Skip to main content

David Johnston, theatre director and consultant, born 15 November 1948; died 23 November 2017

It is with a heavy heart that we share the news with the family of ASSTEJ, that our dear colleague and comrade, David Johnston, the pioneer of theatre for young people, has died aged 69 after suffering a stroke.

David was a leading figure in a generation of UK practitioners and theorists of TYA in the 1970’s and remained one of the most influential and widely respected figures in the field. He encouraged and inspired several generations of TYA artists and worked effectively to support the development of UK TYA, bringing together people of many different opinions ad aims.

He had a strong internationalist outlook and was ASSITEJ Treasurer from 1987 to 1989. In 1987 he also founded the Takeoff Festival, which celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2017, as a platform for national and international artistic exchange and celebration.

He graduated in social sciences and politics from Sheffield University, was for short time a management trainee in industry and then decided to study educational drama at Bretton Hall College, one of the leading teacher training colleges of the day.

TIE (Theatre in Education) was the hybrid of theatre and participatory drama through which politically engaged young teachers and artists delivered a new kind of theatre for young people in UK schools.

In 1972 he co-founded a professional TIE company which continues today as New Perspectives. In 1977 he was invited to direct Theatre Centre, the leading established TYA company in the UK, where he inspired another generation of writers and actors. 

David Johnston c.1980 working in a school. Photograph: Tony Palmer

His political commitment to equality and social justice meant that he supported new plays, new directors and younger theatre artists from all backgrounds, genders and abilities. At that time Black and minority artists, people with disabilities, women and gay people were seldom employed in mainstream theatres – or seen as positive characters in plays. Young people rarely saw actors who looked like them or watched plays about their own lives. David Johnston at Theatre Centre changed all that.

Throughout his life he was determined to create work of the highest artistic quality, relevant to the real lives of young people, which spoke to their personal and emotional lives as much as to their social situations and the world around them.

David Johnston soon became one of those assured artist-administrators who can be invited to run national projects, such as the UK Year of the Artist (1999-2002), and to change the direction and expand the Young People’s work of a major established producing company, such as Nottingham Playhouse (1991-98).

In 2002, he co-founded Tangere Arts with the actor-director Ava Hunt, with whom he had a son, Michael.

Tributes have been paid by leading theatre critic Lyn Gardner in the Guardian daily newspaper and in the industry journal, The Stage.


We respect and honor Dave’s legacy to TYA UK and to ASSITEJ.

He will be sorely missed by all who knew and worked with him.


Paul Harman    Hon Member ASSITEJ

Vicky Ireland    Hon Member ASSITEJ

On behalf of ASSITEJ UK


Other references:

Obituary from the Guardian:  

An article about the Takeoff Festival which David Johnston created in 1987 – possibly one of the last he wrote before he died: