John Truscott AO 1936-1993

John Truscott

He was born in Melbourne on 23 February 1936.

By the time he was 18, Gertrude Johnson had accepted him into her National Theatre circle. He started there as an actor.

In 1960, on Irene Mitchell’s recommendation, he supervised and co-ordinated the wardrobe for the Garnet H. Carroll/Tivoli presentation of The Merry Widow with June Bronhill.

 

Designing dreams

‘He lived, worked, laughed and played with great intensity,’ said Sue Nattrass of John Truscott. ‘Never satisfied, he was demanding of others, but also of himself. And inside, there was, I suspect, a cold core of loneliness – the loneliness of the visionary – that he warmed with friendship. He had more creative ideas in a day than most of us have in a lifetime. But he also had that rare gift of taking people with him and inspiring them to achieve more than they ever believed they could.’

As incongruous as it may seem, John Truscott was going to be a blacksmith. He was born in Melbourne on 23 February 1936. He dreamed of being an actor but, for safety’s sake, learnt metalwork at Caulfield Technical College. Nevertheless, by the time he was 18, Gertrude Johnson had accepted him into her National Theatre circle. He started there as an actor – First Porter in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra at the Princess in 1954. He was cast in the next production, Ann Veronica, but, significantly, also designed the complicated laboratory set. There were more roles – acting and dancing – but eventually these gave way to his real talent – design. In 1956 he assisted Kenneth Rowell in designing for the Elizabethan Trust’s inaugural opera season.  

The following year, 1957, Truscott joined George Fairfax, Peter Randall, Irene Mitchell and the team at the Melbourne Little Theatre, which had recently built its own modern playhouse in South Yarra. He became Irene Mitchell’s protégé and surrogate son. For six years he was the company’s resident designer, working on everything from Shakespeare to satirical revue: up to 12 productions a year, including five Australian premieres. When the Little’s production of The ‘Caine’ Mutiny Court Martial was reworked for live television, Truscott designed that too. Occasionally he took time off to work for other groups, such as Laurel Martyn’s Ballet Guild and Bunney Brooke’s drama company. In 1960, on Irene Mitchell’s recommendation, he supervised and co-ordinated the wardrobe for the Garnet H. Carroll/Tivoli presentation of The Merry Widow with June Bronhill. Carroll then commissioned him to design the costumes for West Side Story, and the sets and costumes for The Most Happy Fella and The King and I.

Up to this point it had been accepted that J.C. Williamson’s always staged their musicals using local reproductions of the original sets and costumes, but when it came to Camelot, in 1963, The Firm’s joint managing director, John McCallum, daringly decided that the Broadway originals were not good enough. He commissioned John Truscott to create entirely new designs. The results – 13 dazzling sets and hundreds of sumptuous costumes – were greeted by spontaneous rounds of applause. After Camelot, Truscott designed one last show for St Martin’s, Rashomon, and Jazz Spectrum, for the Australian Ballet. This was choreographed by Williamson’s resident dance director, Betty Pounder, whom he had met while working on Camelot. They became lifelong friends.

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Biographical references

Martin Carlson and Margaret Manion: ‘The Truscott Legacy’, in On Stage, volume 2, numbers 1 & 2
Paul Clarkson: Melbourne International Arts Festival, 1986-2005, Melbourne International Arts Festival, 2005
Sue Nattrass: ‘A Tribute to John Truscott,’ in the commemorative booklet published by the Victorian Arts Centre, 1993
Frank Van Straten: A John Truscott Chronology, unpublished manuscript, 1995
Pamela Zeplin: ‘John Truscott’, in Companion to Theatre in AustraliaCurrency Press, 1995