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
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 .
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.
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.