Theatre as a Safe Space to Explore: Inside “‘Master Harold'” with Walter Coppage Theatre as a Safe Space to Explore: Inside “‘Master Harold'” with Walter Coppage
In this latest "Inside" Jack Kneessy talks with actor Walter Coppage on creating a character, revisiting a familiar playwright, and why theater should be... Theatre as a Safe Space to Explore: Inside “‘Master Harold'” with Walter Coppage

Pictured: Walter Coppage in rehearsal for “‘Master Harold’…and the Boys.” Photo courtesy of Kansas City Actors Theatre.

Our “Inside” series takes you behind the scenes of productions through blog posts written by the artists in the trenches. To read past “Inside” pieces, click here.

by Jack Kneessy

Kansas City Actors Theatre is preparing for their third production of Season 15, Athol Fugard’s award-winning “‘Master Harold’… and the Boys.” Set in South Africa during the apartheid era, the life-long relationship between Hally, a white teenager, and Sam and Willie, the black men who work in his parents’ teashop, is strained by institutionalized and generational racism. The production will feature KCAT co-founder Walter Coppage as Sam, who is no stranger to the works of Athol Fugard, having starred in KCAT’s production of “A Lesson from Aloes” in 2008 and directed “The Island” for the company in 2016. In “‘Master Harold’… and the Boys,” Fugard provides a challenging and emotional journey for its actors to go on with each other, all over the course of one rainy afternoon.

Walter divulges his thoughts on the script and playwright, getting started in rehearsals, creating a character, and the theatre as a safe space to explore.

A few years ago you directed “The Island,” another one of Fugard’s works, for Kansas City Actors Theatre. Could you talk about that experience and if there is anything you will bring to one of Fugard’s other characters from this experience?

“The Island” was such a great actor showcase. Teddy Trice and Damron Armstrong were brilliant! It’s so dialogue driven, in a tiny prison cell. That has helped inform me for “‘Master Harold’… and the Boys,” which all takes place in a tea room on one rainy afternoon. The two plays are set about 10-12 years apart. This one takes place earlier. This is the beginning of their civil rights movement. The Apartheid State has been implemented, Mandela and the National African Congress are becoming active at this point; people are being imprisoned.

Pictured: Walter Coppage in rehearsal for “‘Master Harold’…and the Boys.” Photo courtesy of Kansas City Actors Theatre.

You’ve had the chance to work on Fugard’s plays from the perspective of both actor and director. Is there something about this playwright that really stands out to you? Or do you resonate with some of his other work?

He is a white author who wrote about the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa, sometimes from the viewpoint of black South Africans, and he does it well. I think that’s because he often wrote these pieces as collaborative efforts with an ensemble of venerable black South African artists and actors. “The Island” is credited to John Kani, Winston Ntshona, and Fugard. He gave a voice to the voiceless, and listened. He listened, and collaborated well. The other thing that resonates with me about his work is that it’s still relevant now. Race has again come to the forefront of issues facing our country. It’s a conversation we desperately need to have but loathe to do so, and that tears at the fabric of our society. So, I think sometimes it might be easier to look at another society, another world to gain insight to our own. Being at an arm’s distance sometimes helps to get a better perspective.

You are an experienced director and actor. How is approaching a script different for you as an actor rather than a director?

As a director, you have to lead and always keep a bird’s eye view and see the whole picture. All of the elements, all of the time. You have all eyes and ears on you for answers. Everything comes back to you. As an actor I can be a little selfish and myopic! Not to make it sound easy, it’s just different. My job here is to live these words; to take this character and the text I’ve been given and try to create a living, breathing human being and tell their story.

What was your first experience with “‘Master Harold’ …and the Boys?”

I saw a production at the (then) Missouri Repertory Theatre while attending UMKC and I got to see firsthand what a challenging character Sam is. That actor was so brave and fearless! I remember it shook me a little bit because I was so young and new, and it was my first Fugard experience. A lot of people consider “‘Master Harold’… and the Boys” to be his masterpiece, maybe because of the autobiographical aspect. He is really bearing his soul for us to see.

