The official website of playwright and actor, Paul Slabolepszy.
In his introduction to Mooi Street and Other Moves, a collection of six Slabolepszy plays, critic Robert Greig describes this quintessentially South African dramatist as: “the cartographer of the white male soul facing the abyss.”
This is only one facet of this award-winning actor, playwright, screenwriter and director’s ability to capture, articulate and voice aspects of the South African psyche rooted deeply in apartheid and post-apartheid society. Mercurial, enigmatic, prolific are also descriptions which apply to this master of tragi-comedy.
To a great extent Paul Slabolepszy’s personal history has defined his art making, as well as his ability to access various aspects of South African life and verbal textures. The eldest of four children he was born in Bolton, England, on February 10 1948 to Polish/Royal Air Force Spitfire pilot Henryk Slabolepszy and his English wife, Margaret. The family immigrated to South Africa when Paul was three years old. The reason for their departure was due to parochial attitudes experienced by his Polish father “who found it extremely difficult being a foreigner” in post-war England. Wanting a new life for his young family, Henryk Slabolepszy pulled the name of their new homeland out of a hat. South Africa won over the United States, Australia, New Zealand and other destinations.
As a result young Paul grew up not in Chicago, or Perth, but in small towns – in Modderfontein at the dynamite factory near Johannesburg; in the Eastern Transvaal coal mining town of Witbank (post 1994 renamed eMalahleni – place of coal, in the province of Mpumalanga) and further north in Messina (now Musina) in Limpopo, where his newly skilled father was employed as a production engineer. This was also the environment where the playwright-in-the making was exposed to the Afrikaans language and the platteland way of speaking English.
His childhood would also have exposed him to the inequalities between black and white South Africans and how English speaking citizens tended to be discriminated against in Afrikaner communities. His countryside environment also fuelled his enduring passion for sports which he later used as springboards for several of his plays notably Under the Oaks, Tickle to Fine Leg andLife’s a Pitch (cricket); Over the Hill(set in a rugby locker room in Nelspruit, Eastern Transvaal); the smash-hit South African box office record-breaking rugby farce Heel Against the Head; Once a Pirate(about an Orlando Pirates soccer fan); and Whole in One(golf). This environment also empowered him to authentically capture the small town ethos which informs multi-award winning The Return of Elvis Du Pisanie –an 80 minute monologue. The suicidal, Elvis-obsessed, middle-aged, Edward Cedric du Pisanie returns to his hometown of Witbank and relives his eventful, magical and traumatic childhood which began in Modderfontein.
The actor and playwright’s first memory of having an audience was as a 12 year-old performing under a giant baobab tree in the primary school grounds in Messina in the Northern Transvaal telling original, improvised, stories. These tales about the fictional Gonas and his bicycle gained a loyal following. The storytelling boy scout and his troop also put on concerts in the Messina MOTH (Memorable Order of Tin Hats) Hall. This experience also whetted Slabolepszy’s appetite for entertaining. His formal debut as a scribe was writing soccer reports about the school games at the College of the Little Flower in Pietersburg (now Polokwane), where he was a high school boarder. The science teacher would post them on the laboratory window. When he was 16 and the Catholic boarding school was renamed Brothers of Charity College, he wrote reports on the Far Northern Transvaal Soccer League which were published in the Northern Review. His acting skills originated in “wildly enthusiastic” soccer commentaries which he recorded on an old, battered tape recorder while sitting on the touchline at school matches.
Being a sports commentator was his dream. Young Paul persuaded his father, who was determined that he study engineering at the University of Cape Town (which also offered a course in broadcasting), that one route was to first enrol for a Bachelor of Arts degree (he chose the BA in Broadcasting) in 1967. The radio commentating mission was derailed after the wide-eyed student saw Professor Robert Mohr’s highly dramatic Japanese Kabuki production of Seppuku which was the first piece of professional staged theatre he had ever seen. The die was cast. He entered the drama programme (hiding this from his family) where his teachers were the legendary Rosalie van der Gucht, Tessa Marwick and Mavis Taylor. Taylor was “not at all concerned” about Slabolepszy’s non-standard English, Afrikaans-tinged, accent and cast him in numerous productions, including Royal Hunt of the Sun and Oh, What a Lovely War in which he played the MC, among other roles.
