Independent Theatre

The Independent Theatre Ltd. (founded as Independent Theatre), was an Australian dramatic society founded in 1930 by Dame Doris Fitton, and was also the name given to the building it occupied from 1938. It was named for London's Independent Theatre Society founded by J. T. Grein and was one of several amateur drama groups of high standard which sprang up in Sydney, Australia in the 1930s to fill the gap left by the closure of all but two professional theatres (the last spoken-word theatre to close was The Criterion theatre in 1936, leaving only the Tivoli, which ran vaudeville, and the Theatre Royal, which played musicals and ballets). The range of plays essayed was impressive – from classics to avant-garde pieces, from recent West End and Broadway successes (sometimes the Australian premiere) to offerings from local dramatists. The death of Doris Fitton's co-producer Peter Summerton in 1969 put extra strain on her deteriorating health, and with no-one able or willing to fill her shoes, the Independent closed in 1977. It was to reopen in 1998, continuing its tradition as a training ground for young actors and playwrights.


Initially, Fitton's company rehearsed and played in St James' Hall. From 1931, most performances were given in The Savoy, a small single-floor cinema on Bligh Street, chiefly on Wednesday and Saturday, movies being shown on other nights. For some productions, the much larger Sydney Conservatorium of Music was hired. It would have made an ideal home for the club, but was not available for regular hire. In 1937 Doris came to an arrangement with the Sydney Players' Club that they would share Savoy Saturday nights: five weeks for The Independent and three for the Players. But after the Players' Club had cancelled their lease of St James' Hall, the management of The Savoy evicted them both in order to become purely a cinema.[1]

It had been intended to move to the much larger Palace Theatre, 255(?) Pitt Street, at the end of 1932 (it had been used throughout August 1931 for a particularly popular production), but that never eventuated.[2] (It became a venue for "minnie" golf instead![3])

The new clubrooms upstairs at 175 Pitt Street served as an occasional performance space from September 1938 to September 1939.

In 1938 the company took a two-year lease over the old Criterion (which was originally a cable winding station for the cable trams),[4] at 269 Miller Street, North Sydney (near Ridge Street), which had been made available by the collapse of the Kursaal Theatre Group.[5] For a time they were running two productions in parallel: at Pitt Street and at their new premises, renamed "The Independent"; by September 1939 the move was complete. The building was owned by North Sydney Coliseum Company, who in 1947 made moves to sell the building. Funds were raised for its purchase.[6]


Clubrooms are used for read-throughs of plays, training and rehearsals other than full dress rehearsals to save the expense of theatre hire. Often they would be made available to other groups and community organizations. They may also be used for storage, maintenance and sometimes even preparation of programmes, scenery, props and costumes. Doris first rented rooms for this purpose in 1933 at 60 King St[7] then moved to 112 King St in early 1934.[8] and were still there in 1938[9] when the building was destroyed by fire.[10] They rented the first floor (US second floor) of "Club Chambers" at 175 Pitt St from July 1938[11] to mid-1939 when they took over the Coliseum[12] and there was no need for a separate facility.


Doris was usually producer and director, and frequently leading lady, and in each of these roles won praise from the critics. Dame Sybil Thorndike is recorded as saying of The Independent "It is too good to be judged by the standards of the amateur stage."[13] The list below exemplifies the range and standard of plays performed.

In 1942 The Independent embarked on a joint management arrangement with Alec Coppel's Whitehall Productions which entailed nightly professional presentations, alternating seasons with the Minerva Theatre across the other side of the city.[14] The scheme was abandoned after one month due to poor weekday attendances.

In 1944 they played at the newly opened American Red Cross Club at Kensington.[15]

On 19 September 1944, the building narrowly escaped destruction when the adjacent building, previously the De Luxe Theatre but then used by the Army as a store, caught fire. Newspaper reports of hand grenades and bombs being hastily removed were denied by officials.[16]

Initially amateur, "The Indi" started paying award rates to a nucleus of leading players from May 1955. Those selected included Marie Rosenfeld, Ethel Gabriel, Jessica Noad, Molly Brown, Haydee Seldon, Leonard Bullen, John Carlson and Grenville Spencer.[17] Doris's intended six shows a week was soon cut to three in the face of inadequate rehearsal time.

