Obituary / Norma Roach, OAM CM, September 25, 1930 – February 1, 2021. By Bill Stephens.
WITH the death of Norma Roach in the Queanbeyan District Hospital on February 1 at age 90, the Queanbeyan and Canberra theatre community lost one of the region’s most energetic, passionate and dynamic theatre pioneers.
Possessing an enormous capacity for friendship, Norma has been described as a matriarch, trail-blazer, joyful, creative, kind, capable, a caring spirit with a great sense of humour.
Born in the industrial city of Sunderland, England, Norma and her two sisters enjoyed an idyllic childhood in the seaside area of Roker. Her family attended the local Methodist church and were very involved in the busy, lively community. Norma sang in the church choir with her parents, Ralph and May Parnaby, where she learned to read music by “watching the dots go up and down”, and performed in many church concerts.
Sunderland was heavily bombed during WWII and the Parnabys were evacuated to stay with relatives in Harrogate, while Ralph stayed behind in Sunderland. After the war and schooling, Norma trained as a midwife at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle upon Tyne, where during her nursing training she developed an interest in flying and achieved her pilot’s licence in 1953.
Nursing and midwifery took her to London where she met and married Australian doctor Trevor Roach, who was completing his obstetrics degree at Charing Cross Hospital after his medical studies at Sydney University.
The couple migrated to Australia, where after filling several locum positions, Trevor joined the Crawford Medical practice in Queanbeyan, which Norma would tell friends was “a very friendly place which felt homely and where I felt I could have a bit of a say in what went on”.
And have her say she certainly did.
Norma quickly settled into the role of doctor’s wife in a small town, and between 1957 and 1969 the couple had four children, Helen, Neil, Ian and Alison.
Norma joined the Methodist Church in Queanbeyan and was an enthusiastic chorister. In fact she sang in choirs all her life, eventually directing the Queanbeyan Methodist Church then the Uniting Church choir, singing with the choir of the World Council of Churches, the Kaleidoscope choir, and in later life, the choir at St Christopher’s in Manuka.
Having developed a love of theatre as a young girl, Norma began staging nativity plays and Christmas concerts. She gathered a small group of like-minded people, largely from the Methodist Church, to perform plays and melodramas in the church hall, before moving across the road to the larger Anglican Parish Hall, which she always referred to as the “perish hall” because it was so cold in winter.
From its inception in 1965 until very recent years, Norma was a driving force behind the Queanbeyan Players as performer, costume designer, director, administrator, mentor and lobbyist. She organised several Music Hall and melodrama evenings in the Methodist Church, until in the mid 1970s the Players staged a series of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in the high school. This established the Players, which has continued to produce operettas and musical comedies ever since, with Norma central to their success.
In 1980 Norma directed her first full stage musical “Queen of Hearts” at the old Nova cinema. She went on to direct 24 Queanbeyan Players’ productions as varied as “Grease”, “Kismet”, “Godspell”, “Anything Goes”, “Half a Sixpence”, “Salad Days”, “The King and I” and several of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas including her favourite, “Yeoman of the Guard”. When she wasn’t directing, Norma performed, designed, made costumes and lobbied enthusiastically.
Having used various sheds over the years to build sets and store costumes, the Queanbeyan Players received a land grant from the council for their own shed. It became something of a family concern, with Trevor being the set-builder, Norma, a talented costumier, most often costuming if she wasn’t directing the show, and other family members co-opted into different roles on and off stage.
Because Queanbeyan lacked a proper theatre, Norma focused on this issue for decades, first heavily involved in developing the Nova Picture Theatre, then participating in steering the committee to have theatre facilities included in the Bicentennial Hall, which opened in 1988.
Not satisfied that either qualified as a “proper” theatre, Norma began campaigning for the construction of The Q theatre against much opposition from councillors who considered the loss of parking spaces involved would be fatal to business. The opening of The Q in 2008 was to a large extent due to Norma’s efforts.
Besides her involvement with Queanbeyan Players, Norma had also appeared onstage and undertook costume design and construction for many of the early productions of the Canberra Philharmonic Society which she joined in 1959 as a sister, cousin or aunt in the chorus of “HMS Pinafore”. Between 1960 and 1963, Norma participated in four other Philharmonic productions, even being cast as Melissa in “Princess Ida” until illness forced her to relinquish the role.
She took a keen interest in local history and railed against the casual demolition of Queanbeyan’s heritage buildings. She was a key figure in the establishment of the Queanbeyan Museum sourcing and contributing artefacts.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Norma revived her interest in her pilot’s licence, learned to swim, became an advocate for the betterment of nursing in Queanbeyan, and a staff member of the Crawford Street Medical practice. She became an Australian citizen in 1993, declaring she felt she was finally ready.
Norma received a Centenary Medal in 2001, and an Order of Australia in 2009, the latter in recognition of her work promoting culture and the arts, particularly through the Queanbeyan Players and the Queanbeyan Museum. She was Queanbeyan’s Australia Day Ambassador in 2010, and she and Trevor were jointly honoured with inclusion in the Queanbeyan Cultural Honours Gallery in 2013.
With the death of Trevor in 2015, Norma decided to step back from many of her community activities to relish time with family and friends, especially her grandchildren, nieces and nephew, Sunday night family dinners, hilarious Christmas celebrations and quiet walks along the banks of the Queanbeyan River.
The writer would like to acknowledge the assistance of Neil Roach, Peter Smith and Kim Gibson in the preparation of this report.