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Canberra Today 6°/10° | Friday, May 24, 2024 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

Millicent’s ‘lost’ plays brought back from the bush

Millicent Armstrong with horses at her Gunning property. Photo: Lucy Knight

WITH a regional tour coming up, including a stop at Lanyon during Floriade, Dianna Nixon’s ongoing “Millicent Armstrong” project is in full swing. 

Armstrong was the Gunning-region farmer who won a Croix de Guerre in World War I for her services as a nurse on the Western Front and a list of plays to her name that portray life on the land, including the tragic work “Drought”, which was awarded the 1923 Rupert Brooke Prize and performed in London.

Her one-act play “Fire” was placed third in the Sydney “Daily Telegraph” competition. “At Dusk” appeared in 1937 in a collection of Australian one-act plays and two drawing-room dramas, “Thomas” and “Penny Dreadful”, were published in a selection of her work in 1958. 

When I caught up with Nixon, at her Dickson studio, she told me: “It wasn’t so much that I found Millicent, but that Millicent found me.”

Nixon first encountered her in 2016, while surfing the internet for Gunning history when she was planning to buy a property in Gunning, as she later did.

Dianna Nixon… “It wasn’t so much that I found Millicent, but that Millicent found me.” Photo: Shelly Higgs

Nixon discovered Millicent who, with her sister Helen, had gone farming after the war. She noted that the sisters were literary collaborators and there are sister relationships in all her plays. 

Millicent died in modest obscurity in 1973. Descendant John Lightfoot will attend the Lanyon performance. 

In the Gunning region, she and Helen, both first-class honours graduates from Sydney University, proved to be modest personalities who preferred not to shout their successes to the skies. 

Nixon was astonished at what she found, asking herself whether, if Millicent had such a literary record, who else might there be?

That remains a rhetorical question for the time being, but during a period of research she found out as much as she could, and she was pleased to discover that Armstrong is studied at the University of New England and in a University of Queensland “Australian Gothic” course. 

She was assisted by an “Australian Dictionary Biography” entry by Kate Blackmore, which reveals that Armstrong first experimented with drama at Hôpital Auxiliaire d’Armées No.30. in France , where she wrote pantomimes, melodramas and variety shows in English and French, performed by staff and some of the casualties.

After more research, Nixon started conducting workshops and readings of the plays, bolstered by the Gunning Arts Festival, where she held showings. 

In a semi-staged reading of “At Dusk”, “Thomas”, “Penny Dreadful” and “Drought” at Margarita Georgiadis’ and Max Cullen’s Picture House Gallery in Gunning during 2021, Nixon was joined by Christopher Carroll, Heather Keens and Holly Ross. Now, stepping aside to focus on the production, she has also engaged actors Zsuzsi Soboslay, Caroline Simone O’Brien and Craig Alexander to complete the casting. All the actors are paid professional rates.

As director of Music Theatre Projects, she is a well-known voice and piano teacher and theatre worker who is determined that the “Millicent Project” should be a professional one. Although she has engaged Stephen Lindsay, of Old Binda Road Studios, Crookwell, to create a cinematic soundscape and score, only one of the plays, the famous “Drought”, is to be fully staged.

She’s had a little help from Arts ACT and Yass Valley Council and, with some billeting and in-kind motel support, the planned mini tour will take the show to Cobargo, Merimbula and Lanyon. 

“Drought and other Plays by Millicent Armstrong”, Yass Memorial Hall, September 22; Cobargo School of Arts and The Twyford Merimbula, September 23 and Lanyon Homestead, September 24.

From left, Heather Keens,  Zsuzsi Soboslay, Caroline Simone O’Brien, Craig Alexander, Holly Ross and Christopher Samuel-Carroll.Photo: Dianna-Nixon

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Helen Musa

Helen Musa

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