Memories of Irene Mitchell and the Melbourne Little Theatre
This is the text of my talk given to the members of Theatre Heritage at St Martin’s Theatre on Sunday 22 November 2015
Thank you for being here today to share with me some memories of Irene Mitchell and the Melbourne Little Theatre. And I’d like to say at the outset that although the theatre and company officially changed its name to the St Martin’s in 1962 to me it will always be ‘the Little’ so please bear with me if this is how i refer to it today . I will sometimes call Miss Mitchell Renee or Irene but I never once addressed her in this way …..not that she would have minded…but to me she was always Miss Mitch.
We are also here to celebrate, what would have been Miss Mitch’s 110th birthday on Tuesday 24th November. Mind you, she would have hated this announcement. She, and her close friend Betty Pounder, jealously guarded any details of their age. I remember Pounder’s astonishment when she was at the arts ministry. Paul Clarkson, who was its head at that time, called her in because, at the age of 65, she was obliged to retire. Pounder was totally shocked a) that Paul knew her age and b) that it was being openly discussed. The ministry’s loss was the arts centre’s gain as Pounder joined us in the programming department. I only learned Miss Mitch’s age when i accompanied her to hospital and the very indiscreet admissions person read out her date of birth in a loud voice. She was furious and I pretended I hadn’t heard.
I can only say that both Miss Mitch and Pounder were two of the youngest people i’ve ever met in terms of attitude, enthusiasm and openness to new ideas.
I first gave this talk several years ago in the Spotlight series organised by Patricia Convery at the Arts Centre. So if you were there then, I hope you think it is worth re-visiting today – both to celebrate the theatre which played such an important role in Melbourne’s cultural development and a great woman of the theatre who embodied it.
I can honestly say that meeting Miss Mitchell and entering the Little world was one of the defining moments of my life, and I know from the friends I made at the time … friends who are still in my life today…just how influenced their own lives have been by their Little Theatre experiences .
First some background information about the formation of the theatre.
Brett Randall was its creator and guiding light for many years. He was a theatre man through and through. Born in England in 1884, he ran away from school at the age of 14 and became a roustabout for a slot machine company. At 15 he had joined a portable theatre at Stockton. These theatres, built of wooden panels with a lashed on canvas roof, would move around the English countryside performing well loved melodramas of the day such as East Lynne. Brett gained invaluable experience there acting, selling programmes, distributing dodgers, taking tickets and in particular learning something which would stand him in great stead in the years to come - how to run a theatre company on the smell of an oily rag.
Subsequently, Brett was summoned to Ireland by his father to join the pantomime company he was managing there. Later Brett toured with other companies sometimes acting, sometimes stage managing and in 1907 he became the general manager of the Holloway Empire, a substantial variety theatre in North London. Celebrities of the day who played this theatre were Charlie Chaplin, WC Fields, and Marie Lloyd among others.
After serving in the First World War, Brett ran a number of touring companies but as the Depression deepened in Britain he decided to head for a new life in the southern hemisphere. 1926 found him in Australia performing with Joseph Cunningham’s Comedy Players in ‘The Sport of Kings - it was during the run of this play that Brett learned he was losing his eyesight, a condition which progressively worsened throughout his life.
Like everywhere else, the Depression really hit Australia hard. In 1931 theatres were closing as talkies became the new form of entertainment. Now unemployed, Brett visited Melbourne’s Green Room Club and ran into Australian actor, Hal Percy. Brett asked Hal why there were no little theatres in Melbourne. He couldn’t understand why repertory theatre was not being exploited in a professional or semi professional way as it was in England where many such theatres existed. His idea was to create a little theatre movement which would be part amateur and part professional. He believed the city was rich in amateur acting talent which should be tapped. There and then he and hal decided to joined forces to form such a theatre company in Melbourne. Madness in a way, but in those days you had to be entrepreneurial or starve.
Brett and Hal began by giving Sunday readings in the foyer of the fire damaged His Majestys Theatre and, encouraged by the response, went on to present a performance of Miles Malleson’s The Fanatics at the Central Hall on 2nd December 1931. The theatre’s manifesto announced that the two founders would devote their whole time and energy to the little theatre movement. They proposed to present plays of both literary and entertainment value and the advance dodger sincerely hoped that suitable plays would be forthcoming from Australian authors.
In 1932, having developed a small but enthusiastic regular audience, Brett and Hal approached Teddy Maurice who leased the kiosk in Fawkner Park and ran it as a ballroom. They played the kiosk three nights a week and were required to erect the stage every single time it was needed. The move to South Yarra proved to be a good one and the theatre didn’t ever move far away from this early home.
After six months the Melbourne Little Theatre was able to put out a circular announcing that it had produced six plays new to Australian audiences and four by Australian playwrights. However, after 18 productions the kiosk was no longer available and Hal Percy, with a wife and young child to support, had been forced by the limited finances of the company to take up a job in radio at the ABC. It seemed the brave venture might come to a premature end.
But Brett, distributing his dodgers around South Yarra, came upon the little, disused church of St Chad’s in Martin Street, a former Chapel of Ease belonging to Christchurch. At that time it was leased by the Josky sisters who had used it for their dance school. They were happy to negotiate with Brett and St Chads became the Melbourne Little Theatre’s permanent home , except for a time in the 1950s when the new theatre was being erected.
