The late Peter Oyston is best remembered in Australia as the founding Dean of drama at the Victorian College of the Arts, but his sphere of influence and a life-time's dedication to the performing arts extended well beyond teaching. Drawing on personal conversations with Helen Martineau and her own experience working with Oyston at Monash University in 2009, Jasna Novaković takes an in-depth look at the life and legacy of an important theatrical polymath.
The ideas Peter Oyston pursued as a director and academic, the promise of fulfilment he sensed both in England and in Australia and his preoccupation with language all derive from his childhood experiences. His mother, a fourth generation Australian, married a Reserve Captain in the British Army at the age of 17, which is why Oyston was born in England just before the outbreak of WW2.1.He was barely four and a half when his father was sent to the front, his mother joined a group of performing artists set up to lift people’s spirits, and Peter and his elder sister Susan were packed off to separate boarding schools. Being so young, he was allowed to go into any class, even to skip classes if he felt like it. The benefit of complete freedom was twofold: he acquired a great deal of general knowledge and he developed a habit of going out into the woods that instilled in him a life-long sense of being at one with nature.
Under the weight of solitude exacerbated by his mother’s frequent failure to turn up at the boarding school for holidays, the boy increasingly felt like an outsider only to realise once he entered the world of theatre that what originally weighed on him like a curse was in fact a blessing, since it helped him develop the ability to observe people and their cultures analytically. Reunited with his mother on a potato farm in the North of England after twice attempting to run away from school, he watched with curiosity the Italian prisoners of war who looked completely harmless to him, he followed attentively the local farmers’ conversations puzzled by their heavy accent and he listened to the Welsh news which he then mimicked, developing from an early age a feeling for language, not only its semantic inexhaustibility but also for accent, intonation and rhythm. ‘I think this [experience] fed into my theatre career later’, he told James Waites in an interview conducted in 2009 for the Oral History and Folklore Collection at the National Library of Australia, and then moved on a tangent to another deeply etched memory—that of his mother Sheila Florance remarrying after losing her husband Roger Oyston in the D-Day landings at Normandy. Filled by nostalgia for Australia, Florance in 1947 took the benefit of the assisted passage scheme, having lost her Australian citizenship after remarrying a Polish pilot, and boarded the Esperance Bay sailing from Tilbury Docks to Fremantle, WA, alongside people from all walks of life in search of a bright future in Australia. It was on that ship that the 9-year-old Oyston became aware of the social classes and a whole set of values at odds with the boarding school culture, gradually recognising how effectively humour and laughter smoothed over differences. As the ship docked at Fremantle and his mother ran down the gangplank, fell on her knees and grabbed a handful of gravel that she then poured into her mouth, the boy felt hugely embarrassed. But then a ‘wharfie’ came up to her with a bunch of gum leaves, saying, ‘Look after your teeth, love’ with such dry humour, and another wharfie greeted his red-haired younger brother with ‘G’day Bluey’, and the boy thought, ‘I’m going to love this place’.2.
The family settled down in Windsor, an inner-city suburb of Melbourne, and Oyston was sent to the prestigious Geelong Grammar, but the money soon ran out so he moved to the local school, ‘rough as bags’, he recalled. The boy acquired an Australian accent very quickly, yet at home he spoke his ‘natural accent’, and his general knowledge proved a double edged sword. When the class, for instance, was asked to break down a long word into morphemes, he came up with ‘id’ and ‘ego’, among others. Not recognising the ‘id’, the teacher thought he was simply trying to be smart, while the other kids resented him for having more knowledge than they. But from then on, Oyston was to use that feeling for language and melody of language, for cultural difference and the need to bridge the gaps it opened among people in a very practical way.
By the time he was old enough to go to high school, Oyston’s mother had returned to acting, a career she had first ventured into in 1930s Melbourne. Florance enrolled her son in the Prahran Technical School where he discovered that he was good at drawing, an art prize soon confirming the teacher’s assessment of his talent. On that strength he was admitted to the Melbourne High School known for its strong academic reputation, where he started learning German and Russian and ‘for the first time consciously studying hard’. Florance’s acting career also took off. She was playing Jocasta in Tyrone Guthrie’s direction of Oedipus Rex when Oyston chanced upon a rehearsal where Guthrie was explaining his method: after analysing a particular scene, the actors were to receive a brief, go away and then come back and show him. It struck Oyston as a wonderful method of transferring power, one that he was later to adapt to his own system.
Peter Oyston, c.1970-1973
Image courtesy of Helen Martineau and family
Peter Oyston with Helen Martineau at the launch of her biography of Sheila Florance, 2005
Image courtesy of Helen Martineau and family
An apprenticeship for casting, however, Oyston got at home, watching actors and musicians partying until the early hours in the morning, in other words, watching them offstage as well as onstage. That he too could act he discovered in art school after joining a group of students who in their spare time put on plays, including T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral (that Oyston years later directed in Liverpool) and Jean Anouilh’s The Lark where he played the Dauphin. As the rehearsals of The Lark progressed, Oyston realised that he could image the words and then release those images through the text into space. This skill to imagine ‘the moves, the expression, things that are not there’ (Personal Communication, 2009) in order to explore new possibilities of character building, he was later to pass on to young actors as teacher-director. But back then the question arose, who was going to come and see a play by an obscure French playwright in the first place? This was the 1950s and the students had hired the Caulfield Town Hall seating a thousand people for a week, so they went door-to-door until they sold all of the tickets. Oyston was to refine that skill as Artistic Director of the Century Theatre travelling ‘from one theatreless town to the next’ in the North of England in the late 1960s and was to teach it within the community theatre program he set up at the Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne, and within the Honours program in the Centre for Drama and Theatre Studies, Monash University.
