Inspired by the lives of two real women from two different eras, WALTZ WITH ME draws on the pioneering work of Cornelia Connelly, Reverend Mother and possible saint.
Maggie Byrne has to decide whether to leave her deeply unhappy marriage, knowing that her husband will do all he can to get custody of their two children. Visiting her old convent school, she finds herself beside the tomb of foundress, Mother Cornelia Connelly and, although she hasn’t been to church for years, prays for help.
Throughout the drama, waltzes, sacred and folk music weave together their separate stories of marriage, motherhood, break-up and devastating loss. Struggling to face each challenge, their passion and devotion persist, ultimately transforming adversity into deeper understanding and generosity of action, sweeping us to a surprisingly moving, perhaps even miraculous, denouement.
It began quite by chance when I bumped into Ghislaine Kenyon, ex-neighbour, at the cinema one evening in 2012. We found ourselves chatting about how true-life stories work as drama. She suddenly said, “Here’s something that may interest you, about the foundress of the school I attended….” She proceeded to tell me about Cornelia Connelly, born in Philadelphia, USA in the early 19th century. Her journey from vicar’s wife, mother of five children, through heart-breaking bereavement to founding an order of nuns and schools in England as an enlightened educational pioneer kept me on the edge of my seat. I was hooked.
I was not raised in the Catholic tradition at all but still felt that Cornelia’s story speaks strongly today beyond any particular faith of how little and how much has changed in the challenges faced by women with passion, drive and talent inspired to play a role in the wider world whilst also caring for their children. Cornelia may be seen by some as a saint. She was also as human as anyone else, transforming her struggles into deeper understanding to build a way of living and learning of benefit to many. Then I met a modern woman whose acrimonious divorce had led to her estranged husband gaining custody of their children and cutting them off from her. Her story of rebuilding the relationships in adult life with two of her children whilst the third still refused to see her, moved me deeply.
Following my heart, creative juices flowing, with Ghislaine as a guide and support, we have travelled to the headquarters of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus (the order founded by Cornelia) in Oxford, to St Leonard’s on England’s south coast where her first convent and school can still be found, even though closed, to Rome in Italy and Philadelphia, USA. We have given talks and I have run workshops with a family psychotherapist and students at Mayfield school where Cornelia’s tomb can be found in the chapel.
In my quest to create intimate theatre of epic proportions that speaks of women’s actual experience with emotional candour and theatrical imagination, Waltz With Me has stretched me beyond my limits. I’ve been grateful to friends and colleagues who’ve helped to air many drafts around my kitchen table over the last six years. I’ve often been lost, experimented wildly, reshaped the core structure, re-written over and over. By trial and error, I’ve had to develop my craft as a weaver to refine the interlacing of these two stories across two different centuries through time and place to create a layering that provokes heartfelt reflection and brings both women together as one.
Now I feel it’s time to discover what WALTZ WITH ME is theatrically, on the floor, with a company in 3 very different spaces and to share this with audiences.
Our aim is to inhabit fully the question of what it is to act as “our best selves” on a personal and social level given our frailties as well as strengths, traumas, cares and all, embracing every step in the dance of life with the utmost we can give.