A Conversation with Slobodan Dan Paich: Living Culture
by Richard Whittaker, Jul 30, 2012
Slobodan Dan Paich is an artist and a visionary, an original. Perhaps it’s a miracle that he’s managed to accomplish as much as he has, given the depth of his generosity. As he said, “If I’m just doing my art alone, then I’m being only good for myself. But if I’m working with others, it’s good for community. It’s good all-around.” Here is the first of two interviews. This one tells about Slobodan's early life and how he became a famous child radio and movie star. It carries us up to the point where he had to flee Yugoslavia as a young man.
Richard Whittaker: I’d love to hear about the beginnings of your childhood singing career, how that first public event happened.
Slobodan Dan Paich: Okay. It was really reciting a little poem. This was in a kindergarten after the war [WWII]. Yugoslavia was a Communist country, but people would put up a little tree and little, little gifts were given to the children. So at this kindergarten they were going to have a reception for the parents and they were looking for a child who could remember at least one stanza from this poem. They tried and tried, and finally also tried me and it proved that I could actually recite the entire poem. So everybody was excited. When the parents were all there they put me on a chair and I began to recite when suddenly, the electricity failed. The children were frightened and began to cry and everyone was looking for matches. But I kept on reciting. And then everybody calmed down. We all stayed in the dark and then, just before I finished the poem, the lights came up. Everybody was ecstatic because I’d carried it through. The children were pacified. So that was my first taste of fame. Because people would point in the street and say, “Oh, that is the child who recited.” So I was very proud.
RW: That’s amazing. You were telling me earlier how you listened to a radio a lot. You weren’t allowed to go out and play.
SDP: I was taken to kindergarten, but was not allowed to play in the street. Those children were considered the unruly, bad children. I would sneak out occasionally, but they didn’t like me because I was not part of them.
RW: And you were living in an unusual situation. Were your parents were divorced at that time?
SDP: They were divorced when I was five. But we all lived in the same house. My father was downstairs. My mother and I lived in one room. And then his relatives lived in adjacent rooms.
RW: And one of the things you did was listen to the radio.
SDP: And I adored it. There was one station. I’d listen to classical music, to folkloric music, to the news. It was actually a wonderful education. And I loved it. Sometimes I would sit and embrace the radio. It was like my friend..
So one day, when I was about seven and a half, I heard on the radio about an audition for children performers. I thought, this is what I want to do, to perform on the radio! So I when my mother came home, I told her. She said, “You have no talent and I have no time.” She translated tractor and machinery manuals and was really exhausted. She would have loved to translate literature, but no such opportunity. And she had to cook and look after this child also.
RW: She had a taste for the literary?
SDP: She was incredibly erudite and educated. As a child, she had a governess from the first day. She was totally unconnected to cooking, sensuality. So her sense of mothering was about giving lessons. So our relationship was endless lessons. I rebelled about languages because they bored me. My parents spoke many languages. Very early I could tell a Botticelli from a Leonardo or a Michelangelo. And I could tell the difference between Hayden and Mozart. When music came up on the radio and it wasn’t certain which one it was, they would quiz me. And I could tell. Hayden was much simpler, beautiful, but simpler.
RW: Were your parents from the aristocracy?
SDP: Not really. But they were of means. And my parents lost everything. And they were sympathizers because they were such idealist, drawing-room leftists. They made no sense to me. It was as confusing as hell.
RW: So you heard about this audition.
SDP: And my mother said, no way. But I was already walking around the city. It wasn’t dangerous in those days and my mother had no time to take me anywhere. I was doing homework with my friend who lived next to the radio station, so I knew exactly where the radio station was. So I walked there. The whole auditorium was full of children and parents. I put my name in for the audition.
RW: And when you came in to sign in, they asked you where are your parents? Because all the other kids had their parents with them, right?
SDP: Yes. I told them my parents weren’t very well.
RW: And your parents had no idea you were there, right?
SDP: No idea.
RW: So you were there completely alone.
SDP: Alone, yes. So some children were sent home and some were short-listed. Then a few of the kids were immediately accepted and given a little note saying come to the rehearsal on such and such a day. So then I sang. and I won it.
RW: You mean, they immediately told you we want you.
SDP: Yes. And again they asked me where are your parents? I told them, they’re not well, and then I started going to the rehearsals. And I kept going. But finally they said, somebody has to sign this. How ill are your parents?
So I went home and told my mother. She was furious. It was very rare that she went to my father, but she had this agitated, completely screaming child…
RW: You were not going to be dissuaded.
SDP: No, this was my destiny. So my father came and said, “Let him go.” My mother said, “I’m not going to a single rehearsal. You’re on your own.”
RW: And you did; you continued with it.
SDP: Yes. And that was the end of my childhood.
