Q&A with “Female Complaints” Writer Kate Mulley ’05

After a week-long workshop with students from the Summer Theater Lab, Mulley discusses his creative process and the relevance of his musical in the wake of Roe v. Wade.

by Jessica Sun Li | 07/15/22 02:00

Source: Courtesy of Rob Strong

Playwright Kate Mulley ’05 recently collaborated with musical artist Tina deVaron to write the musical ‘Female Complaints’, which they brought to Dartmouth for a workshop as part of VoxLab – a theater residency held each summer to enable alumni to develop their projects. From July 4 to July 10, a select group of students from the THEA 65 course, “Summer Theater Lab,” brought Mulley and Varon’s vision to life for the first time. According to the show’s promotional materials, “Female Complaints” is a musical that tells the story of highly skilled abortionist Inez Ingenthron in the 1900s, who becomes the target of the San Francisco District Attorney due to her illegal abortion practices. The Dartmouth spoke to Mulley about the ‘women’s complaints’ drafting and workshop process, and its relevance in the context of the recent Supreme Court ruling in to spill Roe v. Wade.

How did you come to write “Female Complaints”?

KM: I met Tina deVaron in the fall of 2018 to discuss working together on a different project. She ended up going with another writer, but we knew we wanted to work on something together. I learned the story of Inez Ingenthron, the musical’s protagonist, from an NPR article, then read two of her biographies. I said, “Tina, I think that’s our story. I think that’s what our show should be.

You mentioned that your background as a historian influences your work. How did this context specifically influence the process of creating this piece?

KM: I learned as a history student that I’m not a good article writer, and any of my professors would agree with that. But what I love about history is how you can take bits of history to learn more about our present time: very cliché, but history is cyclical. One of the things that was really fun last year was finding the mothers of the men who were integral to the Inez slaughter and learning about them and then putting them in the first scene of “Female Complaints” at the Farmers Market. Women’s voices are often not included in the story unless they are truly exceptional women. But if you do a little genealogical research, you can actually find out who these women were and what they did.

Do you think this project has gained in relevance or its impact has changed based on recent events with the overthrow of Roe v. Wade?

KM: When leaked Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health happened, it absolutely affected how we approached the rest of the story. We didn’t invent anything about Inez’s life, but we found parallels. I think we’ve been aware of the possibility of Roe being knocked down since we started writing him. We had that sense of urgency before, but once Roe v. Wade was canceled, it was even more like, “Okay, we really need to get some action. We need to write this article and make it reflect what is happening in America right now.

How did you choose to do this workshop in Dartmouth?

KM: I am one of the co-founders of VoxLab. I stepped down as president in 2019, but was interested in coming back as an artist. It seemed like a really important thing to work on and get the students involved and see how the students –– especially the smart, committed students at Dartmouth –– would react. The Overthrow of Roe c. Wade affects your generation so much, so we wanted to bring younger voices into the room to make sure it felt relevant. And selfishly, it’s always nice to come back to Dartmouth. So it was really the perfect place for us to have a safe place to experiment with “female complaints” and for an audience to see our first version.

What was the process of the “Female Complaints” workshop with the students?

KM: In an ideal world, it would be a cast of 13, and at the musical workshop in Dartmouth, we had five performers. First, we figured out who was singing which parts in the songs. I assigned parts to different people and tried to make sure the scenes would make sense to an audience. Then we did a few more full reads, a few more scene rehearsals throughout. Our music director arrived Thursday morning, but we didn’t make a ton of changes to the scripts during the week. It was simply a matter of presenting what we already had.

How was the work process different or similar to previous projects you’ve worked on?

KM: I definitely feel a greater sense of urgency with “Female Complaints”, to be able to meet that moment with the piece. And this is the first show that Tina and I have written together, and it’s always fun to work on a new track with a new collaborator. My wheelhouse is historically badly behaved women, I realized, but how do we define badly behaved? This show asks that question more than my past projects. I have a musical about two female gang leaders in Sydney, Australia, and in this case the gray area is more about what they had to do to survive. With “Female Complaints” we reverse the way people think about it or see Inez as a figure. Then people could see why she was doing what she was doing.

What do you hope audiences take away from “Female Complaints?”

KM: I always hope that people will be entertained. The goal is always to make people laugh and then cry. Music only heightens emotions. But I also hope that people will have learned and thought about something in a new way. 100 years ago, Inez was going back and forth to prison for performing abortions. Even if things are illegal, they don’t go away. There’s a complete parallel between where we are now, in some states, and what life was like for Inez. There are ways we can absolutely go back in time to when Inez performed abortions. So getting people to think about that and then feel a call to action to do something would be ideal. Just encourage the audience to think, “Okay, I’m very into this. What can I do?”

I am very grateful to have been able to work on “women’s complaints” in Dartmouth, especially at this time. We really gave our students a lot to do, and they absolutely rose to the challenge. It was just a real pleasure to work with them.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Correction in appendix (July 15, 10:22 a.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that “Female Complaints” tells the story of Inez Ingenthron in the 1800s. The musical is set in the 1900s. This article has been updated.