Coming up from the toilet of politics to smell the roses again
Through alter ego Tannie Evita Bezuidenhout Pieter-Dirk Uys has made people laugh at what they fear, but now he just wants to tell stories
Pieter-Dirk Uys’ alter ego Tannie Evita Bezuidenhout won adoring fans in the 1980s for her daring jabs at the ridiculousness of apartheid and in the 1990s when she turned her eagle eye on the failures of the democratic government. But Uys says he is tired of politics and wants to tell new stories — ones that matter.
During his prolific career he worked at the ground-breaking Space Theatre in Cape Town after returning from his studies and playwrighting in London, followed by a solo career with some cast-rich plays interspersed.
In a recent chat with friend and colleague Marthinus Basson at Teksmark, Uys identified chutzpah, dedication, determination and good teachers as ideal qualities and sources of knowledge for young performers trying to make a career.
As a young man, he adored stars such as Elizabeth Taylor, Marlene Dietrich and Sophia Loren. When Dietrich was brought to Cape Town by Pieter Toerien, the equally young Uys knew this was his time. He bought tickets for her opening night, was spotted by Toerien and commandeered to be in the front row every night to present her with a bouquet.
He slipped into the theatre during the day to see what Dietrich was doing and caught her scrubbing the stage — she did it every day. “It was a lesson learnt. That’s what we don’t do anymore and why we’re in trouble,” he says.
Uys also learned from stage greats John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier when he was studying in London by attending their plays at the Old Vic Theatre. He wrote his first play, Faces in the Wall, and decided to stage it at a cinema. After his venue was secured, he wrote 32 letters to famous people, asking for their help to stage his production.
The Duchess of Bedford and Taylor both sent him £100. He invited everyone he knew who had any influence for opening night, but forgot to ask the critics.
On his second night only two people attended. He offered them their money back, but they decided to stay. “We played, and at the end a woman came to talk to me, the agent Patricia MacNaughton. She is still my agent today. Never cancel a performance because you never know who is in the audience,” he stresses.
“My instinct drove me and I’m a terminal optimist, which we have to be as artists because what we do is total madness.”
Giving a nod to his 2018 Hertzog Prize for Afrikaans 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 they cut a piece of work, what has been excised should be stored in a 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,” Uys urges.
Of the 30 plays he wrote, four were not good enough, he believes. Their failure is a result of him listening to other people instead of his gut.
“They are the works that still worry me,” he says. “Failure is a terrible word. If it’s unsuccessful, just keep trying. 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, Uys believes, is unimportant. It’s always about the story. A joke is a small story, a prayer slightly longer and the text is just a map that has to be adapted and changed during the process.
“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 about the 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. 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 SA’s festivals, he says artists need that space to sharpen their pencils, but there should be a more structured circuit. In an ideal world, there would be a festival every month so that artists can make a living.
He describes his solo career as a risky business. The cost of theatres and advertising is prohibitive for dramas — and those with a large cast require even more. With only himself as the beneficiary of his work, he is lucky enough to sometimes take 33% of the earnings.
Uys says his brand is based on laughing at the things that people fear. Describing politics as “an acquired bad taste”, Uys says he is finally tired of it.
“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," he says.
“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.
“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.”