Pictured: Walter Coppage in rehearsal for “‘Master Harold’…and the Boys.” Photo courtesy of Kansas City Actors Theatre.

Do you remember learning about apartheid and the South African political climate of the time which “‘Master Harold’… and the Boys” is set?

Interestingly enough, I learned about apartheid through the arts, specifically theatre and Fugard’s work; along with the idea of using art to combat oppression, and “illegal theatre” that challenged a racist state. This brave, fearless, change-the-world kind of theatre really spoke to me and really inspired me.

What is your process to conduct research on the world of the play especially when a play is based on very real times and circumstances like the apartheid?

I’ve been looking at South Africa in 1950. What were the townships like? What were the working conditions like? The political climate? With a famous play like this one, I try to read a little about previous productions. Others have done brilliant work with Sam. What did they discover that I’ve overlooked? I also look for any personal connections that I may have. Being a father may help me connect with the idea of wanting someone to be raised as a good human being. But research is always required, especially with pieces outside of our time, place, and social range.

In this play, there are several moments of high intensity. What is it like to work on this kind of text and how do you maintain a rehearsal space where everyone feels comfortable?

I’m glad we’re starting to discuss the idea of being safe in theatre. It is vitally important that the rehearsal space be a “safe space” for everyone. This work can be difficult. It requires us to sometimes be “uncomfortable” in situations as our characters, but we should never be as performers, as co-workers. That distinction needs to be made clear. We need to be honest and use open dialogue and check in with each other at all times. Open communication should be welcomed. If we all feel truly safe and comfortable, then we can really explore and be really creative in the space.

The dynamic of teacher and student is prevalent in “‘Master Harold’… and the Boys.”

Is Hally teaching Sam or is Sam teaching Hally? It flip flops all the time. Who is leading the dance and who is following? He’s invested in Hally and it’s a way of connecting with him. It’s Sam who allows himself to be taught. It allows him the opportunity to teach, as well. I’m really fascinated by this connection between him and young Hally.

Pictured: Walter Coppage in rehearsal for “‘Master Harold’…and the Boys.” Photo courtesy of Kansas City Actors Theatre.

Is there a specific moment or scene in the play you’re excited to work

There are several moments in this play that stand out. I love the idea of the dance. It is very metaphorical way to view life.

What are you most excited for in creating your Sam? Is there anything else about Sam you’d like to touch on?

His hope for a better world. That there is love and beauty and joy that can be found in this world. He and Willie care for each other. They care for the young boy. They care about the world around them. They care for the future. Whether they acknowledge it or not, they are a family. We get to see how important they are to each other.

Why 2019? What connections can be made from Apartheid-era South Africa in the 1950s to 2019 in Kansas City? How does this play support KCAT’s mission? What do you want audiences to take away from seeing this play

This play supports KCAT’s mission of presenting an overlooked classic work of the 20th century that offers insight into our current situation. One that has continued to remind us that we all have a choice. We can go down the path of division and ruin or take the one of unity and equality. I think the play still thoughtfully asks us to ponder the issue of race and class status, and to consider just how far have we come from the dreams and disappointments of that afternoon in a little café in 1950 South Africa? This is a story of the love and bond between these three and the cost that systematic racism places on that bond. What can we learn from these men? What becomes of the dream? We are the choices we make within that system.

Walter Coppage can be seen as Sam in Kansas City Actors Theatre’s production of “‘Master Harold’…and the Boys” September 11-29 at the City Stage Theatre in Union Station. Past credits include work with Steppenwolf Theatre, Studio Theatre (DC), KC Rep, St. Louis Black Rep, Coterie, Unicorn, Spinning Tree, and Kansas Repertory. Coppage is a founding member of KCAT.

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