Lalela uLwandle
Theatre / Drill Hall

Lalela uLwandle (isiZulu for ‘listen to the Sea’) is one of Empatheatre’s most acclaimed and longest running productions and is an interactive and immersive theatre and public storytelling experience featuring performances by Mpume Mthombeni, Rory Booth and Alison Cassels. 


The production makes visible the stories of living with the ocean that are seldom heard in the public domain. Drawing from seven months of collaborative action research into the lives of different KZN citizens along our coast, Lalela Ulwandle brings to the surface the lived realities of people involved directly and indirectly with the ocean, as well as creating a new social platform that makes public dialogue possible regarding our collective pressing concerns regarding our ocean’s health. 


Lalela uLwandle began as an instrument to challenge the narrow and oftentimes weak forms of consultation with the public around Ocean Decision making protocols. “By listening to many different people along our coast, and hearing the many diverse ways in which they value and understand the ocean, we were able to compile a chorus of voices” Says Lead researcher, Dr. Kira Erwin.


The writing team, led by Neil Coppen with contributions from Helen Walne, Gcina Mhlope, Mpume Mthombeni, Dylan McGarry, Taryn Pereira and Kira Erwin, pieced together verbatim oral histories, interviews, focus group discussions, archival research and traditional local stories into a rich and thickly described narrative of fictional characters hopes, dreams and concerns for our shared coastal and oceanic heritage. 


After the show the audience are encouraged to participate in a public dialogue space facilitated by Empatheatre co-founder Dylan McGarry.

Production Credits

Director: Neil Coppen    

Written: Neil Coppen, with contributions from Helen Walne, Gcina Mhlope, Mpume Mthombeni,  Dylan McGarry, Taryn Pereira, Kira Erwin.  

Actors: Alison Cassels, Mpume Mthombeni & Rory Booth

Producer: Dylan McGarry    

Research: Kira Ewrin, Taryn Pereira, Dylan McGarry, Mpume Mthombeni, Nomkhosi Xulu-Gama, Tanya Dayaram     

Facilitators: Kira Ewrin, Dylan McGarry,  

Design: Dylan McGarry & Neil Coppen  

Costumes: Dylan McGarry & Diane Badenhorst

Lighting design: Neil Coppen  

Sound Design: Tristan Horton

Original Score: Guy Buttery & Gary Thomas


The Lalela Ulwandle tour has been made possible through the generous support of The Once Ocean Hub and the Environmental Research Centre (ELRC) at Rhodes University.



About the Artists

To celebrate their tenth birthday, the multi award-winning KZN based company Empatheatre will be travelling to the National Arts Festival with a mini retrospective featuring two of their most socially responsive and impactful theatre projects: "The Last Country" and "Lalela uLwandle".


Empatheatre was founded by Neil Coppen, Mpume Mthombeni and Dylan McGarry in 2014. The South African theatre company and methodology has been heralded for its unique approach which sees the creative team forging creative responses to complex social concerns while uniting a range of stakeholders including policy-makers, citizens, indigenous knowledge holders, storytellers, artists, musicians, activists, human-rights lawyers and academics. 


Empatheatre has been responsible for launching several ground-breaking Research-based theatre projects over the last decade in South Africa including Soil & Ash (focusing on rural communities facing pressure from coal-mining companies), Ulwembu (street-level Drug addiction and harm reduction advocacy), The Last Country (female migration stories), Boxes (homelessness and urban land justice inequalities in the city of Cape Town) and Lalela ulwandle (an international project supporting sustainable transformative governance of our oceans) and Umkhosi Wenala (Creating a new public dialogue and archive, incorporating traditional knowledge and cultural perspectives into spatial planning decisions). One of their latest works Isidlamlilo premiered on the NAF main stage in 2022 and is currently nominated for 8 Naledi awards.


The company’s work has toured across South Africa and internationally to Egypt, Italy, New York, Spain, Germany, Netherlands, Norway and Switzerland with their unique theatrical approach currently being taught in universities and schools around the world.  


In 2022 Empatheatre was nominated as one of The Daily Maverick’s artists of the year and awarded the prestigious Bertha Artivism Award for their theatre and social-justice work as well as the 2023 Fleur Du Cap award for innovation in South African Theatre. More recently the Empatheatre team are the recipients of the 2024 Norwegian Ibsen Scope grant award while their animated film Idlela Yokuphila was awarded the 2024 HSS (Humanities & Social Sciences) best digital humanities project for community engagement.



Mpume Mthombeni - Empatheatre Co-founder

Mpume Mthombeni is an award-winning stage and film actor, theater-maker, researcher, facilitator and story healer who hails from Umlazi, Durban.

Mthombeni has taken on multiple roles over the years in theatre, radio, film and television, drawing international acclaim for her performance in Tin Bucket Drum which she toured to New York in 2012. Some of Mthombeni’s other theatre credits include Animal Farm, Soil & Ash, NewFoundLand, Ulwembu, The Last Country and Lalela uLwandle which she has performed in Egypt, Rome and New York. Mthombeni has also performed in numerous Zulu radio drama’s for Ukhozi and Lotus FM as well as starred in various tv series including Imbewu, Uzalo, Ring of Lies, Durban Gen and The Wife.

