Irene Mitchell MBE 1905-1995

Irene Mitchell

Irene Mitchell

Irene Gladys Mitchell was born in the Melbourne suburb of South Yarra on 24 November 1905.

Mitchell joined Louise Dunn’s all-female Shakespeare company, achieving notable success as a romantic, dashing Romeo at the Garrick Theatre in South Melbourne.

 

Daughter of Love

George Fairfax paid this tribute: ‘Known to her great family of “theatre children” as Renee, or Miss Mitch, or Teach, Irene Mitchell director, actor, teacher and theatre enthusiast was a mentor to thousands of actors, designers, playwrights and directors in Australia in a lifetime that spanned all but ten years of the 20th century. Long before Australian plays were fashionable or good box office, she was encouraging local writers, working with them on their texts and, above all, presenting their plays. Douglas Stewart, Vance Palmer, Sumner Locke Elliot, Ruth Park, Hal Porter, Oriel Grey, and Peter Kenna all had their plays directed by Irene Mitchell. As Oriel Grey said, “Irene could always get to the heart of a play.” She had a bubbling-over enthusiasm for young people. They were attracted to her and sought out her ideas, her friendship and her wisdom. The mighty influence she has had on her huge theatrical “family” will benefit Australian theatre for all time.’

‘I will go to see theatre in a backyard if I can gain something from it,’ Irene Mitchell told an interviewer in 1994. She kept her age to herself, but we know now that she was then 89 years young, still in love with theatre, still interested, concerned, and dedicated. ‘Audiences are not working hard enough at enjoying theatre,’ she admonished. ‘It should be a happy, enlightening event. If you sit through a play and don’t receive and absorb something, you will take nothing away with you. And as for dressing for theatre – well, yes, people should dress, even if it means undressing! Going to the theatre should be an event.’

Irene Gladys Mitchell was born in the Melbourne suburb of South Yarra on 24 November 1905 and brought up by doting grandparents. She learnt elocution with Louise Dunn, and it was probably this that propelled her into the world of theatre – as an extra in Saint Joan during the Sybil Thorndike season of 1932. The following year she made her first trip to England. Later she made regular pilgrimages to London. She would try to see every play, going to three a day if possible.

One of her early teachers was Dolia Ribush, who had worked with the Moscow Arts Theatre before settling in Australia. Soon after this, Mitchell joined Louise Dunn’s all-female Shakespeare company, achieving notable success as a romantic, dashing Romeo at the Garrick Theatre in South Melbourne – the Garrick was in the street now known as Southgate, opposite the stage door of Hamer Hall.

There was little professional stage work available in the grim Depression years. In an effort to generate work or at least provide experience for their fellow performers, a few enterprising actors became producers, often on a co-operative or semi-amateur basis. Brett Randall and Hal Percy, two out-of-work actors, had founded the Melbourne Little Theatre towards the end of 1931. For two years they were based mainly at the kiosk in Fawkner Park, but in 1934 they moved to the disused St Chad’s Chapel of Ease in South Yarra. It became an intimate 126-seat theatre with a handkerchief-sized stage.

 

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Biographical references

Sally Dawes: ‘Irene Mitchell’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995
Sally Dawes and Ross Thorne: ‘St Martin’s Theatre Company’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995
George Fairfax: ‘Creative lifetime of loving influence’, The Age, 24 July 1995
Programme: An Aboriginal Moomba – Out of the Dark, Princess Theatre, 1951
Frank Van Straten: ‘Irene Mitchell – Master Builder’, in Stages, November-December 1994