In September 2023 we set off on a mini tour to give performances at Yass Memorial Hall, Cobargo School of Arts, The Twyford Hall in Merimbula, and at Lanyon Homestead, Tharwa. The Lanyon performance was included in the 2023 Floriade program. Whilst we had small audiences all round, the impact of the tour was still significant. It allowed us to test the work in exactly the type of community halls and heritage homesteads that the show had been created for.
The tour was underfunded, but, thankfully, Yass Valley Council and ArtsACT both came to the rescue and contributed small grants. That still left a considerable deficit, which Dianna has covered with a loan to MTP until such time as the company can repay the amount.
But what we achieved is important: we’ve established relationships with a number of new venues, with new audience, and built on our connection with the media in our region. We’ve developed further insight into the works, and had a brilliant time with the fabulous touring company. And we’ve tested our touring model in readiness for our goal of touring for 2 weeks in 2024, visiting 12 different locations across NSW.
Feedback from a Cobargo audience member: I just wanted to tell you how much we enjoyed the afternoon of theatre, featuring works written by Millicent Armstrong, at Cobargo School of Arts. It provided a perfect intimate setting for all 4 plays. The actors were first class and the final play was gut wrenching. Thank you for the warning about this one. Our district was severely impacted by the Black Summer bushfires and we have experienced the terror of a natural disaster. Australia was and continues to be a country of “droughts and flooding rains”. Adding to the plays was the opportunity to mingle with the talented cast over a scrumptious afternoon tea and to get a little of their stories. How lucky we are to have companies like Music Theatre Projects and its Director, Dianna Nixon, bring theatre of quality to tiny towns like ours.
These 4 plays – At Dusk, Thomas, Penny Dreadful and Drought – have languished for nearly 70 years, with the exception of At Dusk which was last performed in the 1990s in Melbourne. Two of them reflect the realities of rural life, one set during the Federation drought, the other centred on sexual violence. Then there is a domestic comedy, which is truly laugh out loud funny, and a dark melodrama. Millicent’s works reflect their connection to the Australian Gothic tradition, and feature sparkling dialogue, idiomatic writing, and strong female characters, with a focus on the relationship between sisters. This is not surprising given Millicent’s main collaborator was her sister, Helen.
AUSSTAGE has a listing of Millicent Armstrong’s works. https://www.ausstage.edu.au/pages/contributor/248790
Dianna: “Imagine this. I’m googling for affordable housing outside the ACT. As a practicing freelance performing artist, this was necessary if I was to finally own my own home. It also meant going back to my farming roots somewhat. Best decision I ever made. But ….. imagine this. While googling I discover this person who lived near Gunning in the first half of the 20th century, who went to the Western Front in WW1, was awarded a Croix de Guerre for bravery, became a soldier settler, and is listed on Wikipedia as: playwright, farmer. What? And hardly anyone here was aware she’d existed, outside her family, and the present owners of Millicent’s old farm, Clear Hills.”
Dianna has spent many hours learning about Millicent Armstrong’s work. She has met with relatives of Millicent and liaised with family and associates further afield. She visited Clear Hills where Millicent lived, and has helped bring together those who wish to digitize the plays with the family whose permissions were required in order to do so. She met with the former historian at the Australian War Memorial, Dr Peter Stanley, who advised her on the avenues for researching Millicent’s war history. Dianna discussed Millicent’s work with staff at the National Library of Australia, who hold an unpublished novel and some of the plays. Total strangers have reached out to Dianna, who’ve read about her explorations, sharing info, and, in one case, donating a copy of a book of Australian plays from the 1930s which includes At Dusk. All this work was undertaken without any funding.
In 2020, Dianna received a modest fee from Gunning Arts Festival to shoot a film on her phone during Covid19 iso for the inaugural GAF (online) festival. In 2021, professional readings of four of Armstrong’s one act plays were given at Gunning Arts Festival on Sat April 24.
Max Cullen & Margarita Georgiadis (The Picture House Theatre, Gunning): “We hosted Music Theatre Projects 2021 readings of a selection of short plays by local author Millicent Armstrong in our theatre in Gunning. They brought Millicent Armstrong’s voice to life, and our local audience were thoroughly entertained and made aware of the talent not only of Millicent Armstrong, but of the performers, produced and directed brilliantly by Dianna Nixon of Music Theatre Projects.”
Dianna Nixon was director, project manager and performer. Other cast members were Christopher Samuel Carroll, Holly Ross, and Heather Keens. Our stage manager was Sam Barrett. The audio recording was shared on Gunning Arts Festival website during their October 2021 online event and it is publicly available on the Wild Voices Music Theatre Soundcloud page.
