Thursday, July 3, 2014

Interview with a Playwright: TD Mitchell

Next up in our interview series is TD Mitchell. You can catch a reading of her play, Queens for a Year, at this year's festival.

TD Mitchell
Natasha Brown: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me. First question, is your style distinct or does it change depending on the play?

TD Mitchell: I would say there are definitely repeating themes that I find myself returning to as a dramatist, but this doesn’t necessarily mean the styles are the same. A big difference in this play is the integration of Greek myth. That aspect of the play is highly theatrical – I can see puppetry, bright colours, a sort of sensory overload. The style of the primary narrative, however, is structured fairly traditionally. There is also a vast difference in the way I write for TV compared to theatre.

NB: Are there any interesting stories about how this play came into being?

TDM: I had written a play called Beyond the 17th Parallel which required a lot of research and conducting interviews with Vietnam veterans. As a result of this, I met a lot of women who had also served and realized that they needed their own play. Their experiences were different and needed to be represented. As I was writing the play, Maria Lauterbach was murdered.  By this time, I’d heard so much about the predominance of sexual assault and physical violence against women in the military, I felt as though I was the only person who wasn’t shocked by her murder. Everything I had researched and been told by these veterans was horrifically confirmed. 
Maria Lauterbach

NB: That is very saddening. This play is layered with many urgent topics such as the position of women, sexual assault, and homosexuality, in and around military culture. Could you expand some more on how you became involved in writing about the military?

TDM: I never planned to be an expert in that area. This play chose me. As a storyteller it’s my job to listen and observe and bear witness to what is going on. If you were to say to me when I was younger that I would end up writing so much about military culture, I would have said “no way!” We’ve been at war for the majority of my adulthood which is ridiculous. It’s so difficult to wrap my head around it. We, as a country, have such an abstract idea about war and its impact. We walk around as if it’s not happening. This play, for me, was exploring that disconnection.

NB: Yes, and although I feel that the play deals with a victim of sexual assault, it does not necessarily feel like a play about victims. Would you say that I am on the right track or is there something I am missing?

TDM: Yes, definitely! Ideally, I want the audience to feel as conflicted and uncomfortable as I did during the process of discovering these women. I was really torn by this kick-ass feminism “let’s blow shit up” discourse versus just how stupid it is to drop women into this anti-female culture (the military). Everything about the culture is anti-female. The language used in the military is incredibly gendered and sexist.

The question wasn’t about how should we handle our victimhood, it was how do we respond? If we teach women that the ways in which they must respond is with this masculine idea of violence, of course she’s going to take matters into her own hands because the system has let her down. By the end of the play, I want us to feel uncomfortably torn between wanting the women to get revenge and then to realize our horror of that being our primary instinct. 

NB: That’s a very interesting perspective. I love how you interwove the myth of Caenis/Caeneus into the story. I found it to be a really powerful device which illustrated the plot in a fascinating way. Could you tell me more about how that idea developed?

TDM: I wish I knew exactly how that developed. I don’t know exactly. I guess because historically I was looking at women warriors. I didn’t know we had such an extensive history of women warriors in the US, in both WWI and WWII. During the war, they enlisted women but, once it was over, the women’s ranks were disbanded. Women were not given the veteran status for their contributions. I was looking at it from a historic perspective and I was looking at it compared to other cultures. I was not aware of the myth before I wrote the play; I don’t know how I got there. It was one of those happy accidents.

The use of myth in that very physicalized, theatrical way of story-telling allows your audience, safe distance from the subject. So you’re not going into a theatre documentary about rape. Hopefully you’re forced to look at larger themes and questions but from a distance where it does not just hit you on the head. It’s something more gradual. I think that little bit of separation allows us to get more emotionally invested. We can get closer to the subject.

NB: Last question, whose work would you recommend for emerging writers to study?

TDM: You’ve got to pay due attention to Chekhov, Ibsen and Shakespeare – the great storytellers. They’re still very relevant in terms of exploring the human condition, societal relationships, familial relationships etc. There’s still so much value in the greats.

Contemporary writers like Howard Barker. He is brave, frustrating and scary. I’m always watching whatever Caryl Churchill is up to.  I do appreciate writers who continue to play with form and format. Churchill tries different styles.

NB: Thanks, TD!

Queens for a Year is showing on July 19th at 8pm and July 26th at 4pm. Get your tickets here!

The Bay Area Playwrights Festival gives voice to emerging and established playwrights who are pushing boundaries and have the potential to shape the future of American theater and culture. The festival runs from July 18-27. Click here for the calendar and special event details for the whole festival. 

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