After 46 years of waking up and commuting into work at the Wardrobe Department of Melbourne Theatre Company, tailor extraordinaire John Molloy will wake up tomorrow—and every day from now—and think to himself, ‘I never have to work again for the rest of my life.’
It was 1974 when Molloy, his wife Claire and their infant daughter came to Australia from London, to try their luck in the city where Claire’s family eagerly anticipated her return. What was intended to be a year-long stint in the Southern Hemisphere turned into a near-on five decade career at Melbourne’s state theatre company. Having studied tailoring in Derbyshire, where John grew up, he’d landed a job at the BBC in their television costume department. Working under the watchful eye of distinguished cutters and makers, a young Molloy was mentored in making period costumes for productions such as Casanova starring Frank Finley.
In his first few days in Melbourne—‘a very different city in 1974 to the one it is today’—Molloy walked into the old Port Melbourne headquarters of MTC, which was then under the artistic direction of Company founder John Sumner. That afternoon he was employed by the Company: he started work just minutes after his interview concluded in fact, and has worked in the wardrobe department, on some 550 productions, ever since.
‘Trapped’ by MTC
In those days, the conditions were ‘appalling’ says Molloy. ‘It was a dirty, run-down building, which I hated. All I wanted to do was leave and go back to London,’ he remembers. ‘Everyone was mad as a cut snake,’ he adds, laughing. ‘The trouble was we were so poor, we couldn’t afford the airfare back to London, so we had to stay. I was trapped by MTC.’
Eventually, notwithstanding the conditions—which John believes were a consequence of Sumner’s vision to reinvest every dollar that came through box office and development back onto the stage—Molloy was won over by the people who surrounded him and the brilliance of the actors he was costuming. ‘It was a beautiful period of creating amazing work with no resources under the most appalling conditions.’
After three or four years, when Molloy returned to the UK for a holiday, it no longer felt like home. Flying back into Australia—with its beautiful, big open skies—felt like flying home. And eventually, working at the Company morphed into a cycle of endless creativity and curiosity. ‘And so it became a kind of rolling spiral where as soon as we got through one group of shows, another group of shows turned up, and they all looked as interesting as the last. It was never a good time to leave.’
The language of theatre
Molloy supplemented his work in MTC’s wardrobe department by working on various Australian films. But it was never quite the same, he admits. ‘In theatre, you’re with the actors from start to finish. You learn very early on that if the actor is uncomfortable, the costume is wrong. The actor is always right.’
Occasionally, Molloy concedes, he’d come up against an extremely highly strung designer or performer, and a sort of stand-off would ensue in regards to how a costume should look or feel, but for the vast majority of his 46-year career, he received the greatest amount of joy from watching actors respond happily to costumes they felt better able to perform in. Seeing his garments worn on stage, with all the other elements of a live production, never ceased to fill him with joy. ‘I get a great amount of pleasure from it,’ he explains. ‘I don’t think any of us would work in theatre otherwise.’
‘Theatre people are a particular type,’ he continues. So much so, that when Molloy travels overseas today, he makes an effort to knock on the door of performing arts companies scattered around the world. In Rome or Paris or far-flung villages of England, Molloy has found men and women just like his colleagues back at MTC. ‘Theatre people are the same everywhere. It doesn’t matter if there’s a language barrier, we’re all the same. There’s the grumpy one, the frenzied one, the young one. We all speak the same language of theatre. We’re all victims of the fantasy element; of making the make-believe real.’
A home at MTC
At MTC especially, Molloy feels blessed to have found his home. ‘All my life I’ve been searching for a home. And it took me a while to realise that I’d found it here at MTC. But this has been my home for over four decades. From 8.30am in the morning to 4.30pm in the afternoon I’ve come here, with people constantly demanding more and more from me, which has kept me energised. I can look at any costume I’ve made over the years and remember who wore it and in what play. I can even remember scenes from each play.’
Four and a half decades in any one company is a rare feat, he recognises. However, Molloy has had the good fortune of growing up at MTC alongside a handful of extremely close peers. ‘There are friends I’ve made here that I’ll see until the day I die.’
As well as the friendships made in the wardrobe department, Molloy has watched the careers of some of the country’s greatest performers. Actors like Helen Morse, who he believes is a ‘national treasure’, Pamela Rabe, Robyn Nevin, Deidre Rubenstein, Frank Gallacher and Richard Piper all stand-out as world-class talent who Molloy has relished making costumes for. Of all the scenes in all the plays he’s helped reach the stage, it was the dinner scene in A Little Night Music, directed by Roger Hodgman and starring Helen Morse that struck the deepest chord. ‘It was true magic,’ he remembers.
In the decades that followed, many moments have shone as enchanted ones. Too many, he thinks, to name. But the essence of what the theatre represents is the same, he believes. ‘People suspect that there’s a sort of magic that happens inside the theatre,’ he says. ‘And that’s because there is. I feel so privileged to have worked here for as long as I have and to have seen what I’ve seen. To even have a job in this industry is a privilege. It’s a special place.’
A cultural boom in an artistic haven
It’s not just Melbourne Theatre Company Molloy has watched grow in the decades he’s been cutting and sewing costumes; the entire city has experienced a renaissance, he claims. ‘I’ve seen the arts in Melbourne explode … The opera and the ballet and every theatre company is booming. I remember when all the theatres were dark and on the brink of being demolished. We were living in the dark ages. Today, every theatre in the CBD is lit and full.’
Is it possible he was part of the cohort in the late 20th century that pioneered a movement which paved the way for Melbourne’s cultural boom? The answer is ‘absolutely’ according to John. For the actors at least, and the world-class directors like his friend Simon Phillips, Melbourne is the city it is today because they chose to stay, keeping their talents at home in Australia despite far more lucrative offers beckoning from overseas.
It all starts with drama, Molloy says. ‘You need a story and the show builds from there. It’s a communal craft where nothing works without the other. Music, design, performance, it’s all just making art.’ Theatre, he thinks, is a safe place and an altogether fantastic haven for anyone who feels different.
Waking up tomorrow, after thinking ‘I’ll never have to work another day in my life again,’ Molloy will start to think about what comes next. Currently, the future is wide open, he says. One thing is certain, he’ll never stop going to the theatre. After all, MTC is home.
Originally published on the Melbourne Theatre Company Backstage blog