Kate Mulley Discusses Her Thesis Play

June 13, 2016

Kate Mulley’s thesis play, Strange Bare Facts, constitutes a trilogy of plays—Grey LadyHither Ditch and The Next War—that explores the intersection of war and medicine across three different wars and 150 years. Set during the Civil War, the First World War and the war in Afghanistan, these plays delve into the tragedy, comedy, mystery, and romance of life and death at the front lines, in field hospitals and at home.

Strange Bare Facts ran at the Ford Studio at Pershing Square Signature Center in May.

Can you tell me a little bit about the origin of this play? Where did the idea come from? Did you work on it in class?

Grey Lady explores gender, sexuality, death and medicine during the Civil War. When Cady Hood learns that her husband Ezra has been killed at Antietam, she leaves the island of Nantucket disguised as a man named Achilles Grey and enlists in the Massachusetts 20th. The play contains songs from the period, poetry and letters home from the war, and features a chorus of women who play mourning women, dying soldiers, regimental officers and runaway slaves.

In Hither Ditch, Captain Bertie Bird, an amateur theater director stationed at the Battle of the Somme, leads his embattled soldier-actors through a rehearsal of a play by recently deceased soldier Felix MacAllister. Will the play be ready for the evening’s performance? Or will the Huns, shell shock and gas attacks get in the way?

The Next War takes place in 2011, when Walter Reed Army Medical Center is in the process of shutting down. In the midst of this transition, Dr. Diana Kirkland has come to DC from Los Angeles to treat the injured men and women returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to tend to her own ailing family.

Tell us about the origin of this play. Where did the idea come from? Did you work on it in class?

Strange Bare Facts was initially a kind of Stoppardian play about J. Alison Glover, a British surgeon from the first half of the 20th century who served as a medical officer in the Boer War and the First World War, and Diana Kirkland, a fictional surgeon at Walter Reed Army Medical Center during the war in Afghanistan. After his war experience, Glover performed research on the incidence of tonsillectomies in school children in the UK. His research showed that patients received treatment based on who was treating them, rather than whether they needed treatment. However, immediately after his research was published, World War II broke out. And the research was forgotten. Researching this play and learning about Glover made me think about how his experience at the front of two wars must have informed his practice as a civilian doctor.

After a workshop of this play in the summer of 2013, I separated the two pieces of the play and put them in a drawer (or, really, a folder in my computer). And they lived there unseen for over a year.

In David’s class on rewriting in the fall of 2014, I brought in Strange Bare Facts and then decided to revisit the Walter Reed section of the play as its own play. That winter, I wrote The Next War in coffee shops in Shanghai while on a fellowship at the Shanghai Theater Academy. We produced the play at Columbia in February of 2015.

At that point, I decided to write a trilogy of plays about the intersection of the military and medicine—each set during a different war.

I started researching the Civil War last spring and, in the midst of my research, I took a road trip between New Hampshire and Tennessee, stopping off at Civil War battlegrounds on my way. This road trip allowed me to see the sights that I had been reading about and find a way into the play. When I was in Tennessee (at the Sewanee Writers Conference), I started writing Grey Lady during a bake-off hosted by Paula Vogel. Then in October, I spent three weeks living in a fisherman’s cottage on Nantucket, continuing my research and finishing a first draft of the play.

Hither Ditch has been challenging because I’ve written lots of short plays about World War I (don’t ask), but none of them are really about the intersection of the military and medicine. So I’ve had to learn a lot more about medicine and nursing in World War I. And then start a new play from scratch.

Who is your mentor? Why did you want them as your mentor?

Madeleine George. I love Madeleine’s plays. I think they’re smart and engaging and fascinating. She came into our class during second year and I loved her energy and her insight into writing and rewriting. She seemed like a perfect mentor for my project and she’s been encouraging of my process and ambition.

Find out more about Mulley and Strange Bare Facts here.