Herald In 1934 the newspaper announced that the directors of the Little Theatre movement, Brett Randall now joined by actor Helton Daniel, have taken over St Chad’s church off Park Street for a year and are installing a special stage and increased seating for the presentation of plays and for dramatic readings and classes. The first production will be From Morn to Midnight, an original translated work by George Kaiser. The theatre opened triumphantly in 1934 with a cast of 35. The stage size was 15ft x 12 ft with no proper wing space.Image 5: Tobacco Road
To get to the dressing rooms performers had to leave the theatre and go down a narrow laneway, nicknamed Tobacco Road. In later years, Albert Mcpherson, a young actor who became Chaplain for the Arts, described the experience: you would go out into that little laneway and run up and down usually bumping into people who were on their way to get onstage. The alley was only about one person wide and you had to flatten yourself against the wall if someone was coming the other way. We had to cope with things like bad weather, coming onstage drenched to the skin and having to utter the line “Oh God - it’s so hot”.
But back to 1934 . From Morn Till Midnight was notable for another reason..it signalled the entrance of Irene Mitchell on to the Little Theatre scene. Cast in a leading role “I was a lady in the first act and a prostitute in the second which I thought quite marvellous”. She had been recommended to Brett by a friend who had seen her at Kelvin Hall in the only solo recital of her career. This recital was forever burned into her memory. As she stood on the stage in her new satin frock, to her chagrin, she totally forgot her opening lines and had to walk offstage and ask for a prompt. Despite this bumpy start she acquitted herself well and went on to impress.
Others in the From Morn cast included John Wiltshire, Leila Pirani, Frederik McMahon, Dorothy Stephen, Murray Matheson and a very young Sheila Florance. Sheila had the unique distinction of being the only actor to appear in both the first Melbourne Little Theatre production at St Chad’s and in Tiger at the Gates, the production which opened the new Little Theatre in 1956. She and Irene shared an enduring friendship .
I have to say that although I was aware that Miss Mitch had done some acting early in her career, it was not until I started delving into the archives that I realised the extent of her acting experience.
She never had any intention of becoming an actress. Raised by her grandparents in South Yarra, as a child she was sent off, clutching her sixpence, to elocution lessons with a local lady. She was also influenced by a teacher at Hawksburn Primary who loved Shakespeare and managed to instill the same love into the young girl. “She would give us soliloquies to take home and learn’ said Miss Mitchell, ‘although I had no idea what I was talking about, I just adored the words”.
That love of words encouraged her to continue studying with one of Melbourne’s most distinguished elocution teachers of the time, Louie Dunne, who entered her in a number of competitions including South Street, where she enjoyed great success, taking out the champion of champions title one year. As Jim Inglis, who performed many roles for the Little over the years commented, at that time elocution was the only form of training available. There were no drama schools or drama teachers – only teachers of speech and elocution such as Harry Traynor, Elsie Holyoak and Louie Dunn whom he described as a marvellous woman.
Now having left school, Renee found herself with the necessity of earning her keep and with Louie Dunn’s encouragement began teaching elocution to children. She was also being urged to pursue an acting career, but was reluctant, unsure of her abilities and doubting whether she could make the grade.
Around this time the great Sybil Thorndike came to the Kings theatre with her production of St Joan and a few locals were taken on as extras and understudies. Renee was one of the lucky ones and it was to be a lifechanging experience for her. When she was not onstage she was in the wings watching, studying and absorbing every detail. Dame Sybil offered her this advice.. Go out, take every part you are offered, get on that stage and learn! Those words stayed with her and she continued listening and learning for the rest of her life. She would go anywhere to see a performance…'I’d go to a theatre in a backyard if I can learn something from it’, she once said. I remember taking her to a Barrie Kosky production in a disused car repair place in St Kilda. Although she was a little shaky in the legs, she cheerfully clambered up the steep, swaying rostra, sat on a hard wooden bench and totally entered into the spirit of the whole bizarre experience.
Louie Dunne formed an all female Shakespearean company. Miss Mitch recalled that ‘The young men wouldn’t work with us, they didn’t want to act Shakespeare. So we decided to do it ourselves’. Their first production was Romeo and Juliet and Irene was sent to the Princess Theatre to hire costumes …this is where she first met Garnet Carroll, who was to become one of her closest friends and a great mentor in her professional life. Garnet was working for Sir Ben Fuller and was manning the counter. 'I told him I wanted to hire costumes for Romeo and Juliet and he asked where we were doing the play. I said the Garrick and he asked me are you in it and I said yes. 'What role are you playing? Romeo! You’re playing a man, he said, I must bring Sir Ben down to see this’. And he did. Other productions were Othello with Miss Mitch as Iago and The Merchant of Venice featuring Louie Dunn as Shylock. Sadly, I have not been able to find any reviews.
Another milestone was Miss Mitchell’s appearance as Rosalind in Gertrude Johnson’s production of As You Like It at the Princess, the first drama production for the new National Theatre Movement. One reviewer said, 'The honours of the evening must go…to Irene Mitchell who as Rosalind acted with spirit and was consistently audible.' She reprised the role in 1942 this time at St Peters Eastern Hill. Another review: 'Irene Mitchell’s Rosalind was outstanding. A womanly woman in the earlier scenes, Miss Mitchell retained the dignity of the part throughout, cutting a gallant figure in doublet and hose.' And she didn’t have a bad pair of legs either.
She entered radio on 8 March 1937. Her first job was Steppping Out directed, I believe, by Dorothy Crawford. For which she was paid £2.12.6 by 3LO. She was so thrilled, she kept the receipt. She also read short stories at breakfast time, and narrated programmes on Nellie Melba and Marjorie Lawrence, she was everywhere on radio appearing in the Mutual Store Playhouse on 3AW, in Frank Thring’s One Man’s Family on 3XY, playing the ballerina Grushinskaya in Grand Hotel on 3UZ, in Edgley and Dawe productions on 3DB and the Lux Radio Theatre .. For which the actors were required to wear full evening dress but ladies may not wear taffeta because it rustles! And at the same time she was making more appearances at the Little Theatre.
