Doris Fitton

Doris Fitton (1897-1985), founder of the Independent Theatre, Sydney, was born in November 1897 in Manila, the Philippines, where her English father, Walter Fitton, a chartered accountant, broker and manufacturer of cigars, had taken his Australian bride, Janet Cameron, in 1894. In 1902 Doris, her elder sister Janet Ethel, and their mother, returned to Melbourne where the climate and education were considered more appropriate for white children than Manila. Walter Fitton died shortly afterwards.

Doris was educated at Loreto Convents in Portland and Ballarat. She was not very interested in academic study but enthusiastic about school plays. After leaving school she became a secretary, but acting classes with the renowned Gregan McMahon, led to her first acting role in 1915. Professional engagements with J. C. Williamson Ltd followed, along with continued performances and acting classes with the Melbourne Repertory Theatre.

In 1922 in Sydney Doris married Norbert 'Tug' Mason, solicitor. When Gregan McMahon founded the Sydney Repertory Company in 1924, Doris began her long association with Sydney theatre, playing in Bernard Shaw's Dark Lady of the Sonnets. Roles with J. C. Williamson Ltd followed, in hits such as Somerset Maugham's Rain. However good parts in Sydney's fledging theatre were few. Doris, now a mother of two sons, was frustrated in those years, coming out from 'domestic' duties to perform small parts in various productions around Sydney.

In 1930 she teamed up with nineteen other actors and 100 associated members each subscribing 10/- a year, to launch the Independent Theatre. The guidelines of Constantin Stanislavsky, the founder of the Moscow Arts Theatre, were used as the model for the Independent. It existed for 47 years, closing finally in May 1977, with Doris directing Thornton Wilder's Our Town.

Throughout the entire history of the Independent, Doris earned accolades as actress, director, stage producer and drama teacher, combined with cleaning jobs to keep the theatre open in difficult times. Despite the often precarious financial problems encountered by the Independent Theatre (it received no government support), with Doris Fitton at the helm she guided it through good times and bad. The contribution of the Independent Theatre was indispensable in creating an environment where young Australian actors could develop their skills and perform plays; and playwrights could have their plays produced. Sumner Locke Elliott's 1948 classic Rusty Bugles is one example. Ironically a 'guiding light' in culturally stifling times, the Independent closed in the beginning of the renaissance of Australian theatre.

In recognition of her work in theatre, Doris Fitton received an OBE in 1955, a CBE in 1975 and was created DBE in 1982. Despite a peppery and rather dictatorial personality, she commanded respect and love from her peers, students and the community. Her diligence, hard work, commitment and passion for theatre and the Independent, ensured its success for over four decades. The 'ageless matriarch of Sydney theatre' died on 2 April 1985.

Melanie Oppenheimer

Doris Fitton Not Without Dust and Heat, My Life in Theatre 1981.