of the One Ocean Hub.

“This means that real stories are finally entering the United Nations, unedited and fully embodied,” said Neil Coppen, the director of Lalela Ulwandle

According to Coppen, the One Ocean Hub event hoped to respond to the mandate from COP27 to integrate and strengthen ocean-based action in their capacity-building efforts. “There is a need for knowledge systems that include scientific, traditional, local and indigenous perspectives,” added Coppen. “Finally, we are bringing Empatheatre to the conference halls.”

Lalela Ulwandle is a play that takes the form of a public conversation about ocean governance in South Africa and beyond, exploring themes of intergenerational environmental injustices, tangible and intangible ocean heritage, marine science and the myriad threats to ocean health, according to a press release shared with Maverick Life

However, it’s much more than a traditional play, McGarry said. Based on a four-year collaborative research project, the performance has resurfaced many different values and reasons why South Africans are concerned about the ocean since it began touring across the country in 2019.

“It’s been an instrument and social technology for building new ways we can look at contemporary research and the many dimensions that contribute to ocean decision-making,” McGarry said.

Empatheatre previously performed for the Parliament of South Africa in 2017. Now, the goal is to further expand Empatheatre’s reach into international policy transformation, McGarry explained.

“We’ve got one show and one moment to make our impact,” said McGarry. “It (all came) down to a very carefully orchestrated and choreographed moment in Egypt.”

Bringing a grassroots, on-the-ground South African perspective

Lalela Ulwandle opens up public dialogue spaces and amplifies the voices of people who are often not included in the climate decision-making process, McGarry said. Rural communities and lower-income communities are “vilified” or “relegated to the outskirts” of discussions when in reality, they are the real climate and ocean defenders, he added.

Indeed, from small-scale fishermen to traditional healers, Lalela Ulwandle aims to bring recognition to the critical role these people have been playing in the climate struggle. Oftentimes, McGarry said, entire diverse populations across Africa will be lumped together under the word “communities” in discussions about oil and gas companies. This “lumping together,” he noted, can be dangerous because it simplifies humanity’s relationship with the sea and simplifies what climate adaptations should look like across many different values, spectrums and livelihoods.

One of the biggest problems with international policy is that it can dilute specific questions or experiences on the ground, “overlooking” them and “rarifying” them into abstract policies.

Lalela Ulwandle keeps the audience grounded in the specific realities of South Africans, he said. “There are so many reasons why people are concerned about the ocean, yet often, only one or two reasons get used to justify ocean decision-making”.

Additionally, most climate negotiation and planning is “hyper future-oriented” and he believes that more time should be spent analysing how things have played out in the past in order to learn from them. “What this play does quite carefully is that it brings together, unpacks and narrates the various histories that different South Africans have experienced in how decisions were made that impacted their lives,” he said.

From the Group Areas Act of 1950 to the Witchcraft Suppression Act 3 of 1957, South Africa has transformed how many people have related to the sea, how they could access the ocean and how they could live out their lives, he explained. “I hope the negotiators witness these visceral, nuanced stories of South Africa and I hope they will become better equipped to look at our history in new and living ways,” said McGarry. “They need to listen to all of these different voices very carefully.”

Turning the theatre ‘upside down’

Unlike the traditional theatre experience, with the audience peering up onto the stage, Lalela Ulwandle is performed theatre-in-the-round. The actors sit in a circle with the audience cascading around them.

Empatheatre’s main methodology as a theatre company is creating “amphitheatres of empathy,” McGarry said. The intention is to go back to early traditions of storytelling of sitting around a fire. “Getting to the heart of original storytelling seems to wake up both the subconscious and the conscious minds of the audience to feel as much as they think… And when you are thinking with your feelings, you are able to gain a much richer understanding of this very complex problem.” 

In decision-making conference halls, people can abandon their emotional or spiritual capacities to think — this play encapsulates this necessary way of thinking, he described.

Empatheatre also takes a non-traditional approach in the sense that the curtain does not call and the actors do not bow and walk away after the final applause. Rather, he said, the cast stays on afterwards and opens up the space for public discussion, tribunal and back-and-forth debate about the stories and narratives that have emerged from the play. “Empatheatre is a quiet, nonviolent, carefree and deeply empathetic approach to what we call ‘political acupuncture’”.

McGarry reiterated that activism is not allowed this year at COP27, yet, Empatheatre intended to “place a very delicate acupuncture point in COP27 that brings people back to core questions and experiences about what it means to be human during this time of crises.” 

The ultimate goal is to shift the thinking within the negotiating teams surrounding the role of oceans and coastal justice in the climate struggle, McGarry said. “The decisions that will be made at COP27 have dire ramifications, and this play is intended to help improve those decisions for the sake of our future.”


Original article: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2022-11-15-how-storytelling-is-helping-to-change-the-way-powers-that-be-make-decisions/