Brett’s production of the Hungarian play Fata Morgana, also at the Garrick, created press interest. The following press item appeared.. 'Irene Mitchell has gone all blonde for Fata Morgana and wearing the most devastating underclothes lures Frank Jenkin to his ultimate destruction. Miss Mitchell told me that although it was a comedy some of her lines were so outspoken and some of her negligees so negligible, that it is with difficulty she 'refrains from blushing.'
By the mid 1930s the Little was well established with many subscribers, numbers had to be limited because St Chads could only accommodate 114 seats. By this time commercial managements were inviting Brett Randall to present his productions in their theatres.
It was at this time too that another man who was to be a great influence on Renee, entered her life. This was Dolia Ribush, a Russian who together with his wife Rosa, had fled Germany and the Nazi regime. Dolia had studied acting in Russia and was influenced by Stanislavsky’s work at the Moscow Arts Theatre. The Ribush home in East St Kilda soon became a hub for Melbourne’s arts community, there Renee mixed with artists and intellectuals such as Rupert Bunney, William Fraser and Eduoard Borovansky. 'All the visiting artists used to go to the Ribushes, conductors, choreographers, dance companies, musicians' .she said, 'It was like heaven for me to sit and listen. I used to sit there thinking this can’t be true that I am allowed to be here absorbing all this. I really only knew about drama and i suddenly felt the whole world of the arts opening up to me'.
On one occasion when the Borovansky Ballet visited Sydney the Ribushes and Irene went along too. Boro and Dolia took Irene to visit Norman and Rose Lindsay at Springwood. She and Norman immediately struck a rapport. Norman showed her into his studio, at the time crammed with people and things. You can have anything you want, he told her. 'I wasn’t sure whether he meant male, female or neuter' she later said. Boro had told her she was the exact type of model that Norman Lindsay wanted – he loved women with large breasts. Turning to Boro as soon as he saw her, Norman muttered ‘perfect casting’. Irene knew exactly what he meant and was not amused.
Inspired and stimulated by her exposure to the wider arts world, Irene was prompted to visit the National Gallery studying the composition and grouping in the great paintings. She was often to be seen at Borovansky Ballet rehearsals observing the dancers’ movements and placing. As a director one of her great strengths would be her ability to create pictures on stage.
On a personal note, Renee had met and married John Henderson, an aspiring writer. I don’t have dates but it i think it would have been around 1939 or 1940. He was supportive of her career and they were blissfully happy.
The early forties were good years, but the war was making serious inroads, and soon even threatened the closure of the theatre. Brett’s son Peter, who had become an interegral part of the little team, was serving in the armed forces, as was stage director Henry Allan. So Brett, now virtually blind, called on Irene to step into the breach and help him carry on. When she knew she could be of help she did not hesitate although she did not join as a director and recalled later that she was not paid a salary. But Brett had suggested she could carry on her teaching from St Chads which, coupled with her radio and other work, supported her. Money was so tight that sometimes Brett used his pension to help pay for productions.
Irene appeared with Charles Norman in a couple of bedroom farces at the Princess Theatre - in Just Married a reviewer remarked she gave a lovely picture of a nitwit bride. A programme note for the show described her as an actress never without work in Melbourne because of her vocal versatility. It also mentions that she is fond of oyster cocktails and rather likes the colour green. Her childhood ambition was to be a private detective….she also sings on occasion.
With Renee at Brett’s side the theatre continued with evergrowing success and during the next few years they presented 8 – 9 productions annually by playwrights such as Sumner Locke Elliott, J B Priestley, John Van Druten, Somerset Maugham, A J Cronin and Lillian Hellman. After the final curtain, Brett could still be seen tramping through the blackout pushing flyers for the next show into letter-boxes. The habits learned at the portable theatre never left him.
As Brett’s eyesight deteriorated, Renee took on more and more responsibility. As producer she had to design the set, source props and costumes and oversee every other production detail. With her enthusiasm and energy, she relished it all. In late 1942 she directed her first full production for the Little – Saloon Bar by Frank Harvey. She continued assisting brett, and making the occasional acting appearance, notably as Regina Giddens in Lillian Hellmann’s play The Little Foxes. The sun reviewer remarked that she 'well conveyed' the sinister ruthlessness of the central character, whilst the Advocate reviewer felt she dominated the play as the supreme embodiment of lust for wealth.
In 1945 she produced Clare Booth’s The Women which had an all female cast and crew. This was partly because brett had challenged her to produce a successful all female piece and perhaps to also show the men returning from war just what women could accomplish. The cast included Loveday Hills, Murielle Hearne, Roma Johnson and Diana Langley. During the run of the play Miss Mitchell came onstage one night and announced to the audience that world war 2 was over. It was a comedy but for the rest of the performance no laughs came. The audience was sitting in stunned silence.
For Miss Mitchell this was also a time of great personal sadness. During the course of the war her husband, who had joined the airforce as a fighter pilot, was reported missing, believed killed. When I returned to Australia in the 80s, myself a widow, Miss Mitch told me that John’s last words to her were 'if you get one of those missing in action notices about me don’t worry..I’ll be somewhere in Paris in a brothel.' Close friends felt that she never really accepted his death, and i always felt that she still hoped to find him in Paris one day…
At war’s end, Peter Randall re-joined the Little and he, Brett and Renee continued to work together as a solid directorate. During the post war period, a theatre magazine, Foyer, was published, plays were sent on tour throughout Victoria under the banner Everyman Theatres and further productions were presented at the Comedy and Princess theatres.
