DAMIAN Cruden is to step down after 22 years as artistic director of York Theatre Royal.

His final production will be co-directing the summer family show Swallows And Amazons, leaving open the question of not only who will step into dame Berwick Kaler's boots for the 2019-2020 pantomime, but who will direct it. The answers are expected from executive director Tom Bird over the weeks ahead.

Scotsman Damian, 53, is leaving for various reasons, both professional and personal. At the invitation of Lunchbox Theatrical Productions' chief executive, James Cundall, he is to take on the role of artistic director of the Shakespeare's Rose Theatre project, having directed Macbeth at Europe's first ever pop-up Elizabethan theatre on the Castle car park last summer.

The project is doubling in size, with Damian overseeing four plays in York and four more at the new site at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire.

He will continue to live in York and is "looking forward to spending more time with his family, something that has been lacking in years past".

Damian says: "I am sad to be leaving so many dear friends and colleagues; it is like a family in so many ways and there is never a good time to leave. However, it now feels the right moment for the company and myself to part ways.

"I am proud of our achievements over the years. Had we only managed to keep the theatre open, that in itself would have been a miracle. However, we have done so much more and we did it as a team.

"The team has grown over the years and I hope now that it includes the thousands of local people who get involved in creative projects and events.

"It is this work that I am most proud of. Our Theatre Royal Youth Theatre and the community plays are the backbone of our organisation. They bring resilience to the cultural community in York which money cannot buy."

Damian directed the Theatre Royal's groundbreaking production of E Nesbit's The Railway Children at the National Railway Museum and co-directed the 2012 York Mystery Plays in the Museum Gardens during his artistic directorship, the longest running among those in post at Britain's premier theatres.

The theatre's £6.1 million refurbishment also took place on his watch, involving a re-design of the main house.

"I won’t be a stranger and look forward to sharing with the York community many hours of fun in our beautiful auditorium, which I have loved since I set foot in it for the first time all those years ago.

"The room is special. It always has been and always will. We are a lucky city to have such a fantastic space," he says.

"I feel content that the company is in a strong position with great possibilities for a fantastically innovative future. I wish the company every success in its continuing unfolding story that is York Theatre Royal. I’m looking forward to my final production, Swallows And Amazons, which is appropriately our summer family offering, a part of our programme of which I am incredibly proud."

In his time at York much has changed for the theatre. Aside from working on many productions, Damian has been proud of myriad achievements.

Among those, he picked out: the increasing importance of young people in the company’s work; the youth theatre being established; the Studio theatre opened; two ensemble seasons played and the main house theatre turned into the round for a season.

The much emulated TakeOver project for under 26 year olds was established; a programme of community plays was developed, such as the 2012 Mystery Plays, along with working out of the building in found spaces such as the National Railway Museum.

International partnerships and touring in Germany, Canada and Japan were introduced; a wide variety of co-producing partnerships developed; long term partnerships/residencies forged with Pilot Theatre Company and children's theatre company Tutti Frutti, and national tours undertaken of productions such as Brideshead Revisited, Brassed Off and To Kill A Mockingbird. The Railway Children has enjoyed a four-year London run, winning an Olivier Award.

"All this was done while public investment in the arts has been in decline," says Damian.

Executive director Tom Bird sums up Damian's achievements at York Theatre Royal as "staggering and unprecedented". "He has created the most wonderful work with the York community for over 20 years, both in the theatre and around the city and the world. We wish him all the best for his future with Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre and beyond."

As for the next pantomime: "Planning for this year’s pantomime has been under way for some months and Damian’s departure in no way affects York Theatre Royal’s plans to deliver a wonderful Christmas show this year. We look forward to announcing our exciting pantomime offer in the coming weeks,"says Tom.

"Damian’s unstinting commitment to pantomime for the past 22 years has been critical in ensuring the health and survival of York Theatre Royal and we thank him for that."

Charles Hutchinson