Returning to the Staircase Theatre in Hamilton this year is Margo MacDonald’s The Elephant Girls, the story of the real-life all-women gang that terrorized the streets of London for over 100 years, as told by Maggie Hale, the fictional amalgam of several historical figures, played by MacDonald and described as the gang’s “suit-wearing, bloody-knuckled, girl-chasing ‘enforcer’. I had a chance to talk to MacDonald about the challenges of writing queer historical fiction, the drive to tell queer women’s stories largely lost to history, and how historical issues of class, gender, the nature of violence and queerness continue to resonate with audiences today.
Bent Q: Can you tell me a bit about yourself?
Margo MacDonald: I’m a multi-award winning actor, theatre creator, and playwright. Originally from Ottawa, I started working professionally as a performer right out of high-school when I was drafted to become part of an improv-comedy company. I founded a Shakespeare company while at the University of Ottawa (A Company of Fools), and did my post-grad in classical acting at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts (LAMDA) in England.
Recently, I moved to Toronto for love (my partner is Drag King Titus Androgynous), and lately I’ve been focusing on independently creating and producing the stories I really want to tell–lost queer women’s history.
BQ: How did you first come across the story of the Elephant Girls? What drew you to this piece of history?
MM: Surprisingly, I stumbled across the gang through a random comment someone made on Facebook. In a thread under a Victorian photo of two women dressed in men’s clothing, someone remarked “Yes, but have you heard of the Forty Elephants? They were a real-life all-woman gang in Victorian England.” Immediately, my playwright’s instinct said “Whatwhatwhat??” I started Googling them and within half an hour knew I had to write about them. I spent about the next eight months researching more deeply, including a month in London, England, and figuring out how I wanted to tell the story.
The plays I’m writing lately have all been about women whose stories have been forgotten, especially queer women. I feel a particular passion for bringing these hidden histories to light. The story of an all-female gang who operated for over 100 years, most of that time independent of any male leadership, seemed too good to pass by.
BQ: Unlike their male counterparts, you have mentioned that these women gangsters did not commit their memoirs to writing. What challenges did this present when doing your research?
MM: We don’t have anything written by them, no. What we do have are newspaper stories, court transcripts, police reports, and the memories of some of those who knew them. Very fortunately for me, a true crime writer named Brian McDonald dug deep into all of those things and wrote two books which talk about the gang, Gangs of London and Alice Diamond & the Forty Elephants, so that was a great place to start. However, he wasn’t exploring their history from a female or queer perspective. So I spent a lot of my research time reinterpreting the facts through those emotional and experiential lenses.
The story I’m telling is historical fiction. What I’ve done is given emotional context to what we know of the facts surrounding “Queen” Alice Diamond’s extraordinary reign–and downfall.
BQ: You have done a lot of historical research for this production, is the queerness of these women also drawn from history?
MM: So much queer history has been lost (because it wasn’t spoken of) and erased (because people were afraid of it). Today in order to find our history we have to become detectives, looking for clues, interpreting the coded signs and language, and trusting our guts. What makes sense? Were there queers here?
So, yes, the queerness of the character I play is drawn from history–for example, there was a member of the gang who was arrested over and over again wearing men’s clothing (“She dressed as a man and fought as a man”, the newspapers reported.) We know that the gang always had a handful of women who dressed as men in order to drive the cars and be better able to do some of the dirty work gang life required. And there are other interesting clues, like the fact that the gang’s leader, “Queen” Alice Diamond, never married (quite rare for the time period).
I’m certainly not saying that all the women in the gang were queer–they weren’t, as you’ll learn very clearly in the show. But some of them must have been. After all, where else would such women–especially masculine-presenting ones–have found safe haven in those days?
BQ: Your show deals with history but also issues that are very contemporary and relevant in a modern context (class, gender, the nature of violence). How does The Elephant Girls tell a historical tale while also being contemporarily relevant?
MM: Another part of my research was looking into the motivating factors for why women join criminal gangs in the first place. It was surprising to find that the reasons haven’t really changed in hundreds of years–poverty, being raised in an environment of violence and abuse, lack of education and opportunities, born into a crime family, and so on. It’s actually depressing. And then, those who cannot trust their biological families to give them the love, encouragement, and protection they require will always look elsewhere for “family”. (This is something the queer community knows all about.) A gang provides that sense of “belonging”. There’s nothing new here and therefore those parts of the story feel very contemporary and resonate very strongly with audiences.
BQ: This is your second time preforming The Elephant Girls in Hamilton – tell me a bit about your experience of working in Hamilton?
MM: Yes, I’ve done a few nights at The Staircase before (also my fabulous venue for the Fringe). We were chosen as one of the top theatre experiences of the year by The View, and I found the Hamilton audiences to be really friendly and receptive. It was always great to stay around and talk to audiences after the show. I’m really looking forward to sharing this incredible story with Fringe goers and being part of the Festival.
BQ: What else should our readers know?
MM: Get your tickets early! The show sold out 100% at both the Ottawa and Winnipeg Fringes, as well as performances in Toronto (Buddies in Bad Times, Red Sandcastle Theatre) and Brighton, England. It’s the sort of show that people can’t stop talking about once they’ve seen it, and I’ve had many people come to see it over and over again.
Hamilton Fringe is taking place from July 20th-30th, for more information visit hamiltonfringe.ca
For more information about The Elephant Girls visit parryriposte.ca/
For tickets to The Elephant Girls visit hamiltonfringe.ca/shows/the-elephant-girls/