The terrible realization was setting in almost all, if not all of us. The dream days of fun and work in equal measure at RADA were drawing to a close. In just over a week, we would all go our separate ways, to our own individual destinies, with only a scant chance of meeting each other again. Aside from the reality that we were from various national backgrounds and, therefore, be largely confined to our own little (or big) parts of the world, the more compelling reason would be that at least a fair number of us would not even get a toehold in the professional acting world. For that group, RADA would be a journey that would not result in the realization of their dreams.
As the day of the last official programme drew near, our group was given the honour of performing passages from Shakespeare's plays in the George Bernard Shaw Theatre of RADA's main building. I opened the proceedings with Duke Orsino's opening piece (Twelfth Night, “If music be the food of love, play on…”) that went rather well (even if I do say so myself!) with an audience that included Principal Nick Barter and a few other guests observing from the balcony. Peter Oyston, the group leader, had selected my (and the rest of the group's) piece, and the actors' showcase was one of the highlights of my short, but intense, RADA programme.
Peter Oyston. I had decided in late December 2017 that I would compose this piece, and that Oyston would figure prominently in it. I remember much about the man and his love for the theatre as well as painting, but I wanted to know more about his activities since I had left RADA more than twenty years back. And so I took recourse to that monumental postindustrial convenience (as well as curse!): the Internet. And I learnt that he had passed away in his beloved Australia on October 9 of that year at the age of 73. So many memories flooded back from those heady days of the summer of 1996. Since he had been placed in charge of Group 3, which was made up of trainees with at least some professional experience in the audio-visual medium and/or the stage, we had some inkling of his credentials to guide us. A few of us had more than a notion. The summer experience and the Internet have allowed me to give the reader an idea of the man and his lifelong dedication to the arts.
I was not disappointed when he first walked into our classroom. Well, he definitely looked the notional “artsy.” He had longish dirty-blonde hair falling around his weather-beaten lined face, had a lazy gait, and was wearing a loose-fitting blue shirt tucked inside black trousers. He spoke slowly, and although there were varied inflections, he was never loud. Though he never expressed it, I had the feeling that he was conscious of dealing with professional trainees and, therefore, chose to guide, rather than teach, us. He introduced himself by revealing that he was an Australian national who worked in London, but loved going back to his country at every opportunity. Only later did we find out that he went back primarily to paint landscapes of his homeland. He was also, to reiterate, a painter. And, strictly speaking, it was his adopted country, having been born in England (information gleaned courtesy the Wikipedia!).
He had directed more than 200 productions, (mostly theatre, but also film) in Australia, UK, Japan, France, and the US. His paintings were mostly of landscapes, a big portion of which dealt with the Australian countryside, and he taught regularly at RADA. He was a caring and dedicated teacher, and I cannot resist the temptation to quote screenwriter Ray Mooney to illustrate the essence of his teaching and directorial method: “Oyston always pushed the people he worked with to reach their potential… (he) didn't allow people to accept the comfort of mediocrity.” I personally experienced his philosophy during the course of my training and in conversations outside of classes and the odd occasions we met after the programme was over. In one of these meetings he commented that I had the potential of being an accomplished director. Hopefully, some day, I will be able to demonstrate his assessment of my latent potential!
Peter's legacy in the field of the performing arts may be seen in his work as the founding Dean of Drama at Australia's College of the Arts. His forte was in directing Shakespeare's plays, but he was quite an accomplished painter. Months after our RADA stint had ended, I got a card from him, inviting me to “River to the Sea”, which was an exhibition of his (and Lisa Dalton's) paintings at the Bartley Drey Gallery in London. I went, saw a wide range of landscape paintings, and had a pleasant chat with the two painters. He had another exhibition of his (and Jean Hobson's) paintings soon after at the Hanover Galleries in Liverpool. His themes deal with the sea, bush, desert and rivers of the Australia he was enamoured with. Incidentally, he had directed two acclaimed productions at the Liverpool Cathedral --- A Man for All Seasons and Murder in the Cathedral. He had a fascination for Liverpool, just as I had for that place, what with me being a lifelong Beatlemaniac and an avid fan of the Liverpool football team. Peter had directed several plays for various churches and cathedrals. He died in the bush home that he loved.
I kept in touch with Peter for several months after RADA, but had to bid adieu to all my group mates within a week following the course completion. A few members of my group had to leave the very next day, and we decided to give ourselves a send-off to remember by invading one of the very few bars (with blaring dance music in accompaniment) that operated beyond the 11 p.m. curfew for those institutions in the London of those days. We danced away into the small hours of the morning until the realization dawned that some of us had to leave for the US or Canada in early morning flights. The good byes were not easy, RADA had unwittingly formed such a strong bond among us, but they were made, with promises of keeping in touch with each other. But, of course, almost inevitably, I lost touch very soon with most, except for some lingering exchange of postcards and letters with two or three. That also did not last beyond a few months. There was no Internet in those days for long distance real time communication. I went back to my hostel feeling hollow having had just bidden adieu to a number of wonderful people. For me, from then on, RADA became just a venerable building. And I was not into moaning inside empty buildings, RADA or no. So, I hardly went there beyond the rare visits. Soon I discovered that the American actress, Heather Ryon, from another group, had stayed back, looking for jobs in London, and, for me, a new phase of discovering London began.
Shahid Alam is a thespian and Professor, Media and Communication department, IUB.