In 1948 John Alden used "The Independent" as home for his fledgling Shakespeare Company.[18] Other groups to use "The Independent" at various times were the Independent Theatre School of Stagecraft, Heather Gell Productions,[19] Lesley Bowker's Reiby Players[20] and the Liberal Youth Club's Dramatic Group.[21]

Selected productions

Note: This list is incomplete and only dramatic productions by The Independent Theatre are listed. Most are opening nights with no indication of successive performances if any. It includes very few of the many evenings of one-act plays (including finalists of their annual play-writing contests) and matinees. Where no producer is credited, it may be assumed to have been Doris Fitton.
at St James' Hall, Phillip Street
at Savoy Theatre, Bligh Street unless otherwise indicated
homeless! (various venues)
  • 1 May 1937 Hide-out by Sydney writers Rex Rienits and Stewart Howard (prod. John Alden and Lyn Foster) at King Street
  • 8 May 1937 One-act plays by George Cassidy, Sumner Locke-Elliott, John Alden, Trafford Whitelock at clubrooms, King Street
  • 15 May 1937 The Sybarites by H. Dennis Bradley at clubrooms, King Street
  • 11 Jun 1937 Noah at the Conservatorium of Music
  • 24 Jul 1937 Pride and Prejudice adapted by Helen Jerome at the Conservatorium of Music
  • 14 Aug 1937 Much Ado About Nothing at clubrooms, King Street
  • 11 Sep 1937 Candida at the Conservatorium of Music
  • 30 Sep 1937 There's Always Juliet (prod. Brian Wright) at clubrooms, King Street
  • 2 Oct 1937 Le Malade Imaginaire at clubrooms, King Street
  • 30 Oct 1937 The Cow Jumped Over the Moon (Sumner Locke-Elliott writer and producer) at clubrooms, King Street
  • 13 Nov 1930 Boy Meets Girl at the Conservatorium of Music
  • 24 Nov 1937 No Incense Rising & Remains to Be Proved (winners of Independent play-writing competition) at the Conservatorium of Music
  • 8 Dec 1937 The Play's the Thing at clubrooms, King Street
  • 1 Jan 1937 Peter Pan at Majestic Theatre, Newtown
  • 8 Jan 1938 Mirage by Sydney author Kenneth Wilkinson at clubrooms, King Street
  • 21 Feb 1838 1066 and All That at the Conservatorium of Music
  • 12 Mar 1938 Six Characters in Search of an Author at clubrooms, King Street
  • 2 Apr 1938 Lovers' Leap at clubrooms, King Street
  • 29 Apr 1938 1066 and All That at the Conservatorium of Music
  • 14 May 1938 Judgment Day (prod. Doris Fitton and John Appleton) at the Conservatorium
  • 28 May 1938 The Play's the Thing at clubrooms, King Street
  • 11 Jun 1938 Call It a Day
  • 16 Jul 1938 You Can't Take It with You at clubrooms, King Street
at Independent Theatre Clubrooms, 175 Pitt Street (often called simply Independent Theatre) unless otherwise indicated
at Independent Theatre, 269 Miller St, North Sydney
under joint management with Whitehall Productions:
back to amateur productions:
(Doris Fitton overseas May 1949 to March 1950; spent much time attempting London production of Rusty Bugles)[34]
  • 12 May 1949 Father Malachy's Miracle prod. James Pratt
  • 19 Mar 1949 Merry Wives of Windsor prod. John Alden [35]
  • 23 Jun 1949 The Male Animal prod. John Cameron [36]
  • The Residuary Legatee
  • Amphitryon 38
  • 2 Sep 1949 Mandragola prod. Adrian Henry Borzell
  • 28 Oct 1949 Salome prod. Dr. Raoul Cardamatis
  • 9 Nov 1949 A Marriage of Convenience prod. William Rees
  • 14 Jun 1950 Dark of the Moon
  • Feb 1950?The Sunken Bell prod. Dr. Raoul Cardamatis
  • 6 Apr 1950 The Glencairn Plays: Bound East for Cardiff, In the Zone, The Long Voyage Home, Moon of the Carribees by Eugene O'Neill prod. Lawrence H. Cecil [37]
  • 6 Sep 1950 Orney Boy
  • 7 Oct 1950 Julius Caesar prod. Lawrence H. Cecil
  • 18 Oct 1950 Home of the Brave
  • 27 Dec 1950 Just For Fun
  • 7 Mar 1951 Anna Lucasta
  • 7 Feb 1952 Ardel
  • 23 Apr 1952 Black Chiffon
  • 15 May 1952 It All Takes Time prod. John Appleton
  • Captain Carvallo
  • Henry V
  • 26 May 1954 The Cradle Song

Founding members

The first players included Garry Byrne, Marguerite Cullen-Ward, Doris Fitton, Philip Lewis, Dorothy Lowe, Frieda McGhee, Richard Parry, Alathea Siddons and Harry Tighe.


