John Sumner AO CBE b.1924

John Sumner

John Sumner

John Hackman Sumner was born in Britain on 27 May 1924.

In 1947 he entered professional theatre as an assistant stage manager in Dundee, Scotland.

He came to Melbourne in 1952 to manage the Union Theatre at the University of Melbourne.

 

The trailblazer

‘The event that changed the path of my career was the arrival in Melbourne of an Englishman named John Sumner,’ recalled actor Noel Ferrier. ‘He announced he was going to set up Australia’s first professional repertory company, using the excellent Union Theatre at Melbourne University. From my comparatively secure and well-rewarded position in the world of radio acting, I regarded the project with a mixture of amazement, derision and some little envy. Performing in repertory seemed like bloody hard work – doing a new play every two weeks; playing one while rehearsing the next one. And all for about ten quid a week. I couldn’t see how it would work in Australia, yet I had a nagging desire to be part of it.

‘The Union Theatre Repertory Company, as it was then known, was established against a great deal of pooh-poohing by the established semi-professional companies and a large part of the acting profession in general. It triumphed over its critics and today is one of the largest and most successful theatrical companies in Australia. I hope the remarkable pioneering work done by John Sumner is never forgotten. John Sumner gathered a noble bunch of players – such luminaries as Zoe Caldwell, Barry Humphries, Frederick Parslow, Ray Lawler and scores of others, many of whom have gone on to win international fame and fortune. It was back-breaking, mentally exhausting yacker, but those days represented some of the most rewarding and happiest of my career. Like the pioneer days of television we did not realise what we were instigating. Sumner, was, and I suppose, still is, a fairly daunting figure – tough and dedicated. During my time at the UTRC I never warmed to him, but had enormous respect for him. Every two weeks he would turn out the goods, God only knows how, on a budget of about ninepence a show – and with no Australia Council handing him thousands of dollars annually.’

John Summer’s autobiography Recollections at Play is subtitled ‘A Life in the Australian Theatre’ – which encapsulates his extraordinary journey. John Hackman Sumner was born in Britain on 27 May 1924. As a boy he joined the London Opera School, going on to appear in concert and on radio in Britain and the United States. It was his wartime service in the Merchant Navy that first took him to Melbourne – if only for 24 hours in 1942. In 1947 he entered professional theatre as an assistant stage manager in Dundee, Scotland. Later he became a stage director and manager for the London-based commercial entrepreneur H.M. Tennant Ltd. He came to Melbourne in 1952 to manage the Union Theatre at the University of Melbourne.

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Biographical references

Noel Ferrier: There Goes Whatsisname, Macmillan, 1985
Geoffrey Hutton: It Won’t Last a Week, Sun Books, 1975
Julian Meyrick, Simon Phillips and Ann Tonks (eds): The Drama Continues – MTC, The First Fifty Years, MTC, 2004
Leonard Radic: ‘John Sumner AO CBE’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995
John Sumner: Recollections at Play – A Life in Australian Theatre, Melbourne University Press, 1993