Q&A with ‘Female Complaints’ writer Kate Mulley ’05
After a week-long workshop with students in the Summer Theater Lab, Mulley discusses her creative process and the relevancy of her musical in the aftermath of the reversal of Roe v. Wade.
Playwright Kate Mulley ’05 recently collaborated with musical artist Tina deVaron to write the musical “Female Complaints,” which they brought to Dartmouth to workshop as part of VoxLab — a theater residency held each summer for alums to develop their projects. From July 4 to July 10, a select group of students in the course THEA 65, “Summer Theater Lab,” brought Mulley and deVaron’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 the 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 talked to Mulley about the process of writing and workshopping “Female Complaints,” as well as its relevance in the context of the recent Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
How did you come to write “Female Complaints”?
KM: I met Tina deVaron in the fall of 2018 to discuss working on a different project together. She ended up going with another writer, but we knew we wanted to work on something together. I discovered the story of Inez Ingenthron, the protagonist of the musical, from an NPR article and then read two of her biographies. I said,“Tina, I think this is our story. I think this is what our show should be.”
You mentioned that your background as a historian influences your work. How has that background specifically impacted the process of creating this piece?
KM: I learned as a history student that I'm not a good paper writer, and any of my professors would agree with that. But what I do like about history is the way that we can take pieces of history to learn more about our present time: very clichéd, 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 taking Inez down and learning more about them, and then putting them in the first scene of “Female Complaints” at the farmers market. Women’s voices often are not included in history 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 increased in relevancy or its impact has changed based on recent events with the overturning of Roe v. Wade?
KM: When the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health leak happened, it absolutely affected the way that we approached the rest of the story. We didn’t really make anything up in terms of Inez’s life, but we found the parallels. I think that we’ve been aware of the possibility of Roe being overturned since we started writing it. We had this sense of urgency before, but once Roe v. Wade was overturned, it felt even more like, “Okay, we really need to get into action. We need to get this piece written and have it reflect what is happening in America right now.”
How did you choose to workshop this at Dartmouth?
KM: I’m one of the co-founders of VoxLab. I stepped down as president in 2019, but I was interested in coming back just as an artist. This felt like a really important piece to work on and get students involved and to see how students –– particularly smart, engaged Dartmouth students –– would respond to it. The overturning of Roe v. Wade affects your generation so much, so we wanted to get younger voices in the room to make sure that it felt relevant. And selfishly, it’s always nice to come back to Dartmouth. So it really felt like the perfect place for us to have a safe place to experiment with “Female Complaints” and to have an audience see our first version of it.
What was the process of workshopping “Female Complaints” with the students?
KM: In an ideal world, it would be a cast of 13, and when workshopping the musical at Dartmouth, we had five performers. First, we figured out who was singing what parts in the songs. I assigned parts to different people and tried to make sure that the scenes would make sense for an audience. Then we did a couple more full read-throughs, a few more rehearsals of scenes throughout. Our music director arrived Thursday morning, but we didn’t make a ton of changes to the scripts during the week. It was really just presenting what we already had.
How has the process of working on this been different or similar to past projects on which you’ve worked?
KM: I certainly feel a greater sense of urgency with “Female Complaints,” to be able to meet this moment with the piece. And it’s the first show that Tina and I have written together, and it’s always fun to work on a new piece with a new collaborator. My wheelhouse is badly behaved historical women, I realized, but how do we define badly behaved? This show is asking that question more than my past projects. I have a musical about two female gang leaders in Sydney, Australia, and in that case, the gray area is more about what they had to do to survive. With “Female Complaints,” we’re flipping the way that people think about this or view Inez as a figure. Then, people might see why she was doing what she was doing.
What do you hope that audiences will take away from “Female Complaints?”
KM: I always hope that people are entertained. The goal is always that people laugh and then cry. Music just heightens emotions. But, I also hope that people will have learned and thought about something in a new way. 100 years ago, Inez was in and out of jail for performing abortions. Even if things are illegal, they don’t go away. There’s a complete parallel between where we are now, in certain states, and what Inez’s life was like. There are ways in which we can absolutely sink back in time to when Inez was performing abortions. So getting people to think about that, and then feeling some call to action to do something, would be ideal. Just encouraging audiences to think, “Okay, I do feel strongly about this. What can I do?”
I'm very grateful for the opportunity to have gotten to work on “Female Complaints” at Dartmouth, especially at this time. We really gave our students a lot to take on, and they absolutely rose to the challenge. It was just a real joy to work with them.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Correction appended (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 takes place in the 1900s. This article has been updated.