Recently, we hosted a live Q&A on the UK Twitter channel with the creators of Celebrated Virgins, Katie Elin-Salt and Eleri B. Jones. The Stage described the play as a ‘profoundly significant piece of queer history’. It is based on the true story of Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby, who were cast out by society and forced to leave their homes in Ireland. They took up residence in Llangollen, Wales and found solace in each other. Below is the edited discussion, in which Katie and Eleri discuss their creative process and their experience of working with the local community.
How you encountered the stories of Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby?
Katie: Eleri sat me down in a pub (in the middle of our panto run) in December 2019 and asked me if I’d heard their story. I said I hadn’t and then sobbed into a gin for half an hour as she told me about them. By the end of that drink we knew we had to tell their story together.
Eleri: Sarah and Eleanor’s story is well known in the local area – their tale has long been passed down through my family. I have been thrilled by the story of their defiance, courage and love for each other ever since I was a little girl, and knew it would make a great play one day! Eleanor’s perspective is documented through her diaries, but with Sarah’s writings having been lost or destroyed, I felt it was time Sarah was given a voice!
How did you approach or discover an unheard queer voice during this period when it was so rarely documented?
Eleri: I think that’s a key word – “discover”. After writing the idea 8 years ago, it was crucial to find a collaborator who could bring it to life with sensitivity and lived experience, as the nature of their relationship is not explicitly documented. I had to find someone I could trust immensely with unearthing the facts and travelling in a direction that felt both true to the evidence, and representative of how we both viewed the depth of their love for each other. It was the luck of a lifetime to find Katie!
It seems pretty perfect to have premiered at Theatr Clwyd, which is so close to Llangollen.
Katie: Absolutely! Discovering and platforming unheard stories in the community is a huge part of the work myself and Eleri want to make, and the Theatr are passionate about this too. We knew how close this story is to people’s hearts and keeping the community both then and now at the heart of the story and our development of our adaption was a huge part of the project. We could not have done it without them!
Eleri: This story belongs to the community, both in Kilkenny, where they came from, and Llangollen, where the Ladies lived for 50 years, so it was always crucial for me that the community were greatly involved. Every single performer & stage manager gave so much commitment and energy. It meant that in the play, it really felt like the eyes of the world were on the Ladies, as Katie intended, and I was thrilled to work with such a creative, sensitive group – particularly when taking on the challenge of Jess Williams’ intricate movement work!
What was it like working with so many actors from the local community?
Katie: A JOY, an HONOUR and a PRIVILEGE. The community cast gave their lives, hearts and souls to our project simply because they cared about the ladies and supported their story being told. It was profoundly moving and we were so lucky to have them.
What were the main challenges for you both writing a historic story? Did you feel a responsibility about how to tell them?
Katie: I think for us the first part of our process was doing all of our research on the facts (lockdown helped!) – and then the second part was giving ourselves permission to move away from it, where necessary in order to tell a story that is relevant, impactful and reflects the diversity of the world around us that we want to celebrate on stage in 2022. There is much debate about “rewriting history” – but we approached it in the end as a story based in the Ladies’ narrative that has meaning and celebrates how far we have come since.
Thank you so, so much for your time and insight. We had a blast and have loved talking to you both! Good to know gin was involved in coming up with the original idea!
Katie: I mean if anyone at gin companies wants to sponsor us for our next one we are down! Here for questions anytime. Thank you so much Concord Theatricals for your belief and faith in us. We would love to see the ladies’ story travel and can’t wait to see who picks them up next!
Eleri: It’s been a pleasure, thanks for having us! Also big up to the incredible team from Theatr Clwyd who did so much in bringing ours and Holly Pigott’s vision to life, and of course, to Artistic Director Tamara Charvey, for her belief and support. Also, when me and Katie are involved… there’s always gin! (Outside of working hours, obviously!) Can’t wait to see what future life Celebrated Virgins will have with all the brilliant theatremakers out there, be bold like the Ladies!
For more information about purchasing the script of Celebrated Virgins, visit Concord Theatricals UK. Keep an eye out on our social media channels for future live Q&As with authors and creatives.
Header Image: An artwork of Celebrated Virgins (Rebecca Pitt)