In this podcast, we feature someone with a unique connection to STC. John Preston, our Production Workshops Manager is retiring after 38 years with the company.
John, or JP, as we all know him, has worked with the company from its first day. No one else knows the Wharf and STC's history the way he does. And, as the luminaries below can attest, he's a much-loved and admired figure behind the scenes.
Memories of JP
"John Preston is a giant among men, and will be nigh impossible to replace, very big shoes to fill. Such a kind and calm and cheerful disposition and a truly beautiful smile even when he would scold me for walking through the workshop in open toed shoes, a health and safety issue begging to be broken by a lawless actress, but the walk along the inside of the wharf on the way to rehearsals is one of the great perks of working at the STC! That and knowing you'd see the dear face of John Preston most days."
Jacki Weaver, actor
"When I think of the physical creation of STC and The Wharf, I think of three people: Richard Wherrett, Donald McDonald (the former GM) and John Preston. From day one, JP was there, doing battle with the former residents, the pigeons and the rats, supervising the bringing together of the disparate departments of the company – which were, pre-wharf, spread all over Sydney – to fashion a theatre-home and construction department that are practical and efficient and envied by theatre-makers across the globe. He even took it well when Donald and I varied the wharf design, reversing the production-line direction of the wharf, putting the theatres and the bar (and restaurant) at the deep end and the workshops, which JP supervised, at the shallow end. But he saw the logic: the raw ingredients, be they actors or plywood, enter via the bridge above Hickson Road and travel, department by department, along the 200 metres of the wharf towards completion, where applause and wine awaited, and, if you hadn’t enjoyed the show, a magnificent compensatory view. John was also crucial in alerting me, when I moved from literary manager to succeed Richard as the director of the company, to ‘the rat rebellion’ – when the former residents struck back and began eating the STC’s history: cardboard archival boxes stored in a former wharfies’ loo just below what is now John's splendid office. The result, when the government eventually disposed of the thousands of rats, was the STC archives, an entity housing a collection of memories that provide an educational tool, and something solid in an ephemeral art form – it’s an asset also envied by those beyond STC. John delights in the history of the wharf (and, hopefully, his role in creating it) as well as the STC in toto and its predecessor, the Old Tote. In effect, he is a walking history and I can’t wait to read his memoirs as he knows where all the bodies are buried. Personally, I’ve also experienced him as a friend as well as the man charged with realising the production dreams of directors and designers. He and his co-workers always delivered, even when the double-revolves broke, the actors were hysterical and that fireplace just HAD to be re-built just one more time. He was unflappable, as solid as a rock, or a pylon, upon which the theatre company and its home, rest."
Wayne Harrison, former Artistic Director of STC
"JP is the embodiment of the STC’s history. He was a survivor of the notorious crash-and-burn of the Old Tote Theatre Company and one of the few who made the transition across to the phoenix that was the newly minted Sydney Theatre Company in 1978. His recollections of both the trauma that surrounded the end of the Old Tote and the challenges in establishing the Sydney Theatre Company are not only a wonderful resource but also marvelous entertainment in their own right. He has seen it all – from the time when the STC’s operation were scattered across the city from Kensington to Kings Cross to Bennelong Point, to the heady days of the transformation of Pier 4/5 into arguably the most beautiful and functional base of any theatre company in the world. He has built and then rebuilt the STC’s unique and splendid Archive – and will doubtless provide many valuable hours of oral history that will provide theatre historians of the future with the extraordinary perspective of one of the true gentlemen of the Australian theatre."
Rob Brookman, former General Manager of STC
"I first met JP in 1989, when I was working on The Ham Funeral. Even back then, JP seemed to be a kind of figurehead for the company. John is privileged to hold a deep understanding of every artistic director's vision from founding artistic director Richard Wherrett to present day's Kip Williams. What he must have witnessed over that time – the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly – the chaos and joy of theatre making. He is always there on opening night with his wife Christine (she too deserves a medal), and they always seem to find something to love in every show. I think that is what John has brought to STC the most – 'love', love for the theatre, and love for everyone who has come to play. Thank you John Preston, we are indebted to you for your grace and enthusiasm, happy retirement and see you at the theatre!"
Julie Lynch, designer
"JP, as he is fondly known, was a familiar figure throughout my history as a Sydney actress. He just seemed to always be there. When I was STC AD his was the gentle smiling face I encountered every day. Reliable, resourceful, cheerful and always THERE. The Wharf will carry his DNA. We love him."
Robyn Nevin, former Artistic Director of STC
"John Preston for me IS the Sydney Theatre Company. He has seen and built it all. He knows every story about every artist, creative and crew member that has been through its doors. Since I first first worked for the STC in 1992, John has been that smiling and welcoming face who always remembers your name, who always infects you with his positivity and mischief and sense of fun. His energy infected the rest of workshop too - they are the merriest of workshops anywhere and I always choose to walk through as much of workshop as I can when working there rather than up the public walkway to get their good vibes. (And I always used the Scenic Art toilet so I could snatch a chat with JP when he resided above them). John has also been enormously generous to me and many other independent theatre makers over the years who've needed the odd loan of a bit of rostra or scenery. Hell, he even loaned me some megadeck for my 40th birthday party. He also has a great love for theatre - it's in his blood and he cares about the product and the people who make it. Watching him post photos of past productions on Instagram over the past few weeks has reminded me of the breadth and depth of his experience at the STC. I'm glad the Preston Award is now an institution at STC, I'm glad he gets to rest as he embarks on his next chapter but I'm glad he'll still be on Insta to post pictures of cute beagles if not of wonderful future shows. He's a legend and I love him."
Mitchell Butel, actor
"John Preston was there from the beginning. I was in the first acting company of STC, under Richard Wherrett. I remember moving in to The Wharf. In fact, at the opening party, under JP's supervision, I was the first person to sing in that theatre. JP oversaw Chicago, which went on to become one of the biggest hits for the company ever. We played for two years and even played Hong Kong. JP did it all, including the mixups with the set builders in Hong Kong. Great memories. I wish him a long and happy retirement. STC won't be the same!"
Geraldine Turner, actor