Jane Ellis (whose real name was Helen Olive Stockbridge) was a 'young, obscure actress' from London, who decided that the only way she could get decent parts was if she ran her own theatre.
She persuaded a rich London solicitor to underwrite the venture and invited JP Fagan to become director.
Her acting career did not take off in Oxford as she had hoped and sadly, she was the only actor who received a bad notice from the influential theatre critic James Agate, when the theatre's groundbreaking production of The Cherry Orchard was performed in 1925.
J B FAGAN
Director 1923 - 1929
The theatre's first director was a mercurial Irishman whose groundbreaking productions in Oxford included The Cherry Orchard, the first successful Chekhov play to be performed in England. Although Fagan left Oxford University without a degree, he tried to cultivate an audience for intellectual drama, even though his strategy lost the theatre money.
In 1928 he joined forces with Terence Gray, the maverick director of Cambridge Festival Theatre, to swap plays and escape the treadmill of weekly rep. His own play, And So to Bed, was a surprise success in London and New York. His greatest achievement was to keep drama alive in the city, while by far the larger part of Oxford sat on its hands. In the end the lack of support from Oxford audiences and the absence of help and recognition from the University defeated him.
"He loved the stage and was a shrewd judge of quality, whether of play or actor; as a producer he despised the shoddy or the reach-me-down and his greatest gift was that he could fire the imagination of the cast."
Charles Morgenstern, Jubilee Programme 1923-1948
Director 1930 - 1939
Stanford Holme was leader of a triumvirate of young actors, the Pioneer Players, which also included Edward Wilkinson, and Arthur Brough. They took over the running of Oxford Playhouse in 1930 - and broadened its repertoire in a bid to appeal to town as well as gown. Despite the Depression, they managed to make ends meet by creating a cosy family atmosphere, touring seaside resorts in summer and presenting a bill of fare with the accent on farce and light comedy.
Their approach built up a fund of popular goodwill, which proved helpful when times later became more difficult and failure lurked around the corner.
"Like the Vicar of Bray I have survived several reigns - that is to say I have worked at the Old Playhouse as director of companies calling themselves by a variety of aims; but no matter what the company was called the work was the same, and I have always found it interesting and exciting work."
Patron and Director 1936 - 1943
Former student actor at Oxford University, Eric Dance initially practised law as a barrister. When his father died, he threw away his wig, went to RADA and turned professional.He joined the Playhouse Repertory Company, becoming co-director and producer with Stanford Holme in 1936 and invested a substantial part of his inheritance on helping to fund a new, purpose-built home for Oxford Playhouse in Beaumont Street.
When war broke out he became a captain in the 35th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment and after that only surfaced at the Playhouse when he was on leave. He died in a Japanese POW camp in New Guinea in 1943.
"Without his vision, civic aspiration and generosity, there might have been no Playhouse in Oxford at all."
Business manager 1939 - 1949
Celia Chaundy ran Oxford Playhouse in Eric Dance's absence during the war exactly as she thought he would have done. Under her management, Peter Ashmore blossomed as a director, supplying the right mix of popular and more daring theatre and earning a reputation from post-war critics which put him briefly on a par with theatrical wunderkind Peter Brook.
Director 1946 - 1954
Frank Shelley, whose real name was Mario Francelli, was encouraged by Sybil Thorndike to go to drama school. He was just 33 when he was appointed director of the Playhouse. An artistic director with flair, but tough with it, he switched production to fortnightly rep and also introduced a Playhouse Theatre School in 1951, which numbered Maggie Smith amongst its first intake.
He also acted and wrote for the theatre. In one production, where he was playing the lead, he actually proposed to his leading lady Susan Dowdall on stage as she was about to embark on a major speech, which she confessed 'slightly threw her' but didn't stop her marrying him a few months later.
Shelley nurtured rising young actors such as Ronnie Barker and was responsible for a number of highly praised productions, even though the theatre continued to struggle financially.
"The Playhouse has a young manager (very able, very enterprising), a young author (it did a new play this last fortnight) a young scene designer (of outstanding merit)."
