Dame Doris Fitton OBE CBE DBE 1897-1985

Doris Fitton

Dame Doris Fitton

Doris Alice Fitton was born in Manila, the Philippines, on 3 November 1897, the daughter of an English businessman and his Australian wife.

She made her stage debut on her 18th birthday in his production of Elizabeth Baker’s The Price of Thomas Scott at the Athenaeum Hall in Melbourne.

In January 1931 Fitton moved her company to the Savoy Theatre in Bligh Street, opening there with A.A. Milne’s Michael and Mary. It was her directorial debut.

 

Persistence of vision

In his Foreword to Doris Fitton’s 1981 autobiography, Sumner Locke Elliott wrote: ‘In the beginning was Doris. And Doris was the Independent Theatre and the Independent Theatre was Doris. The Independent was the epitome of the Fabulous Invalid, constantly being pronounced dead or on the point of death, bankruptcy, insolvency, obsolescence, always surviving; the spirit that pervaded it was unconquerable, wilful, determined, exasperating, energetic, positive – Miss Fitton. There was a figure of a woman in voluminous draperies lifting up her arms on the original logo for the program; the very essence of Doris, arms held high in triumph. Noel Coward visited Australia in 1940 on behalf of Red Cross, and I was Doris’s escort at the formal dinner for him. It was not a theatrical occasion. We shook hands with the Master, who by then had shaken four hundred and ninety-eight hands. There was a moment’s pause. Doris leaned forward and said in a conspiratorial way, “We’re of the theatre”. Mr Coward’s blue eyes snapped and then the internationally-known clipped voice said, “I knew it. I could see it shining from you”.’

Doris Alice Fitton was born in Manila, the Philippines, on 3 November 1897, the daughter of an English businessman and his Australian wife. The family moved to Australia in 1902. Enamoured with the stage, Fitton was accepted as a pupil by Gregan McMahon. She made her stage debut on her 18th birthday in his production of Elizabeth Baker’s The Price of Thomas Scott at the Athenaeum Hall in Melbourne. Her first professional engagement was with J.C. Williamson’s – a small role in Edward Sheldon’s Romance at the Theatre Royal in July 1916. After that she continued to study and act for McMahon at the Athenaeum Hall and the Playhouse in Melbourne.

Fitton moved to Sydney, married, and worked again with McMahon, who had founded the Sydney Repertory Theatre. In 1921 she appeared for him as her forebear, Elizabeth Fitton, in Bernard Shaw’s The Dark Lady of the Sonnets. There was more Shaw for McMahon (Candida, Androcles and the Lion) then several important smaller roles in plays for Williamson’s, including Cradle Snatchers, Rain and The Donovan Affair. In 1928 she joined Don Finlay’s Turret Theatre at Milsons Point, acting and helping with the administration. She studied English repertory theatre, the Theatre Guild of New York and the Moscow Art Theatre, and discovered that Stanislavsky’s book My Life in Art confirmed the ideals and teachings of Gregan McMahon.

When the Turret closed in 1930, Fitton and a group of dedicated friends formed the Independent Theatre, with Nellie Stewart as its first patron. The Independent debuted with Siegfried Geyer’s Viennese comedy By Candlelight at the St James Hall in Phillip Street on 3 August 1930. In January 1931 Fitton moved her company to the Savoy Theatre in Bligh Street, opening there with A.A. Milne’s Michael and Mary. It was her directorial debut. From then on she concentrated on directing, but her occasional acting appearances were always memorable.

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Biographical references

Benita Brebach and Jessica Noad: ‘Doris Fitton’ and ‘Independent Theatre’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia,Currency Press, 1995
Doris Fitton: Not Without Dust and Heat, Harper & Row, 1981
Carolyn Lowry: The SBW Independent Theatre, The SBW Friends of the Independent Theatre, 2001
Independent Theatre 40th Birthday Souvenir Book, Independent Theatre, 1970
Ailsa McPherson: A Dream of Passion: Theatre Activity in North Sydney, Stanton Library, North Sydney Council, 1993