A Conversation with Playwright T.D. Mitchell
Queens for a Year—a World Premiere to Kick-off Next Season
By Fiona Kyle, Artistic Apprentice
I interviewed a few female Vietnam-era veterans while writing an earlier play, “Beyond the 17th Parallel.” I realized I couldn’t shoehorn their stories into that play’s narrative and still do them justice; the story of women who’ve served throughout history is one egregiously missing from our public understanding, and they needed their own play. I didn’t know the context, didn’t yet know the characters, where the story began or where it ended, but I knew that this was something I’d never seen explored on stage in this way.
Queens for a Year is about a family of five generations of women in the Marine Corps, which is a long legacy of military service. What drew you to investigate family legacy in the Marines?
Without a system of conscription, a significant percentage of service members today are legacy joins. For some, it’s a choice born of familiarity: like going into a parent’s profession. For others, it’s out of a deep multi-generational belief in service as an integral part of citizenship and civic duty. Of course, this family tradition is more commonly seen among male family members, as women were historically discouraged from seeing themselves as veterans or talking about their service. I chose the Marines over the other four branches because of its unique cultural and historic details. The female experience in the Marine Corps is especially interesting to me dramatically because it has the smallest percentage of enlisted females and is considered the most “male” of the military branches.
Throughout Queens for a Year, you have included military cadences, which are traditional call-and-response work songs sung while running or marching. What attracted you to include them in the play?
We’re all attracted somehow to the sound of coordinated group speaking and simultaneous movement. Partly, the cadences reflect the visual and aural tradition of a Greek chorus—although there are no narrators in the play—and Greek mythology does appear as a thread in the story. The cadences provide a seductive uniformity: the security of groupthink without individualism. Lastly, hopefully on a subconscious level for the audience, they have a disquieting callback to American slavery. Race and “otherness” are recurring underlying themes in Queens for a Year.
You were a writer on the acclaimed Lifetime television series Army Wives. Can you talk about your work on the show?
We had an amazing, broad audience. For the three seasons I was there, I found it an extraordinary opportunity to tell stories unique to military families during a time of war. Such a minute percentage of Americans bear the direct burdens and risks of foreign policy decisions. The rest of us aren’t asked to sacrifice, or even if we have an opinion; war is an abstraction happening in a Far Off Land, easily forgotten in the flurry of selfies, “likes” and celebrity gossip. This profound disconnect, the unreality of most of my adulthood being spent technically “at war” continues to demand exploration in my work.
You’ve worked in both theater and television: what have you found to be the difference between the two mediums?
The process for me is vastly different. The solitary, contemplative work of a playwright versus the group collaborative chaos of the Writers Room in television. The nonlinear nature of how a story reveals itself to me, in plays, versus the extremely linear process of breaking story and writing a script in what is also a linear serial drama. And of course the break-neck pace of television writing which, though there are certainly creative costs to exhaustion, holds the unique satisfaction of being seen by the public within two months of hitting the page. Writing a play takes years and getting it produced, if it even happens, longer. That immediacy of television, especially when writing about a “timely” issue, can appeal. I conducted my first research interview informing Queens for a Year a decade ago. Only as a playwright do I own my work, but only in TV do I have a union and health insurance. There are pros and cons, pros and cons.