When young theatre-maker Róis Doherty first heard a song by Connie Converse – specifically I Have Considered the Lilies, which had popped up on Doherty’s personalised Spotify ‘Discover Weekly’ playlist – her reaction was instant.
“I thought ‘wow, this is a really beautiful song, I’d like to know more about the woman who sings it’,” she tells Northern Soul. “Then, looking further into her, I was like ‘oh, what a story – it needs to be told.’”
It turned out to be much more than a stray thought. Four years later, Doherty and her theatre company Idol Complex are set to debut What Happened to Connie Converse?, a new play on the subject, at The Kings Arms in Salford as part of The Greater Manchester Fringe Festival.
For the uninitiated, Hampshire-born Elizabeth ‘Connie’ Converse was a distinctive, somewhat troubled folk singer-songwriter who moved to New York in 1949. In fact, she was slightly ahead of her time, and should ideally have been part of the Greenwich Village folk boom around ten years later. Or, possibly, she just wasn’t destined to fit in anywhere. Her music had some contemporary admirers, but not enough to prevent Connie from slipping away from New York, from making music, and ultimately, in 1974, from the world entirely. She wrote farewell letters to friends and drove away to, well, to this day no one knows exactly where, but she hasn’t been seen since.
Back in 2019, Doherty was sharing a house with Xenia Lily and Sarah Neubrand, all of them recent graduates from Salford University who had, along with others, created their own theatre company. When Lily first heard of Connie Converse, they were preparing costumes for a forthcoming show. “I was making cloaks, just sewing in my bedroom, and Róis and Sarah came to see me. They said, ‘hey, we want to do a play about this woman and we want you to play her’. I was like, ‘Okay, do I have any say in this? Also, why?’. And they said ‘well, first of all, you play guitar and secondly, you look eerily like her’.”
They played the Lilies song to Lily, told her Connie’s story and showed her a photo. Sure enough, the resemblance was uncanny. ”I must admit, even I was pretty freaked out,” Lily says. “I said ‘OK, fair enough, I’m gonna have to do this – it has to happen’.”
Unusually, the company chose to write two different scripts – one by Doherty, one by Lily – and combined the best elements of both. Actually, the process worked perfectly. Doherty says: “It was like they were almost meant to go together, because there was bits from Xenia’s script that fitted perfectly into bits that I’d written.” Lily agrees: “We were writing the same story, essentially, and we’d both taken it from different angles.”
Who is Connie Converse?
Sources of information about Connie Converse are far from plentiful. Recordings of her songs are few and most are very low-fi. There’s a fine 40-minute documentary, We Lived Alone, by Andrea Kannes, and a lengthy biography, To Anyone Who Ever Asks: The Life, Music, and Mystery of Connie Converse, by Howard Fishman – but the latter was published just weeks ago. In truth, though, Connie’s enigma has never quite been dispelled. The new play includes the character of Connie’s mother, one Judy Converse – which wasn’t her real name, but no one’s ever actually found that out.
As the pandemic kicked in, honing their script became Doherty and Lily’s lockdown project – something of a shared obsession. “Because we did it on Google Docs, we could both work on it at the same time, wherever we were,” Lily says. “Sometimes we’d be in the same room, just spitballing ideas and asking ‘what do you think of this?’. And then sometimes we’d both be hermits in our bedrooms, working on the same scene and writing long messages to each other in the script.”
Ultimately, Lily says, “we’ve managed to focus that narrative: ‘okay, what is the true core of this story?’. I think it’s very different from either of our first two scripts. But it’s beautiful, I love it. I couldn’t imagine the original ones being performed, to be honest.”
The finished version, incorporating eight of Connie’s original songs, will be performed The Kings Arms, with Lily in the lead role, co-directed by Doherty and their colleague Rosa Graham They’re determined that What Happened to Connie Converse? should stir all kinds of emotions, not all of them bleak. “Because it’s such a sad story, it’s really important to us to get some more light-hearted moments in there,” Doherty says. “ I think you need both to really feel the gravity of the situation, to compare the light with the dark. My main thought as director was to make people think about the legacy that you leave behind when you’re gone – and also have fun along the way.”
Lily says: “I think the play focuses on the people around Connie, who help support a woman through mental illness and addiction and a difficult time in her life, where she was really striving for something and just falling short. Shining that light on those people emphasises that she was loved and she did have a support network. I love that we’ve touched on that.”
The title, of course, begs its own question: will the play provide some kind of answer about what became of Connie?
“The question mark is very much throughout the play – we don’t know,” Lily says. “We wanted to celebrate her life rather than her disappearance,” Doherty adds. “In a way, what happened to Connie Converse is, well, she was born in New Hampshire, she moved to New York. What happened to her is her life rather than her disappearance in our play. We’ve left it kind of open-ended.”
It’s pure speculation, but one theory on Connie’s disappearance is that she went to seek out a former girlfriend. Her exact sexuality isn’t known – she tended to be intensely private, even with friends – but many suspected that she was a lesbian. In that case, living in 1950s America, and coming from a Southern Baptist background, maybe Connie didn’t feel free to be herself. Plus, she kept photos of a mysterious woman called Ada.
“We can never know for sure,” Lily says, “but in my in my little queer heart, that’s what I like to hope and imagine, that the two of them just ran off into the sunset.”
Doherty says: “Because there are such themes in her songs about going away to be alone and living amongst the animals in the forest, I think that’s what she did: she went to kind of reclaim herself. She didn’t enjoy the life she was living and she just changed tracks. She found her own peace away from the noise and the crowds.”
Whether you regard her as the female Bob Dylan, the American Nick Drake or simply a talented songwriter who didn’t find a happy ending (that we know of), Connie remains a fascinating figure It’s not hard to see why she has inspired a play (in fact, two plays: biographer Howard Fishman created a one-man show, A Star Has Burnt My Eye, around Connie back in 2017), despite being a relatively obscure artist to this day.
“She’s ahead of her time in a lot of ways,” Doherty says. “I think modern women really relate to her and her story, especially when you’re in the creative spheres and you have this fear of not making it. It’s like, here’s this woman who didn’t make it and took it the wrong way, in a sense. She’s kind of this everywoman, in that millions of others didn’t make it and she’s just one of those stories.”
Lily says: “In researching her life and playing her, I’ve noticed so many parallels between my life and hers, like the mental health, the queerness, the struggling with family relationships. In kind of embodying that, I’m like ‘okay, I’m really just reliving my trauma here’. But it’s an interesting path that she took. I’d love to have that kind of fire, and I love playing with that, the raw passion that she had. It’s great. All she wants to do is follow her dream.”
The Idol Complex theatre company has plenty of plans for what to do after the play but, on a basic level, after four years of putting it together, are they going to miss Connie Converse?
“Yeah, definitely,” Doherty says. “It’s been a real like labour of love, this,” Lily says. “We’ve worked on it for so long. It’s a bit bittersweet. Sometimes when you’ve been doing a show for so long, you kind of need it to be over. But I’m not feeling that. I’m like ‘oh, I don’t want my life with Connie to be over’. It feels like I live and breathe Connie now. It’s all I listen to.”
All mages courtesy of Idol Complex
To read Northern Soul’s 2014 interview with the director of the Connie Converse documentary, We Lived Alone, click here.
Connie Converse’s released recordings are available from Bandcamp here.