Armstrong’s revue brought back to King’s Theatre June 21 and 23
Playwright Peggy Armstrong, centre, looks over her script for "Fifties on Parade" with co-directors Wayne Currie and Verilea Ellis. The show is returning to King's Theatre on Friday, June 21 at 8 p.m and Sunday, June 23 at 2 p.m. Call 532-5466 for details.
By Ken Maher
For The Spectator
When Peggy Hatt moved to Annapolis Royal to start her teaching career in 1951, the Annapolis District Drama Group was just being formed. After writing and performing at King’s University, she was naturally interested in getting involved, but it was a few years before she found her spot in the troupe. Little did she know that 62 years later the fledgling community theatre group would be producing the latest of 20 or more plays and revues she would write.
Peggy (Hatt) Armstrong’s “Fifties on Parade,” a tribute to the 1950s in sketches, songs, dance, and reminiscences, played to appreciative audiences at King’s Theatre in late April, and it’s being staged again June 21 and 23. The songs and dances are the familiar ones we recall from that period, performed live by soloists and groups; the comedy sketches are mostly drawn from Peggy’s own experiences, reflecting the sound and look of a 1950s radio show. The “closed shop” nature of the Drama Group’s early years gets mentioned (“… you practically have to have a special invitation to join”), as does the arrival of a certain young teacher who “has her eyes set on that good-looking young lawyer over in Granville” (David Armstrong, who later became her husband).
One of the strengths of Peggy’s plays has been her ability to present local history – whether it’s the arrival of French, English, or Scottish settlers to these shores, or the vagaries of local social stereotypes. The new show has a 20-minute radio soap opera called “Town and Country” that tackles the divide that existed between the upper-crust ladies of Annapolis Royal and the rustic farm women all the way over in Granville. This one, and others, are based on actual incidents.
It wasn’t until 1973 that she had her first play “Haskill House” – a local ghost story – staged for the Ladies Night at the Order of Good Cheer. That was followed by a sequel that brought the “haunted” house into the next century. Over the years her plays and vignettes were in demand for historical commemorations: “Faith of Our Fathers” was commissioned for the Atlantic Baptist Convention; a historical trilogy was created for Bridgetown’s Ciderfest celebrations; in 1979 the International Gathering of the Clans featured her interpretation of the landing of the Scots, “staged” on the waters of the Annapolis Basin; after debuting at Bridgetown, “Guessing Games” was staged at Fundy National Park in New Brunswick; and in 1983 the Loyalist Bicentennial Association of Nova Scotia commissioned a major production involving 104 people; “Forever Marie,” based on the true story of a romance between an Acadian girl and an English soldier, was the winner in King’s Theatre’s national playwriting competition for the 400th anniversary year in 2005 and was staged before appreciative audiences during the Summer Festival that year.
A restaging of the Scots’ arrival was done for the town’s 300th anniversary in 2010. There was also a series of five vignettes, “Connections,” and a summer “street theatre” show at the Farmers’ Market.
It’s clear that Peggy is proud of these contributions, not only to the theatre scene, but to the community’s understanding of its own history. Characters that lie flat in the history books leap off the page and take on real lives with the help of Peggy’s dialogue and description. Local people we’ve never met – the shopkeepers, the ladies of the Junior Bridge Club, a crusty but soft-hearted farmer – become familiar characters, with their charms and their foibles intact.
One project that clearly has a special meaning for her is “Stepping Stones,” a history of Annapolis County, created with students of Annapolis Royal Elementary School, and in 2005 for Champlain Elementary School pupils (another 400th anniversary project).
Awards are few and far between for local community theatre, but in 1976 “Undercover,” a contemporary play, won an honourable mention in a national competition, Women Write for Theatre, and a one-act excerpt was later staged by Neptune Theatre, with sponsorship by the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia. It has been performed at various venues in Nova Scotia and Ontario. In 1979 “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way” was chosen for publication by the Nova Scotia Dramatists’ Co-op. She was honoured with the Cultural Life Award in 1993 and the Queen’s Jubilee Medal in 2002.
Not all of her efforts are theatrical, though; she is also the author of “Age of Sail in Annapolis County,” published by Midnight Press in 2000.
“Fifties on Parade” is the fourth in a series of themed revues that saluted the Gay ‘90s, the Roaring ‘20s and the Fabulous ‘40s. There’s no promise yet of a Swinging ‘60s show, and she’s not revealing what other plays are brewing, but Peggy reveals that “there are a few more things going on in my head”.
Peggy is quick to give credit to the Annapolis District Drama Group, whose dozens of volunteers, all but one year since King’s Theatre opened, have produced shows to benefit the theatre; more than a few have been penned by Peggy. An active member and frequent board member, she has handled publicity, worked backstage, and acted in her own and others’ plays. Her contributions to the Drama Group were recognized in 1991 when she was their Volunteer of the Year, going on to represent Annapolis County at the provincial level.
In any small community, it’s not easy to find actors, singers, dancers, directors, stage managers, set builders, or people with any of the specific talents and skills that go into a stage production. The Annapolis Royal area, small as it is, always seems to find just the right number to make it all work – one of the features that make it a rare place. Keeping in mind Shakespeare’s dictum that “the play’s the thing,” it’s even more rare to have in that little community an almost constant source – 40 years’ worth and counting – of plays that reveal its characters, real and imagined, and tell its stories. Peggy Armstrong fills that role admirably.
For details on showtimes and tickets for “Fifties on Parade,” please phone King’s Theatre at 532-7704.