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Into Ulwembu: exploring collaborative methodologies in a research-based theatre production on street-level drug use in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

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Over a yearlong creative process starting in 2014, The Big Brotherhood, Mpume Mthombeni, Dr Dylan McGarry and myself, Neil Coppen, came together to devise a collaborative theatrical intervention in response to the ‘whoonga crisis’—a proliferation of heroin-based street-level drug abuse—in Durban, South Africa. The transdisciplinary, action-led, research process we adopted for Ulwembu would emerge as, and be refined into, an applied, syncretic theatre-making methodology—a methodology that we would come to call ‘Empatheatre’. Over this thesis, I provide a detailed narrative around the research, devising and dissemination of our production, unravelling the context and conditions from which Ulwembu arose, as well as unpack the process of testing and shaping our new methodology, arriving at an iterative definition of the Empatheatre methodology. By focusing on a variety of practices and methodological approaches employed across research-based theatre forms, I explore some of the complexities that arise when one attempts to bring research to life on the stage, including how empathy in applied theatre approaches may be considered either a ‘cathartic cop-out’ or ‘epiphany inducing catalyst’. In acknowledging the integral role empathy was to play—both in shaping our creative journey and our critical responses as practitioners, as well as impacting the reception of the production—I attempt to measure the pedagogical impacts of our project on both the Empatheatre practitioners and audience members. I do this primarily—but not exclusively—through the lens of the pedagogical empathetic impacts that the devising and dissemination of Ulwembu was to enable. I ask, firstly, how the experience of co-creating Ulwembu—and our deep immersion in the research process—transformed our understanding of street-level drug addiction and the way we subsequently devised Ulwembu. These transformations also shaped the way we intend to approach social justice theatre projects of this kind in the future. In exploring this process, I take a critical look at my own role and function within the Ulwembu theatre-making processes as cofacilitator, playwright and director. Secondly, I ask if, how, and to what extent, our Empatheatre methodology and production was able to shift perceptions around drug use and the whoonga ‘problem’ in Durban and inspire greater reflexivity in local city institutions and organisations, to ultimately move them collectively towards less judgmental and more compassionate outcomes.


Masters Degree. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban.