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SPOTLIGHT: Aviva Pelham tells Santa’s Story in the intimate space of Theatre on the Bay

Barbara Loots


Santa's Story, created by and featuring award-winning performer Aviva Pelham, is back at Theatre on the Bay from 10 to 15 October 2017. Santa's Story, directed by multi-award winning Janice Honeyman with design by the acclaimed Mannie Manim and Dicky Longhurst, tells the tale of Santa Pelham’s inspirational journey – from WWII Germany, to Spain, to France and then to Africa – as re-enacted by her daughter, Aviva Pelham. We asked Pelham to tell us more about her own journey of sharing her mother’s memoirs with others through the medium she so loves, theatre.

Santa’s Story was originally only intended as a book to preserve her mother’s fascinating life story for future generations when she reached the age of 90, but Pelham recounts that the family was surprised that “many people outside the family were eager to read it” too. Ultimately, director Janice Honeyman persuaded Pelham that her mother’s memoirs needed to live on onstage. “Together we condensed the rich text of the memoir into a [one woman show] script appropriate for performance, and from the response from audiences, it clearly resonates!”

With this, Pelham stepped out of her theatrical comfort zone – having established herself as a great South African performer in the genres of opera, operetta, musicals and concert, even making a name for herself in such associated roles on the stages in London, Paris and Israel - as she embraced an intimate setting to tell her mother’s tale. Pelham admits that the intimate staging initially made her feel “exposed without an orchestra and chorus”, but she realised that this exposure in part “contributes to the piece’s success”, as “it allows for a deep audience connection”.

This then also reflects her mother’s personally in the form the play took on: “There were many amazing things about my mother, but one of those was the connection that she made with everyone she met. She was vivacious, charismatic and unforgettable! In sharing her story, I wanted audiences to have the experience of getting to know her, and for me, that meant scaling down the size of the performance and making sure that my portrayal was authentic in every detail.”

Within such a context, Santa’s Story truly reveals itself as a tale of courage and hope for the audience, but also for Pelham personally – a connection that allows her to find comfort in the power of theatre more so than with her other past productions and roles. “I'm truly committed to the power and impact of theatre, no matter the size or scope”, she shares, “but for me, there was something unique about the truth and reality of the story telling in Santa's Story, which enables me to immerse myself totally in the performance. When I'm on stage, there are times when the line between her and myself become blurred. I have always been deeply affected by the happenings of this period now, encapsulating the feelings and experiences of someone to whom I am inextricably bound. It feels honest and real.”

Pelham also regards it as important for creatives to use theatre as a platform to tell real, relatable, even personal, stories. “Theatre is a sacred space where we can explore and share our feelings and values. Through the exchange between a performer and members of her audience as individual, much understanding and resonance occurs. Without having to take risks themselves, audiences find meaning and, ideally, can make more informed choices in life.”

Being the consummate performer that she is, Pelham still draws on past roles to add further depth to Santa's Story, with these being the stand-outs for her: “In terms of vulnerability, the role of Violetta in La Traviata best connects me to the feelings of loss and overwhelming challenges while young”, Pelham reflects on her role in Santa’s Story. “Another more serious role was Blanche in The Dialogue of the Carmelites where fear played a pivotal role in her world. For introspection and personal complexity, portraying the Governess in The Turn of the Screw was an excellent forbearer and Gilda in Rigoletto prepared me for tense drama and even scenes about death. Fiddler on the Roof highlighted the Jewish traditions and humour while the range of vocal styles I have performed over the years were good practice for the Spanish, French, Yiddish, Hebrew and English songs I sing.”

From this perspective, one actually has the privilege of experiencing Santa's Story as a show that also celebrates the best of the diverse talent, skill and experience of Aviva Pelham as a performer (as reflected in this Theatre Lives video), when she steps onto stage to bare her heart to the audience as a daughter portraying her mother.

Santa's Story humbly and respectfully depicts the truth her mother lived; beautifully balancing the struggle and the heartache with lighter even humorous moments. “Despite her overwhelming grief and sadness in the years following the loss of her family, I always remember my mother’s joie de vivre”, Pelham recalls. “It took a while to develop her sense of humour but she was brave and learned to shine the bright light within her. That aspect of her character still motivates me today.” Considering this, one could even describe Santa’s Story as a reflection of her mother’s spirit and approach to life; embracing everything that makes this a “moving, uplifting, inspiration” narrative with elements of song.

The fact that this is a moving play truly draws audiences in is evident from the fact that this is not the first run Santa’s Story has had in Cape Town. There is true appeal in this story told through speech and song, which makes people return to see it again.

“Although it honours the millions of people mercilessly murdered in the Holocaust it is also a personal story in which many parallels can be drawn to the contemporary world. Prejudice, discrimination and poverty are still rife and there is also a strong relevance to the millions of displaced refugees today”, Pelham reflects on the fact that her mother’ story still resonates with people today. Relatable, yes, but as with any good piece of theatre, it also has that touch of escapism that allows one to forget the sadness and take courage: “Without compromising the gravity of Santa’s family’s plight, the script is also punctuated with humour and musical numbers. These contrasting elements make it a balanced work. With such sadness in the world around us, I believe audiences find it heartening to witness a story of survival - a triumph of the human spirit.”

Ultimately, Pelham wants audiences to take from Santa’s Story the important message that one should never give up hope: “Santa was so alone when, at 21, she left her family in Europe to marry a stranger on the other side of the world, hoping that this would ensure the survival of her parents and brothers. Hope of a safe future gave her the strength to do this. Despite her heart breaking losses, she was strongly determined to make her marriage work and give her children roots, tradition and unbounded love. In this way, she serves as an example to me, and so many others whose life she's touched.”

Santa’s Story opens at Theatre on the Bay on 10 October 2017 for a very limited run until 15 October 2017. Book your tickets at Computicket to see esteemed opera diva, Aviva Pelham, recount her mother’s fascinating tale of survival.


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