Theatre Interview: Ashley Dowds – Elvis Is In The Building, Or Hip To Nuance

May 13, 2024




The Return Of Elvis Du Pisanie, written and directed by Paul Slabolepszy and starring Ashley Dowds was first performed in 1992. It tells the story of Eddie du Pisanie (played by Slabolepszy in the original and Dowds in this year’s new production). He is a 46-year-old East Rand salesman who gets retrenched and decides life is no longer worth living. An Elvis Presley song helps him recall an event in his childhood that changed his life forever. He is inspired to retrace his life, to try to find out what went wrong, how it went wrong, and perhaps most importantly, why it went wrong.

Dowds discusses his role.


In the lead-up to a new production, how do you prepare – physically?

I started following a few yogis on Youtube during lockdown, and they are still a go-to some days. On other days I walk – I’m living in the city bowl in Cape Town now – so that walk can be a neighbourhood saunter, bumping into Robin Scott or Lara Bye, or it could be an assault on the flights of merciless stairways between the streets in Tamboerskloof.



This is where it gets unsettling. A solo show can be fraught with the kind of dreams where you are back in the school library with your pants down. Once that subsides, I take refuge in the fact that this is a gift – that I need to be engaged with the opportunity itself and with a story that has been tempered in the fires of so much creative work already. Paul tells me that he and Lara Foot, who first directed and helped shape the show, ran to three hours. They refined it to its current brilliance to around seventy five minutes.


And emotionally?

Here’s another blessing: I was in the embrace of so many people during this rehearsal process, staying with Bobby Heaney and rehearsing with Paul at Graham Hopkins’ studio, that I had stable ground. That’s important to mention, because dealing with the kind of rawness that the story invokes, it helps to feel safe. When it comes down to making choices about how the emotional subtext of the story plays out, each moment comes with a halo of memory, of people I’ve loved and the events that resonate with those moments.


What is the single most influential performance you’ve ever seen – the one that made you feel: “This is what I want to do with my life!”?

If I have to single out a performance, it would need to be Simon McBurney’s The Encounter. It tells the story of Loren McIntyre, a National Geographic photographer, who flew into the Amazon basin in the late Sixties to document the Mayoruna tribe. Look it up on Youtube and you’ll see what I mean. I’ve workshopped with the company he founded in London – Complicite – and am besotted with them.


What is your favourite aspect of the industry – be it specific people, parts of the production process, particular venues/locations or something else?

It is the way we learn together in the collaboration – not just about the story we’re researching and developing, but who we are with each other. It’s a vital part of our humanity, regardless of what we do for a living, but I think so many people have lost that connection in a way that allows us to really see the other. Working in the theatre offers that more than any other facets of the industry.


What is an aspect of the industry that you feel could be improved (even if that’s only an idealistic wish)?

As an erstwhile South African Guild of Actors committee member, I’ve been in discussions around many of the issues that actors are faced with. If they had to be distilled, it would come down to fairness. It is extremely difficult as a freelance artist in our country to survive financially. The state doesn’t support in the way that many others do, and local producers are either against the wall themselves, or are not willing to listen. It takes a collective approach from all players in the industry to fix this.


What has been your scariest onstage moment so far (anything from forgetting words or cues to accidents or other unforeseen events)?

This one is more about unforeseen events? I will always remember performing the very first solo show that I’d written at the BAT centre in Durban. My son Connor had come along to the show with my wife, and was sitting on her lap. As the stage lights revealed me, centre stage, about to utter my first line… he yelled: “Hiiii DAAAAAD!”. The audience roared with laughter. He’d stolen the show, which probably made it into something better than it could ever be!


Tell us about your current production, and what makes your character interesting to play?

Once the houselights go down, you’re on a rollercoaster of a journey through Eddie Du Pisanie’s life, and when that reveal happens – the reason for the dark space around him – it sweeps you right out of your seat. You wonder why you couldn’t see it coming. But that is because the story is written by an actor and playwright with so much tenderness for the characters, that you live vicariously with them in each moment. Eddie follows a memory of a place at a very specific time in his life. It still glimmers with all the people and events that it held decades ago, including the one event that changed everything. And we have to remember, however dark things are, there is hope.