Co. launched numerous thesps, playwrights

From an accidental beginning, the Melbourne Theater Co. has grown into one of Australia’s most enduring arts institutions. Today it rivals the Sydney Theater Co. as the country’s top mainstream drama producer.

But when it was formed in 1953, professional theater in Australia meant imported. That is, producers toured British productions with stars, a director and a copy of the set intact. Aussies played supporting roles only.

Then the U. of Melbourne advertised for a manager for its Union Theater, and Brit legiter John Sumner got the job, which entailed managing student productions. Facing a long school break with an empty venue and no students, he got university approval to launch the Union Theater Repertory Co. (later MTC) and Australia’s first professional theater company was born.

Since then, MTC has fostered generally strong subscriber loyalty from its patrons in Australia’s arts-loving second city. It’s received coin from the government and the U. of Melbourne, whose vice chancellor chairs the board.

Launched a thousand faces

It launched the careers of thesps Frances O’Connor, Barry Humphries, Rachel Griffiths and Zoe Caldwell, to name a few. It’s had the stability of just three artistic directors in Sumner, Roger Hodgman and Simon Phillips.

The three pillars of Australian playwriting — Ray Lawler, David Williamson and Hannie Rayson — found their voice at the company.

This year, Rayson’s “Inheritance” registered the best B.O. for a new Aussie play at MTC in nine years — $930,000 and 27,000 tickets sold. And the company is forecasting its best annual B.O. since 1990, when it presented 20 plays; this year’s season features 12.

Current artistic director Phillips came in for some criticism for peppering season 2002 with headline-grabbing Hollywood stars, albeit all ex-MTC players. Geoffrey Rush teamed with his wife, Jane Menelaus, in Yasmina Reza’s “Life x 3″; Griffiths toplined “Proof”; Guy Pearce appeared in Tennessee Williams’ “Sweet Bird of Youth”; and David Wenham was featured in Sam Shepard’s “True West.”

But at year’s end the critics fell silent when the perfs garnered generally warm reviews, yearly B.O. was up (again), and the 2003 season swung back to using thesps from the regular pool. The notable exception being the star-studded return of the company’s first leading lady, Caldwell, in her first play in five years, headlining Durrenmatt’s “The Visit.”

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