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Drawing from local history and a career in dramatic productions, playwright Toby Armour has become known for crafting plays that tell the story of the town in which they are staged, such as last weekend’s Three Tales of East Haven at Christ and the Epiphany Church. (Photo by Nathan Hughart/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
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In her career as a playwright, Toby Armour has written about Susan B. Anthony, freed slaves, and railroads with partners including town historians, aspiring writers, and prisoners. She most recently brought her talents back to East Haven at a showing of Three Tales of East Haven on July 21 at Christ and the Epiphany Church.
The play was directed by Pat Souney and performed by actors from throughout the shoreline region.
“It’s kind of a regional, local situation,” Toby says.
The first story, “Henry Hughes,” tells the story of a time during the Revolutionary War when the British aimed to capture New Haven by storming East Haven and West Haven.
“Unfortunately, East Haven was the worst hit,” Toby says. “They burned and they pillaged. This was true also in West Haven. The destruction in East Haven was terrific.”
They came to Henry Hughes’s house and, Toby says, he was given a terrible choice.
The next story occurs shortly after the revolution. It concerns a woman named Sophia who Toby says was the first slave freed in Connecticut and possibly New England.
“Already the question of abolition was very meaningful,” Toby says. “She was freed here in East Haven…in 1795.”
The final story in Toby’s set of plays is about an encounter between Gurdon Saltonstall, the governor of Colonial Connecticut at the time, and East Haven’s Deborah Chidsey.
“East Haven [which was known as East Village at the time] wanted very much to be independent and they kept being refused,” Toby says. “It’s a story of revenge.”
Her plays are all based on real people an actual events Toby researched with the help of the East Haven Historical Society, and especially David Campbell. She’s also picked up stories from published histories of the town as well as old newspaper articles and conversations with other experts.
At the end of her research, Toby says she had more stories than she could use.
“People come with their memories—not that far back, obviously,” Toby says. “It’s a wonderful adventure, talking to people.”
For her story on Sophia, Toby says she had the chance to talk with a descendant of the man who had owned and freed her.
“As part of being a playwright, over the years I’ve been asked by several towns to do this kind of thing,” Toby says.
Guilford commissioned plays from Toby when it was documenting the town’s involvement in the Civil War, but she’s also helped to tell the stories of the Lower East Side of New York City, the 1972 flood of Corning, New York, and various cities out west.
“It’s…letting the stories speak for themselves,” she says. “I always have help along the way.”
She’s also written about the Key West railroad that was destroyed by a hurricane in 1935, a subject important to her as Key West is her other home town.
“There’s much more history, much more, as probably there is in every town,” Toby says. “Towns have such amazing histories….It’s been fun to find out about these things.”
Toby’s interest in history has guided her playwrighting career since her days at Barnard College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in history, though she says her dance lessons nearly caused her to flunk out.
“I spent a lot of time taking dance classes, dancing and performing,” she says.
She started out in her theater career as a stage hand and graduated through choreographing, acting, and dancing to creating her own plays.
Toby is a summer resident of East Haven, but spends winters in Key West where she is the playwright in residence at the Fringe Theater, which has put on some of her plays and she also engages in workshops with hopeful new playwrights.
Toby says that one of her more interesting workshops actually occurred over the course of an eight-week program with local prisoners.
“They were phenomenal. I didn’t have to urge them to write, I didn’t have to comfort them if they had to change something,” she says. “They were amazing. Extremely articulate and intelligent.”
The prisoners’ work was later put on at the jail by professional actors and sent to the director of the Fringe Theater company for a public reading.
For a while, many of her own plays were primarily dance plays for which she’d done the choreography. She says she always wanted to be a playwright and knew that she’s set down to it one day.
“One day, I said, ‘Wait a minute, when is one of these days?’” Toby says.
She’s been writing ever since.
To nominate a Person of the Week, email Nathan Hughart at n.hughart@Zip06.com.
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