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Dukes founding director Peter Oyston dies

John Freeman
Picture: Monash University
Academy of Performing Arts
We're sorry to report the passing of Peter Oyston, founding director of The Dukes, who died on 9th October in Australia. He was 73.

Mr Oyston was the first artistic director of The Dukes when it opened in November 1971 and he remained there for five years.

An Englishman brought up in Australia, Peter had been a film director before he became a freelance theatre director for the first resident company at The Dukes.

In 1971, with the support of Lancaster Council, the former St. Anne's Church opened its doors as The Duke's Playhouse. This, however, was only the name of the building. The actors who took up residence were members of the Century Touring Theatre Company - a company who had toured the country with a unique mobile theatre since the 1950s.

With Peter as their artistic director Century began performing a series of plays in the new Duke's Playhouse. In their first season they presented eight plays, including Twelfth Night and plays written by the company's publicity officer-cum-playwright, David Pownall.

Century Theatre Company continued to perform on Moor Lane until 1973 when The Duke's Playhouse Company was formed from members of the Century company. Since then, the company has presented over 260 shows - rehearsed and performed in Lancaster.

An internationally renowned theatre and film director, teacher and painter, Peter described the launch of The Dukes as an experiment in itself. “We intend to make a really theatrical atmosphere up here, an ambience of our own,” he said. During his time at The Dukes, he worked with several actors who went on to become famous names including Dame Harriet Walter.

Moving to Australia, he was founding Dean of Drama at the Victorian College of the Arts and was a champion of theatre companies there such as The Murray River Performing Group, The Flying Fruit Fly Circus, West Theatre and Theatreworks, teaching and directing many talented emerging indigenous performers. More recently he was on the staff at Monash Univeristy's Academy of Performing Arts in Victoria.

He was Associate Director of the Mermaid Theatre, the Liverpool Playhouse and also directed at the Royal Court, the Young Vic, Birmingham Rep and numerous other theatres. He regularly taught at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and directed over 200 productions in Japan, France, the USA, the UK and Australia.

Current Dukes director, Joe Sumsion said everyone at The Dukes was saddened by the news of Peter’s death. “Peter Oyston was an inspirational director who set a high standard. It is particularly poignant that his death comes at a time when we are marking the 40th anniversary of The Dukes.”

More about the history of The Dukes