Among those associated with Independent Theatre were:

Pickwick Theatre Group

Among foundation members of the Independent were Dorise Hill and Phillip Lewis, who in 1931 broke away to form the short-lived Pickwick Theatre Group, associated with the Pickwick Book Club of 156 Pitt Street, Sydney. They held a reception for Sybil Thorndike and Lewis Casson in September 1932, at which members of the Independent Theatre were conspicuously absent.[38] Early in December 1932 Phillip Lewis took full control of the club then a fortnight later disbanded it.[39] He died in 1950, aged 47.[40] Mrs Albert Cazabon (aka Norah Delaney)[41] and Joy Howarth[42] were notable actors associated with the Pickwick group, whose productions (all at the Savoy Theatre) were:


  • History of Australian Theatre - archive
  • West, John Theatre in Australia Cassell Australia 1978 ISBN 0-7269-9266-6


  1. "Little Theatres' Plight" Sydney Morning Herald 20 March 1937 p.12
  2. "Music and Drama" Sydney Morning Herald 24 December 1932 p.4
  3. West, John Theatre in Australia Cassell 1978 ISBN 0-7269-9266-6 p.89
  4. "Sydney's Early Trams" Sydney Morning Herald 26 December 1942 p.5
  5. "You Can't Take It With You" Sydney Morning Herald 9 January 1939 p.6]
  6. "Independent Aims To Buy Theatre" Sydney Morning Herald 28 October 1947 p.9
  7. Sydney Morning Herald 30 September 1933
  8. Sydney Morning Herald 14 December 1934
  9. Sydney Morning Herald 19 March 1938
  10. Sydney Morning Herald 11 June 1938
  11. Sydney Morning Herald 21 June 1938
  12. Sydney Morning Herald 2 September 1939
  13. "Drama Week" Sydney Morning Herald 5 December 1935 p.10
  14. "Theatre Merger" Sydney Morning Herald 25 April 1942 p.11
  15. "To Entertain U.S. Troops" Sydney Morning Herald 29 May 1944
  16. "Bombs rushed from big fire at North Sydney" Sydney Morning Herald 19 September 1944
  17. "Independent Theatre to turn professional" Sydney Morning Herald 7 April 1945 p.9
  18. Sydney Morning Herald 2 November 1951
  19. "Heather Gell's Pageant Play" Sydney Morning Herald 18 December 1944 p.4
  20. "Boom Month for Australiana" Sydney Morning Herald 26 May 1945 p.7
  21. Sydney Morning Herald 16 February 1952
  22. Sydney Morning Herald 2 August 1930
  23. Sydney Morning Herald 4 November 1933
  24. "A Dream Realised" Sydney Morning Herald 3 September 1939 p.12
  25. Sydney Morning Herald 17 Jan 1942
  26. Sydney Morning Herald 2 March 1942
  27. "Fine "Hamlet" Production At Independent". The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 8 July 1946. p. 6. Retrieved 2 January 2016.
  28. "Advertising". The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 23 October 1946. p. 13. Retrieved 2 January 2016.
  29. "To Make Believe." The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 26 November 1946. p. 3 Supplement: The Sydney Morning Herald Magazine. Retrieved 2 January 2016.
  30. ""Antigone" At Independent". The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 14 February 1947. p. 5. Retrieved 2 January 2016.
  31. ""Little Foxes" Acted by Strong Cast". The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 20 October 1947. p. 5. Retrieved 2 January 2016.
  32. "THEATRE". The Catholic Weekly. Sydney: National Library of Australia. 6 April 1950. p. 5 Section: Magazine Section. Retrieved 2 January 2016.
  33. "Verbal Wit In "La Marquise"". The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 9 October 1948. p. 9. Retrieved 2 January 2016.
  34. (Melbourne) Argus 6 April 1949
  35. "Films. Music. Theatre". The Catholic Weekly. Sydney: National Library of Australia. 31 March 1949. p. 5 Section: Magazine Section. Retrieved 2 January 2016.
  36. "THEATRE". The Catholic Weekly. Sydney: National Library of Australia. 7 July 1949. p. 5 Section: Magazine Section. Retrieved 2 January 2016.
  37. "THEATRE". The Catholic Weekly. Sydney: National Library of Australia. 6 April 1950. p. 5 Section: Magazine Section. Retrieved 2 January 2016.
  38. Sydney Morning Herald 20 September 1932
  39. Sydney Morning Herald 31 December 1932
  40. Sydney Morning Herald 12 December 1950
  41. Sydney Morning Herald 14 June 1934
  42. Sydney Morning Herald 9 July 1934

33.83328°S 151.208109°E / -33.83328; 151.208109

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