John Milson has been a leader in WA theatre since arriving from Sydney in 1971 to direct a Gilbert & Sullivan Society show.
In the 40-odd years since, Milson has run the old Hole in the Wall theatre company, directed shows for Opera Australia, the Australian Opera Studio, Effie Crump Theatre and instigated the world-renowned musical theatre course at the WA Academy of Performing Arts, which he ran for 12 years.
Now aged 74, Milson's achievements as a director and mentor earned him an Order of Australia honour, although he prefers a minimum of personal publicity and fuss.
"My only function in life is directing," he says, surrounded in his Subiaco home by the clutter of creativity ahead of yet another G&S Society production, which opens this week.
"I have a one-track mind. I always have. Nothing else has appealed. I worked in film for a while and I worked in television for a while in Sydney but it has always been the theatre for me.
"I have always been a chameleon in that I love it all. I do a hell of a lot of opera and musicals and I have run drama theatres. I get great delight from theatre. My idea of a holiday is to go to the theatre."
Despite the notoriously fickle nature of the business, Milson says remarkably that he has barely been out of work in his life. He still directs a few productions each year and teaches part-time at WAAPA
The G&S Society has called on Milson's services as a director many times since that first production of Ruddigore at the Fremantle Town Hall in 1971. His latest engagement is not for yet another version of The Mikado, HMAS Pinafore or Pirates of Penzance, however, but for Franz Lehar's 1929 operetta The Land of Smiles.
Much like Bell Shakespeare occasionally branches out to stage plays by his contemporaries, the G&S Society should sometimes step beyond the repertoire of 15 comic operas by the Victorian-era duo to freshen up its appeal, Milson says.
"It helps with things like The Land of Smiles that might appeal to more people," he says, "otherwise there is no future for the society."
Chinese tenor Jun Zhang, a protege of Milson from the AOS and WA Conservatorium, is the leading man in the east-west romance from Lehar, who also wrote The Merry Widow.
Set in 1912 in Vienna and China, The Land of Smiles has all the usual operetta frivolity, waltzes and arias, including the popular You are my Heart's Delight, but Milson says it is more like a modern musical because its characters have a complexity not normally seen in operetta.
After 40 years of working in Perth, with occasional stints back on the east coast, Milson says much has changed from the heyday of theatre in the 1970s.
"It is very interesting watching how things change, life changes, people's outlook and philosophies change. They want different things in entertainment," he says.
Like the legendary stage composer Stephen Sondheim, Milson believes theatre is in terminal decline. Audiences these days only go to see musicals adapted from movies, amazing technical effects or stars like Jerry Hall in the Graduate at His Majesty's Theatre in 2010, he says.
"I must admit I'd never heard of Jerry Hall but I was the only one in town who hadn't," he says. "There's the proof of what Sondheim was saying. You name W. Shakespeare on the marquee or in this country D. Williamson: they are no longer drawcards. People go mainly for name players."
In 2005, after a brush with death caused by kidney failure and despairing over the paucity of theatre in Perth, Milson threatened to return for good to Sydney, where his career began as a child actor working on radio dramas.
He is still sticking it out, though.
"I would go home tomorrow except that everybody I grew up or worked with in the business in Sydney is either retired, incapacitated or dead," he laughs. "I'd be sitting in a one-bedroom flat in the Cross and the phone wouldn't be ringing. Here, I stay busy and I keep the mind engaged."
Milson acknowledges his health is failing but he still has plans to direct a production of Les Miserables at the Regal Theatre in October. After that, he doesn't have a clue.
"It sounds incredible but it is true," he says. "I have never really been out of work in my life. I am like Mr Micawber in that something will always turn up. I am very fatalistic about it. Now that I haven't got the energy I used to have I am grateful that life is a little more gentle on me.
"The brain is going 19 to the dozen but I do get a little bit tired. But at my age what do I expect?"
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