Roy Mitchell

Roy Mitchell Portrait
Position:
Artistic Director
Tenure:
1919 - 1921
Select Productions:
• The Romancers
• The Chester Mysteries
• Cymbeline
• The Alchemist

Roy Mitchell (1884-1944) was a journalist, technician, theatre theoretician, and the first artistic director of Hart House Theatre. His ideas heavily influenced the Little Theatre movement as well as the construction of Hart House Theatre.1

Roy Matthews Mitchell was born in Fort Gratiot, Michigan to a family with Canadian parents and three siblings. His father was a Canadian engineer, and when the family moved back to Toronto, Roy attended the University of Toronto and took a B.A. in not dramatic studies, but in journalism. Roy’s early journalism career and his academics exposed him to the ideas of the famous, avant-garde European theorists, Adolphe Appia and Edward Gordon Craig, who stipulated that smaller stages and more advanced lighting techniques would be the wave of the future. All in all, however, Roy Mitchell spent thirteen years as journalist, first working as a writer and editor for one of Toronto’s six daily newspapers, The Toronto World, from 1903 until 1906.2

Three years later, Roy Mitchell founded the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto, and as one of the youngest and professional members there, became head of its “Dramatic Corps”—he would essentially stage modern playwrights, from George Bernard Shaw and William Butler Yeats to Maurice Maeterlinck and Rabindarath Tagore, for the benefit of the public at large and the Club itself.3 Once Roy Mitchell left the Arts and Letters Club in 1915, he went to New York City for three years, directing productions and solidifying his technical style of suggestion, intimacy, and simplicity in stage. Roy further demonstrated his commitment to the theatre by marrying Jocelyn Taylor, a stage and costume designer, lighting technician, and a frequent collaborator in his productions. They worked tirelessly and enjoyed what they did; so that by the time Roy returned to Toronto, he had already ingratiated himself on the bleeding edge of theatrical circles despite his young age (he was twenty-two when he started directing productions in Toronto, thirty-one when he started in New York) he attracted the notice of Vincent Massey.4

Vincent Massey envisioned Hart House Theatre as a sort of crucible for experimental Canadian theatre, and Roy Mitchell had already established himself as a person who would be willing and able to stage the impossible for the sake of art. Hart House Theatre’s small, underground venue was meant to combat the trend of staging spectacle and commedia dell’arte which had been so popular in the late Victorian and Edwardian period.5 For Roy Mitchell and other Little Theatre movement thinkers, theatre had lost its intimacy and its relevance; but they would bring it back. Indeed, Roy Mitchell would later say that commercialism had degraded the artistic form of the theatre:

“We’ve always taken it for granted that the theatre has to pay, and pay enormously. Art galleries don’t pay and symphony orchestras have never paid. Imagine the kind of picture that would have to be hung in the Art Gallery if crowds were to come flocking to it. But the theatre has been degraded to the kind of entertainment for which people are prepared to pay.”6

Roy Mitchell wanted to be a new artist of the theatre: he refused to deceive his audience’s eyes, he would “interpret the play” for the audience, and he was interested above all in technical style, like how colours and the distortion of images express certain feelings and influences.7 His style had become a trademark by the time he staged The Romancers at Hart House Theatre, with critics remarking that a “strong emphasis is laid on the general artistic impression, rather than the minuteness of detail.”8

Roy Mitchell got the job as the first artistic director of Hart House Theatre in 1919, but his involvement in Hart House started at around 1917. Some academics even suggest that creating Hart House Theatre was really Roy’s idea after all;  since he suggested most of the theatre’s architectural designs, such as the extra depth of the stage, and the lighting and hardware equipment to go with it. He divided the necessary renovations that Hart House Theatre needed into five sections: Loft Equipment and Rigging, Electrical Equipment, Property Room Equipment and Effects, Floor Equipment and Stage Hardware, and Shop and Wardrobe Equipment and projected that the renovations would cost approximately $9,658.09—and this was on his first day as artistic director!9 Roy’s overwhelming concern with the technical specifications of Hart House does not mean that he ignored actors entirely. Indeed, two of his protégés went into film: Rauff de R. Acklom (David Manners) and Lorna McLean.10

Roy Mitchell only stayed in Hart House Theatre until 1921, when he was offered an opportunity in New York. In 1929, he wrote a book called Creative Theatre, which outlined his ideas and ideals for theatre in Canada. At this time, he was a professor of Drama at New York University, and enjoyed touring Ontario and British Columbia to lecture on his methods and his works. He died on his sabbatical in Canaan, Connecticut, long after he spent about half of his forty-year career (from about 1908-1927) developing theatre in Toronto.11

 

 


Notes

 

Show 11 footnotes

  1. Scott Duchesne, “A Golf Club for the Golden Age: English Canadian Theatre Historiography and the Strange Case of Roy Mitchell,” in Theatre Histories: Critical Perspectives on Canadian Theatre in English; vol. 13, ed. Alan Filewod (Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2009), 14.
  2. Anonymous, “Roy Mitchell: Active Backer of Stage Arts,” The Globe (Toronto, Ontario), Jul. 28, 1944: 8. Paul Joseph Maurice Stoesser, “Hart House and the International Theatre,” (PhD thesis, University of Toronto, 2007), 40-43.
  3. Stoesser, “Hart House and the International Theatre,” (PhD thesis, University of Toronto, 2007), 42-45.
  4. Stoesser, “Hart House and the International Theatre,” (PhD thesis, University of Toronto, 2007), 39. Anonymous, “Roy Mitchell: Active Backer of Stage Arts,” The Globe (Toronto, Ontario), Jul. 28, 1944: 8.
  5. Richard Partington, “Theatre: A Matter of Direction,” in A Strange Elation: Hart House: The First Eighty Years, ed. David Kilgour (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 88-89. Stoesser, “Hart House and the International Theatre,” (PhD thesis, University of Toronto, 2007), 40.
  6. Anonymous, “Theatre Degraded to Commercialism, Says Roy Mitchell: Sees the Inevitable End of Old System of Management,” The Globe (Toronto, Ontario), Mar. 26, 1930: 18.
  7. Anonymous, “Roy Mitchell Says Theatre a Real Force: Outlines Development of Playhouse Up to Present Day,” The Globe (Toronto, Ontario), Nov. 6, 1919: 10.
  8. Anonymous, “Varsity Actors Put on New Play: Produce ‘The Romancers,’ and Delight Large and Critical Audience,” The Globe (Toronto, Ontario), Mar. 9, 1921: 8.
  9. Stoesser, “Hart House and the International Theatre,” (PhD thesis, University of Toronto, 2007), 124-126, 131-132, 138.
  10. Anonymous, “Roy Mitchell: Active Backer of Stage Arts,” The Globe (Toronto, Ontario), Jul. 28, 1944: 8.
  11. Duchesne, “A Golf Club for the Golden Age,” 147-149. Partington, “Theatre: A Matter of Direction,” 93-94.