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An Inside Look at Waltz With Me – A New Play Remembering Cornelia Connelly

British playwright, Diane Samuels and creative and research consultant, Ghislaine (pron. Glenn) Kenyon visited the United States in April 2017 to run workshops on their full-length play, Waltz With Me. The 90-minute events, which were free and open to the public, included live music and readings from the latest draft of the script. One of the readings happened on the campus of Rosemont College in the Rotwitt Theater on April 6, but there is more to the reasoning behind the readings and why Rotwitt Theater was one of the beginning destinations.

Waltz With Me is a play with live music, where true life and fiction interweave without interruption. Aggie Byrne (whose character is based on a true story), is a dance teacher and entrepreneur who invites audiences to share the remarkable life story of Cornelia Connelly, which Samuels calls “The Sound of Music in reverse.”

“One marriage begins as another one ends.”

– Diane Samuels

Samuels and Kenyon recently met with Simonetta, Connelly’s great-great granddaughter and her own granddaughters in preparation for the events. “In her warm, serene presence, I like to think we experienced something of Cornelia and I have a feeling that Mother Connelly was smiling about her descendants and a work of theatre coming together to share what she experienced and inspires,” Samuels said.

She added, “This directly applies to coming to Rosemont and visiting schools in the States. Somewhere I think I hear some divine laughter ringing and encouraging us to celebrate and [of course] continue learning.”

In Waltz With Me, Aggie, who herself once attended Mayfield, revisits the school for a retirement lunch for a beloved teacher. Struggling to decide whether to leave an unhappy marriage or start a new, happy life with her husband’s colleague (in which she has truly found love with), she finds herself in the chapel beside Mother Connelly’s tomb and turns to her in prayer for guidance. During the divorce that follows including the loss of custody of her children, Aggie continues to call on Connelly for solace and never lets go of the hope that one day she will be reunited with her children, despite the increased alienation from them. Samuels revealed that further in the plot, Aggie’s daughter reunites with her mother while her son “wants nothing to do with her.”

“The remembrance of my children never leaves me.”

– Cornelia Connelly

Specifically making the reading more relevant to the Rosemont community, Director of Athletics, Lynn Rothenhoefer and Senior Admissions Counselor, Lea Murtaugh read the parts of Aggie and Cornelia, respectively.

Connelly’s own life story weaves and dances alongside and through Aggie’s journey, somehow informing and inspiring her to some kind of redemption. At the same time, Mother Connelly is being considered by the Vatican for sainthood. To prove this, at least two miracles must occur after prayers are made to her. The play correlates and asks what constitutes a miracle and how this connects with the price she paid to pursue her path of spiritual devotion.

Samuels and Kenyon were neighbors in north London and their children went to the same primary school. They had bumped into each other after a screening of an opera performance and eventually, the two agreed to meet to discuss some writing tips. Kenyon went on to tell Samuels that she'd been involved in making a short film about the life of the foundress of the schools she'd attended and felt it deserved further telling. As soon as Samuels heard the story, she was hooked and the twosome agreed to undertake a period of research together.

Throughout the research, the team visited Mayfield, archive sites, burial grounds and even Rome where they were guests of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus in Casa Cornelia. After the readings of the scripts at Mayfield, Samuels developed a second draft and it was given a reading last December in her home by a group of actors.

“Tonight is a true work in progress: Things may change.”

– Diane Samuels

“This is a play about faith in the broadest sense of the world without limits,” Samuels said. “In a world where different belief systems often regard each other with incredulous hostility, I am glad to make a contribution to the exploration of what is in essence, true for all.”

The adventurous process of researching, writing and workshopping the play in development with students at Mayfield were steps along the way to realizing Samuels’ initial vision. She explained her unorthodox creative process included the utilization of a group psychotherapist to “explore characters and group dynamics” with the Mayfield students. The play itself contains as much about Connelly’s legacy and her impact on the lives of those who have studied in her schools as it does about her own personal journey.

Especially significant was Samuels’s first visit to Mayfield School on a wintry Ash Wednesday. Raised in the Jewish heritage, she was led to the chapel to her first ever Catholic service and she passed by photographs on the wall of a student production of her own play, Kindertransport. Kindertransport remains relevant to this day as it recalls the true-life experiences of Jewish child refugees before and during World War II. Connelly’s commitment to the arts in connection with education (particularly drama and live theatre), rings strongly for Samuels too.

And why the waltz?

In a letter, one of Connelly’s students details how if a girl was ever playing at the piano and Connelly happened to enter the room, she could not help but sweep the nearest student off her feet into a waltz. And so music (waltzes in particular) infuses the action of the play. The motif of the waltz is very important and so far the readings have been accompanied by a pianist playing authentic nineteenth century waltzes. The reading at Rosemont had waltzes before and during the reading supporting the theme, especially at key moments. Also to be noted is that the waltz is a romantic dance and so it befits a story that is at its heart about love and marriage to a man, Pierce Connelly.

In terms of next steps, Samuels and Kenyon are preparing to mount full professional productions of this brand new work in the United Kingdom and the United States. The aim is initially to mount high quality professional productions in respected venues in London, New York, and Philadelphia and then see where this takes the play.

Kindertransport began life in an off-West End midsized theatre and captured its audience’s hearts to transfer to the West End and then Off-Broadway. Over 20 years later, it is still being performed all over the world and studied in schools and colleges.

Samuels is in the midst of writing the next draft, as she explained “play writing is a rigorous process that requires much rewriting.” She aims to have a rehearsal draft ready by the fall of 2017, but she does admit through the process she, “tore up a lot of things.” The duo invites their audiences to gain a peek of a modern, dramatic telling of Cornelia's life, which is interwoven with the story of a Mayfield alumna whose family is torn apart when she leaves her husband to pursue her calling as an artist.