Helen Musa CF, arts editor for City News (Canberra), attended the Picture House readings in 2021. She said: “The characters were well-delineated and the atmosphere capturing the loneliness of rural life was powerful and convincing, acknowledged in the writer’s own time with Australian and international awards between 1923 and 1934. But it was the authentic dialogue and sense of the voices of the time which particularly struck me, throwing light on an earlier and harsher era in Australia’s history.”
Further info can be found via these links:
We received fantastic testimonials about the 2022 project. Here is one: “We could not have enjoyed the experience of being part of the audience at “Drought and Other Plays by Millicent Armstrong”, performed at the Gunning Court House, more! We enjoyed each of the plays and were impressed by how quickly the cast was able to transport the audience into each story, given that the plays were so short. This was enhanced by the atmospheric sounds and music, that really helped fire the audiences’ imagination. The final play “Drought” was particularly poignant, and for people like us, who have lived and worked all their lives on the land, it was extremely powerful and very moving. The difficult subject matter was handled with great sensitivity, but with maximum impact. Thank you to everyone involved!”
A major outcome of the 2022 stage of the project was to achieve proof of concept of this touring product, test it on our audiences, and provide us with marketing collateral for future use in promoting it to touring bodies, performing arts markets, festivals, local councils and other regional and rural networks.
The production is designed as a work that is purpose-built for touring to community halls, heritage homesteads and shearing sheds. This means very short seasons or one off performances, and a very quick bumpin/out, therefore no fancy sets, costumes, or complex lighting. Instead, we utilise minimalist suggestions of period, and very finely tuned performance work.
A major technical component is a recorded cinematic quality soundscape and score accompanying the plays. We will tour our own sound equipment for playback of the soundtrack.
We work with the given space as if on location, using actual doors and windows and fittings as our set. So the work is an immersive experience for our audiences, and retains a sense of freshness and fun for the actors. Our staging can easily adapt to differing conditions, including working outdoors, bringing the work fully alive. This relies on very experienced actors with good improvisational skills to allow this level of freedom and play in the staging of the works.
The soundscape was created by Stephen Lindsay, of Old Binda Road Studios, Crookwell, in a collaboration with Dianna Nixon as co-creative and performer, creating sound design, composition, vocal sequences, and foley sound. Along with the richly detailed supporting soundscape, you will hear wild sound captured from our region in the two plays set in rural locations.
1/ Fundraising, liaison with touring bodies, venues, presenters and a range of stakeholders whose interests overlap with the themes in these plays. If you wish to stage the works, or attend a future performance, please email us.
2/ With the support of scholars who are digitising Millicent Armstrong’s work, Dianna has located a fifth play, Fire. With support from FRRR (Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal), Acciona and Veolia Mulwaree Trust, has transcribed and edited it for performance. The first public reading is taking place at Gunning Court House, as part of Gunning Arts Festival on Sunday 29 October 2023.
3/ Dianna took part in Canberra Theatre Centre’s New Works residency in May 2023, exploring the work Flood, a response to the floods of 2022, and a meditation on the possibility of regeneration of our landscape. In the future, this will become the third part of a mainstage trilogy as a companion to Armstrong’s Drought and Fire.
Collaborators in 2022
Our 2022 Goulburn Performing Arts Centre (GPAC) performance was positioned within the Festival of Regional Theatre (FORT). As Millicent Armstrong lived in Goulburn for the final stage of her life, it was fitting her works be seen and heard in the new performing arts centre as soon as possible. FORT provided the ideal opportunity. The Gunning Court House 2022 performances increased the reach of the project and contributed towards the goals of building Gunning’s reputation as a village with arts, culture and heritage as a central feature, complimenting its rural and agricultural focus. There is a cast of 6 actors, all very experienced professionals from our region, directed by Dianna Nixon. They are: Christopher Samuel Carroll, Holly Ross, Heather Keens, Caroline Simone O’Brien, Zsuzsi Soboslay and Craig Alexander.
For the work in 2022 we received significant support from the NSW Govt via GPAC. The Festival of Regional Theatre was proudly funded by the NSW Government’s Reconnecting Regional NSW – Community Events Program in association with Goulburn Mulwaree Council. Dianna received support for her work as creative producer and project manager as an independent artist from Create NSW. Funds were received from Cullerin Wind Farm Trust, the Upper Lachlan Foundation, and CASP (Country Arts Support Program).
Important dates and activities
Continuing – submit applications for funds to support 1/ touring the 4 short plays in 2024, and 2/ further development towards staging Fire, and on 3/ the development of the mainstage trilogy Drought. Fire. Flood.
Dates tbc 2024, and pending resourcing – touring throughout regional and rural NSW (the show is included in the NSW ArtsOnTour brochure)
Future – regional and rural touring through other states