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On the couch with Pieter-Dirk Uys

– Bernadette Wolhuter, Weekly Gazette, 1 March 2012

Hailing from Cape Town, Pieter-Dirk Uys is a writer and entertainer.  He has staged plays across the continent and beyond, in the United States and the United Kingdom, and has written a number of books, plays, films and videos. Best known his association with the quick wit and satire of South Africa's darling, Evita Bezuidenhout,  Pieter-Dirk Uys will be performing his latest offering, Adapt or Fly, at the Elizabeth Sneddon theatre from to 6 to 18 March. The Weekly Gazette Glenwood caught up with this man of many talents to find out more about him.

GWG: Was performing always what you wanted to do?

PDU: No, I had dreams of being a train driver, then of a dominee because you were assured of going to Heaven and you got a free car, and then of  a teacher.  I actually still think that a teacher, a good one at least,  is the most valuable friend that anyone can have. Everyone is where they are because a teacher helped them to get there and gave them the benefit of the doubt.  I mean I sang in the choir as a little boy but what drew me in was meeting an actress at the canteen in university; she had a beret, a cigarette holder and false eyelashes and I just thought that she was fantastic and that I wanted to be like her so I went with her to a class and I joined up.  I'm actually not trained in performing, I'm trained in stage management and I think that that's the best training because it gave me such a huge alphabet to work from.

GWG: Do you think of yourself as an actor or as a director or producer?  Which role do you most relate to?

PDU: I think of myself as an entertainer and that can involve all of those things. Performing is obviously hugely important, in the play I'm doing at the Sneddon in Durban there are 17 people in the box on stage, I'm the 18th person in the company and no one argues or gets flu you know?  I love the ideas of characters but my main focus is actually writing, not just scripts but novels.  Look, having been unemployed since 1975, I do it myself! When I couldn't get the job, I became the job and it requires huge amounts of discipline.  I mean I'm already doing theatre bookings for 2014!  That's what you have to do if you want the best theatres!

GWG: How is your personality expressed through your performing?

PDU: I don't think a lot of me does comes through when I perform, my characters come through.  In fact I actually had to create Pieter-Dirk Uys as a character because I’m just too scared and too shy on stage, I hide behind the characters I play.  I think that the part of me that does come through relates to the self-discipline and the stage management parts of theatre work.  On stage I submerge myself in a character  even if that character is me, Pieter-Dirk Uys. I think you have better control that way than when you don't have a disguise, especially when the content is political and you can't get emotional because that just doesn't work.  I always aim for 49% anger and 51% entertainment.

GWG: You're obviously best known for your role as Evita Bezuidenhout, is this something that you thrive off and enjoy?  Or do you try and distance yourself from that character?

PDU: She distances herself from me!  I mean she thinks of me as nothing more than a comedian... People don't get their lines crossed and I can't use her to publicise my work but I am always thrilled that people love her so much and even that she has better legs than me.

GWG: Your performances address a lot of current issues; do you feed off of what's going on in South Africa for content or do you use performing to educate the citizenry and to encourage discourse?

PDU: It must be said that I'm an entertainer and that's all I do. Then again, educating is part of the process of enriching people's lives through entertainment.  I was bitten by the political beast and that's really the heartbeat behind my work.  I do focus on the state of the nation and on fear, not that focusing on fear takes it away but it does allow people to face it and laugh at it.  I've also got to say that I'm very happy with the script writers that I have in government.

GWG: Theatre as opposed to film and television; what are your thoughts as a performer?

PDU: I love theatre because it's live!  I get to share something with an audience, for two hours it's just them and me having a conversation and that's a hugely rewarding experience that involves this enormous energy.  Television's also great you know?  It's right there, in people's homes.  Film's is fantastic too.  It's just that the two are tinned, they're virtual and tinned and not of the minute.  You'll notice when I'm on stage that my work is very topical and you'll often hear things on stage before you even hear them on the news;  I was brought up in this theatre lifestyle so I'm always doing a tango in front of the firing squad.

GWG: Who would be your dream character to play?

PDU: I like to think of every character as  being a dream come true because they all need a hundred per cent focus and respect.  Respect is the key, even if I don't like a character I'm playing I have to respect him so that he speaks to the audience and becomes real; that way the audience can pass judgement on him.

GWG: Do you see yourself retiring one day or do you think that you'll always work?

PDU: What does retiring from the theatre mean?  Theatre folk don't retire, they die.  (That's awful!)  No, I mean health is hugely important, health and energy.  We have these wonderful performers who are not young but still manage to draw on massive reserves of energy and focus.  I think, for me, as long as I can I will  at least for as long as people allow me!  When I start going to the theatre and no one's there I think I'll take the hint because an audience gives me so much more than the money it pays for tickets, it gives me its time and, for something so precious, I must offer something in return.

GWG: Finally what are your favourite qualities in an audience member?

PDU: It becomes dangerous when you're performing and you notice someone in the front row who appears to hate you, not laughing at anything.  You end up trying so hard to impress him or her and you don't succeed, you just end up going over the top!  The funniest thing is that often after a show I'll meet those characters and with the straightest faces they'll tell me they've never laughed so much in their lives!  People don't generally come to the theatre unless they want to though but, that said, I am aware of husbands in my audiences who didn't buy the tickets and of working mothers; everyone's tired when they come to the theatre after a long day and it's my job to get them not to fall asleep and to entertain them and in order to do that I can't be self indulgent or boring or pretentious.  I think that my favourite audiences consist of parents or even grandparents with their children or grandchildren; I love young audiences, they are, after all, the audiences of tomorrow.

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from 2012