MTC founder John Sumner passes away, aged 88

The founder of Australia’s first professional theatre company has passed away aged 88.

Melbourne Theatre Company's The Sumner theatre. Image by James Grant
Melbourne Theatre Company’s The Sumner theatre. Image by James Grant

English born John Sumner AO CBE, the longest serving artistic Director of the Melbourne Theatre Company, died yesterday (Friday 24 May) after a brief illness, according to a statement from the MTC.

Sumner founded the Union Repertory Theatre Company (later known as Melbourne Theatre Company) in 1953, directing more than a hundred productions during his 32 years as Artistic Director and encouraging the development of two generations of Australian playwrights including Ray Lawler, Nick Enright, David Williamson and Alexander Buzo. The premiere production of Ray Lawler’s now-famous Summer of the Seventeenth Doll was directed by Sumner in 1955 at the MTC.

The Company he established became a model for every successful state theatre company, and our industry has much to thank him for.

“John Sumner’s contribution to Australian theatre is unparalleled”, said MTC’s Chairman Derek Young.

“He championed the development of Australian voices and writing in theatre. His passion, energy and tough professionalism set the standard and have been an inspiration for his successors. To this day he was a regular and enthusiastic theatregoer with tickets to attend our NEON Festival.”

In 2009, the Melbourne Theatre Company’s Southbank Theatre building named its largest theatre ‘The Sumner’ as a tribute to John Sumner’s leadership over the last 60 years. The 500 seat venue is one of the most advanced in stage technology and is currently housing Joanna Murray-Smith’s new comedy True Minds.

“As MTC celebrates its 60th anniversary year, we pay tribute to John’s outstanding abilities as a director, designer and administrator. His vision set the foundations for the creativity and diversity of talent that still thrills, confronts and entertains us today. He will be sadly missed by us all”, said current Artistic Director, Brett Sheehy.

John, the father of Australian theatre is survived by his two daughters, Alice and Victoria.

Erin James

Erin James is's former Editor in Chief and a performer on both stage and screen. Credits include My Fair Lady, South Pacific and The King and I (Opera Australia), Love Never Dies and Cats (Really Useful Group), Blood Brothers (Enda Markey Presents), A Place To Call Home (Foxtel/Channel 7) and the feature film The Little Death (written and directed by Josh Lawson).

Erin James

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