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Tasker, John Howard (1933–1988)

by Margaret Leask

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

John Howard Tasker (1933-1988), theatre and opera director, was born on 25 May 1933 at Hamilton, Newcastle, New South Wales, one of two surviving children of English-born Charles Howard Tasker, coalminer, and his New South Wales-born wife Elizabeth, née Sneddon. Educated at Newcastle Boys’ High School, John participated in drama activities with the Workers’ Educational Association, where he met the actor Kester Berwick with whom he travelled to Europe as an 18-year-old. From 1952 he studied at the Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Art, gaining a University of London teaching diploma in 1955. He subsequently taught secondary English at Walworth School, London. In 1956 he was treated for cancer. He met the bisexual author Colin Spencer at Brighton in 1957, before working in theatre in Austria and Germany. Spencer later wrote about their passionate and fraught relationship, and Tasker’s enthusiastic creativity and addiction to European culture.

After Tasker’s return to Australia, his 1960 production in Sydney of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex attracted not only the enthusiasm of critics but also that of Patrick White, who insisted that he direct The Ham Funeral for the University of Adelaide Theatre Guild in 1961. The Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust presented the play at the Palace Theatre, Sydney, in 1962 and Tasker published his notes on it in Meanjin Quarterly in 1964. He directed two more White premières for the guild—The Season at Sarsaparilla in 1962 and Night on Bald Mountain in 1964. He and White (who nicknamed him Tilly) fell out over Tasker’s criticisms of A Cheery Soul. David Marr described him as ‘the pale, flirtatious, caustic, beautiful, obstinate young man’ whom White’s lover, Manoly Lascaris, acknowledged brought the excitement of theatre back to the centre of White’s life.

In 1960 Tasker began a twenty-seven-year association with the National Institute of Dramatic Art as a visiting tutor and director. He directed eight student productions there, including his last, Another Country, in 1987. The critic H. G. Kippax described him as the ‘enfant terrible of theatre’ in the 1960s, exemplified by his period as founding artistic director of the fledgling South Australian Theatre Company. Funded by the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, Tasker was appointed in 1965 to set up this new company that initially was homeless. He directed ten plays in Adelaide, including the acclaimed 1966 Festival production of The Royal Hunt of the Sun. Katharine Brisbane observed that he ‘was ahead of the times, and this made for success with audiences and confrontation with managements’. At loggerheads with the board over budgets and program (and no doubt his flamboyant lifestyle), he left in 1967. He made films and briefly advised the South Australian premier, Donald Dunstan, on his election campaign.

Back in Sydney, as a freelance professional director Tasker became associated with the New Theatre, where he directed the controversial America Hurrah! in 1968. One of the three short plays in this work, Motel, was banned by the chief secretary E. A. Willis. In Melbourne three actors in the cast of Tasker’s next work, The Boys in the Band, faced charges of having used obscene language. Tasker received the 1969 Melbourne critics’ best director award for this play, which was also his biggest commercial success. He was provoked into print against Australia’s censorship laws, with an article on ‘Theatre and the Spectre of Stage Censorship’ in the Australian and a chapter, ‘Censorship in the Theatre’, in Australia’s Censorship Crisis (1970) edited by Geoffrey Dutton and Max Harris. Tasker concluded that ‘When theatre is recognized as the art in which we speak most directly to each other, there will be as little need for censorship as there is in the bedroom’.

Tasker’s first opera production was Britten’s Albert Herring in 1966 in New Zealand. This was followed by The Rake’s Progress for the Australian Opera in 1970 and the Australian premières, in Adelaide, of Janacek’s The Excursions of Mr Broucek in 1974 and Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in 1984. He also directed seven operas for the Canberra Opera including The Consul, La Belle Hélène and The Turn of the Screw.

Between 1969 and 1977 Tasker was artistic adviser to the New South Wales division of the Arts Council of Australia. He oversaw the Australian visits of Jerzy Grotowski’s Polish Laboratory Theatre; taught at the WEA and Arts Council summer schools; and gave master classes and adjudicated drama festivals in regional areas. He encouraged the Joint Coal Board to fund the establishment in Newcastle of the Hunter Valley Theatre Company. In 1972 he led the ‘Save Sydney’s Theatre Royal’ campaign, later negotiating for the inclusion of a theatre in the new development. He wrote occasionally for the Bulletin, Sydney Morning Herald and Australian.

In 1977 Tasker advised the National Theatre Company in Papua New Guinea. Next year he directed The Good Woman of Setzuan for the Port Moresby Theatre Group. The Canadian government invited him there for a month in 1979. Following the success of his Albert Park (Roma Street Parkland) outdoor production of As You Like It for the Queensland Theatre Company in 1981, he directed a Singaporean adaptation of The Beggar’s Opera, Samseng and the Chettiar’s Daughter, for the 1982 Singapore Festival of Arts.

Preferring plays with a strong social message, Tasker directed productions such as Ralph Peterson’s The Night of the Ding Dong (1966); Betty Roland’s The Touch of Silk, at the Independent Theatre (1975); Peter Kenna’s The Cassidy Album trilogy, in Adelaide (1978); Martin Sherman’s Bent (1980); and Donald Macdonald’s Caravan (1983), while he was resident director at Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre. He was artistic director of the Festival of New Australian Plays at the Sydney Festival in 1984.

Always creating a buzz of excitement, Tasker inspired actors to strong loyalty or aversion. Theatre colleagues described him as volatile, inspirational, perfectionist, compulsive, difficult, innovative and entertaining. He was widely read, and enjoyed Australian wine, cooking and entertaining. Openly homosexual, he was committed to plays dealing with gay causes and issues, such as William Hoffman’s  As Is, about acquired immune deficiency syndrome, which he directed in Sydney in 1987. He died of cancer on 18 June 1988 in his home at Darlinghurst, Sydney, and was cremated. With funds from the sale of paintings that Tasker had left to Philip Parsons, the Sydney Theatre Critics’ Circle created an annual award in his memory.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Dutton and M. Harris (eds), Australia’s Censorship Crisis (1970)
  • C. Spencer, Which of Us Two? (1990)
  • D. Marr (ed), Patrick White: Letters (1994)
  • P. Parsons (ed), Companion to Theatre in Australia (1995)
  • Australian, 29 Oct 1969, p 12
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 June 1988, p 7
  • J. Tasker papers, Performing Arts Collection of SA (Adelaide Festival Centre)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Margaret Leask, 'Tasker, John Howard (1933–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/tasker-john-howard-15686/text26882, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 21 November 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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