The Lark led to yet another important event. With his share of proceeds Oyston put a deposit on a block of land eager never to return to ‘that mad house’ in Windsor where he had to put up with ‘the theatrical shenanigans around him’ and where his desire to study was met with ridicule. He had already moved out to a dilapidated attic in St Kilda, living the life of the ‘classic’ starving artist, but he longed for a home in the bush that would serve as a retreat just like the woods surrounding his boarding school in England once did. How important the change of scene was for the budding artist in dire need of breathing space comes out again in Peter Fitzpatrick’s double biography The Two Frank Thrings, where Oyston’s resentment of those ‘Sunday night soirees’ – of the drinking and talk about sex and laughter until the small hours—is palpable. ‘I couldn’t bear those nights,’ he is quoted as saying unapologetically.
Upon turning 21, Oyston received a small inheritance from his English grandfather and he wanted to make a film based on an ‘extraordinary book’, The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. In Oyston’s view, this work provided ‘a key to understanding narrative’ centred on a heroic figure in all cultures. Taken more broadly, it offered a key for unlocking the stories told by human beings since time immemorial. Oyston devised the script with his friend Michael Martin (‘both were heavily into Jung and The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and Michael had detailed knowledge of the Mahabharata’, recalls Oyston’s first wife Helen Martineau3.), the cast was made up of students from Brighton High School where Oyston was teaching at the time plus friends and family, while the role of director Oyston reserved for himself. Titled The Kings, this hour-long feature film on 35-millimetre won a special mention at the 1965 Melbourne Film Festival and, in Oyston’s account, was selected to be screened at the Commonwealth Film Festival at Cardiff that same year. By then, however, he was already finding his feet in the land of his birth.
Oyston’s short film The Kings receives a Special Mention at the 1965 Melbourne Film Festival. MFF 1965 brochure.
AFI Research Collection, RMIT
With the film stacked amongst other essentials, Oyston and Martineau had put their Combi van on the boat with the intention of driving all the way from Greece to the UK. As they reached Epidaurus with its limestone amphitheatre open to the elements and began watching one Greek play after another, they realised that they were at the roots of everything they had seen on stage piecemeal, becoming ‘absolutely enamoured of Greek theatre’. But the pregnant Martineau was getting close to her estimated due date, so they packed up and went to London, where Oyston knew three people of whom only Barry Humphries was able to help. Humphries recommended that he go and see Bernard Miles at the Mermaid Theatre because ‘he likes working with Australians’. Without making an appointment, the naïve job seeker burst into Miles’ office and, after answering a barrage of questions, walked out with a script of an Australian play and an invitation to lunch, for Miles was made a knight of the British Empire that same day and he liked this young man’s ideas. Curious to see whether they worked on stage, Sir Bernard came to see a production of The Master Builder Oyston directed at Ipswich and after the curtain call offered him the position of Associate Director at the Mermaid Theatre. Not before long Oyston had three jobs going: at The Mermaid, at the International Film School as lecturer and at Eyeline Films where he directed commercials for a New Zealand producer.
Then, as fate would have it, Oyston met Braham Murray at a party. Murray had just been appointed artistic director of Century Theatre and was looking for someone to direct Waiting for Godot and take it on tour, while he worked on another production in Manchester. Century Theatre, set up after WW2 as a mobile theatre, toured in ex-military trailers that Oyston likened to a ‘giant meccano set, just like a circus’ (Private Communication 2009) folded into which were the 200-seat auditorium and stage. In Oyston’s direction laced with humour, Beckett’s play was a great success wherever they went. The very next year he was offered the position of artistic director, briefly alongside Murray and then alone. For three years the company travelled around the northern mill towns, ‘some with the highest suicide rate in England, some with the highest illegitimacy rate in England’, Oyston recalled explaining how he worked out ‘a formula’ for getting noticed and for mobilising an audience in a short space of time. Aware that for the formula to work he needed good actors, Oyston accepted freelance directing roles at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama with a view to convincing the select few graduates to come up north and join the company. One of those ‘wonderful, imaginative’ young actors he managed to win over was Bob Hoskins who in Oyston’s words, ‘had the ability to place images in space like no-one I’d ever seen’, contributing a great deal to the crystallization of this particular technique of imaging that Oyston instinctively stumbled upon as an art student.
Peter with Dominique and Benjamin on Derwentwater near Keswick in the Lake District, Summer 1969.
Image courtesy of Helen Martineau and family
The Duke’s Playhouse in Lancaster, a former Georgian church.
