“People, people, people” – Paul Slab’s inspiration

“People, people, people” – Paul Slab’s inspiration

Paul Slabolepszy’s latest play ‘My Low-Fat, Almost Italian Wedding’, the final production in the 9th Artscape Spring Drama Season, is currently showing at the Artscape Arena until January 4.
Featuring an all-star cast of local theatrical talent, including the likes of Graham Hopkins, Anthea Thompson, James Cairns and Mark Elderkin, it is a comedy set in the crazy world of an Italian trattoria and is ideal entertainment for the Festive Season.

PETER TROMP chatted to SLABOLEPSZY about his long-awaited return to the theatre world.

What initially drew you to the arts, and how did you go about making a career out of that passion?
I have always been a storyteller, from the age of 12 telling stories beneath a Baobab tree in the grounds of the Messina Primary School in Limpopo. I went to UCT, aged 18, determined to become a sports broadcaster, doing a BA degree. I saw my first play ever at the Little Theatre and knew that this was my life – acting and writing stories for the stage.

You’ve had a very distinguished career in show business. Are there any highlights that stand out for you particularly?
There are too many highlights to mention, but here are a few: Taking South Africa by storm with ‘Saturday Night at the Palace’ in 1982 and ending the run of the play two and a half years later at the Old Vic Theatre in London; Riding the crest of the wave of our Rugby World Cup triumph in 1995 together with my long-time theatre colleague and best friend, Bill Flynn, with my biggest hit to date, ‘Heel Against The Head’, which ran for almost three years with over 500 performances; Garnering every Best Actor Award in SA with ‘The Return of Elvis du Pisanie’ – the play closest to my heart.

Tell us about ‘My Low-Fat, Almost Italian Wedding’. What inspired you to come up with the play, and particularly that awesome title?
In terms of inspiration, this is a story I often tell: I once met an old Italian POW who ran a hotel in Colesberg, Northern Cape. He had stayed on in South Africa after WW2 ended and made it his home.
He told me his story and his love of this country. A good few years before that, though – travelling through Italy while I was still a student at UCT in the early 1970s – I met an Italian man who ran a tiny fruit and veg shop in Tuscany. I’d stopped in my little converted British Post Office van to buy some peaches.
When I told him where I came from he burst out crying and made every member of his family hug me and shower me with kisses (a weird experience for a white South African in those dark days of Apartheid). He then told me that he had been a POW in South Africa, but wasn’t permitted to stay on in our country. He told me he helped build the road through Du Toits Kloof as well as Chapman’s Peak Drive. He remembered South Africa fondly and said it was the most beautiful country on the planet. Like the characters in so many of my plays, Salvatore Fiore springs from real life, albeit a combination of two remarkable, inspirational individuals. The title of the play is me kind of ‘doffing my cap’ to the movie ‘My Big-Fat Greek Wedding’. I thought the title ‘My Low-Fat, Almost Italian Wedding’ would give audiences a hint as to ‘the vibe’ – a powerful South African/Italian experience as opposed to an American/Greek one.

What can audiences look forward to with the show?
Audiences will have a great time with this play. It is about coming to terms with a changing South Africa – reconciliation and celebration, and turning bad things around.

How does the creative process usually work for you? Which elements, or creative kernels, if you will, do you have to have in place to commit to a new project?
Impossible to answer. My stories come from all different angles and directions. Inspiration might come from a word, an incident – like in ‘Saturday Night at the Palace’ when a front page article of the Rand Daily Mail proclaimed “Bizarre Attack on Roadhouse”. Some plays fly along, some are ground out. Truth is all that matters. I have found that trying to write what I think people might like is not a great option. Sticking to what’s real is what truly connects. Stories are all around us, just waiting to be told.

How did you become involved with this year’s Artscape Spring Drama season?
Roy Sargeant asked me to write a new play for the Spring Drama Season. I told him about my ‘Trattoria play’ (set in Hillbrow, Johannesburg) that had only had five performances at the Grahamstown Festival in 1994. Notwithstanding the five standing ovations and amazing feedback, Lara Foot (the director) and I couldn’t travel anywhere else with the piece. It takes a lot of money to produce a play featuring seven cast members. I always wanted to return to the play and iron out certain sections, and after a virtual total rewrite here it is – thanks to Artscape and their Spring Drama Season.

You have a very distinct artistic voice in the local theatre world. How would you personally describe your style, or even the themes that fascinate you?
People, people, people – the characters that inhabit this amazing, inspiring country of ours. I am truly blessed to be living in South Africa and having grown up in small towns. Fortunately I have an ear for dialogue and the way people speak and what they say stays with me all the time. I suppose it is a fascination with what makes people tick – all people – from the poorest in our land, to those that appear to have everything. Things are not always what they seem and there is always a whole lot of stuff going on behind the façade. I love exploring these glorious seams of gold. The late Barney Simon (of the Market Theatre, Johannesburg) inspired me to tell the stories that are all around us and are crying out to be told.

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