A special project undertaken by Renee in 1946 was for the Brotherhood of St Laurence. Fr Tucker, one of the founders of the brotherhood wanted to expose the problems of alcoholism and homelessness which had become a serious social problem after the end of the war. He wanted to inform people that alcoholics needed the community’s understanding not its scorn. He visited Irene at the theatre and asked her to make a film for him…she wasn’t a filmmaker but she was so moved by Fr Tucker’s passion and commitment that she made Gaol does not Cure, a 20-minute film which i believe still exists and is held in the brotherhood’s archives. Late at night Miss Mitchell accompanied by Father Tucker walked through the mean streets of Melbourne documenting the distress and isolation they witnessed. She felt it was ironic that Fr Tucker eventually managed to get the breweries to fund the film.
Miss Mitchell loved doing things on a grand scale and produced several pageants. She revelled in the colour, costumes, grouping people and the community involvement and was never daunted by the scale of a project. In 1953 she produced 600 people from 50 different countries in the coronation pageant of the nations at the exhibition buildings. It was reported that’one of Miss Mitchell’s most difficult tasks has been to teach Ukranians participating to use make up. 'Lipstick is considered to be in very bad taste in the Ukraine but Miss Mitchell has managed to overcome their prejudices just for two da'.
It was while she was directing a pageant for the Methodist Church that she learned they were to sell their church in Millswyn street as the total congregation had dwindled to three. Miss Mitchell asked the church administrators to let her know the minimum deposit she could put on the church which she wanted as a rehearsal space. They let her have it for a deposit of 50 pounds and i’m glad to say it is still part of St Martin’s and still in use today.
A production she was intensely proud of was the first professional theatre performance by an all Aboriginal cast at the Princess Theatre as part of the Commonwealth Jubilee celebrations in 1951. The cast included Harold Blair, Georgia Lee, Doug Nichols and Bill Onus. It was known as Moomba or Out of the Dark. Here’s part of one review '… when the fire was rekindled by firesticks and George Foster danced with a carpet snake and Mr Onus sent boomerangs hurtling around the auditorium and finally swallowed flames in the eerie atmosphere of a forest fire, the excitement was intense'. Boomerangs in the stalls - no occupational health and safety then! The cast crowned Miss Mitchell their Princess and gave her the name ‘daughter of love’. Later it was she who suggested Moomba as the name for Melbourne’s annual festival.
By the end of the forties Renee had developed into a gifted producer (as directors were then called). Brett, because of his limited sight, worked with cue scripts and religiously followed the printed stage directions on imported scripts,. But Miss Mitchell had no desire to be a copyist. She wanted to put her own interpretation onto the piece. Jim Inglis, who worked in several of her productions described her special abilities – she was very capable of changing in the style of the piece she was doing. Whether it was Under Milkwood or The Lark or Romeo and Juliet, her brain changed gear into that mode which i thought was a great advantage. And she had a huge love for performers which really communicated itself.
And boy did she have some actors to work with. Zoe Caldwell, George Fairfax, Sheila Florance, Kevin McBeth, Frank Thring, Beverley Dunn, Patricia Kennedy, Sydney Conabere, Patsy King, Norman Kaye, Brian James, Stewart Ginn, Moira Carleton, Noel Ferrier, Lyndell Rowe, Ernie Bourne,Terry Norris, Julia Blake and Annie Phelan to name a few.
In 1949 Miss Mitch directed Now Barabbas by William Douglas Hume which created a bit of a stir with its overtones of homosexuality. Albert McPherson was cast in the role of a prisoner who falls in love with the man sharing his cell played by Stuart Ginn.. In a suggestive scene Stuart had to comb Albert’s hair. Albert said the audience responded with shocked breathing. Miss Mitchell decided Albert’s dark hair had to be bleached and coloured for the role. This caused enormous problems because every time he washed it his hair it changed colour from carrot red to brassy blonde. He was chief librarian at Mullens at the time and overheard a couple of women gossiping spitefully about his hair colour. He was mortified.
Albert recalled Miss Mitchell in rehearsal mode…. ‘she was a real chain smoker in those days and usually had a packet of red Capstans clutched in one hand. The direction would literally be gasp darling move over there gasp and you would cross the stage in a fog of smoke'. Sarah Seymour, who appeared in some Renee productions in the 50s recalls during rehearsals the 'wonderful smell of cigarette smoke from miss mitchell wafting over the actors who were all gasping for a cigarette themselves'.
In The Man Who Came to Dinner in 1951 FrankThring played Sheridan Whiteside the wheelcchair bound protagonist and Albert played the young photographer who had to push Frank around in the wheelchair. Frank was a devil and delighted in putting the brakes on when Albert pushed, then just as he gave a heavy shove, Frank would take the brakes off so they would go shooting all over the stage. Frank also gave his co star Joan Harris a very hard time…at one point she wore a red dress designed by Hall Ludlow which was of such a complex design that she had to be wrapped ito it each night.. Thring delighted in pushing his chair over the dress’s slight train and poor Joan would lurch forward grabbing bits of it as it started to unravel. However Albert got his revenge on Thring….he was supposed to show him a selection of photos his character had taken and one night he substituted these with a load of nude snaps….frank had a lot of trouble getting out his next line.
But Thring could also be serious. In 1951 he took over the Arrow Theatre and invited Renee to direct the opening double bill : Oscar Wilde’s Salome and Christopher Fry’s A Phoenix Too Frequent. Miss Mitchell said she never forgot the afternoon of the opening with the whole crew onstage trying to fix the front curtain which had just arrived back from the dry cleaners exactly seven inches too short.
Edward Bryans wrote of the production Irene Mitchell imposes a visually satisfying Salome in all its sensuality, decadence and bestiality, a passionate circle of frustrated desire. Unforgettable are the depraved Herod of Frank Thring, June Brunel’s wicked Salome and the expert use of stage and lighting and the fine grouping of costumes.
But a letter to the Argus said 'I am amazed and shocked at the public and critical support given to Salome at the Arrow Theatre. Although the costumes and sets are the best things we’ve seen on stage for some time and the acting is excellent, it is shameful that they should enhance this lustful play. I am sure that all clean thinking people will condemn this dangerous work'. No doubt sales improved dramatically.
