Irene Mitchell MBE 1905 – 1995
- Irene Mitchell MBE 1905 – 1995
Irene Mitchell MBE 1905 – 1995
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.
Their first production there was Georg Kaiser’s From Morn to Midnight and their leading lady was Irene Mitchell. She recalled, ‘In the first act I played a lady and in the second I was a prostitute – quite a marvellous debut!’ Thus started her long association with the Melbourne Little Theatre, later renamed St Martin’s.
Like many other actors of her generation, Mitchell found paying work in radio. She announced, hosted and acted on commercial stations and the ABC. It was an ABC producer, John Cairns, who recruited her for the inaugural drama production of Gertrude Johnson’s National Theatre Movement, As You Like It, at the Princess in 1937. It was an instant success, and Mitchell’s Rosalind won special praise.
When war broke out several male members of the Little Theatre team joined up, so Brett Randall invited Mitchell to join him in running the theatre. She stage managed, acted, taught and, increasingly, directed. She delighted in discovering and nurturing new talent. It was she who directed the world premiere of Enduring as the Camphor Tree, a delicate fantasy by the Australian playwright Russell Oakes. That was in 1946. She directed Sumner Locke Elliott’s Invisible Circus shortly after and Douglas Stewart’s Shipwreckin 1950. Perhaps her most extraordinary achievement was designing and staging The Women, with its all-female cast of 31, on the tiny St Chad’s stage. A hard task master and a perfectionist, Mitchell was as comfortable with Antigone or The Madwoman of Chaillot as she was with Hay Fever or Only an Orphan Girl.
Irene Mitchell relished new challenges. For the Brotherhood of St Laurence she directed Gaol Does Not Cure, a ground-breaking 20-minute film about alcoholism, shot in the slums of Fitzroy. She assisted with staging Carols by Candlelight and, in 1951, produced and directed the moving and innovative An Aboriginal Moomba – Out of the Dark, Australia’s first professionally-staged all-Aboriginal production. It was presented at the Princess Theatre for the Commonwealth Jubilee celebrations with a 40-strong cast including Harold Blair, Georgia Lee, Doug Nichols and Bill Onus. Well-known writer and Little Theatre stalwart Jean Campbell was, in her own words, ‘the scriptress’. The cast crowned Mitchell their Princess, their Daughter of Love. Later, it was she who suggested ‘Moomba’ – meaning ‘let’s get together and have fun’ – as the name for Melbourne’s annual festival.
It gave her special pleasure to follow the careers of people she’d worked with at the Little – a theatrical who’s who that included George Fairfax, Frank Thring, Pamela Stephenson, Brian James, Terry Norris, Julia Blake, Beverley Dunn, Moira Carleton, Norman Kaye, Anne Charleston, Ernie Bourne, Noel Ferrier, Jon Finlayson, Sheila Florance, Zoe Caldwell and – of course – John Truscott, her unofficial adopted son. He came to the Little from the National and was resident designer for six years. It was Mitchell who introduced him to Garnet H. Carroll; this eventually led to his work on Camelot on stage and screen. Mitchell was Truscott’s guest at the 1968 Academy Awards, when he received two Oscars for his Camelot art direction.
By then the Little Theatre had outgrown the humble confines of St Chad’s. The tiny church was demolished and replaced with a handsome 400-seat theatre, built with money donated by patrons and performers. The new Little Theatre opened in August 1956 with Jean Giraudoux’s Tiger at the Gates, a splendid production by Irene Mitchell, who was from then on the company’s artistic director and part of a management team that included Peter Randall (Brett’s son) and George Fairfax. The theatre was renamed St Martin’s in 1962 and company became fully professional. With a strong subscriber base and Mitchell at the helm, St Martin’s flourished. For her services to theatre, she was made a Member of the British Empire in 1975.
By the early 1970s St Martin’s was losing audiences to subsidised theatres such as the MTC, the Australian Performing Group and La Mama. The company ceased production in 1973. The MTC used the theatre until 1977 when, at Mitchell’s suggestion and with the support of the Randall family, it was sold to the Victorian Government to become St Martin’s Youth Arts Centre. A second performance space was added and in 1990 this was renamed ‘The Irene Mitchell Studio’. In its regenerated form St Martin’s has nurtured a new generation of talent, including Jane Turner, Gina Riley, Catherine McClements, Mark Trevorrow, Barrie Kosky, Noah Taylor, Ben Mendelsohn and Dan Spielman – just as Mitchell intended.
In 1986 Irene Mitchell received The Green Room Awards Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award. In her last years she led the team of volunteers helping identify, sort and file the vast collection of theatrical ephemera that was flooding in to the Victorian Arts Centre’s newly-established Performing Arts Collection. This houses the extensive St Martin’s archives as well as Mitchell’s own personal memorabilia – rich resources documenting 60 years of theatrical activity.
Irene Mitchell died on 7 July 1995. Her ashes were scattered at St Martin’s, beneath the ancient peppercorn tree that she loved. A memorial plaque marks the spot. In her memory the Victorian College of the Arts offers an annual Irene Mitchell Scholarship for a Third Year Drama Student, recognising his or her study achievements in Second Year.
Frank Van Straten, 2007
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