1 September 2023

Woman with write stuff: Tour to raise curtain on stories by Gunning war hero playwright

| Claire Sams
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Dianna Nixon at Armstrong’s property ‘Clear Hills’ in Gunning. Photo: Supplied.

It was by chance and curiosity that Dianna Nixon stumbled across the life of a fellow regional artist from decades ago.

“I’d been looking to buy a property out in the villages around Canberra, and then I was seriously looking at Gunning in 2016,” she said.

“As you do, you read about a place online, and a Wikipedia entry for Millicent Armstrong came up.

“I asked around and started investigating because I couldn’t believe the story of her life and the fact she was writing plays out here.”

Playwright and war hero Millicent Armstrong was born in 1888 in Sydney, but would eventually settle in the Gunning and Goulburn areas.

“She was a real person who was, by all accounts, very modest, very hardworking, very kind and just a good person,” Ms Nixon said.

Ms Armstrong studied English at the University of Sydney before heading overseas, where she ended up working in a French hospital during World War I.

She received the Croix de Guerre, a French war honour, for her bravery in rescuing wounded soldiers while under fire.

This year, four of Ms Armstrong’s one-act plays will be brought to life during a tour across southeastern NSW and the ACT.

The plays – titled At Dusk, Thomas, Penny Dreadful and Drought – would bring stories of 19th- and 20th-century life in country Australia to modern audiences, Ms Nixon said.

“I created this production specifically for touring to regional and rural Australia,” she said.

“These plays are designed for shearing sheds, heritage homesteads, community halls and those kinds of venues.”

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Ms Nixon is the managing director of Music Theatre Projects Ltd, and is also serving as the director and creative producer of the production.

While developing the production, Ms Nixon also found a similarity between herself and Ms Armstrong, echoing through the decades.

“I think what meant the most to me was that she was a single woman living and working in rural Australia,” she said.

“These days, I too am a single woman living and working in rural Australia, and both of us have forged a career in the arts.”

Millicent Armstrong with a horse

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

Ms Nixon said many female artists from history were overlooked.

“We don’t fully celebrate a lot of the female artists in our heritage,” she said.

“There are many women in our history who did incredible artistic work, but because of their situation perhaps didn’t have an advocate or the financial means to do longer form work or promote themselves more widely.”

While researching Ms Armstrong, Ms Nixon found descendants of the Armstrong family.

“The family have been aware of what I’m doing all along the process, and have given me their blessing,” she said.

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While there are four shows planned for the September tour, keep an eye out for future announcements.

“We’re hoping to do a much bigger tour in 2024,” Ms Nixon said.

“I’m already looking at some pretty significant woolsheds and properties that we could perform in.”

Shows will be held in Yass, Cobargo and Merimbula in NSW, and then in Canberra as part of Floriade.

Tickets for the September tour are available online.

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