Heidelberg Theatre Company began with a bang.  No actual gunpowder was involved but there were plenty of sparks flying at its inception. 

It was formed by members of the now defunct Heidelberg National Theatre in a time, now alas long past, when break away groups were common and there was a proliferation of amateur theatre companies in the suburbs of Melbourne, almost as many as there were pubs in Port Melbourne. 

It’s 1952, the era of 6 o’clock closing in those pubs, shops where doors closed at 5 on weekdays and noon on Saturdays, there was no television and the only espresso machine in Melbourne is at the wrong end of Bourke Street.  So what was a person to do for entertainment – join an amateur theatre company!  Or better still – start your own!  And that’s just what happened with the Heidelberg Theatre Company.

The group, then known as the Heidelberg Repertory Company, was the brainchild of Reg Rudd, Director-Producer of the new Rep together with Elaine Robinson, Joyce Whitfield, Stella Dunn, Len Dean and Mel Morgan.  To launch the Group the Company enlisted the aid of the Adult Education Association Drama Group with whom they became allied and the play chosen was that pretty much forgotten piece, Liliom by Ferenec Molnar. 

The November 8th 1952 edition of the Listener In describes the ‘elaborate construction’ of the Company’s first show as a ‘considerable obstacle in the staging’ …’among its seven scene changes are an amusement park, a shop, railroad embankment, heavenly courtroom and a cottage”  And then there was the cast of 30, including Fern Matthews, as a Servant Girl.  Fern, a Life Member of the Company, remains one of its greatest supporters and she can be found in her favourite place, seat F10, at the first matinee of each show.

And wisely, after Liliom it wasn’t until thirty-five years later that the Company staged another show that was more elaborate and had an even bigger cast.  It was 1987 when The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby took audiences, not to mention the cast and crew’s breath away with the magnitude of the production.

Liliom was staged in the Eisteddford Hall, now the Banyule Arts Space and the Company played there until 1954 when it moved to the Methodist Church Hall in East Ivanhoe and then in 1959 the Company took up residence in the Rechabite Hall in Ivanhoe where it performed until 1982, and so began a pattern of ‘renovations’ to its premises. 

Members of the Company built a proscenium-arch stage and added a foyer and bio box to the Hall.  The intimate theatre seated 84, and six plays were presented each year for a ten night season.  This was where the Company performed until in 1982 the Company took up residence in its current home, 36 Turnham Avenue, Rosanna, which had begun its life as a bus depot.

The Company purchased the building in 1974 and following negotiations with the Heidelberg Council it was gifted to them in 1980 when the Council provided $100,000 towards converting the depot into a 124 seat theatre that the Company still leases from the Council.  Bill Cherrey, Actor, Director and the Company’s President for many years handled the negotiations with Council and was instrumental in ensuring that the Company’s interests were best served.  In his memory The Bill Cherrey Award is presented to a member of the Company each year at the AGM, by his wife June, a current Committee Member who has also actively worked for the Company since she and Bill joined in the early 50s.

A number of renovations have been carried out since the original fitting out, when much of the work was done by willing members and friends of the Company.  Later improvements include a larger foyer with office space, an improved lighting and sound box and a mezzanine area known as The Green Room which is dedicated to the memory of Elaine Robinson, whose vision for the Company to purchase its own theatre inspired members in the 1960s and 70s to achieve this goal. 

In 2000 air conditioning was installed and a revolve built into the stage, and backstage storage facilities for flats, props and wardrobe were welcome additions.  Last year new auditorium seating replaced the 30 year old second hand red seats, sourced by Alice Bugge from a children’s theatre that had closed.  Also in 2010, in memory of the work and dedication Alice gave to our Theatre, a Memorial Garden was designed and built at the front of the Theatre.  The Banyule Council has continued to assist the Company financially with contributions towards the many renovations and improvements to the Theatre.

When we aren’t pulling the place apart or adding bits on we’re putting on shows, at last count, 386 of them over our 60 years.  These include, one act plays, children’s and youth theatre, pantomimes, and full length productions; comedies, dramas, and farce and even the odd musical.  Many memorable and some best forgotten!