In 2014 Mthombeni co-founded Empatheatre and her role in this award-winning company focuses on merging research and performance and she played a crucial role in the creation and narration of Empatheatre’s animated film Indlela Yokuphila.

Mthombeni has just finished a two month tour playing Zenzile Maskeo in Empatheatre’s acclaimed and sold out production of Isidlamlilo/ The Fire Eater (which she co-created with Neil Coppen) toNetherlands, Germany and Switzerland.

In June 2023 Mthombeni was invited to give a speech at the UN World Oceans day at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. Mthombeni shared the stage with celebrated oceanographer Sylvia Earle and film star Jason Momoa (Aquaman) and her stirring speech titled : “Why storytelling is the sacred medicine ocean Governance needs” was seen ( via live stream) by millions of viewers around the world and given a standing ovation in the general assembly.


Neil Coppen - Empatheatre Co-founder

Neil Coppen is a prolific theatre-maker hailing from Kwa-Zulu Natal. Coppen has won several major awards for his writing, design and direction work including Standard Bank Ovation Awards, Naledi’s, Fiesta and Kanna Awards, the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Drama 2011 and the 2019 Olive Schreiner Prize for Drama. He is one of the six South African playwright’s to have been granted a staged reading of his work at The Royal Court Theatre.

Some of Coppen’s most acclaimed works include Tin Bucket Drum (Published by Wits University Press), Tree Boy, Abnormal Loads (published by Junkets) and NewFoundLand (published by Junkets) and his adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm which toured South Africa for over five-years. In early 2020, Neil collaborated with Canadian First Nations dance company Red Sky Productions in Toronto on the premiere of a new work titled AF. More recently Coppen directed an online reimagining of Hamlet which was recently awarded the Naledi Award for best online performance 2022.

In 2014 Coppen co-founded Empatheatre alongside Mpume Mthombeni and Dylan Mcgarry and has worked as the companies head dramaturg and director on the productions Soil & Ash, Ulwembu, The Last Country , Boxes, Lalela Ulwandle and Umkhosi Wenala.

In 2022 Coppen alongside visual artist Vaughn Sadie and in collaboration with a community of Oudtshoorn based arts practitioners founded The Karoo Kaarte project (supported by the KKNK). Karoo Kaarte is a large-scale public participative storytelling and archiving project whose theatre productions Op Hierie Dag (2022) and Droomkraan Kronieke (2023)were nominated for 12 Kanna awards. Coppen recently co-wrote and directed Empatheatre’s hit play Isidlamlilo/The Fire Eater which premiered at NAF 2022 and is currently touring both locally and internationally.


Dr. Dylan McGarry - Empatheatre Co-founder

Co-founder of Empatheatre, Dylan McGarry is an accomplished Educational Sociologist, Ecologist, and Artist, known for his transformative work in various fields. Currently co-directing the One Ocean Hub, an international research project focused on reshaping ocean decision-making, Dylan serves as the
Principal Investigator for this project at Rhodes University. His commitment to fostering change extends to his role as the co-director/co-founder of Empatheatre, a pioneering transgressive social learning practice. Dylan holds a transdisciplinary PhD in Environmental Education from Rhodes University,
which included an apprenticeship in Social Sculpture at Oxford Brookes University. His (prac)academic journey has been marked by a deep commitment to research creation, creative co-engaged research, and innovative public pedagogy through storytelling and story-listening. Central to his work is the use of public storytelling as a means to promote inclusive forms of governance in the complex web of social-ecological interactions. His research interests encompass Transgressive Social Learning, Public Pedagogy, Theatre-based Research, Arts-based Research, Queer eco-pedagogy, Post-humanism, new Materialism, and critical African feminist approaches to co-engaged qualitative analysis.

Dylan has also made substantial contributions to the field of 'ethics of care' research and transgressive ethics, playing a pivotal role in shaping codes of practice for co-engaged research. Throughout his career as a Senior Researcher at the Environmental Learning Research Centre, Dylan has focused on building collaborative research principles. His work breaks down barriers between academia and communities, exemplified by his pioneering research methodology, "Empatheatre." This approach combines applied theatre, popular education, research theatre, transgressive learning, social sculpture, feminist ethics of care, and queer-eco pedagogy to facilitate inclusive co-engaged research. Dylan's creative endeavors extend into art, heritage, education, law, and justice. His work challenges knowledge hierarchies and has even been used as evidence in court proceedings in South Africa. Dylan's significant  contributions have earned him recognition, including appointments to the National Research Foundation's Global Change Science Committee and the Two Oceans Aquarium Foundation Research Advisory Committee. His collaborative theater productions have received accolades, with the recent Fluer De Cap Innovation in Theatre Award in 2023 and the Rhodes University Environmental Awards in 2018. Dylan McGarry's unique approach to co-engaged research emphasizes empathy, imagination, listening, intuition, and storytelling as sculptural materials in social settings. His work aims to foster personal, relational, and collective agency, contributing to the resilience of social bonds in challenging times.

  • Venue: Drill Hall
  • Location: The Drill Hall
  • Ticket price: ZAR 120.00
  • Programme type: Curated Programme
  • Genre: Theatre
  • Duration: 60 mins with 30 min post-show discussion
  • Ages: ALL AGES
Drill Hall
June 28, 2024 11:00 - 12:30
Drill Hall
June 29, 2024 18:00 - 19:30