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SPOTLIGHT: SELL-BY-DATE Q&A with the legendary Pieter-Dirk Uys

Barbara Loots


If someone gives you an opportunity to put questions to the always witty, legendary and profound Pieter-Dirk Uys (PDU), you grab the opportunity with both hands. We did just that! We asked PDU about his approach to theatre and how it has brought him to his new show, SELL-BY-DATE, soon to be onstage at Theatre on the Bay, 17 May to 10 June 2023. His show may be titled SELL-BY-DATE, but the mark he has left on South African theatre and politics is ever-lasting and thankfully he is not stopping any time soon.

TSCT: You began your theatrical career as a playwright, actor and stage director in the late 1960s. How does the PDU thespian of those early years differ from the PDU that steps onto the stage in SELL-BY-DATE?

PDU: For me every performance is the first and the last. Which means one adapts to a daily energy without too much focus on a future. The result is: a future! I sometimes wished I had the trust and hopes that helped me believe that the world was a better place. Difficult nowadays with the reality of news breaking in the palm of your hand.

TSCT: You ultimately established yourself as a one-person-show phenomenon. Many performers find solo performing a very lonely endeavour. How have you sustained this solitary art form (that many fear and actively shy away from) with such apparent joy and determination?

PDU: During the 1970s/1980's I had to be on my own so that only I could be blamed, arrested, killed or ignored. Others would be too much of a responsibility. So it became a habit and a career. I never feel lonely on stage. The audience is the crowd in my life.

TSCT: f you could tell your younger start-out thespian self one thing, one great piece of creative advice, what would it be?

PDU: Besides what Sir Noel Coward gave as advice: 'Speak clearly and don't bump into the furniture'- my advice . . . no, my suggestion is this: enjoy it, believe in it, be careful of listening to too many stabs of advice, don't be scared of cutting half and then losing 50%. In other words, be in charge and take the blame and the embrace.

TSCT: What was the moment when you knew that political commentary would be a central component of the type of theatre you create?

PDU: Every time I saw a sign that said WHITES ONLY, I knew what I had to do. Every time they banned a play of mine, I wrote two more. The moment they tried to frighten me into silence, I rolled on red lipstick and let Tannie Evita handle it. Politics is, after all, the local drug that makes us all addicts. And politics is also here today and gone tonight!

TSCT: Your shows usually have a satirical angle to them, with something political or social presenting itself as the catalyst. What inspired you to create SELL-BY-DATE?

PDU: I looked in the mirror and said: Hello, are you still here? Yes, 77 isn't always the new 55, but experience helps me to keep relevant. I have no intention of sticking to a sell-by date, but chillingly we are all pushing our democracy to the edge of a cliff. Humour helps to confront the unspeakable. And a title is a very important burglar alarm to alert the audience that fun and fear will be sorted out here!

TSCT: As you have evolved over the years, surely your audience has too. What's the biggest difference in audience reaction that you've Identified over the years?

PDU: Every audience is the first and the last reaction to a show. Every audience varies in recognition and focus. That's why it's LIVE. The most important contribution drama can make in all our lives and not streamed from a cloud. (By the way, we used to call that rain!) The funny bone is always there to tickle. Too often it gets beaten up and then there is no more fun.

TSCT: Do you think the political and social climate at any given time makes your audience more or less receptive to satire?

PDU: Satire was once defined as: tragedy plus time equals satire. Today it can't work in South Africa: too much tragedy and no time. So I try and reflect the optimism and hope in the cracked mirror of our daily existence. It's touch and go; touch means laughter; go means listen. I always see a difference between comedy and humour. Comedy is the joke you remember to tell someone else; humour is like a fingerprint. Everyone has a unique sense of humour to laugh at fear - and make that fear less fearful. It is still lethal; it can still kill you, but at least you're in charge. Got your eye on it! It will never be bigger than you. And laughing at corrupt politicians is the first step to their disintegration. Ha ha ha? BOOM!

TSCT: You have your finger on the pulse of the nation, bringing hope, sanity and even a sense of calm in the chaos storm with your shows. What

do you think people need most from a PDU show in the current climate?

PDU: To stop worrying about the loadshed at their homes that makes the batteries go flat and kills the burglar alarm. Sit back and have a nice time! And then be surprised that you laugh at things you don't even want to think about.

TSCT: How do you pick your characters when creating a show? Is there a process by which you balance inclusion of your well-known and much-loved characters like Tannie Evita with the challenge of introducing someone new to your repertoire when deciding on the format of the show?

PDU: Somehow the characters decide to join the chorus line. Evita is my Liz Taylor. Nowell is my Bette Midler. Bambi Kellermann is my Cher and they're all in the new show! Lots of Vladimir Putins and Donald Trumps in the wings but they usually fail the audition.

TSCT: You have made 25 of your plays and one-person-show texts available on your website free of charge for people to read for pleasure. Why is it important to you to share your vision in such a generous way?

PDU: We are all in the same boat, having experienced so much together, even though in different cities and countries. I want to share the story of where I come from, reflecting the realties of other lives as well. And most importantly, to remember where we come from, so that we can celebrate where we are going.

TSCT: Even though your shows have strong elements of social reflection, there's always a bit of true PDU in them too. Especially with a show like Echo of a Noise, which was a very funny yet tender memoir. SELL-BY-DATE looks to have that same personal touch as you are describing it as your retreading moment. What does that mean? Are you recalibrating in a way after the noise of the last few years have settled? What can audiences expect of the post-covid tongue-in-cheek PDU realness?

PDU: Great question fat with demands! The pandemic, lockdowns, vaccinations, masks, fear, cancel culture, #MeToo, loadsheds, Phala Phala, Putin, climate change and most concerning of all, our democracy now at its sell-by date? Every new show is my last. I have plans for the future, but all pencilled in. Let's see what happens tomorrow!

TSCT: It has been announced that you will be the 2023 FynArts Legacy Award recipient. You are set to receive it on 11 June for your longstanding and distinctive contribution to the arts in South Africa and beyond. That evening you'll be back on stage again performing SELL-BY-DATE at the Hermanus FynArts Festival after just finishing your Theatre on the Bay run the night before. Having given many years of marvellous laughs to the arts already, what inspires you to still (after this and many other well-deserved accolades) return to the stage time-and-time again with such commitment?

PDU: I'm an entertainer that tries to stick to the recipe: 49% anger versus 51% entertainment - not the other way round. It's a full-time job. Maybe I'm just starting!

PDU: P.S. Volume Two:  'One Man Shows: The Mandela Rainbow Honeymoon 1994-1999' will be launched onto - free to all - on Madiba Day 18 July 2023)

South African author, satirist, and social activist Pieter-Dirk Uys brings his latest show SELL-BY DATE to Pieter Toerien's Theatre On The Bay from Wednesday, 17 May until 10 June 2023. The show features not only the man himself, but also a cluster of topical characters, male, female... and political. Tickets are available online through Webtickets.


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