Retelling the life of Lieut. Stephen Nor­ris of Three Arms

Pet­rina Brom­ley, At­lantic Light The­atre re­mount­ing ‘A Call to Arms’ in St. John’s next month

Nor'wester (Springdale) - - FRONT PAGE - BY TARA BRADBURY

ST, JOHN’S, NL — The head­stone is sim­ple, and not un­like the stone mark­ers erected for many young New­found­land men, gone too soon.

Lieut. Stephen Nor­ris, died Oct. 11, 1916, age 24 years. “Who was killed at Gueude­court, France,” reads the only other in­scrip­tion.

Nor­ris’ head­stone is lo­cated in the once-thriv­ing com­mu­nity of Three Arms in Notre Dame Bay. He was the son of Mary and James, a busi­ness­man, with a gen­eral store and a fleet of schooners. When Stephen was killed, they say, James never re­cov­ered and died eight years later of a bro­ken heart. With no heir to the fam­ily busi­ness, it, too, came to an end. Even­tu­ally, so did Three Arms, which was re­set­tled in the late 1950s.

In 2004, want­ing to lead her the­atre stu­dents in a sig­nif­i­cant and mean­ing­ful project, Gon­zaga high school teacher Jac­inta Mackey-Gra­ham brought them from St. John’s to Three Arms. They camped out at the old Nor­ris prop­erty and vis­ited Stephen’s head­stone, plant­ing pop­pies and singing the Ode to New­found­land.

“For me, it was prob­a­bly the most pro­found ex­pe­ri­ence of my ca­reer,” Mackey-Gra­ham says.

The group set about cre­at­ing “A Call to Arms,” a mu­si­cal based on the life of Stephen Nor­ris, as a class project. Piec­ing to­gether in­for­ma­tion from lo­cal ar­chives and his­to­ri­ans, they put to­gether the story, in­ject­ing cre­ative li­cense to fill in the holes. With Pet­rina Brom­ley as dra­maturge and Ged Black­more as com­poser, “A Call to Arms” saw a suc­cess­ful run.

And then more in­for­ma­tion about Nor­ris’ life started land­ing in Mackey-Gra­ham’s lap.

Rel­a­tives of the Nor­ris fam­ily be­gan con­tact­ing her, ask­ing if she’d con­sider re­mount­ing the play. Other con­nec­tions be­gan pop­ping up co­in­ci­den­tally, in the form of peo­ple who knew the fam­ily or hap­pened to have in­for­ma­tion that added an­other di­men­sion to the story. Mackey-Gra­ham and her team had imag­ined a love in­ter­est for Nor­ris (“Be­cause it’s a mu­si­cal, af­ter all,” she says), and they learned there ac­tu­ally was one; a teacher from Conche named Han­nah Ayl­ward. Mack­eyGra­ham spoke with Ayl­ward’s grand­daugh­ter, and learned Ayl­ward - who had moved to Grand Falls and mar­ried and had a fam­ily — had al­ways kept a tin photo of Nor­ris tucked away in her be­long­ings.

“All th­ese facts came to life, and they were just laid in our lap,” Mackey-Gra­ham says. “I don’t know why.”

The dis­cov­ery of all this new in­for­ma­tion begged for a re­write and a re-telling of Nor­ris’ story, and Mackey-Gra­ham, with her At­lantic Light The­atre co-artis­tic di­rec­tor, Doug Vaughan, are mak­ing it hap­pen.

Brom­ley, cur­rently per­form­ing non Broad­way in “Come From Away,” has com­pletely re-writ­ten “A Call to Arms,” and At­lantic Light will present it at Holy Heart The­atre Sept. 29 and 30.

“It’s a new script; I don’t think there’s one line from the orig­i­nal,” Brom­ley, home from New York for va­ca­tion, says.

Less than two years be­fore he died, Nor­ris pre­sented at the CLB Ar­moury in St. John’s for a med­i­cal exam, and en­listed in the Royal New­found­land Reg­i­ment five days later, on Jan. 9, 1915. On June 20, ac­cord­ing to doc­u­ments at The Rooms, Nor­ris sailed for the U.K.

Nor­ris didn’t fight at Beau­mont-Hamel; he was re­port­edly killed while serv­ing in the trenches on the eve of bat­tle at Gueude­court. He was pro­moted from sec­ond lieu­tenant to full lieu­tenant 13 days later. In ad­di­tion to his marker in Three Arms, Nor­ris’ life is com­memor- ated with other New­found­land sol­diers be­neath the cari­bou statue at Beau­mont-Hamel.

“I’ve al­ways been a ro­man­tic fan of the war and New­found­land’s part in it,” Brom­ley says of her in­ter­est in “A Call to Arms.” “It’s very easy to be on the side of it be­ing the right thing to do, but a dif­fi­cult sac­ri­fice, and we’re glad they did it, know­ing we owe them a debt of grat­i­tude we could never re­pay.”

There’s still a fair amount of dra­matic li­cense taken in the script, Brom­ley says, and Mackey-Gra­ham is quick to point out “A Call to Arms isn’t sim­ply a sad story, and will in­clude a stage full of witty char­ac­ters.

“It’s ul­ti­mately not a story of death,” she says. “There’s light­heart­ed­ness. It’s a story of how we go on. In times of war, of chaos, we go on. It’s def­i­nitely a trib­ute to the in­domitable spirit of New­found­lan­ders, and Pet­rina has re­ally cap­tured that.”

“A Call to Arms” will star John Wil­liams as Nor­ris and Mike Coady, whom At­lantic Light is bring­ing home from Toronto, as his fa­ther, James. Alexis Koet­ting will play Nor­ris’ mother, Mary; Sarah Loveys will play Ayl­ward, and Jeff Simms will play the role of Fa­ther Thomas Nan­gle.

Tick­ets for “A Call to Arms” are avail­able at the Holy Heart The­atre box of­fice by call­ing 579-4424, and on­line at www. holy­heartthe­atre.com .

SUB­MIT­TED PHOTO

Ac­tress/play­wright Pet­rina Brom­ley is back in St. John’s on hol­i­day from per­form­ing in “Come From Away” on Broad­way to work with At­lantic Light The­atre on “A Call to Arms.” Based on the life story of Lieut. Stephen Nor­ris, Brom­ley has com­pletely re-writt­ten the mu­si­cal — which was first pro­duced as a stu­dent project in 2004 — and At­lantic Light will stage it at Holy Heart The­atre next month. Here, Brom­ley (cen­tre) works with ac­tors Sarah Loveys and John Wil­liams.

SUB­MIT­TED PHOTO

From left (front) Alexis Koet­ting as Mary Nor­ris, Michael Coady as James Nor­ris; (back) Jeff Simms as Fa­ther Tom Nan­gle and John Wil­liams as Stephen Nor­ris.

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