Student engagement in amateur theatricals had a long history, beginning with early performances in the colleges, still a traditional fixture in the College calendar.
In the University, the new Union theatre opened in the 1930s encouraged serious programs from groups such as the Melbourne University Dramatic Club (MUDC), the Marlowe Society, Melbourne University Student Theatre (MUST, 1966), the Tin Alley Players (a graduate company formed in 1939), and visitors which provided much entertainment and a training ground for generations of actors and theatre workers in Melbourne.
A training ground for Melbourne’s comedians was found in the less serious, but no less entertaining, S RC University revues held in the theatre, which after 1948 were joined by the Architecture revue and Law revue.
For all this activity, however, the 500 seat theatre, operated under a manager appointed by the Union, was unused for nearly half the year. When John Sumner arrived from the United Kingdom to take up the position of manager in 1952 he saw the potential to create a full-time professional theatre company to make full use of the facilities under the benevolent care of the University.
He persuaded the student theatre groups to confine their productions to the first two terms of the year and the Council to at least partially underwrite his venture. The Union Repertory Theatre Company (UTRC) opened its first play, Jean Anouilh’s Colombe, on 31 August 1953.
Remarkably the venture prospered to become in 1968 the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC). By then its headquarters had been moved to the Australian Church building in Russell Street, refurbished in 1960, but MTC remained a department of the University. The last performance in the Union Theatre was staged in 1965 before it closed for refurbishment. When it reopened, at the dawn of a renaissance in Australian drama, it was once again for the exclusive use of the student drama and film societies which also gained a second, more intimate performance space in the new Guild Theatre upstairs.