Shirley Johnston

Jump to navigation Jump to search

Shirley Johnston (1952-) is a stage, radio and film actress, lecturer, director, screenwriter and playwright.


Born Shirley Eden Johnston in Krugersdorp 1952, she grew up in Pretoria where she attended Hatfield Primary School and Clapham High School. Performed in numerous productions as a teenager including "Hermia" in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, "Portia" in The Merchant of Venice, "Portia" in Julius Caesar, "Joan" in George Bernard Shaw’s St Joan.

In 1978 she married David Wilson and the couple have two sons: Stuart born 1979, Michael born 1981.


Studied Drama at the University of Cape Town and was awarded the UCT Drama School Most Promising Student Award in 1975 and UCT Best Actress Award in 1976. She also has a Licentiate (Teachers Diploma) from Trinity College London.

In the 1990s she did numerous courses in screen writing.


In 1976 joined Henry Goodman’s Roundabout Theatre Company, to tour the Western Cape with shows ranging from drama to comedy to street theatre and the very beginnings of industrial theatre. In 1977 she joined PACT Playwork in Pretoria, under direction of Robin Malan, remaining till 1979.

After her marriage and a move back to Cape Town, she rejoined the profession in 1982, working for a variety of Cape Town companies. She then moved to the Transvaal in 1986, working freelance for a while before joining PACT Drama as a full time member of the company in 1990. She returned to the Cape in 1992.

She gradually moved into teaching, directing and television production during the late nineties.

Contribution to SA theatre, film, media and/or performance

As stage performer

As a student she appeared in various productions including Kauffman and Hart’s You Can't Take it With You, Moliere’s Scapino, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and J.B. Priestly’s Time and the Conways.

She has appeared in over fifty stage productions since 1975. Her first professional role was in Female Transport at The Space Theatre (1975). Her early performances include Charles Marowitz’s Palach (1976) and Brian Friel’s Lovers (1977), both at The Space Theatre. Then followed The Seagull (Glass Theatre, 1982), On the Razzle (CAPAB, 1983), The Taming of the Shrew (Maynardville, 1984), Falstaff (CAPAB, 1984), Macbeth (Young People’s Theatre, 1985 ).

Having moved back to the Transvaal in 1986 to work on plays such as Four Play (PACT, 1986), Look Back in Anger (PACT, 1986), Tribute (Pieter Toerien, 1987), God's Country (PACT 1987) Mary Stuart (PACT, 1987), The Story of Margaret Harding (PACT, 1989), Under the Oaks and Over the Hill (PACT, Baxter Theatre 1989). Janice Honeyman’s Sleeping Beauty Pantomime (PACT 1990).

Once more back in the Cape, she appeared in numerous works as a freelance actress, including The Normal Heart (Baxter Theatre, 1992), Wuthering Heights (CAPAB, 1992), Shadowlands (Baxter Theatre, 1993), Arcadia (Johannesburg Civic /CAPAB, 1994), Broken Glass (CAPAB 1995), Heel Against the Head (Baxter Theatre, 1995), Kennedy's Children (Eauver the Top, 1995), Dancing at Lughnasa (Baxter Theatre, 1998), The Winter's Tale (1997), Hysteria (The Playhouse, Durban/Artscape, 1997), Grease (Baxter Theatre) Dario Fo’s Elizabeth: Almost by Chance a Woman (Little Theatre, 2009) Greg Latter'sDeath of a Colonialist (Market Theatre/Baxter Theatre/Festival Theaterformen, Hannover, Germany 2010–2015), Gertrude Stein and a Companion (Alexander Theatre, Cape Town and other venues, including The Drama Factory in Somerset West).

As playwright

Having written several educational theatre scripts for PACT (1985 – 1990), she followed this up with the plays Sunnyside Up (PACT, 1994) and Plastics (SACPAC Best Playwright Award, 1993).

As director

Shirley has directed many plays over the years, particularly with young people at PACT Youth Theatre, as well as various educational institutions, such as the Universities of Stellenbosch (1995-2002) and Cape Town (ad hoc since early 1980s), AFDA and CityVarsity.

Plays directed for Stellenbosch include, Ophelia Thinks Harder (H.B. Thom Theatre, 1995), Drifte (Die Keller, 1996), (H.B. Thom Theatre, 1996), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (H.B. Thom Theatre 1997), Die Seemeeu,

Radio, television and film

As performer her film and TV acting work includes appearances in more than 30 films and TV series, including Isidingo, You Be the Judge, Heroes, Madam & Eve, Honeytown, Simon en Sandra, and feature films Cry, the Beloved Country, After the Rain, Accidents, The Tattoo Chase, End of the Road (2008), Unrequited Love, Heel Against the Head, among others.

She began writing and directing for television in 2000 and has worked as a director on Backstage, Madam & Eve, Shooting Stars, and as a screen writer on numerous series including Isidingo, Disney Cookabout, Ring of Lies, Montana, League of Glory, Z’bondiwe, Isikizi, Treasure Hunt and numerous others. Her crime series, [[Traffic!, for e-tv, which she created, story-lined and wrote, was nominated for a WGSA Muse Award for Drama and a SAFTA Award for Best Television Writing.

Her radio work includes numerous radio scripts for SAfm (1994 – 1999). She has also worked as dialogue and performance coaching on numerous feature films and commercials.

In film, her screenplay Clean Hands won the 1999 M-Net New Directions Screenwriting Award. Produced by Richard Green, I was screened Labia Cinema, Cape Town Sithengi Festival in 1999 and broadcast on DSTV in 2001. )

In 2003 she wrote a film script, Felix, King of the Sax, which won the Sithengi’s 2004 Writer's Forum Award; it was a finalist in the US Specscriptacular Competition; and was a quarter-finalist in both Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope Screenplay Contest and the Moondance Screenwriting Competition.

The script was filmed and released in 2013 as Felix! by Roberta Durrant and Penguin Films, the film went on to garner 18 local and international awards, including the Muse Award for Best Screenplay in 2014.

As lecturer

She lecured at the University of Stellenbosch and the University of Cape Town in the 1990s, joining AFDA in 2003 as Head of Live Performance until 2004. In 2005 she accepted a post at CityVarsity where she has been employed until the present day as a lecturer teaching Professional Acting for Camera and Multi-camera directing.

Awards, etc

Among the many nominations and awards received by her over the years, have been:

1993: She won the SACPAC Best Playwright Award for her stage play, Plasticsand Fleur du Cap Best Actress nomination Wuthering Heights (1993),

1994: Best Actress nomination Shadowlands (1994)

1995: Best Comedy Actress Vita Award Heel Against the Head.

1996: Best Actress Vita Award (KZN 1996) for Hysteria.

1998: Fleur du Cap and Vita Best Actress nominations [[[Dancing at Lughnasa]]

1999: Her screenplay Clean Hands won the M-Net New Directions Screenwriting Award, Produced by Richard Green. (Screened Labia Cinema, Cape Town Sithengi Festival and DSTV 1999, 2001)

2014: WGSA Muse Award (Writers' Guild of SA) for the script Felix!.


SACD 1977/78

National Arts Festival programme, 1995. 57.

Various entries in the NELM catalogue.

Personal correspondence from Shirley Johnston (14 March 2019)

Go to ESAT Bibliography

Return to

Return to ESAT Personalities J

Return to South African Theatre Personalities

Return to The ESAT Entries

Return to Main Page