In the early fifties the Little directors decided that St Chads was no longer viable and a new, larger theatre, would need to be built. The Melbourne Little Theatre Fund was set up and fundraising began in earnest. The Lttle Theatre had never been subsidised and the new building was paid for by donation and the sale of debentures. Miss Mtchell often said proudly that it was the actors and the audience that put up the theatre. This had never been done before. It was a true community theatre.
Production didn’t stop during the building works. Shows were staged at both the Arrow and St Peters Eastern Hill. The idea was to continue to build larger audiences in preparation for the new venue. It certainly worked - when the theatre opened it was over subscribed in the hundreds.
Although still involved with the theatre, Brett had withdrawn from directing and a new director was needed. George Fairfax was invited to become part of the creative team. Renee first saw George aged 19 playing the title role in Keith Macartney’s production of Shakespeare’s scottish play at Melbourne University. She went backstage and said to Keith ‘your leading man’s very good isn’t he? Keith replied 'Oh do tell him he’s a very shy young man'. So she went to see George. He said he was studying law but was more interested in acting. She invited him to come down to the theatre at any time and that’s how it started. George worked backstage and appeared in a number of little productions. He later recalled 'at that time the Little Theatre was the only place in Melbourne where you could get that theatre experience.’ Hard as it is to believe now, there were no state theatre companies or theatre schools. The Little provided a valuable training ground for actors, writers, designers and technicians, allowing them to develop their skills in a supportive, non-commercial environment.
George eventually dropped out of law, joining John Sumner’s Union Theatre Repertory Company in its first season. It later became the Melbourne Theatre Company. George remembers John inviting him into the company when he was appearing in Renee’s production of Douglas Stewart’s The Golden Lover . He said to John, oh you’ve seen the things I’ve been doing and john replied yes, I saw you in The Golden Lover the other night and i have to say that it’s not on the strength of that that i’m inviting you. Zoe Caldwell, Alec Scott and Stuart Ginn were all in that first season.
George left the company just before the end of the first season as he had made a commitment to direct The Front Page as the commencement play for the university. A Farrago review singled out ‘interesting newcomers Monica Maugham and Barry Humphries’ in the production.
Deciding that his future lay in directing and with the help of Miss Mitchell, George went to England to attend a British Council course for directors. After the course he stayed on in the uk gaining valuable experience working for bbc television as a stage manager.. 90 minutes of live to air television on Sunday nights … then at Pinewood film studios where he was third assistant on a Norman Wisdom film…and then into three weekly rep. Having decided to concentrate on directing ‘because the desire to have a finger in more pies than just my own particular role’ was strong, he was delighted to accept the Llittle’s offer and returned to Melbourne in 1956.
As well as a valued colleague, George and his family became a part of Renee’s extended family … as had the Randall family. They shared close, loving relationships which continued throughout her life.
1956 was a big year for Melbourne. The Olympic Games, the advent of television .. But for many theatre lovers the most exciting event was the opening on August 25 of the new little theatre, the first theatre to be built in Melbourne in 25 years. It opened with Tiger at the Gates by Jean Giradoux ,sets and costumes designed by Anne Fraser. It was a gala night, it was also August, freezing and wet.
Jim Inglis and Albert McPherson were both in this production along with a cast of thousands. Jim remembered the bitter cold and the costumes were ‘ninon over noneun’. Because the theatre had been finished in a hurry, the roof over the stage was leaking and he kept trying to step sideways to avoid water dripping down his neck. Albert described the theatre as like a sepulchre everybody was in the wings huddled in blankets and standing on top of the one radiator. He chided Anne Fraser later saying 'I don’t know how you’ve got the nerve to accept a fee for these costumes’
Simultaneously whilst rehearsing Tiger Miss Mitchell was also directing a production of Tea and Sympathy at the Princess theatre with Dulcie Gray and a very new young Australian actor, Neil Fitzpatrick in his first professional role. The productions opened within two weeks of each other. Unfazed, the high energy producer split her time between the two.
With the new buildings and technical improvements, larger audiences and packed houses, the Little became a well oiled machine producing 13 shows a year…there would be a three week rehearsal period at the church, three day bump-in wednesday night dress and opening on a Thursday for a three and a half week run. No matter how popular the play, it could not be extended because the subscribers expected a certain number of new productions each year.
With the increased pressure of more productions, it soon became evident that there was a need for a full time designer and in 1957 a very young, very talented John Truscott joined the company.
This is an appropriate moment to mention Miss Mitchell’s nurturing skills. ….she was a woman who adored young people and looked after them, giving encouragement and advice every step of the way. She also loved talent. John became her theatrical son, a much loved and cherished companion and a colleague whose career she fostered and promoted tirelessly.
Truscott was studying to be a fitter and turner when the National Theatre advertised a drama festival featuring A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He ventured to send in some designs he had made which were based entirely on his own reactions to Shakespeare’s magic. To his intense surprise the management of the National not only adopted his designs but offered him a permanent job. With this experience behind him, he felt confident enough to accept the resident designer job at the little.
Truscott’s creative input raised the productions to an altogether higher level…his expertise, skill, imagination and perfectionism creating many wonderful sets and costumes. Working with George, Peter and Renee he produced some truly outstanding designs over the next several years. These include Romeo and Juliet, The Multi Coloured Umbrella (which was toured by JCW), The Crucible, Anastasia, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Shadow of Heroes, The Chairs and The Splendid Outcasts.
John remained with the Little for 6 years until 1962 when Miss Mitchell, angry at the way professional managements ignored local talent, persuaded Garnet Carroll to commission Truscott to design costumes for West Side Story followed by the full scale production of the King and I. This led to an invitation to design Camelot for J C Williamson in 1963 and it was this show that sealed his reputation in the commercial theatre.