The ambiguities of being an insider-outsider, which inform so much of his writing, were derived from his experiences growing up as a “rooinek” (red neck) in staunch Afrikaner communities. Ironically when Slabolepszy arrived at the University of Cape Town, he was then called a “rock” (short for rock-spider, which is a derogatory word for Afrikaners used by English speaking South Africans). The fact that he moved house no less than thirteen times before entering university at age 18 suggests that farewells were frequent and starting out all over again became a way of life. His mother died after an unsuccessful heart operation just before he wrote matric, which was devastating to a young man on the cusp of adulthood.
His British birth exempted him from military conscription. If Paul Slabolepszy had gone to the army, fought in the Border wars, as well as serving out his military duty in the townships his playwriting may have been very different. As it is, he focussed on slices of South African life as he saw it and heard it. Language is key to Slabolepszy’s plays which are marked by an easily recognisable earthy vernacular. In her review of Heel against the Headin Business Day, May 6, 1995, critic Mary Jordan describes Slabolepszy as “the contemporary custodian of our popular culture. As an intelligent observer, he draws attention to our whole way of life. We have relaxed modes of leisurewear that are uniquely our own: and Calvinistic thought patterns that accept friendliness as a reality of polite behaviour. Slabolepszy’s dramatic work has both clout and merit because he perceives the old fashioned values behind the provincial loutishness. He has our speech patterns and inflexions exactly right.”
In 1971 he left drama school (later graduating from UCT in 1979 with a BA in English and Drama after completing a final subject) to work briefly at Pieter Fourie’s CAPAB (Cape Performing Arts Board) Afrikaans Drama company where he acted in productions such as A Flea in Her Earand King Lear alongside legendary Afrikaans actors Cobus Rossouw , Sandra Kotze and later Anna Neethling-Pohl. The big draw card for the young actor was “the so-called communist” German director Dieter Reible “who was doing subversive theatre” and challenging the status quo (the Nico Malan, where this state funded company was based, was segregated at the time). This wasn’t the case at the University of Cape Town’s Little Theatre where all races were welcome. “There were mixed audiences and multi-racial casts. When I moved to the Nico, after working at the Little, the deeply offensive and unjust Whites Only set-up hit me like a ton of bricks, reminding me again of those days growing up in the far-flung conservative corners of our country”.
As a student and then during his stint at CAPAB, Slabolepszy befriended photographer Brian Astbury, who photographed productions which included his wife Yvonne Bryceland. The brilliant Bryceland was often overlooked for parts at CAPAB because her accent “wasn’t the accepted Standard English”. The emphasis on “European” work at the expense of local stories was also a factor in Bryceland seeking other avenues as a performer. Slabolepszy could identify with this and towards the end of 1971 when Astbury began looking for “a space” to do real, cutting edge South African theatre with mixed casts and mixed audiences, he decided tothrow himself whole-heartedly into this exciting new development.
This is how the small town dreamer, as Slabolepszy likes to describe himself, became one of the founder members of the ground-breaking, non-racial Space Theatre along with Astbury, Bryceland, Athol Fugard, John Kani, Jacqui Singer and Bill Flynn (who was his best friend and collaborator till he died, aged 58, in 2007). Towards the end of 1972, Johannesburg writer and director Barney Simon (together with PACT Drama’s Mannie Manim) paid a visit to The Space. “Barney inspired me so much. He had a different way of working from Athol. I made an immediate connection with Barney – he tapped into my exploratory nature and my desire to write, but I couldn’t articulate that at the time. Barney opened a door for me with his unique research process which was unlike anything I’d ever encountered before.”
Asked about the influence of Fugard and Simon on his theatre making, Slabolepszy explained: “I had more contact with Barney. I spent time with Athol at the Space when we started out. I watched him at work during rehearsals of the powerful Statements after an Arrest Under the Immorality Act. Athol was far more private. Barney more outgoing; and he drew things out of you. With Barney you connected; with Athol there was a screen. Barney was affirming and nurturing, tapping into my story-telling instincts; while with Athol (brilliant and inspiring as he was) I had the feeling I was simply a performer breathing life into his creations”.
In Johannesburg, in 1974, Slabolepszy became a founder member of Simon and Manim’s collective, The Company, where he earned his first DALRO best actor award (1976) for the role of Smitty in Fortune and Men’s Eyesstaged at the Wits Nunnery and directed by Barney Simon. The Company opened the Market Theatre in 1976 where the actor-playwright has since enjoyed six world premieres, including Saturday Night at the Palace(1982), Making Like America (1986), Smallholding (1989) Pale Natives(1993) and Fordsburg’s Finest(1997). His latest Market Theatre world premiere was the highly successful Suddenly the Storm (2016).
