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Hollinworth, May (1895–1968)

by Lynne Murphy

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

May Hollinworth (1895-1968), theatrical producer and director, was born on 1 May 1895 at Homebush, Sydney, only child of native-born parents William Haley Harper Hollinworth, a wool clerk who became a theatrical producer, and his wife Alice Ida Louisa, née Dansie. May trained as a dancer, but suffered a broken leg; increasing weight put an end to that career. In 1926, while working as a demonstrator in chemistry at the University of Sydney, she began directing plays for the Sydney University Dramatic Society. In 1927 she achieved prominence with a controversial production of As You Like It in modern dress and by winning first prize (for her production of Oliphant Down's The Maker of Dreams) in a one-act play competition, awarded by Gregan McMahon of the Sydney Repertory Society.

Appointed resident director of S.U.D.S. in 1929, Hollinworth established her reputation as a top-ranking director in amateur circles with a series of splendidly mounted productions, including Rostand's L'Aiglon (1933), Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (1937) and Sheridan's The School for Scandal (1940). She served (1938-63) on the Playwrights' Advisory Board, established by Leslie Rees to encourage Australian dramatists. In the small S.U.D.S. clubrooms in George Street she directed Australian plays, as well as contemporary ones from overseas, such as T. S. Eliot's The Family Reunion; she continued her large-scale, classical productions in the university's Great Hall. Although she had worked as a freelance director on Alexander McDonald's Day Must Break (1937) at the Theatre Royal and presented Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral in the Town Hall in December 1943, Hollinworth believed in ensemble theatre and was happiest with her own company of actors, from whom she demanded and received complete loyalty. She cast them accurately, told them where to move on stage and then left them alone to develop characterization.

After resigning from S.U.D.S. early in 1943, Hollinworth soon drew a nucleus of actors around her to form the Metropolitan Players; Leo McKern, Jane Holland and Enid Lorimer were among them, as were, later, Betty Lucas, Dinah Shearing and Robin Lovejoy. In the remaining years of World War II they mainly presented light comedies and mystery thrillers at army camps and hospitals to entertain soldiers, and in suburban halls to stimulate civilian interest in the theatre.

In 1946 Hollinworth opened the Metropolitan Theatre (seating seventy) in Reiby Place, Circular Quay, using an ex-army amenities boxing-ring for a stage; Othello, her first production there, was deemed the 'finest performance of a Shakespeare play in Sydney for many years'. Another critic wrote of the fourth play, Molnár's Liliom, 'It is really staggering to see a play of this quality in a tiny hall while the big professional theatres show only trivial and meaningless potboilers'. Hollinworth presented one Australian play each year and began the 1947 season with Douglas Stewart's Ned Kelly. She had dreamed of running a professional repertory company, but no commercially viable theatre could be found. In 1949 the Metropolitan Theatre moved to the two-hundred-seat Christ Church St Laurence hall. While directing Edward Reeve's historical drama, Raymond, Lord of Milan, in 1950, Hollinworth became seriously ill and was forced to retire.

When her health improved, she was invited to direct at the Independent Theatre by her former rival (Dame) Doris Fitton who regarded her as 'a clever mysterious woman, and I always told her that she worked witchcraft with her actors'. Hollinworth's crowning achievement was her engagement by the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust to direct The Shifting Heart, Richard Beynon's prize-winning play, which opened at the Elizabethan Theatre on 4 October 1957 and toured Australia next year. Among her great strengths as a director were an excellent use of lighting and the grouping of her actors to form stage pictures which eloquently underlined the playwright's intentions.

During her later years Hollinworth was patron of the Pocket Playhouse Theatre, Sydenham, and an enthusiastic member of the All Nations Club, formed in the 1950s to encourage cultural exchange between immigrants and local citizens. In failing health from 1963, she became interested in the problems of the profoundly deaf and explored the use of theatre as an aid in communication. She died on 19 November 1968 in Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and was cremated with Anglican rites. In her will she bequeathed her house at Stanmore to the Adult Deaf and Dumb Society of New South Wales.

A shortish, square woman, with shrewd, dark eyes and a wide mouth that gave more than a hint of humour, Hollinworth had a cool intelligence and a quiet, commanding personality. She impressed by her achievements, having few words to waste in chat. In an age when talent, aspiration, innovation and tireless hard work received no subsidy, Hollinworth was single-minded in pursuit of excellence. She never married: her colleagues were her family and her life was the theatre.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Fitton, Not Without Dust and Heat (Syd, 1981)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1 Apr 1946, 12 May 1955, 20 Nov 1968, 22 Feb 1990
  • Bulletin, 9 Oct 1946
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 17 Mar 1957
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Lynne Murphy, 'Hollinworth, May (1895–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hollinworth-may-10522/text18675, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 25 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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