The Melbourne Theatre Company was founded as a professional company in 1953 by John Sumner as the Union Theatre Repertory Company. It was renamed the Melbourne Theatre Company in 1968. Sumner came to Australia from England in 1952 to manage the University of Melbourne’s refurbished Union Theatre. In the following year he convinced the University to join him in founding a non-profit professional theatre company, which would operate at the union Theatre from September to April when it the theatre was not being used by the students. During the rest of the year the company would tour Victorian country towns. The university acted as underwriters for the first season, providing fifteen hundred pounds against a loss. The season made a profit playing to more than 38,000 paying customers. The Union Repertory Theatre Company was constructed along British repertory lines. Initially productions were changed every fortnight but as the company built its audience base the runs were extended to three weeks.

The company's stated objectives originally included:

  • Presentation of theatrical works which were not provided by commercial managements and which sought to both educate and entertain
  • Encouragement of Australian playwrights
  • Presentation of Australian playwrights' work whenever practicable.

The intention and hope was that out of this enterprise would grow a truly professional Australian theatre that would express the lives of Australians. These objectives remained company policy until 1992 when Roger Hodgman as artistic director introduced his own 14 point mission statement. This statement placed a new emphasis on widening public access to the company's shows through touring as well as reinforcing the original commitments to new Australian writing and productions of classic works from the past and the best of contemporary international writing.

The company opened with seasons of English, American and European plays. Sumner left the company in 1955 to manage the Elizabethan Theatre Trust and Ray Lawler took up the position of artistic director. In November of that year the company performed its first Australian play, Ray Lawler's Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1955). It was directed by Sumner with Lawler in the cast. The production subsequently toured Australia and then went to London and New York. Wal Cherry replaced Lawler as artistic director. Cherry had been known in Melbourne for his work with his company Emerald Hill. He had acted as a guest director with the Union Repertory Company a number of times. His period of directorship of the company was marked by adventurous programming, extended seasons and financial problems. Cherry's repertoire included classical Greek plays, modern European and plays from the USA. The productions did not prove commercially successful. In 1959 Sumner returned as administrator and artistic director of the company and remained in the position until he retired in 1987. The company re-established itself financially. In 1960 it began to use a theatre in Russell Street in the CBD for occasional productions, including an Australian play season. When the Union theatre became unavailable to the company in 1968, they moved into the Russell Street Theatre. The move had the added advantage that the company could now and operate all year round. In response to these changes the company changed its name to the Melbourne Theatre Company. Over the years the company utilised a number of theatre spaces including the Athenaeum in Collins Street in the CBD. The company is now based in South Melbourne and productions are performed at the Victorian Arts Centre. Hodgman who succeeded Sumner in 1987 was in turn succeeded as artistic director by Simon Philips. The company is currently planning to build its own theatre complex in South Bank in Melbourne.


Sumner, John.  Recollections at Play - A Life in Australian Theatre. (Melbourne: MUP, 1993)