Lessons in Being There: RIP Shirley Sacks

SPOOFS, camp theatricality and wigs: Shirley Sacks on a staff TUT dress-up event. Photograph by Cathy Steynfaardt, courtesy Tshwane University of Technology.

“BE READY FOR anything. Expect nothing!” was one of the unforgettable pearls offered by thespian Shirley Sacks to generations of performance students over a 33-year teaching career at the Tshwane University of Technology in Pretoria. Teaching in the creative arts is unquestionably a vocational blessing of the highest level. It’s about being about to give of yourself in a way that sees youngsters become themselves, in spite of their own inhibitions, their bravado or their as yet unformed personalities. Sacks who shone a light onto the potential of easily thousands of students, passed away after a long battle with emphysema on 28 November 2020. She was 78.

Remembered for her long cigarettes, her incisive opinions and her ability to make even the most directionless of young students glow with true – and humble — self-belief and unequivocal respect for the discipline of performance, Sacks was born on 20 July 1942 in Pretoria to a South African-born couple – her father was a pharmacist, her mother a housewife. She was educated through correspondence in Performance, Acting and Teaching at the Trinity College in London where she was conferred with her licentiate and her fellowship in these disciplines, reading for a National Higher Diploma in Acting at the then Pretoria Technikon.

Respected as royalty when it came to teaching the nuts and bolts of wit and farce, Sacks understood the value of slick and flawless in the comedic discipline – arguably the most difficult aspect of performance. She started teaching in 1975 at the then Music School of the Pretoria College, which by 1980 became known as the Pretoria Technikon. With an eye for perfect dead pan farce, which sits on the cleavage between total humour and absolute tragedy, Sacks adored Hal Ashby’s 1979 (arguably flawless) film Being There. She relished the poetry of TS Eliot. She directed a wide range of works over the years, including a stage production of the Cary Grant 1944 classic Arsenic and Old Lace, the fabulous farce Noises Off, Ionesco’s pants-wettingly funny work The Bald Prima Donna, and Andrew Buckland’s The Ugly Noo Noo, among so many others.

Performers in the South African theatre industry who passed through Sacks’s able hands include Aubrey Poo, the late Graham Weir of Not the Midnight Mass fame, Tony Kgoroge, Susan Danford, Shireen Hollier, Stephen Faber, Lerato Moloi, Esmeralda Bihl, and burlesque queen Elzabe Zietsman, to name but a few.

Offering a caveat which evokes Hillel’s famous dictum “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Sacks would say to students: “If you are here only to please yourself, who are you? If you are here only to please your audience, what are you? If you are here only to please yourself and your audience, where are you? If you are here now – just being – with all you have done and with openness to all the possibilities of becoming, Hello!!

“If you say the audience is not important – or that it is not important to please them – then why expect an audience? Have no audience! Why should anyone come – and pay – for something which is not memorable for them?”

Delighting in the sacred value of a beginner’s mind in the teaching process, Sacks loved with a full heart, taught the values of communicating honestly and practiced them. “If the intention is genuine,” she once said, “it always reaches the listener.” She was unexpurgated in expressing grief at the loss of loved ones. She lost her beloved twin sister, Avrille – who was 20 minutes older than her – in 2013 and moved to Jaffa, the Pretoria-based Jewish institution for the elderly, in 2015.

Sacks is deeply mourned by many loving friends in the industry and literally countless people whose lives she touched, in her teaching, her theatre- and her directorial gifts.

3 replies »

  1. A magnificent tribute Robyn. I started out as a student of Shirley‘s when I was 13 years old and became a close friend of Shirley’s. You write poignantly and so accurately about an icon who is already sorely missed and will never be replaced. Well done to you for putting this together with such beautiful photos.

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