Powerhouse pakkies a punch

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When all actress, director and author Lizz Meiring’s accomplishments were rattled off at length at the Gauteng Naledi Theatre Awards (where she received the Executive Director’s Award for the sterling work she has done in raising awareness about abuse against women with her original play My Name/Naam is Ellen Pakkies) no one who knows her was surprised by these staggering feats.

Whenever you bump into the diminutive but big-hearted Meiring, she can count at least five pro-ductions she is working on at that time.

That’s why the impressive list runs as follows: She has won 12 awards, performed almost 2 000 stage, tv and film roles, written, directed and produced 202 theatre productions, translated and adapted 12 more scripts, published 12 books and written 500-plus articles on the arts and artists of all genres. And of course there’s more…

This is her 31st year in the industry and if there’s anyone who can talk about the pitfalls, but also the passion, it’s her. She started young because at the age of 10 she was handpicked as the token child at the University of Pretoria drama department.

“I grew up feeling like a character in a story,” she says.

She knew from that age that she was in this world to tell stories.

TO Lizz fun Joe Strydom

“I didn’t even need an audience!”

She was always encouraged to create with the possibility of making something out of nothing, a great incentive. Not that she’s needed any push. When she thinks back to the origins of the runaway success of Ellen Pakkies she often wonderswhy she was so determined to tell this story.

“It wasn’t about a mother who murdered her child,” she says about this court case that grabbed international headlines.

“People were intrigued because she wasn’t sent to jail but received community service,” says Meiring, but because of years of disas- sociation and her own horrific abusive childhood, Pakkies pleaded for the death sentence. When she was told it didn’t exist any more, she simply wanted to be put behind bars. She had killed her child.

“There are so many touchstones in this story,” says Meiring, who the night before the first rehearsals wiped the full script from her com- puter and started writing afresh.

“I had told the story from the playwright’s ego rather than honouring Ellen’s truth,” she admits.

But this time, it seemed to flow freely from her fingertips.

Together with her two lead actors, Vinette Ebrahim (who won a Naledi for Best Actress as Ellen Pakkies) and the nominated Christo Davids, they have toured the country and finally got the go-ahead for the movie which will start shooting this year.

“I was offered so many international deals,” says Meiring, but he knew this story had to be told by the people who live in this world.

“Think of all the international film flops of local stories,” she says.

No one could change her mind and finally she was offered a deal by a local company headed by a South African Portuguese, Paulo Areal, who confessed to being a junkie at some point in his life.

It will be a new story with Meiring starting from scratch and forgetting the play completely.

“I know the story,” she says and in the final analysis, it’s about posing the questions, getting the conversation going and allowing the healing process to begin.

“It’s a small story,” says Meiring, “with epic proportions. It’s about invisible women whose stories resonate internationally.”

Meiring’s own stage story at the moment is a play specially written for her by Ismail Mohamed, festival director of the National Arts Festival (NAF) in Grahamstown, called Cheaper than Roses. It made its debut at Suidooster Festival earlier this year and will travel to NAF in July. It tells the common but still strictly guarded story of a coloured woman playing white. When her father dies, she returns to the family after 27 years hoping to find solace.

“What we’re dealing with is ghosts of the past,” says Meiring, who knows this is another one that goes to the heart of the matter for many audiences.

“It’s something people still don’t want to talk about,” she says.

Familiar and comfortable always with a few balls in the air, Meiring has also been approached – perhaps hijacked – by old partner in crime Pieter-Dirk Uys, who warned her not to skip out on him again. She has to be part of his end-of-year concert Nkandlakosweti and the name says exactly where we’re heading. For many years, Meiring was cast as Uys’s Bokkie Bam and as many other characters as the satirist could work onto stage.

“I hero-worship him,” she says.

He taught her to take that flying leap, stilettos and all.

“He puts the fear of hell into me, but somehow we pull through,” she says, giggling.

She also has her sights set on next year with a piece written by Geraldine Aron called My Brilliant Career.

“I think it was first played in London by Dawn French,” she says undaunted. She hopes to do it in both Afrikaans (Skitterend Geskei) and English.

Meanwhile, she’s in the starting blocks for a follow-up season of the Rapport comic series Ben, Babsie en Familie that is on at the Klein Karoo National Arts Festival (until April 6).

“On the side…” and she rattles on, but I’m exhausted. That’s the essence of Lizz Meiring: dynamite in fishnet stockings and shocking red lips, always on stage and will be with or without an audience. Bravo!

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