At the recent Kunste Onbeperk text market (Teksmark) held in Cape Town, legendary artists (both flying solo with multiple skills) director/designer Marthinus Basson spoke to playwright/performer Pieter-Dirk Uys about his career, with the accent on being an artist and how to make it – in his case – to the top, here and internationally. DIANE DE BEER tuned in:
Many will be familiar with the prolific Pieter-Dirk Uys’s career, his initial relationship with the ground-breaking Space Theatre after his return from studies and playwriting in London, followed by his mainly solo career with some cast-rich plays interspersed, but when listening to him chat with friend and colleague Marthinus Basson, it is his chutzpah, his dedication and determination, the people who taught him (sometimes unknowingly) that is a rich source of knowledge for young artists trying to make a living and a career.
He sees himself as typical with his adoration for stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Marlene Dietrich and the one he probably formed the deepest relationship with, Sophia Loren. When Dietrich was brought to Cape Town by a very young Pieter Toerien, the equally young Uys knew this was his time. And it was. Having bought tickets for opening night, he was spotted by Toerien and commandeered to be in the front row every night to present her with a bouquet, which meant he saw every performance. He also slipped into the theatre during the day to see what this performer was up to and caught her scrubbing the stage – every single day. “It was a lesson learnt. That’s what we don’t do anymore and why we’re in trouble,” he says. It’s her stage and she would make sure that it’s pristine – for her and her audience.
When he left drama school to study further in London, similar tactics applied. Early on, he sat in the Old Vic Theatre and heard the greats from Gielgud to Olivier and realised he couldn’t compete with their English. Instead he studied at the London Film School, who accepted his application because he had the money and that’s where he began slowly to create a career that is still flying fast and furiously. He wrote his first play, Faces in the Wall. And then the problem solving started. Where and how to put it on?
“The old Vic is full, but I can put the play on in the cinema during the holidays,” is how he planned. Once the theatre was secured, he got writing again, 32 letters, to ask famous people for help. The Duchess of Bedford and Elizabeth Taylor replied, and both sent him 100 pounds, a lot of money at that time with which he bought some old cinema seats to furnish his theatre space.
He invited everyone he knew who had influence for opening night but forgot to ask the critics. The next night no one came, except for two people. He offered them their money back, but they wanted to stay. “We played and at the end, a woman came to me, an agent Patricia MacNaughton, who is still my agent today. Never cancel a performance because you never know who is in the audience,” he stressed.
“My instinct drove me and I’m a terminal optimist which we have to be as artists because what we do is total madness.” But this is what he wanted to do and where he wanted to be – on stage amongst people with passion and people with humour.
Speaking at the Teksmark and giving a nod to his recent 2018 Hertzog Prize for drama (“they were all my enemies in the past,” he says of his benefactors), he advises playwrights never to be precious about their words. But when you cut, put it in that box under the bed. “It might not work in the current play, but it will be good for one down the line. Recycle, recycle, recycle. A good idea is always a good idea.”
Of the 30 plays he wrote, four were not good, he believes. “They are the ones that still worry me,” he says. “Failure is a terrible word. If it’s unsuccessful, just keep trying.” He ascribes their downfall to the fact that he listened to other people and not his gut. “Failure is the cement for the wall on which you will eventually put your statue; you’ve got to have failures to have success, but it only happens in someone else’s eyes. Don’t believe them.”
Text, he believes, is unimportant. It’s about the story, a joke is a small story, a prayer slightly larger and the text is just the map. It has to be adapted and changed during the work process. “That’s why I always direct the first runs of any of my scripts,” he says. “It’s a very private thing, that new script. Keep it close to the chest and don ‘t show it around too freely. That’s when the advice starts influencing you.
“And when writing, don’t be scared for moments of silence, play with the cat, watch a movie, the ideas will come when they’re ready. And once finished writing, cut what you have written by half and then you lose 50 percent. That’s what I learnt at film school and I still do that today. It’s scary but it works. Those first 10 pages can usually go…”
Paying tribute to the festivals, he acknowledges that artists need that space to sharpen their pencils but perhaps a more structured circuit can emerge. In a dream world, that would be a festival a month which would keep the artists going all year round.
He describes his solo venture as a risky business. But he knew instinctively then, that in the long run, he could make it work. With today’s overheads, the cost of theatres and advertising alone, is prohibitive for dramas with a large cast. With only himself as the beneficiary, he is lucky if he walks away with 33 percent of the earnings.
How he describes humour, what he works with, is to laugh at the things that people fear. Or perhaps as Basson describes this particular brand: “Don’t do the obvious which make people feel good; do the opposite that make them question and they feel good because they’ve taken a step in the right direction.”
“I have been unemployed since 1975,” says Uys. “I had to become myself, do everything myself, survival being not stand up but working with a personal chorus line of characters.” All this is also going to change in the future. He is tired of politics which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, it’s an acquired bad taste. “I want to tell stories about people, children, youth, love and loss, the reality of breathing, to smell the roses and focus on something that matters. For 40 years I have had my head stuck in a political toilet and my sense of smell is gone. I want to smell the flowers again. That’s why I live in Darling where I can perform live in a world where everything is canned.”
And as an aside, he lets rip about the new hate speech laws. “I’m proud of our young democracy. We don’t need laws, we have a society who stands up and says NO – loudly. The moment something is illegal, you will find a minefield of hate speech and hashtags. We have to find a way of surviving – with humour.”
And finally, to the artists: “You have to be a unique talent. Don’t be a copy, we have enough of those. Be original. Don’t specialise, do everything. You must learn the alphabet of the theatre – everything. Read, watch documentaries by people who do what you want to achieve. Don’t be afraid to adore talent.”
Listening to him speak about his life, that’s where he learnt the most. He was led by the example of the best. And now he follows suit giving great advice, but even better, showing how it is done.
All you have to do is watch and pay attention.