Image from The Stage, 2 December 1971, p. 19
For his family he found a home in Lancaster, a town with a newly built university and a burgeoning intellectual life but no theatre. Setting up a company there was a vision born out of Oyston’s acute awareness of community needs not lost on the City Council which gave a permit for St Anne’s Church to be converted into a civic theatre. Oyston managed to secure an Arts Council grant and they called the repurposed venue The Duke’s Playhouse bearing in mind ‘how England works – from the approval of the establishment’. The official opening on 18 November 1971 was conducted by Lord Eccles, Paymaster General and Minister for the Arts, and the company to call it home was made up of Oyston’s mobile players, a visit to The Duke’s History page on Google uncovers.
‘Live drama was to be at the heart of the new venue and it would be produced by mobile company Century Theatre who had agreed to become resident at The Dukes Playhouse. The first artistic director was Peter Oyston.’
Preparations being made for Moby Dick—Rehearsed, the first production at the Duke’s Playhouse, 1971.
Image from The Stage, 2 December 1971, p. 18
John Cording as Macbeth, Duke’s Playhouse, 1973.
Image from The Stage, 15 February 1973, p. 18
It is no surprise that Oyston’s values are directly reflected in the choice of plays performed during those early seasons. First shown was Orson Welles’s adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and Twelfth Night, Waiting for Godot and Arsenic and Old Lace followed, to name just a few theatre classics. What came as a total surprise, though, was the phenomenal expansion. Within five years, the company had 72 employees in a town of 50 thousand people. Importantly, they had a Main Stage Ensemble, a Theatre in Education Ensemble, a Children’s Theatre Ensemble, a Puppet Clubs Ensemble, and they had a specialised ensemble that did workshops in the Lancaster Prison and with the mental hospital patients. Crucial to the success was Oyston’s recognition of the need to connect with the locals and tap into their culture which meant giving primacy to a resident writer (rather than the director), who would draw on the myths, stories and ideas circulated in the community. That role was assigned to David Pownall, who wrote four plays for The Duke’s Playhouse, among them Gaunt about John O’Gaunt, medieval Duke of Lancaster, and Lile Jimmy Williamson about a business magnate who had put Lancaster on the industrial map. Martineau recalls that in certain performances chickens, a donkey and a goat became ‘cast members’. ‘These shows resonated with the people and that meant the Duke’s became their theatre and they came to classics and other unfamiliar stuff as well.’ A café and bar in The Duke’s foyer boosted that sentiment, too. His ability to identify sub-groups in the society, link with them and give them space to tell their stories played a big part in Oyston’s ‘apprenticeship’ (his term) for running a regional or community theatre. And yet, when—what Martineau calls poetically—the ‘yearning for the Australian light’ became too intense to resist and he started taking notice of job ads in the newspapers, his choice fell on the Victorian College of the Arts that was looking for a suitable candidate to head their newly formed Drama School. It was by no means a contradiction.
- Peter John Oyston was born on 20 May 1938.
- All unattributed quotations henceforth are taken from Waites 2009.
- Helen Martineau is the author of a biography On the Inside: an intimate portrait of Sheila Florance.
Anon, ‘Remembering a theatre great’, Monash University, 12 October 2011, www.monash.edu.au/news/show/remembering-a-theatre-great (accessed 18 March 2019)
Australian Film Awards 1965: Programme & Awards—available from AFI Research Collection, RMIT, Swanston Street, Melbourne, Building 10, Floor 5
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne, https://collections.artscentremelbourne.com.au
Geoff Bullen & Norma Shepphard, ‘Obituaries: Peter Oyston dies, aged 73, at his home in Australia on 9 October 2011’, www.rada.ac.uk/alumni/obituaries/peter-oyston (accessed 27 July 2012)
Century Theatre, Coalville: history, www.centurytheatre.co.uk/history
Peter Fitzpatrick, The Two Frank Thrings, Monash University Publishing, Clayton, Vic, 2012
Handspan Theatre, www.handspantheatre.com.au (accessed 18 March 2019)
Helen Martineau, On the Inside: an intimate portrait of Sheila Florance, Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne, 2005
Helen Martineau, ‘Obituaries: Expressive artist instilled potency in drama students’, The Age (Melbourne), 19 October 2011, p. 20
Geoffrey Milne, Theatre Australia (Un)limited: Australian theatre since the 1950s, Rodopi, Amsterdam & New York, 2004
Jasna Novaković, Interview with Peter John Oyston, Normanby House, Monash University Clayton Campus, 24 March 2009
Jasna Novaković, Interview with Peter John Oyston, South Melbourne, 12 July 2010
Hannie Rayson, Hello, Beautiful: scenes from a life, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2015
The Duke’s / about us / history, https://dukes-lancaster.org/about-us/history/ (accessed 18 March 2019)
James Waites, Interview with Peter John Oyston for the Oral History and Folklore Collection at the National Library of Australia, Canberra, 9 October 2009, https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-219135347/listen (accessed 18 March 2019)
Raelene Wilson, ‘Bend of Islands director Peter Oyston takes curtain call’, Diamond Valley Leader (Victoria, Australia), 21 October 2011, oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/oyston-peter-15767 (accessed 18 March 2019)