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Paul Slabolepszy

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Paul Slabolepszy

Paul Slab as he’s affectionately known, is South Africa’s most prolific playwright and a much-loved actor, bringing real South African characters to life in legendary plays such as ‘Saturday Night at the Palace’ and ‘Mooi Street Moves’. But what you don’t know is how close Paul is to his characters…

Your history and your experiences pave the way to who you become. From first moving from Lancashire, England to Modderfontein and then Witbank and Musina gave me a whole library of characters to draw from.   Witbank was very Afrikaans and the understanding I developed of their psyche comes out in a lot of my writing. Those were the people I grew up with. Walking home from school there was one kid who would always wait with his mates to start fights – I avoided him but drew from this culture, all the hatred, the undercurrents that were going on in the country in those days.

Playing to an audience is addictive. In my primary school in Musina I would stand under a baobab tree and tell stories - I already knew how to improvise at 12 years old. My big dream was to become a sports broadcaster. At high school, The College of the Little Flower in Polokwane, seriously, I started writing for the Northern Review. The only problem was whenever I played in a game the left wing was anonymous. I would write ‘the left wing scored brilliantly in a dazzling display of footwork’ – many would ask just who that was? I would sit on the touch line at school with a tape recorder and commentate into the machine with people sitting around me. Then I’d write reviews of the games and stick them on the biology class window. If guys were disastrous I’d say so – but some became heroes!

Let your children follow their own paths – they know what they want. My father really wanted me to become an engineer. So I headed off to UCT but quickly found myself studying broadcasting and drama. It was here that I met the great Billy Flynn, who, although I didn’t know it then, would become so much a part of my life for the next 40 years. Other great names that year were Janice Honeyman and Anne Powers. I hadn’t been exposed to much theatre in Polokwane so suddenly I was introduced to a whole new world – and I loved it. I went from one production to the next – where else can an extrovert get a chance to jump around the stage. That was it – there was no going back, although my dad was devastated I dropped engineering… My daughter Frances has followed me into acting and writing, my daughter Alice fashion design and my son Tim – well he wants to go into engineering…

Theatre was a great way to beat the security police. When we started at The Space Theatre in Cape Town we really pushed the boundaries and they said our theatre was the newspaper of that age. The security guys would check us out - we always knew when they were there. I have a knack of watching people coming into the theatre and saying, cop, not a cop, baddie… During Saturday Night at the Palace I spotted a security cop sitting at the bar after the show. Like most people who came to see this show he was emotionally charged up. He said ‘Yslaaik – you okes are brilliant – where did you find all this out?” I told him I used to play soccer at Iscor under the smoke stacks and then went to the roadhouse where my characters were formed. He wanted to know what would happen if someone from overseas comes – what will they think of us? They’ll think we’re dreadful I replied.

Some stories have to be told. Saturday Night at the Palace started out as a monologue about a guy who loved talking about his soccer boots. He would tell people they were ‘invoiced’ (endorsed) by Franz Beckenbauer. Then one day I read an article about a bizarre attack at a roadhouse where two youths on a motorbike beat up a waiter who was on his own trying to lock up and I knew I had my play. I remembered so well sitting in my little car at a roadhouse watching, scared to do anything, when these guys would order food and then send it flying off the trays all over the poor waiters. That’s why the play was so powerful because it came from a place of total understanding and I could finally rid myself of that anger that had built up over so many years. I played that character with such venom it was terrifying. One night some bikers who were behind me at the back of the stage got so involved they shouted ‘Come right, come right you bliksem’…

Treasure every second of special friendships. Losing Billy Flynn was like losing a limb. So many of my big productions were with Billy – we spun off each other. He was the teddy bear everyone loved and I was the baddie! Just before he died I was writing a play about the Soccer World Cup and he said ‘don’t make me work too hard.’ Our plays were often very physical and I’d have to massage his shoulders before we went on stage. When you go through life from being students together you can communicate without speaking. I haven’t got that with anyone else. There’s always a sense of him around though and recently when Peter Toerien opened the Bill Flynn room at The Theatre on the Bay in Camps Bay I thought of Bill telling me that he wanted to live in Cape Town again one day.

South African stories do travel well. I’ve performed my plays all over the world and the funny thing is even the Swedes and Danes get them! In the USA they’re even perfecting the accents.

Grab every opportunity that ever comes your way. So I’m in New York and call up my dear friend, the late great actress Yvonne Bryceland. She was thrilled to hear from me and said I must spend the weekend with her and her dear friends Amy and Steve. Amy Irving and Steven Spielberg! She was doing a play with Amy, who was then Steven’s wife, and they’d invited her to their weekend cottage. My mind flashed with the image of me telling Steve all about the movies he could make from my plays! But reality struck with the fact I was on a very tight schedule with a flight out of New York the next day with interviews and news appearances booked in LA. I’ve always wondered about that missed weekend with Steve…

 

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