Slabolepszywrote his first play Renovationsin 1979. It was presented as a play-reading at CAPAB Drama. It is the only one of his 35 plays never to hit the stage as a fully-fledged production. His second play The Defloration of Miles Koekemoer, the story of a country bumpkin bank clerk who throws a fancy dress party in his city flat, was staged at The Baxter Theatre in 1980 with the three characters played by Richard E Grant (his professional stage debut), Fiona Ramsay and Marcel van Heerden, at the start of their very illustrious careers.
South African adoration of American popular culture and television pops up in other Slabolepszy plays. What this playwright and actor did achieve in the wake of television introduced in January 1976 was to take audiences beyond sit-com comfort zones with highly entertaining yet engaging, though provoking, subject matter. Slabolepszy’s ability to tune into, reflect, even predict socio-political undercurrents and political change is also evident in BraaitLaaities (1991), Mooi Street Moves(1992), Crashing the Night(2000), Whole in One (2004), Freak Country(2008) and Suddenly the Storm(2016).
South African theatre critic, Adrienne Sichel, has observed that like Shakespearian metre, Slabolepszy’s language has specific textures and rhythms. Body language and socio- political/cultural contexts are crucial to the gritty characterisation. For example Vince in Saturday Night at the Palacedoesn’t merely walk, he prowls like a panther, fuelled by white superiority, arrogance and ignorance. All of Slabolepszy’s plays are period pieces, time capsules, capturing aspects of South African life. In her review of Pale Nativesheadlined “Nothing pale about this study of masculinity”(Business Day, January 27, 1994) Mary Jordan writes: “As five old school mates meet after a quarter of a century to anticipate the third marriage of one of their number, he tests their moralities as each seeks personal knowledge and individual truth. Slabolepszy’s intuitive ideas and images collide in a full and rich text. Words are used with Elizabethan vigour, humour and conviction.” In his review of Making Like America (1986),
Barry Ronge rated this play in The Sunday Times as “a show that puts Paul Slabolepszy among the best…. He now occupies the same position in relation to our theatre and society that Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams did in America in the 50s.”
Paul Slabolepszy’s prowess as an experienced, virtuoso, actor cannot be underestimated in its contribution to the creation of his most iconic characters – Vince in Saturday Night at thePalace, Pa in Smallholding, Eddie in The Return of Elvis du Pisanie, Crispin in Heel against theHeadand Dwayne in Suddenly the Storm.
With over thirty plays to his credit, Paul is arguably (after Athol Fugard) South Africa’s foremost playwright, his work having been performed in the UK, the USA, Germany, France, Australia, Sweden, Denmark and the Middle East.
PLAYS: 1979 – RENOVATIONS; 1980 – THE DEFLORATION OF MILES KOEKEMOER; 1982 – SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE PALACE (Amstel, Vita & Fleur du Cap Best Play); 1983 – KAROO GRAND; 1984 – UNDER THE OAKS; 1985 – OVER THE HILL (DALRO Best Play); 1986 – BOO TO THE MOON, MAKING LIKE AMERICA (Vita Best Play); 1988 – TRAVELLING SHOTS; 1989 – SMALLHOLDING (Vita Best Play); 1990 – ONE FOR THE HIGH JUMP, THE EYES OF THEIR WHITES; 1991 – BRAAIT LAAITIES (Pick of the Fringe, Grahamstown Fest); 1992 – MOOI STREET MOVES (Paper Boat Best Play Award, Glasgow MayFest), THE RETURN OF ELVIS DU PISANIE (Vita, Fleur du Cap and DALRO Best Play); 1993 – PALE NATIVES; 1994 – VICTORIA ALMOST FALLS, TICKLE TO FINE LEG; 1995 – HEEL AGAINST THE HEAD (Vita, Star Tonight Best Comedy); 1996 – ONCE A PIRATE, 1997 – GOING FOR THE JOCULAR, FORDSBURG’S FINEST; 1998 – PLANET PERTH, LIFE’S A PITCH, 2000 – CRASHING THE NIGHT; 2001 – RUNNING RIOT; 2002 – IT’S JUST NOT CRICKET!; 2003 – WHOLE IN ONE; 2005 – ART OF CHARF (LADY LONELY HEARTS); 2006 – NOT THE BIG EASY; 2008 – FOR YOUR EARS ONLY; 2008 – FREAK COUNTRY; 2016 – SUDDENLY THE STORM (Naledi Best New South African Script 2016/17).
