Betty Mitchell | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Betty Mitchell

Bessie Mitchell, "Betty", theatre director, teacher (b at Sandusky, Ohio 4 May 1896; d at Calgary, 10 Sept 1976).

Betty Mitchell

Bessie Mitchell, "Betty", theatre director, teacher (b at Sandusky, Ohio 4 May 1896; d at Calgary, 10 Sept 1976). She immigrated to a farm near Oyen, Alta, with her mother, brother and sister at age 16, completed high school by correspondence, attended the Normal School in Calgary and taught in rural schools to earn tuition for the University of Alberta where she majored in botany. Her first appearance in a university drama production began her lifelong love affair with the theatre. Among the many theatrical groups in Calgary she helped to found were The Green Room Club (1930), the Side Door Playhouse (1932) and Workshop 14 (1944).

When the Social Credit government under William Aberhart was elected in Alberta in 1935, Aberhart, a former high-school principal, incorporated the fine arts into the Alberta High School curriculum as accredited subjects. Alberta was one of the first jurisdictions in North America to do so. Mitchell was one of the first beneficiaries of the new policy, and one of the first teachers of high-school drama.

In 1942 a special performance of Mitchell's student production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town was arranged at Western Canada High School for Professor Barclay Leathem, director of the Cleveland Playhouse and head of the drama department at Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Leathem was so impressed by the performance that he recommended Mitchell for a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship, which she used to pursue her first formal training in the theatre: a masters degree in theatre at State University of Iowa, which she received in August 1944. A National Research Fellowship from the Cleveland Playhouse enabled her to tour the United States to study amateur, professional and educational theatre.

When Mitchell returned to Calgary, she found that three former students, Kaye Grieve, Betty Valentine and Frank Glenfield, had formed Workshop 14, named after the number on the classroom door in which they held rehearsals. Initially she worked with the group only as an advisor but quickly became one of the most effective directors of one of the best amateur groups in the country. Workshop 14 won many awards in the Dominion Drama Festivals between 1949 and 1959, and many of Mitchell's students went on to establish successful theatrical careers.

Mitchell received an honorary doctor of laws from the University of Alberta in 1958. In 1962, the Betty Mitchell Theatre in the Allied Arts Centre was officially opened. Mitchell saw a dream come true when Calgary's first professional theatre was founded, and when Theatre Calgary moved into the theatre that bore her name, her lifelong efforts were further vindicated. A second theatre was dedicated to her in 1984: the Betty Mitchell Theatre in the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium. When, in 1997-98, Calgary's professional theatre community began an annual awards event, it was only natural that it be called the Betty Mitchell Awards.

The Betty Mitchell papers are at the Glenbow Museum Archives in Calgary.

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