John had left for Europe when Renee received a telegram from Bobby Helpmann in London – Helpmann had been approached to direct the London production of Camelot – 'where is Truscott needed badly' and she replied 'somewhere in Europe but will arrive soon'. With Helpmann’s support John was hired to design the London production and was subsequently asked to do the film. The rest, as they say, is history.
When he was nominated for Oscars in art direction and costume design, John flew Renee to LA. She said the whole thing was like a dream..they went to the Oscars in a very long car with john looking handsome and somewhat ecclesiastical in his high collared dinner jacket. She wore an outfit by Hall Ludlow. When john’s name was called .. He had a long walk to the stage and she could hear people commenting on how good looking he was. After the presentation, when he walked into the wings to be interviewed, someone asked him to audition for a film role. No sooner had he resumed his seat than his name was called again. He shoved the Oscar into Renee’s hands and made the long walk to the stage once more.
Truscott remained in Hollywood working on another big film musical Paint Your Wagon for which he again received an Oscar nomination. Eventually, as we all know, he returned to Melbourne at George’s behest and designed the wonderful interiors of our arts centre, transformed the Melbourne International Festival as its artistic director and filled many other major roles. He and Miss Mitchell remained close.
It was through John Truscott, that Renee met Graham Bennett, a talented artist and musician who became a cherished friend. He appeared in many little revues where his pianistic skill was much appreciated. Truscott commissioned him to design the State Theatre curtain which must surely be the most magnificent theatre curtain in the world. Spoken without prejudice
Now back to 1957, with Renee, George and Peter as directors and Truscott as resident designer, the Little entered what I believe was its golden age.
Over the next few years a succession of high quality, beautifully acted and mounted productions came forth. These included Renee’s production of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milkwood. Still discussed with awe by those who were involved. It had an enormous cast, everybody was in it including the office staff and Truscott designed the most ingenious complex set .. He created a whole village on stage.. There were pieces that could be wheeled in and out, characters would slide in on gurnies, clocks and chimneys dropped in and out. Dylan Thomas’ world was created magically and perfectly. Bryn Newton John played first voice and Jim Inglis was Captain Cat. He recreated the role when the play was re-staged 18 months later..this time with Kevin Macbeth as the narrator. Again it was hugely successful.
It’s around this time that the Little Theatre came into my life and I want to combine my own experiences with that of two other young people who went on to play key roles at the theatre to demonstrate the way we were welcomed and the extraordinary kindness and generosity with which we were treated. And we were not exceptions believe me.
Wendy Dunne first came to Miss Mitchell aged 12. She wanted to leave school and work in the new medium of television. Her father, an intelligent man, thought it would be better for her stay at school and get some basic theatre experience so he made an appointment with Miss Mitchell. Wendy immediately connected with this magnetic woman with her beautiful voice and expressive hands. She said, Miss Mitchell really seemed to care about her and was interested in her thoughts and aspirations. Abandoning thoughts of television, she started to assist Miss Mitch during school holidays and dined with her every Wednesday evening where the meal inevitably included deep fried parsley – a delicacy unique to Miss Mitchell’s kitchen she believed.
The day she turned 16 Wendy became a permanent member of the little staff at the grand salary of 10 pounds per month. She would have worked for nothing. She was Miss Mitchell’s assistant, a job that embraced everything from tea making, to taking care of the wardrobe, painting scenery, upholstering furniture, making props, reading for auditionees and taking an occasional role onstage. She developed a deep loving relationship with truscott and together they were Renee’s children. Wendy learned her skills on the job and believes that working at the Llittle with people like John and Renee was the best education anyone could ever get. When a play was announced whether it was about the Borgias or World War I the team became totally absorbed in the period. She said she learned the dates of the world wars by the costume boxes which housed the uniforms. Later, when a mother herself, Wendy wrote plays for Miss Mitchell’s children’s theatre.
Miss Mitch taught her acting, arranged for her to have movement classes and was later instrumental in sending her to London on a scholarship. In return Wendy was Miss Mitchell’s devoted theatrical daughter until the day she died and in the last years no genetic daughter could have shown more care and support than Wendy.
John Morrison was a lad from a Salvation Army background who wanted to be an actor. He saw an ad asking for young people to audition for a play called Teenage Miss. He auditioned without success. However, six months later, and this is where the Little was so amazing and inclusive in giving kids a chance, he received a letter asking if he would like to play a role in I Remember Mama which starred Beverley Dunne and Murielle Hearne. It was a very small role..one line as a waiter. So John spent a lot of time in the wings..there was a panatrope being used backstage for the music and someone was needed to operate it. John volunteered and quickly became absorbed in the technical side of the theatre emerging as a gifted sound and lighting technician. He was the backstage mainstay for a number of years working virtually every production as well as his day job, then catching the last train home to Mitcham at night. He said the little was paradise to him so nothing was ever too much trouble. Eventually he became the theatre’s permanent technician and lighting/sound expert. Later he launched his own highly successful company, theatre sound, created the sound design for Jim Sharman’s spectacular production of Jesus Christ Superstar and became a bit of a superstar himself in the realm of sound and lighting.
'Miss Mitchell always told me I was good,' John said, 'and so you tried harder to make her happy because of her confidence in you'. Maybe it was a director’s strategy who’s to know, but I believe the affection she had for the people she gathered around her was profoundly true. She was always encouraging and later, when I had moved on, she kept in touch and wanted to know what I was doing.
I was 16 with dreams of becoming an actress but no knowledge of or background in theatre. Somehow I managed to get myself a typing job at JCW. I was hired on the proviso that i did not cherish any performing hopes. This was a joke as half the office staff were secretly planning their performing careers, notably barry moreland who used to sneak off from accounts for afternoon classes with boro while we all covered for him.