RW: Say more about that.
SDP: Well, I became serious. I was never late, never absent. I took notes. I asked people how one does things. And not just singers, I asked everybody, technicians, everybody. I began to learn seriously on the job. And people were so excited. I had the most fantastic mentors.
RW: And then the performance itself, was it a one-time performance.
SDP: No, no, no. I sang in Carmen for years where the little boys come in until my voice broke when I was fourteen.
RW: From the point on, then, you had a singing career.
SDP: Oh, yes. Including radio. But I also acted.
RW: How did the acting start?
SDP: It was all part of the radio. Then the first television came and I was the first child in Yugoslavia on television, and then I acted in films.
RW: So by the time you were ten or twelve or thirteen you must have felt quite the little professional.
SDP: Oh, totally. I was unbearable to other children because I knew everything. I could do everything.
RW: And you really could.
SDP: I could. And I wasn’t humble about it. I knew what I could do.
RW: And that set you apart from other kids.
SDP: And that’s also the sadness of it, and the adventure of it.
RW: Do you want to say anything about the sadness aspect of it?
SDP: You’re really not living your normal life. You’re not encountering things that children should encounter. But I was happy.
RW: I wonder if you’d mind telling the story of attending the funeral?
SDP: [laughs]. It’s longish and a little strange.
RW: It’s such an incredible story.
SDP: Okay. You know, at one time some people might have been burned at the stake for being left-handed. I was a left-handed kid who was forced not to use my left hand. In school, of course, I had to use my right hand. So a year after my grandfather’s death, there was some kind of ritual and the youngest male child should be there. So my father takes me.
RW: And this was to be a ceremony in a cemetery.
SDP: Yes. At the graveside of my grandfather. You know, people had no means to tend their graves. My grandmother and my aunt must have gone before and tended it for this occasion. But lots of graves were left untended. And this was in part of the cemetery that was more lavish and had gone into decay. And I had never been to a cemetery. I had really never properly seen a priest, because I’d never been to church. So I was already amazed by this strange environment.
And then we came to the graveside and there was a man who, to me, looked something unbelievable with this mitre-like thing on his head and an embroidered cloth draping him in front, and underneath he has this black robe which goes down to the ground—and he’s swinging this thing with smoke oozing out of it.
RW: An incense burner. Was this a Roman Catholic priest?
SDP: No. Greek Orthodox. This is the first time I’ve seen a priest, so I'm like, “Ooohhh.” And he is very serious. So my father says don’t worry. Just do whatever I do. So the ceremony starts and the moment comes where everybody has to cross themselves. I look around and I’m crossing myself spontaneously with my left hand. Nobody told me which hand to use and I think I was probably holding my father’s hand with my right hand. So somehow, spontaneously I cross myself with my left hand.
The priest sees this and he is beside himself. He completely freaks out. He points to me and shouts, “Devil!”
I’m frightened. My aunt and grandmother, who already are not very warm and approving of me, turn away and my father’s brothers were like, “Aughhh!”
The priest drops the incense burner on the ground and starts running away! He was jumping over graves and just running for his life. In the neighboring, unkempt graves there were these rose bushes. And as he ran they caught on his robe and it tore open, and he was not wearing underwear. I had never seen a full-sized human bottom before, either. So I see this God-figure running away with this rather large bare bottom.
My father is on the ground in hysterics. He’s laughing his head off. My other relatives are in tears. I looked to the left and I looked to the right and I said to myself, the grownups make no sense. I need to fend for myself.
RW: [laughs] And so that was a second experience that threw you back on yourself in a deep way.
SDP: Yes, and there were many. My father would tell this story often. Of course, it’s such a story to tell your drinking friends. And he told my mother, who also laughed.
RW: You lived in Yugoslavia until you were twenty. And I understand you had to leave in a hurry. There was something about starting a second political party there.
SDP: I didn’t found it. I founded a small independent theater, which was unheard of. I actually founded three independent theaters already, as a high school student. I was invited by a group of dissidents who befriended me. They discussed culture and ideas and philosophy. One aspect of their work with a friend of theirs, Mihaila Mihailov, was to attempt to create an alternative political party. Not to abolish anything. But just to have two parties. And that’s where the trouble started.
RW: Was your involvement mostly through the theater, then?
SDP: Yes. They were mostly artists. [he gets an album of photos] This is me. See, they were all ten years older than me. That’s Mihaila Mihailov, who was in prison. Actually, most of these people ended up in prison. I was still in high school, but they always respected me because I had a real career and a presence in the city; I was a film star and already I had started independent theaters.
RW: So why did you have to get out of Yugoslavia in a hurry?
SDP: I began to be followed and interrogated. And all of those people were in prison, so it became clear. And see, if you were a minor, they didn’t put you in prison. You were put a mental hospital.
