Melbourne Theatre Company is deeply saddened to announce that its founder and longest-serving Artistic Director, John Sumner AO CBE passed away on Friday 24 May after a brief illness, aged 88 years.

MTC Chairman, Derek Young said ‘John Sumner’s contribution to Australian theatre is unparalleled. As founder of Australia’s first professional theatre company, 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.’

‘Our deepest condolences go out to his family at this time,’ he said.

Brett Sheehy, Artistic Director said ‘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.’

Originally known as the Union Theatre Repertory Company (UTRC) and later, Melbourne Theatre Company, John Sumner founded the Company in 1953 and directed its first production, Jean Anouih’s Colombe. He served as Artistic Director between 1953-1955 and 1959-1987 and during that time John Sumner directed more than a hundred productions and encouraged the development of two generations of Australian playwrights including Ray Lawler, Alan Seymour, Alexander Buzo, John Romeril, Jim McNeil, Nick Enright, John Power and David Williamson to name just a few. John Sumner directed the first production of Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, a much-loved favourite which continues to thrill audiences in productions today.

The Company he established became a model for every successful state theatre company and set the standard for Australian theatre in presenting a mix of the best plays from Australia and overseas to a large subscriber base.

As Artistic Director, he oversaw the expansion of the Company from the Union Theatre to Russell Street and on to Arts Centre Melbourne in 1984. Opened in January 2009, MTC’s own Southbank Theatre named its largest theatre, The Sumner in tribute to him.

Born in England in 1924, John Sumner moved to Australia in 1952. He served in the British Merchant Navy in the Second World War before moving into stage management with H M Tennent theatres in London’s West End. Following his first season with UTRC, he briefly moved to Sydney to manage the Elizabethan Theatre Trust, but soon returned to Melbourne.

He is survived by his two daughters, Alice and Victoria.