The publicist forJCW was a dear eccentric man, Charlie Dearden. I used to go down to the publicity office to buy photos of the stars appearing in shows. Charlie thought this was very strange behaviour and gave me the nickname, unusual Sandra. He had a wonderful assistant called Robin and she took pity on me and arranged for me to see Irene Mitchell at the Little. I’d never heard of either before. Like Wendy, i was completely mesmerised by Miss Mitchell . I think it was the first time anybody ever called me darling.. She agreed to take me on as a student and from that moment i became one of her children.
My first job was doing props for the Crucible, Arthur Miller’s incredibly bleak and powerful play about the Salem witch trials echoing the McCarthy inquisitions in the USA. I vividly remember the first rehearsal I attended at the church…the denunciation scenes visibly shocked and frightened me much to the amusement and pleasure of the cast.
Miss Mitchell had a reputation for very long dress rehearsals. She was a director who wanted to keep changing moves or re-thinking business right up to the last gasp. John Morrison 'just take your time darling, go back to wherever you want to start' John looked at the script and shouted from the corner, 'You mad, you murderous bitch,' take it from there. A roar went round the theatre because that’s what they were all thinking. She laughed along with everybody else.
My first onstage appearance was in The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde starring – you guessed it - Frank Thring in the title roles. I appeared in scene 1, act 1 and was raped and beaten by the evil Mr Hyde. I only had one line…describing the brutal attack to a bobby I had to say “Oh it was orrible sir, orrible”. On opening night the curtain was down and the fog machine was going – we hadn’t been able to rehearse with it because it was so expensive – and the set really looked fabulous. There was a scrim and behind the streets of London and the perspective made it look as though the streets went back forever. The curtain went up, i went skipping along the street and the fog rolled across the stage and went on rolling right out into the auditorium totally enveloping the first six rows . They were all coughing with tears rolling down their cheeks…I think it lessened the impact somewhat.
The show had difficult elements. There was some complicated stuff involving chemicals for the transformation scene. Until opening night handling the chemicals and the dry ice to make it froth had been the province of an expert. Wendy, who was on props, had not been shown what to do and the expert had decided to sit out front. Thring on stage mixing his potion came to prompt side hissing out of the corner of his mouth 'there’s no dry ice’..so Wendy ran downstairs to the fridge, picked up a brick of dry ice wrapped in newspaper and innocently handed it to Frank. Of course it burnt his hands and he shouted at the top of his voice ‘some bloody bitch just handed me the glaciarium’.
During the show Frank had a fast change exiting from one side of the stage, running downstairs and crossing to the other side of the stage whilst whipping off his hyde make-up and applying new eyebrows to appear as Dr Jekyll. One night he came up onstage and couldn’t open the door. He shook it until it seemed the whole flat was going to come down but no go. He finally made an entrance through the fireplace which was fairly spectacular because he wasn’t entirely sober at the time. He did the whole scene from the fireplace and he lost his eyebrows as well.
I had a lovely fireplace experience during the run of The Grass is Greener an English comedy. It took place in the drawing room of a stately home…it was a closed set with upstage french windows and a garden aspect and on prompt side a huge fireplace. As prompter i had to sit in the fireplace where i couldn’t be seen by the audience before the curtain and stay there until the end of each act. Norman Kaye, a devastingly attractive man and a superb actor, was the lead. I had developed a huge crush on him of which i’m sure he was aware. In act one, his character had to open a bottle of champagne and pour drinks for those onstage. Every night he would turn towards the fireplace and raise his glass to me in a silent toast. I barely had the strength to crawl out during the interval.
Shadow of Heroes was the most moving experience I think I’ve ever had in the theatre. Written by Robert Ardrey it told the story of the Hungarian uprising and the events leading to it. Directed by Miss Mitchell in 1959 just three years after the events depicted, it was a brave choice. John Truscott’s ingenious set was made entirely of packing crates. With these he built the skyline of Budapest and during the production they were moved by actors or stage staff to form different scenes. We were taught to sing the Hungarian national anthem in hungarian and i remember miss mitchell’s instructions that as we sang it we were to keep going no matter what happened. On opening night as we began the anthem, we could hear noises in the auditorium but as instructed we sang on . Slowly floating up to us we heard many voices joining in. There were a number of Hungarians in the audience. The noise we could hear was their seats springing back as they stood and joined us in the anthem. That experience was repeated night after night. I still get goose bumps thinking about it. Leading roles were taken by Sheila Florance, Kevin McBeth and Brian Burton. Sheila was a marvellous actress and one of those larger than life personalities that one never forgets. She had experienced terrible tragedy in her life, but had insisted that I would live with her during the run of the play.
Her Windsor house was small and already crammed with family - husband, mother and two sons. But she insisted and I had a bed made up for me in the sitting room. On my first night I woke in the middle of the night, to see a ghostly figure wandering around the room. It was Sheila’s mother, who enjoyed a bit of a tipple and was searching for a bottle she had misplaced. It gave me a bit of a turn.
Sheila was a wonderful, passionate actress but she did have a bit of a problem remembering lines. This sometimes led to strange stage moments. In 12 Angry Women she was the jury member standing out against all the others who wanted a guilty verdict. The first act closed with Sheila declaiming dramatically ‘I say not guilty’…but, as Patsy King recalls, one night she blew it and said 'I say guilty'. Heaven knows what the audience thought as the whole reason for act 2 was gone.
Image: Argus Tiger at the Gates
With The Splendid Outcasts Rosemary Sisson’s play about Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia produced in 1961 many believe the Mitchell/Truscott collaboration reached its apotheosis. Jim Inglis played Cesare with Su Israel as Lucretia others in the cast were Pauline Charleston,Alan Forsyth, Ray Angell, Michael Joshua, Brian Burton, Sonia Berg and George Dixon.
