“A friend is someone who understands your past, believes in your future, and accepts you just the way you are.”
Actor, director, scriptwriter, screenwriter, editor but more importantly, one of my truest friends – Shirley Johnston!
Now please, all of you non-theatre people, don’t think: “Ah uh, this blog’s not my type!”
Shirley goes much further than mere theatre and film, as you will see!
Shirley and I have been friends for about thirty-two years.
“How did we meet, Shirley?”
Knowing my shocking memory after my fall, she filled me in.
“We met at the Othello audition. I didn’t get the part I wanted but you were cast as Bianca the whore. You were a beautiful up-and-coming young actress from Durban and you made a huge impact on me as a glorious and talented performer. We soon became friends. You often came round to our house in Bramley to visit and play with my young sons, who were then aged 6 and 8. I always remember arriving home from a long weekend in Durban and on our doorstep was a chicken casserole which you had cooked and left for us.”
Shirley and I were both rehearsing at The State Theatre in 1989. She was rehearsing Under the Oaks and Over the Hill with Bobby Heaney directing. I was rehearsing Camelot. The night I had my fall as understudy for Guinevere, they had already moved to the Windybrow Theatre. She heard the shocking news at their interval but ‘the show must go on’!
Two year after my fall, Shirley and her husband, Dave, gave me this wonderful thirtieth birthday party. All my friends came and it was there that I gave my first post accident speech. The speech was slurred but understandable. I concluded with the e.e.cummings poem: i thank you God for most this amazing day
There weren’t many dry eyes but that is the enchantment of his poetry. It was the most unbelievably happy day for me.
Shirley is like that. She is a Giver. She always makes my heart smile!
My parents bought me a computer after my fall. The idea was to coax me into using my right hand which was now spastic. I tried, I really tried but eventually my left hand became my right. I used to labour for long hours writing letters to friends. I wrote often to Shirley and she promptly answered back. I moved to Headway in Johannesburg and whilst there, I stayed at St Giles, a home for the disabled. After my therapy, I used to come home and write. I wrote about things that were important to me: my loss of memory, my deafness, my spasticity. I knew that Shirley, as well as being an actor was also a writer. So I duly sent these missives to Shirl. I would always get encouraging letters back. One day I sent her my sixth re-write of an essay on my deafness. Instead of getting a reassuring, positive letter back, I received a letter that blatantly criticised everything I had written. How dare she? I was totally furious! I went to bed and tossed and turned with resentment. The next morning, I re-read her criticism. Calmer now, I was able to see that everything she had written made sense.
I wanted to write a book. I could only do that with Shirley as my editor. Shirley agreed.
My book writing began.
Shirley said: “You sat there doggedly typing with one finger for weeks and weeks on end. You ploughed on determinedly, displaying that amazing Gaynor Young mettle which few people in this world possess. We argued like sisters. I remember spending a weekend with you in George and your parents heard raised voices. I had to talk loudly because then you were very deaf. It was before your cochlear implants. Your mum came into the dining room.
‘Are you two fighting?’ she asked, concerned.
‘No, just discussing,’ was the answer!”
My book My Plunge to Fame was published in 2000. I could never have accomplished it without Shirley’s encouragement, criticism and her absolutely belief in me.
In 1993 Shirley wrote Plastics and was mind blown to win the National SACPACS Best Playwright Award. It was produced in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Grahamstown and Australia! A few years later, in 1999 she won the M-net New Directions Scriptwriting Award, for Clean Hands. Shirley was on a roll!!!
Early in the 2000’s, she came across a story that she had written for her sons when they were youngsters called Felix the Flautist. She could turn this story into a film script, she thought with mounting excitement. And so Felix, King of the Sax was born. I had no idea that with this script, Shirley went on to win the Sithengi’s 2004 Writer’s Forum Award. She was a finalist in the US Specscriptacular Competition; and was a quarter-finalist in both the Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope Screenplay Contest and the Moondance Screenwriting Competition.
If I had been winning all those awards, I am pretty sure that I would have phoned all my friends and let them know in no uncertain terms how brilliant I was! This is one of the many things I love about Shirley. She enveloped herself in the satisfaction of the prizes and began looking for a way to get it made into a film. It took nine years before the wonderful Roberta Durrant got things swinging into motion. The script was filmed and released in 2013 as Felix! The film went on to garner seventeen international awards, including the Muse Award for Best Screenplay in 2014.
Recently Shirley has been performing with Lynita Crofford in Gertrude Stein and a Companion, directed by Chris Weare. It amused me the way it all began. Lynita Crofford had been performing successfully in two one woman shows. You either shine or you die in a one woman show. Lynita’s shows did wonderfully. But it is a lonely process. I remember longing for someone else onstage with me during my one woman shows. So Lynita was searching for a play for women. And she found the perfect script in Gertrude Stein and a Companion.
She had been directed by Chris Weare before and loved his work. He said yes instantly. Lynita needed to find another female actor to play opposite her. She didn’t even consider her close friend, Shirley. She knew that she was involved in writing projects. On Shirley’s birthday, while having coffee with her, Shirley mentioned that she wanted to take a break from writing. Lynita’s smile engulfed the room.
“I have the perfect birthday present for you, my friend. How would you like to play Gertrude Stein opposite my Alice B. Toklas?”
When I acted, thirty years ago, there were theatre companies: PACT, CAPAB, NAPAC and PACOFS. These companies provided work centres for the actor. Now they no longer exist. Actors are employed by various theatres that put on a constant variety of shows. Shirley, Lynita and Chris formed a small, independent theatre company. It is difficult for them to make a profit. They have to pay for the cost of hiring a theatre, publicity, stage management, employing technical staff and the rights of the play. I know that Shirley and Lynita teach during the day. Because of this, they could afford to put on the production. The three of them worked all day and then met and rehearsed in the evenings. The result was astounding!
They opened Gertrude Stein and a Companion at the Alexander Bar in June 2018 for two weeks. It was such a resounding success that they returned in October for a further two weeks. In 2019, they took it up to Johannesburg, the Hilton Festival and also to Dublin, Ireland. In Ireland both performers were nominated for best actress in the Dublin International Gay Theatre Festival.
“Never have I ever wanted to jump up and shout “Encore” at the end of a play, that is, until tonight!” wrote Correy Sutherland in her review of the production.
Megan Furniss in her review says: “I am seldom jealous of beautiful scripts, but this one made me wish I had written it.
Both Lynita as Alice, and Shirley, as Gertrude, are superb. I have never seen either of them do anything like this and they are absolutely charming, clear, bold and amazing. Lynita’s Alice is solid and terse and grumpy and witty. Shirley’s Gertrude is expansive and cheeky and bold and lyrical. Her warmth and sparkle radiate from her. I loved the characters and I loved the performers playing them.”
Being involved in the theatre nowadays is tough. Nothing is handed to you on a plate. Gertrude Stein and a Companion came about through three people’s intense passion and a desire to see the production come to fruition. The winners of course are us, the audience!
In June, Gertrude Stein and a Companion is being performed in Hermanus. This is a performance I will not miss!
My memory of becoming friends with Shirley is gone. I have no memory of a before and after.
Shirley has always just been a part of me. At that Othello audition, a special person entered my life.
I think of Shirley and once again, my heart smiles……..
A lovely account of true friendship. Precious.
Yet again – I feel inspired and I can’t quite understand why! Thanks Gaye for this blog. I love it.
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