In December, 2013 – ARTSCAPE (Cape Town) produced a rework of an earlier play – VICTORIA ALMOST FALLS (now titled MY LOW-FAT, ALMOST ITALIAN WEDDING). In May, 2014 the Market Theatre, Johannesburg, produced a ‘20th Anniversary Production’ of his hit 1994 play, PALE NATIVES and his latest play, SUDDENLY THE STORM (produced by the Market Theatre), is currently on a National Tour.
Paul has had six World Premieres at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE PALACE went on to perform at London’s OLD VIC THEATRE in 1984. THE EYES OF THEIR WHITES (co-written and co-performed with David Kramer, directed by Bobby Heaney) received acclaim at the 1990 Edinburgh Festival, and MOOI STREET MOVES was invited to the Teater der Weld Festival in Germany and the Images of Africa Festival in Denmark, in 1993. The play won the Paper Boat Award at the Glasgow MayFest in 1994 and went on to the Edinburgh Festival in the same year. ONCE A PIRATE (starring Seputla Sebogodi) was part of the Lincoln Centre’s WOZA AFRICA FESTIVAL in New York City in July, 1997.
SCREENPLAYS: 1986 – SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE PALACE (adapted/play) – Merit Award AFI FEST, Los Angeles 1987, TAORMINA Best Actor – John Kani; 1998 – HEEL AGAINST THE HEAD (adapted/play); 2006 – RUNNING RIOT (adapted/play); 2017 – RIDERS ON THE WIND (Anne-Linda du Toit).
For Leon Schuster, Paul wrote the screenplay OH, SHUCKS – HERE COMES UNTAG (1989), and contributed to SWEET & SHORT and MAMA JACK (2005); other co-written screenplays include VAN DER MERWE P.I. (Philo Pieterse), PRINCE VAN PRETORIA (Franz Marx) and TAXI TO SOWETO (Edgar Bold, Manie van Rensburg).
TELEVISION: SWANSONG FOR CHARLIE – an MNET Made-for-TV Movie, directed and produced by Bobby Heaney. With Bill Flynn, he co-wrote SENIOR SMITH (13-part series, SABC); wrote many episodes on various series’ – among them SCOOP SCHOOMBIE (original concept – for Roberta Durrant); MADAM & EVE; PEOPLE LIKE US (with Gray Hofmeyr); In 2008 he was Head Writer on a SABC2 Drama Series (HILLSIDE), for Aubrey Sekhabi; In 2009 – he conceived, created and wrote KONSTERNASIE OPPIE STASIE (13 part Afrikaans/English sitcom for SABC2), directed and produced by Bobby Heaney.
RADIO: Several of his plays have been adapted for radio and broadcast by SAfm (SABC), among them UNDER THE OAKS/OVER THE HILL, ART OF CHARF and WHOLE IN ONE. From 2009 to 2018 Paul was Head Writer on a daily serial on SAfm called RADIO VUKA. The series ran to a record 2,291 episodes.
As an actor, Paul has appeared in well over 100 STAGE and TV PLAYS, as well as fifteen FEATURE FILMS. Highlights include – Frederick Courtney Selous in RHODES (BBC) and Jan Christiaan Smuts, in THE APPRENTICESHIP OF A MAHATMA. Numerous Best Actor Awards for Stage include Biff in DEATH OF A SALESMAN, Chance Wayne in SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH; Kaspar in Pieter Handke’s KASPAR, Smitty in FORTUNE AND MENS’ EYES (where he won his first DALRO Best Actor Award in 1976); Mercutio in ROMEO & JULIET; Chandebise/Poche in A FLEA IN HER EAR. As Eddie, in his own play THE RETURN OF ELVIS DU PISANIE (directed by Lara Foot), he became the first actor in SA to win every Best Actor Award nationwide in a single year (Vita, Fleur du Cap and DALRO, 1993).
In March, 1993 Paul was invited on a study tour of American Theatres with a group of international drama practitioners as part of the USA International Visitor Program.
PUBLISHED WORK: Saturday Night at the Palace is published by Jonathan Ball and Wits University Press has recently published a six-play volume entitled MOOI STREET & OTHER MOVES, as well as SUDDENLY THE STORM.
Together with Ashleigh Harvey and Luntu Masiza, Paul is part of THE STORY TEAM, a Writers’ Workshop focusing on Storytelling for Stage, Screen and Television.
CHANCE WAYNE Sweet Bird of Youth 1978
VINCE Saturday Night at the Palace 1982
CRAGGE Skywers/Jollers 1972
YOUNG LORD Othello Slegs Blankes 1972
J.C. SMUTS Apprenticeship of a Mahatma 1996
FREDERICK COURTNEY SELOUS Rhodes (BBC) 1995
Elvis du Pisanie 1992