Bessie (Betty) Mitchell was born in Ohio, USA, in 1896, moving to Alberta with her family in 1912. She 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 achieved her Bachelor of Science in Botany. Her first appearance in a university drama production began her lifelong love affair with the theatre.
While teaching at Central High School in Calgary, she co-founded the theatrical group The Green Room Club in 1929, with the goal of fostering interest in the dramatic arts in Calgary and across the province. Besides performing theatre, the Green Room Club sponsored the first Alberta Drama Festival in 1930. Mitchell also co-founded the Side Door Playhouse (1932) where the Green Room Club performed their plays.
In 1934 Mitchell joined the staff at Western Canada High School and in 1939 she offered one of the first credited drama courses in Alberta.
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. She studied for a Masters Degree in Theatre at State University of Iowa, which she received in August 1944. The Foundation also supported her tour of the United States to attend small regional workshops in amateur, professional and educational theatre.
In 1944 when Mitchell returned to Calgary, she worked with her devoted former high school students to form Workshop 14, named after the number on the classroom door in which they held rehearsals. Under her leadership, Workshop 14 became a leader in amateur theatre in Calgary and of one of the country’s finest amateur theatre companies. Workshop 14 won many awards provincially and in the Dominion Drama Festival between 1949 and 1959, and Mitchell was the first Canadian adjudicator of that prestigious Festival group. Many of Mitchell’s students went on to establish successful theatrical careers.
Mitchell retired from teaching in 1961, but remained the guiding force of Workshop 14. Her passion for the theatre and her vision of a professional theatre company in the city inspired Workshop 14 to join forces with The Musicians’ and Actors’ Club in order to create a new company called MAC 14. It was through the efforts of this group that the first fully professional theatre in Calgary was formed in 1968. The new company, Theatre Calgary, chose to honour Mitchell by naming its performance space “The Betty Mitchell Theatre”. When Theatre Calgary moved to the Performing Arts Centre, the Betty Mitchell Theatre was closed. However in 1984 the Provincial Government chose to name a new performing arts space in the Southern Jubilee Auditorium the “Betty Mitchell.”
Mitchell received an honorary doctor of laws from the University of Alberta in 1958 for her outstanding work in the field of drama. When, in 1997-98, Calgary’s professional theatre community established an annual awards event, it was only natural that it be called The Betty Mitchell Awards.
Dr. Betty Mitchell played an integral role in the birth and continued growth of amateur theatre and subsequent professional theatre in the city of Calgary.
References & Links
Max Foran/Sheilagh Jameson, Citymakers-Calgarians After the Frontier, The Historical Society of Alberta, Chinook Country Chapter, 1987.
Dyba, Kenneth, Betty Mitchell, Calgary: Detselig Enterprises, 1986.