Over the years the Company entered plays competitively in drama festivals including the Royal South Street Competitions, Ballarat, the Victorian Drama League’s one-act festivals, the Mordialloc Arts Festival and the Moomba and Waverley Festivals of Community Theatre.  Like many of the non-professional companies, Heidelberg had its turn at winning awards for all facets of theatre – production, direction, acting, set design, light, sound and costume at these festivals. 

But the days of competing in festivals where the Company had to pack up the show, load it onto a truck, drive it across the countryside, unload and erect the set, put the show on that night, then pull it all apart when the curtain came down, load it back on the truck and take it home, hopefully with some recognition for the effort in the form of a silver tray, trophy or unusual piece of pottery to show for their efforts and talent are long gone. 

Now, thankfully, the VDL Adjudicators come to us and all the competing companies have the chance to get together and celebrate the phenomena of non-professional theatre in these different times, doing so in a civilised fashion with dinner, and a chance to mingle at the VDL Awards.  That’s what we at HTC call progress!

The travelling the Company does these days is to share shows with other non-professional companies, a trend that is proving to be popular with many groups.  In 2010 Williamstown Little Theatre agreed to their production of Glorius! being staged at Heidelberg and last year our production of The History Boys was on the WLT Playbill and the Athenaeum production of The 39 Steps was presented at Heidelberg.  Arrangements that proved beneficial artistically and financially for all concerned.

And this year to mark our 60th Anniversary we are bringing back, by popular demand, four plays our audiences said they would like to see produced again; The Lion In Winter, The Importance of Being Earnest, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll and Arsenic and Old Lace.  Everyone thought we’d ‘done’ our fifth production, An Inspector Calls, but it had slipped though the net, so now it’s the ‘new’ play in our 60th Anniversary Season.

If there is one thing theatre companies know how to do it’s celebrate!  So the Company takes this opportunity to invite all members of the non-professional theatre world to its shows this year and to its celebrations.  There will be special suppers on the opening nights and first Sunday matinees for each play in the season where cast and crew from the original shows will be invited to mingle with patrons and the members of the current productions. 

Later in the year we’ll be holding a Reminiscent Afternoon, on, where everyone who has played, worked or watched our shows will be invited to come along and share their memories and meet old friends.  And to finish off this special year, a party will be held at the Theatre following the Annual General Meeting on Sunday December 16th

Theatre companies, including Heidelberg, would be nothing without its members and audiences, many of whom have worked for and supported the Company over many years.  With sixty years of Theatre behind it, the Company has seen many people come and go; actors, crews, set builders, technicians, front of house staff and committee members, all the roles that make it possible for the Company to function and thrive.

Over those sixty years we’ve been from ancient Greece in togas and sandals with Medea, and Antigone to 1079 with Abelard and Heloise and then to another tale of star crossed lovers, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and for good measure we’ve done Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Shakespeare’s Shorts!  We’ve met Australia’s first white settlers in Our Country’s Good and traipsed the country with Burke and Wills, been to Don’s Party and lived The One Day Of The Year. We’ve gone overboard with costumes for Les Liaisons Dangereuses, A Man For All Seasons, Amadeus, A Flea In Her Ear and The Rehearsal.  We’ve done gory with Knackers ABC and creepy with The Woman in Black and Waiting For Dark, silly with Dinner, Ten Time Tables, The Imaginary Invalid and See How They Run.  And in 2010 we finished the year with a bang with The 39 Steps and Under Milk Wood.

If you’d like to come and be a part of the Company, we’ll make you very welcome, call us on 9455 3039 or book for our shows, online at htc.org.au or call the Ticket Box on 9457 4117.

Celebrate with Heidelberg in 2012 as they present exciting new interpretations of plays the Company has presented over the years: An Inspector Calls, The Importance of Being Earnest, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll and Arsenic and Old Lace.
For booking info: http://home.vicnet.net.au/~htc/tickets.html

*Article conceived and written by Toni Tyers
**Article first appeared in Theatrecraft March 2012 edition and is reprinted here with permission of author Toni Tyers and the Heidelberg Theatre Company.