RW: So you went to London. And you’ve got a lot of experience with the theater. Had you written your own plays?
SDP: We’d written, we’d produced, there had been dancing, but I also had painted. I started painting when I was fifteen. These are two I did then [points to paintings on the wall]. Nobody painted like that.
RW: So there were a number of things you were doing. Did you write any plays yourself?
SDP: Yes, but I always wrote them with people. [reaches for something off a shelf] This is a manifesto, which we wrote. I wrote this by hand.
RW: And these are your drawings, too [on the handwritten pages].
SDP: Yes. When I was young.
RW: Wow. Your drawings haven’t changed a lot [we continue looking at it together].
SDP: No. No. I have always been consistent, both in theater and in everything. I had one intuition, one impulse—and I’m following it.
RW: How would you describe that impulse?
SDP: I wish I could. Maybe if I could describe it, it would go.
RW: Do you still affirm today what you wrote in your manifesto all those years ago?
SDP: I live it. It has evolved, but this is the kernel of what started me to start an independent theater.
RW: And when did you write this manifesto?
SDP: I think 1963. And forgive me. I have a horrible memory for dates.
RW: That’s okay. But this was your own writing?
SDP: This is my own writing. This is to initiate a form of theater, and then there are these little plays, short vignettes—like we do now, theater miniatures. This is a later self-portrait with closed eyes. When I was in England I drew it. And there’s a little thing here on copper.
RW: Gosh, that’s wonderful.
SDP: This is my first attempt at a woodcut when I was at the academy. And they slammed me down.
RW: Am I right in assuming you were always running afoul of the conventional rules?
SDP: Ay yi yi.
RW: Did you find that having acquired from a very young age the habit of thinking for yourself, that this often put you in a different relationship with a lot of things?
SDP: Well, that’s also the sadness of it. Then many doors close.
RW: Yes. I wanted to jump now to your living in London. You met this important person Joan Littlewood. Would you tell us about that?
SDP: Well, many doors close, but this one opened. But it didn’t open straightaway. When I arrived in London I knew no one. I didn’t speak English. I didn’t have any money. And in spite of all the things I’d done, I wasn’t above cleaning houses or doing whatever one has to do. I had a morning job to clean a set of staircases. Then I went to a school to learn English. Then I went, in the afternoon, and restored icons. So I scraped by.
I was lucky to have the technique to be able to restore icons, although they exploited me. People would pay enormous amounts for the icons and they just paid me nine pounds a week. But my rent was four pounds a week. I had a little for food and with the cleaning job, I could buy some art materials. I would take my paintings in brown paper to galleries on Bond Street and they just laughed at me, this funny man. The work in the galleries were these big, splashy canvases with slashes and all that. So most doors were closed. And of course, I didn’t speak English. And I didn’t know anybody in British theater. British theater is very grand. I sent someone one of our tapes of a recent play and was told, “But everybody has an accent in your play.”
I said, well, that’s the point. We don’t correct accents. But in England there’s a school called Royal College of Speech and Drama. Speech is first. You know, that gilded way of accentuating everything. It’s actually more important than the emotion. So I had no chance to enter anything there.
RW: But nevertheless somewhere in there…
SDP: After about a year I meet an actor and we became friends. He asked if I knew Joan Littlewood. He said, “She’s different.” Once a month she came to this pub in Spittlefield’s Market and whoever wanted to meet her went there. So we went. The pub was about to close when she came over and asked me my name. When I said “Slobodan” she started kind of dreamily saying, “Oh, Swobodan.” She started talking about the design for this and for that. Swobodan was a modernist stage designer from Prague who was famous all over the world. I said, “Well, I’m sorry. I'm Slobodan from Yugoslavia.” She said, “Oh, I know. I know. But such an interesting name!” (It’s the same name, different language.) And she asked me, well, what’s the last thing you’ve done?
I said, “Well, last year I was in Istanbul.”
She said, “Oh, I was there too. There was one play I really liked.” And she started describing it.
I said, “Well, that’s my play.”
So I started working with her. We did this children thing on the City of London. I built a little theater for painting and performance pieces out of packing cases. Then I worked in Liverpool with inflatables. Then Joan had her own school next to a kind of community college. Their students needed some classes in staging, stage design and puppets. So she got me a job there. I introduced the history of art and ideas. I thought, all these multi-disciplinary people, they need to know each other’s crafts and ideas, but also they need to know about India and China and native things in Africa. My art history colleagues thought, how smelly can that be?
RW: How did you learn about these things, Africa and India and China.
SDP: Well, I followed the music and I was learning it and I researched. I’d go to libraries and read as much as I could. Also, when I was in Yugoslavia, I was friends with a very interesting musicologist, so I kind of apprenticed with her as well. I was just pathologically busy.