Wendy worked on the production and believes it was the most beautiful John ever designed for the Little. She said the costumes were beyond belief and all the headdresses superbly finished. She and Miss Mitch spent days dying tights next door in WallyHholland’s copper. Their arms would be blue one day and yellow the next as they tried to match John’s colours. Woe betide them if the colour was even one gradient out, they would have to do them again. The costumes were made by Dulcie Pattie and Nell Hodges and the headdresses were made by Marjorie head and Betty walker. They executed John’s designs perfectly.
Miss Mitchell really outdid herself in the curtain calls. She posed the performers around the set and when the curtain rose they were all in silhouette, then the lighting changed and it was as if you went from a two dimensional photograph to a 3 dimensional sculpture. It was so beautiful the audience just kept applauding. I’m glad to say that many of the costumes and designs are now held in the Performing Arts Collection.
In 1962 announcing the theatre’s name change to St Martin’s, Brett Randall stated that the theatre was no longer little in any sense of the word. He said the name ‘little’ had come more and more to be associated with the non professional theatre movement. The little theatre on the other hand had moved to more professional operations. He was adamant that the character and policy of the theatre would remain the same.
Image 13: St Martins crew - Paul Kathner in centre
Also in 1962 John Truscott approached Paul Kathner, a young Sydney designer to take over at his role at St Martin’s . Paul was superbly equipped to do this as, after serving his apprenticeship with Bill Constable at JC Williamsons, he had created a number of productions for Doris Fitton at the Independent Theatre. Paul found many similarities between Doris and Renee. They were strong, outspoken women at a time when women in other industries were pushed down. They could be a bit frightening, he said, but he respected their passion and singleminded approach. He was given a 2 –year contract, and stayed for 10. Later he and Ross Turner formed Scenic Studios which has become the largest and most successful studio in Australia working with all the major companies.
In 1963 Brett, the grand old man of the theatre, died. He was that most fortunate of men – a man who lived to see his dream come true. His black-bereted presence was sorely missed.
During the late 1960s the theatre continued to mount many fine productions but times were changing. Although audiences remained loyal, St Martins now a fully professional company, was forced to work on a strictly limited budget.
In 1969 George was appointed as theatrical advisor to the building committee of the new Arts Centre. He took up the post with Renee’s blessing…she thought the Arts Centre was one of the most wonderful things to happen to Melbourne and that George was the right man for the job. How right she was and how wonderfully he steered the concert hall and theatres into life as the Arts Centre’s first general manager.
Sadly Peter died in 1971 and now Renee carried the artistic burden alone. Although various ad hoc arrangements were made, none was successul or lasting. The theatre was in deep financial trouble and, for the first time, a request for subsidy was made to the government. Henry Bolte’s response was that 'the government had no policy for supporting professional theatre'. Later, yielding to public pressure, a grant was offered but it was too little too late. Renee decided to retire.
The theatre closed in july 1973 with a highly successful production of Cowardy Custard . In the cast were Michael Caton, Marion Edward, Jon Ewing, Jon Finlayson, Liz Harris, Nancye Hayes, Geraldene Morrow and Dennis Olsen.
The MTC leased the building for 2 years but declined to renew. Fearful that the theatre would be pulled down, Miss Mitchell, with the support of the Randall family, successfully lobbied the State government to buy St Martins for use as a youth theatre. All her life Renee had wanted to have a youth theatre and over the years had made several attempts to establish one, but circumstances always prevented its realisation.
Once the sale had been effected, Miss Mitchell personally set about contacting all the debenture holders so their investments could be redeemed.
Image 14: St Martin' Youth Theatre
Nobody could have been more excited than Miss Mitch when St Martin’s Youth Theatre opened. She offered the young director, Chris Thompson, her time, energy and expertise and he welcomed her with open arms. One of the proudest moments of her life was the naming of the Irene Mitchell studio in 1990.
With her gift for friendship, Miss Mitchell continued to live a full life surrounded by loving companions. A year before she died, many of her friends and theatrical children gathered at St Martin’s to honour her with ‘recognising Irene’..her penny concert as she called it. It was a memorable day – she had been seriously ill in hospital only days before – but was determined to be there and she was .. Frail…but beautifully turned out…..and loving every minute of it. The concert was held on 7 july 1994 and exactly one year later, we gathered again for her funeral.
This talk has only scratched the surface of the Melbourne Little Theatre and its part in Melbourne’s artistic history. I haven’t even mentioned Frank Laslett and Wally Holland, who built all the sets for the Little Theatre productions, producing miracles from their workshop, or the devoted office staff or the support of local neighbours who pitched in and helped in so many ways.
Latterly, the Little seems to have been erased from Melbourne’s theatre history or dismissed as catering only to the blue rinse set with middlebrow drawing room comedies. Nothing could be further from the truth. Over the years the theatre presented many first rate contemporary plays, as well as classics, which otherwise would not have been seen in melbourne. It championed the Australian playwright at a time when we did not value our home grown talent. It trained many actors, technicians, and several notable designers….and it gave to the Victorian Arts Centre the talents of George Fairfax, John Truscott and Graham Bennet. Not bad huh!
Above all, the Little was a place of magic. A world filled with energy, enthusiasm, creativity, generosity and acceptance. And these qualities were embodied in Irene Mitchell who, to me, was always the heart and soul of the place.
Finally, i have drawn my information from many sources but i would like to acknowledge Beverley Dunn’s wonderful talk in the green room interviews; thank Wendy Dunne, John morrison, Paul Kathner, Albert McPherson and Patsy King for sharing their memories and the wonderful performing arts collection staff for all their help.
© S.P. Graham 2015