A Role to Play

The Heslop Sisters Collect Maitland’s Stage History

As the house lights dimmed, the boisterous chatter of the capacity crowd that packed the Maitland Town Hall on 6 August 1929, reduced to a hush. It was the opening night of the Maitland Musical and Operatic Society production of Going Up, and young Una Heslop, a member of the chorus, was waiting in the wings. Imagine her excitement, and maybe her nerves, as the curtains parted.

After the show, when Una returned to her family’s home at 45 Charles Street, Maitland, she might have had a copy of the show’s souvenir programme with her. Una and her sisters Vera, Edna, Esma, Mena and Roma, were avid supporters of the local musical and theatre productions.

The performing arts have a long tradition in Maitland, with talent from elsewhere being invited to star in productions staged by the Maitland Musical and Operatic Society (established 1911), Maitland Dramatic Art Club (1949-1960),Maitland Repertory Society (established in 1947) and the Arts Council of NSW (Maitland Branch) (established in 1951).

Occasionally, the Heslop girls were involved on stage in these productions, in minor supporting roles. Otherwise, they seem to have been in the audiences of many shows staged at the Maitland Town Hall between 1925 and 1960, where they collected 19 printed programmes, and acquired 21 photographs of the casts of shows between 1925 and 1934, recorded by local photographer Ernest Cameron (1892-1940).

But while the Heslops were not the stars of the show, they played an even more important role for Maitland. The programmes and photographs they collected, and which Mona and her son John Sharkey donated to Maitland City Library, are documents of local businesses and the participation of long-standing community members across the decades. They now survive as a rare and detailed archive of Maitland’s amateur performing arts scene throughout the early to mid-twentieth century.