RW: I guess you could just say you were interested in absorbing as much as you could.
SDP: And interpreting it. Making it accessible, because in Communist society, nothing is accessible. In a small country with a limited language, how many filters does a book have to pass through before it is translated? That’s also why lots of people in Europe speak many languages because that’s the only way to access a lot of things. I didn’t speak many languages, but through my parents, I could access some things. They would translate for me—and also, through these other people.
RW: I think there’s something important in what you’ve said there. You wanted to help make things available. There seems to be a big connection there.
SDP: Well, that’s what I do, really. The cause is partially from the restrictions of a Communist country, but also I had such a connection, always, to living culture—the difference between the regurgitated, ideology-ridden culture and the culture as it is lived. As a young person, I had only intuitions of this. Then, as I grew older I came to feel this is really what one needs. So when we do a performance, we live those ideas. We are not borrowing them. We begin from what a person has and develop what we can offer to the audience. It’s simple. So what kind of actor or artist or actor can you be if you’ve never seen a Chinese drawing? If you’ve never listened to a music you didn’t know about? If you haven’t read at least one page of some philosopher—you don’t need to philosophize—but just to get a sense of how that works. That would all enrich you and then you could reach others. If you’re to be there to give, you better have something to give.
RW: We use the word “culture.” What is culture? I know this is big, general question. What does this word convey?
SDP: I have used it often. Yogurt is a culture. To make yogurt, you need to have a little spoonful of yogurt. Then it’s a live yogurt. In medicine and in biology, they talk about cultures. Culture is something living, fermenting. So human culture is a surrounding which gives vitality to the continuation of the species.
RW: So there’s some essential and necessary ingredient. What does it mean for a culture to be a living culture? What does that really mean?
SDP: Well, I wish I could answer it like that. When somebody is in touch with a vitality of being, it doesn’t always have to be something transcendent. There are some flamenco dancers who posture the great duende, but the people who can see will tell you this one has duende and the other one doesn’t. Duende, in their world, is that vitality. You cannot fake it. It is the darkness, the loneliness, the rejection—all the things the person bears. And it is the fertility, the fertile ground out of which the culture grows.
RW: You could almost say that without suffering, nothing can grow. That sounds radical.
SDP: Yes. But you know, Persephone goes half a year into the dark. Because the germination happens in the dark. So if one can bear the ontological fear of being in front of unbearable nothing and go through it, a great profound thing happens. It doesn’t have to be literal suffering. Sometimes it’s just the courage to face absolutely the unknown—but without trying it too hard. It’s a question of temperament. It’s a question of personal carriage, but also the softness of yielding to the impossible.
RW: Yielding to the impossible. That’s a wonderful phrase.
SDP: Otherwise it’s all forcing it.
RW: To stand in front of the unknown. This is something you’ve done many times.
SDP: Well, yes. But if I’m pronouncing this, I’m actually blocking it by making this a badge of honor for myself. My story is already so confusing. Sometimes something simple is much better. But some people just have an exuberant plot.
RW: I don’t think I’ve ever thought about culture per se. But someone I respect said that one thing about being cultured was having a sensitivity to the life of feeling.
SDP: Yes. You could have a sensitivity to the life of feeling. But in germination, the origins of culture are much more molecular, biological, sub-atomic. There is a spark there. But you can’t say, “Oh, I was tuned into the spark.” Everybody is called to respond to that. That is not something unique to artists. Every single human being, every woman, who suddenly finds herself pregnant is answering to some extraordinary inner call, and then she is responding to this being when it comes and all the work and facing the impossible happenstances. So every human being has that. Artists are not the ones who carry the vitality of a grand mission. It’s not “some are called and some are not called.” Everybody is called! Everybody potentially can procreate something—not necessarily a child—a work of art or being good at a job. There’s the example of incredible nurses. Take the woman who was teaching Helen Keller. I mean, what a life work! So in that way, culture is not something so sensitive that it belongs to the refined. It belongs to everyone. That’s why people go to the opera and hear this great voice firing them. They don’t know what it is. It’s not the plot. It is that internal fire.
And I was nearly stoned when I gave my lecture on Verdi at a conference in Italy on the influence of the Italian Risorgimento in the world. Lots of historians were there. I was talking about the opera. I said, but it’s not about resurgimiento; it’s not about the politics; it’s about an internal, archetypal power. I showed them the Willendorf Venus and I showed them bees. People started walking out of the room. But Italian opera—now it’s a dying form—it lived its own life because it fired 3000 people in the same space. And the center of it was usually a large Willendorf Venus-like woman who brought this earth energy and fed them so generously.
RW: There’s a food there, when that energy is true.
SDP: And people know it.