Harold Hobson, review of Shelley's new farce Postman's Knock
Director 1956 - 1973
Few theatre directors have been so loved by actors as Frank Hauser. He was good at casting and could spot young people of talent - and he also believed in audiences.
A former Oxford University student, Frank Hauser put Oxford Playhouse in the forefront of regional theatres for 17 consecutive years. He favoured upmarket theatre and believed he could make it pay by casting big names and selling his productions to London at the rate of about one a year. He got the leading critics to turn up regularly to see the most promising actors in new or rare old plays; and he gave other directors, as well as designers, their chance from time to time.
His successes included the transfer of 15 plays to London and tours to 10 European festivals. Under his direction, the Meadow Players established a reputation as one of regional theatre's most adventurous houses which looked to the Continent for inspiration and was happy to stage both commercial and more intellectual theatre.
He knew better than most was how to run a provincial theatre against all the odds but a diminishing Arts Council subsidy eventually brought his enterprise to an end.
"The other outstanding reason for the revival of the Playhouse is its direction by Frank Hauser, whose lively mind, professional excellence and courage in adversity make him an outstanding figure in the English theatre of our time."
W E Williams, souvenir programme 1959
OP Administrator/ General Manager, Meadow Players 1956 - 1976
Elizabeth Sweeting pioneered a new profession of arts administration and Oxford Playhouse prospered under her management. She wrote a groundbreaking handbook, Theatre Administration (1969), and Beginners Please: working in the theatre (1971). She also encouraged the Polytechnic of Central London to establish its first course on the subject in 1970 and was one of its first examiners.
Elizabeth Sweeting later taught English literature at St Catherine's College and in her sixties became the first director of South Australia's new Arts Council.
"Halfway up the stairs was the little office she shared with her secretary. By day it had the air of effortless control one imagines on the bridge of the most shipshape of ships. During the evening interval, all sorts of people popped in to see her there and, as whisky was dispensed with water from the electric kettle, one was quite likely to be introduced to a movie star or a famous poet."
The Independent, obituary
Director 1974 - 1984
Gordon McDougall ran a tight ship on reduced Arts Council grants, managing to maintain the theatre's level of subsidy by touring extensively and staging small-scale as well as major productions. He directed a string of highly successful plays, including Happy End and Mephisto, where he had to take over in the title role when his lead actor, Ian McDiarmid, ended up in hospital after a fall (his performance won rave reviews).
Many plays included his own translations. His company, Anvil Productions, was the first British company to play rep in Hong Kong and its prolific touring and producing output included stints in Latin America. Gordon McDougall's associate director, Nicolas Kent, is now director of London's Tricycle Theatre.
"His career has been innovative and in many respects ground-breaking... and the extraordinary reputation he established for the Oxford Playhouse have all been notable and critically acclaimed."
Nicholas Barter, former Principal, RADA
Joint Director 1989 - 2001
Sole Director 2001 - 2008
Tish Francis is the theatre's longest-serving director. She was appointed joint director with Hedda Beeby to mastermind a major fundraising campaign to re-open and refurbish Oxford Playhouse after four-year closure. Hedda departed in 2001, leaving Tish as sole director to create programming with an international flavour and strong links with co-producers, including Shared Experience, Theatre de Complicite and many others. Dance has also been high on the agenda, and partnerships have been formed with leading companies.
Tish has been instrumental in attracting funding from the Arts Council. This has enabled her to develop the theatre's role as a producer and a more ambitious programme to bring international companies to Britain. She has also presided over a period when the Playhouse and the University have grown to live in harmony. The Onassis Programme for Greek Drama was established at the University in 2005, which has led to an ambitious programme of classical and modern Greek drama performed in English at the theatre.
Tish has seen the original team of two grow to a staff of more than 40. Under her direction the theatre now stages more than 80 shows annually and is open 50 out of 52 weeks of the year.
"Tish has all the right qualities: a great sense of humour, tons of diplomacy, a knowledge and love of the theatre and a dogged determination..."