This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007
Dame Doris Alice Lucy Walkden Fitton (1897-1985), theatrical producer, director and actor, was born on 3 November 1897 at Santa Ana, Manila, younger daughter of Walter Albert Fitton, an English-born broker, and his Victorian-born wife Janet Fraser, née Cameron. In 1902 the family moved to Australia but Walter returned to work in the Philippines, where he died two years later. His widow settled in Victoria and, although in straitened circumstances, sent her daughters to Loreto Convent, Portland, and Loreto Abbey, Mary’s Mount, Ballarat. Doris then trained as a stenographer.
At the age of 17, Fitton was accepted as a student with Gregan McMahon’s Melbourne Repertory Theatre Company. She made her first stage appearance in The Price of Thomas Scott but, on the advice of her mother and McMahon, declined a professional engagement. On 22 April 1922 at St Patrick’s Catholic Church, Sydney, she married Norbert Keck (`Tug’) Mason, an articled clerk. She played Mary Fitton in G. B. Shaw’s The Dark Lady of the Sonnets for McMahon’s Sydney Repertory Theatre Society but otherwise made only occasional appearances until 1927, when she played a small role for J. C. Williamson Ltd in a dramatic adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s Rain, and then appeared in its Muriel Starr season. Fitton also worked for McMahon in his last Sydney productions in 1928. She joined Don Finley’s newly formed Turret Theatre Ltd in 1929 as a performer, and in 1930 became its part-time secretary. When that theatre closed, Fitton organised twenty of its members to contribute ten shillings each as working capital for the establishment of her city-based Independent Theatre (Ltd).
As artistic director Fitton adhered to the precepts of the Russian director Konstantin Stanislavsky, as outlined in his book My Life in Art (c.1924). Seeing her foremost responsibility as being to attract an audience, she began the first season in 1930 with a Viennese comedy, By Candlelight; but productions of classics, including Othello, The Merchant of Venice and The School for Scandal, soon followed. The Independent Theatre also introduced Sydney audiences to contemporary writers such as Elmer Rice and S. N. Behrman. It offered about ten shows a year with Fitton—who had made her directorial début in 1931 with A. A. Milne’s Michael and Mary—producing most of them. The company used a number of premises before Fitton decided to move to Miller Street, North Sydney, in 1939, where it opened with Terence Rattigan’s French without Tears. Although the move from the city lost the Independent much of its established subscriber base, Fitton kept the theatre operating throughout World War II and built close links with the local community.
Because of a limited budget the stage settings in the early days were spare, the main feature being buff-coloured curtains, a style that was presented, and accepted, as creative and experimental. However, on occasion Fitton used the appeal of large casts and spectacular presentation to attract full houses for productions which, while critically acknowledged as innovative and stimulating, were perhaps beyond the company’s technical capacity. These included Hugh McCrae’s Australian poetical and musical fantasy The Ship of Heaven and J. Elroy Flecker’s Arabian Nights fantasy Hassan. But the policy also resulted in productions such as the successful 1066 and All That, based on the book by W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman.
During the golden years of the 1940s and 1950s, memorable shows included Friedrich Schiller’s Maria Stuart and Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra, with Fitton appearing in both. Her production of Sumner Locke Elliott’s Rusty Bugles proved both a censorship cause célèbre and a successful commercial venture. Fitton played the leading role in Lesley Storm’s `daring’ love story Black Chiffon and produced the newly translated Polish play Anna Lucasta. In 1955 she toured for the Australian Elizabethan Trust in Medea and her last appearance was in 1974 in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. She made only one film, The Stowaway (1958). In the late 1950s and early 1960s Fitton embraced contemporary theatrical challenges, her choice of plays including those by Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco. She maintained her policy of encouraging Australian writers even though their plays were often less successful commercially.
As an administrator Fitton had, through the Independent Theatre, a long association with the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (Arts Council of Australia). Her company presented Red Oleanders at the first arts festival held by the council, in 1944, and from 1946 to 1964 the Independent provided shows for the council’s extensive country tours. In 1938-39 she had been secretary of the inaugural Playwrights’ Advisory Board. In the postwar years she sat (1967-69) on the board of the National Institute of Dramatic Art and was a member (1961-69) of the Sydney Opera House Trust.
The Independent fostered a theatre for children, supported a school of dramatic art with, from 1954, a theatre workshop, and served as a major training ground for actors. It made a significant contribution to the cultural life of Sydney. While the Independent often teetered on the edge of insolvency, `the spirit that pervaded it’ was, according to Sumner Locke Elliott, `unconquerable, wilful, determined, exasperating, energetic, positive—Miss Fitton’. However, Fitton’s `free and unfettered’ artistic control (enshrined in the company’s code) was not conducive to successful adaptation to subsidised theatre: the Independent operated as a fully professional company only in 1967-68. Because of financial difficulty, it closed in 1977. Fitton’s last production, a revival of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, was in her eightieth year.
Fitton’s regimen had reflected the influence of her association with Gregan McMahon, and through him the tradition of the nineteenth-century actor-manager; her ways came to be seen as old-fashioned. According to John Kingsmill she was `given to the grand manner, the old elaborate style’ in performance and, by her own account, was an `indecisive’ actress, most effective when typecast. She was slow to learn her lines and her memory was unreliable. Being `of the old school’ and having come to acting when elocution was `considered basic to the art’, as a teacher she concentrated on stage delivery and technique. As a producer, she was skilled at casting, often against physical type.
A strong-willed woman with a finely chiselled face, a slightly aquiline nose, a jutting chin and penetrating brown eyes, Fitton could be demanding and impatient. Although she had a reputation as a formidable disciplinarian, her sense of humour often came to her own and her students’ rescue. She had a flair for miming, a natural contralto voice, a distinctive and ready laugh and a tendency to `get the giggles’ on stage. In professional life she was encouraging to other actors, placing great emphasis on loyalty. Benita Brebach, who acted with the Independent, believed that she was `the softest touch on earth, if you knew how to do it right’. Another actor, Allan Davis, saw in her `the ability to persuade people to do things’ for her.
Tug supported all Doris’s activities and for many years the family lived at North Sydney in order to be near the theatre. She was an enthusiastic ballroom dancer and a dog lover. Fitton was appointed OBE (1955), CBE (1975) and DBE (1982). Her autobiography, Not without Dust and Heat: My Life in Theatre, was published in 1981. Predeceased by her husband (d.1972) and elder son (d.1968), and survived by her younger son, Dame Doris died on 2 April 1985 at St Leonards and was cremated.
Ailsa McPherson, 'Fitton, Dame Doris Alice (1897–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fitton-dame-doris-alice-12495/text22481, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 17 September 2014.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007