Theatre director and past president of Players theatre produces his own funeral service

As he faced the final curtain, the words sung by Frank Sinatra could not have rung more true than for Peter Maxwell Dransfield: “I've lived a life that's full, I traveled each and every highway, And more, much more than this, I did it my way”.

His last production at Players Theatre was his funeral service, planned to the nth degree, including lighting, cast and bows. The house lights dimmed and a spot lit his seat in the Dransfield Circle, at the back of the theatre, so named after his retirement as president after 17 years, in 2015. 

Everyone in attendance had been given a glass of champagne to raise in his honour, and so his final performance began.

Peter was born in Hobart, Tasmania, on October 31, 1945 – how apt Halloween – to parents Ernie and Jean. His sisters are Sonya and Cheryle, and brothers-in-law Keith and Evan.

His early childhood was spent in Goodwood, where he loved to play cowboys and Indians with his mate Dennis Cartledge.

Theatrical from the start, Peter began the Tasmanian Film Society which is still in operation, roping Dennis’ sisters into his early film-making ventures.

Peter had many nicknames - Prof, Professor, El Presidente, and the Mayor.

A fitness fanatic, he had a black belt in Judo and ran marathons mainly in Melbourne. His partner Aaron says he was a “street walker”, spending hours walking his neighbourhood to keep fit and think.

He was a retailer with Woolworths, Franklins and IGA and had many high level positions across Victoria and NSW. He loved  the shop floor, surrounded by many loyal employees and a coterie of “old tarts”. Here, he also met his great friend Eddie Piccinin and was best man at his wedding to Ricky.

He was heavily involved in the theatre in Albury and Shepparton, where they still remember his work, including one of his greatest achievements, the production of Barnum.

A walking library on the theatre, the arts and movies, Peter loved musicals. Who else would watch the stage production of Miss Saigon on video 37 times? He was probably memorising it for his next production.

His other great passion was travel. In the last 32 years, he travelled the world with Aaron to places far and wide. Peter had friends across the world in Egypt, Miami, San Diego and Florida. He loved a party and many a soiree took place at his homes across NSW and Victoria, but of all of them – if only the pool at Emerald Drive could talk.

His men’s club luncheons borne from U3A was one of the greatest highlights of his retirement and he looked forward to them and the comradeship therein.

In 1998, Peter landed on the doorstep of the Players Theatre, enthusiastic to become involved. At first he felt disillusioned his skills weren’t appreciated. However, he persevered, chatted up the right people, threw a party or two and, problem solved. He was soon elected as secretary.

By 2000, he secured the presidency and was ready to implement his own ideas to move the company forward, encouraging new and upcoming actors and directors.

He first directed musicals Stepping Out and Annie, then assisted novice directors – Sue Morvan with Steel Magnolias; Di Leslie with Move over Mrs Markham and Jenny Gould with Noises Off. He directed The Killing Of Sister George and Farewell Brisbane Ladies. He encouraged Jay Corr, a budding playwright, and directed his first work, A Day in Court.

His favourite play was Agnes of God, with a young Simone Berry, in the leading role. When blocking a dramatic scene with Barbara Brum, Di Leslie, and Simone, he directed Simone to drop to her knees, followed by Di and Barb. Barb immediately exclaimed: “I’ve terrible knees I’ll never get up again”, as did Di. Peter then looked hopefully to Simone, only for her to admit too many tennis injuries  also left her unable to kneel. Totally exasperated Peter declared: “Bloody hell, only I would end up with a bunch of nuns who can’t kneel!”

At Peter’s encouragement, Jenny Gould directed Brilliant Lies, starring himself! It was a challenge for him as a cast member, having to learn lines and take direction. It was certainly a directorial challenge as well. He put in a wonderful performance, and it was the only time he acted on the Players stage.

He collaborated with James Hannah on My Fair Lady; co-directed Kiss Me Kate and South Pacific with Sue Morvan; stepped in at short notice to direct Nunsense 2; revived Stepping Out and directed Shirley Valentine.

His greatest achievement, and favourite, was Blood Brothers. He and other members travelled to Newcastle to see the professional production, after which Peter declared :“We could do much better!”. The show was an outstanding success and he followed it two years later with the equally successful The Boy from Oz.

Songs from these two musicals so moved Peter, he requested three of the stars – Lyn Turner, Amanda Gordon and Ian Castle, perform them for him one last time at his funeral.

Peter loved life and he loved being surrounded by people. Thursday nights at the tavern with theatre and other friends were a regular event.

Peter was passionate about theatre and movies and many times travelled with Aaron to London and New York to soak up the theatre scene. He never missed an opening night at Players and attended many productions at the Glasshouse. If he loved a show he “gushed”, if not, he let forth full vent and no amount of “shushing” would stop him.

Even in deteriorating health he managed, with Aaron’s help, to attend a matinee of Five Women Wearing the Same Dress. No longer able to climb the stairs to sit in the Dransfield Circle, so named for him on his retirement as president in 2015, he was happy to sit in B row. It was to be the last time in his beloved theatre. Bravo!

Jenny Gould’s final words: “Even though the lights have dimmed and the curtains have closed, Peter, you are now centre stage to take your final bow. Your spirit will always be among your friends and thespians at Players.

Simone Sherrin (nee Berry) said: “All that I am honoured to be and have been privileged to experience in this theatre, is because of Peter’s teaching, example and encouragement”.

Peter’s sister Cheryle’s last words: “Bless you my brother, loved by many, respected and admired by all”.

Source: Eulogies by Peter’s sister Cheryle Bec-Papadopoulos; Simone Sherrin and Jenny Gould.

This story Theatre stalwart’s final standing ovation first appeared on Port Macquarie News.