From the moment I walked into the WestCo lounge on Wednesday, Feb. 19, it was clear that “The Shmagina Dialogues” would be unlike any other theater experience at Wesleyan. An anthology show of student-created performances, this was its first ever production. The space was decorated with bizarre, seemingly unrelated images, and though I had arrived only 10 minutes before the performance was meant to begin, members of the cast were still walking in. When Emily Sannini ’14, the show’s MC, walked onstage, she read off a script. The whole thing felt very haphazard and low-key, completely unlike productions put on by the University’s student-run theater company, Second Stage. I was worried that the show would be different in a bad way.
Yet this low-key vibe was an intended aspect of “The Shmagina Dialogues.” As organizers Olivia May ’14 and Emma MacLean ’14 explained, the show was not even originally meant to go up in an “official” space.
“We figured we would just go up in a living room, and then it occurred to us that there was enough interest that we could get an actual space, so we went to WestCo guidance,” May said.
Additionally, May and MacLean opted to forego funding from Second Stage, as they felt they did not need a budget—the main reason one would turn to Second Stage—and were interested in creating a different, more inclusive, and more relaxed outlet for theater at the University.
“The organizing intention for this show was to create a space that would give an opportunity to people who are not ordinarily feeling welcome in the theater scene at Wesleyan,” May said.
MacLean added that they wanted to avoid conventional means such as those offered by Second Stage.
“We wanted to create a space, and we figured that if we created that space, people would fill it with interesting things,” she said.
Though several cast members read directly from scripts, the lack of Second Stage funding and the informality of the show’s production did not ultimately hurt its quality and the variety of its content was certainly not limited. The performances varied from passionate monologues to dialogue-less performance pieces involving paint and partial nudity. Where some of the performances directly commented on Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues,” after which the production was mockingly named (and which was performed the week before in the ’92 Theater), others did not. Each performance was unique, and each performer brought hir own distinct voice to the production. This variety, too, was intentional.
“[‘The Shmagina Dialogues’] is…a space for people to respond to ‘The Vagina Monologues,’” May said. “It’s also a space for people to do any kind of performance that has to do with their bodies or anything like that, in whatever way they want, with total artistic freedom and no direction and no casting process.”
As May and MacLean had planned, individuals from different areas of the University community, many of whom had never been involved in a Wesleyan theater production, were attracted to helping create and star in the project.
“I really haven’t done theater at Wesleyan,” said Haley Weaver ’14. “I did musicals when I was a kid, but since college I haven’t really done any theater. And it’s kind of the sort of thing where I kept meaning to do it but then also found the process of auditioning and all of that intimidating and also time consuming. And so this was a really cool way to do something I’m really interested in and invested in…with very little time commitment and not being that intimidated because I didn’t have to do shit.”
The performances were powerful and complex, even with the show’s predominately inexperienced cast. Newcomer to theater Ashe Kilbourne ’14, for example, performed one of the most compelling monologues in the entire production. Her monologue, “ABCs,” addressed the complexities of being a trans* woman and the difficulty trans* women have when trying to enter into women’s spaces.
“I think [the intention behind my performance was] to mock ‘The Vagina Monologues,’ specifically from a transfeminine perspective, critiquing its body essentialism, the attempts at creating assimilable transfeminine narratives,” Kilbourne explained. “Just the general exclusion of the idea of the vagina as destiny—anatomy as destiny.”
Yet not every member of the cast was a theater newbie. Willa Beckman ’15 has performed in a number of Second Stage productions and even acted in “The Vagina Monologues” during her freshman and sophomore years. However, her feelings on “The Vagina Monologues,” like those of many members of “The Shmagina Dialogues” cast, are mixed.
“There’s something about being with a lot of women in a project about femininity or sexuality or vaginas, and that’s just very conducive to lots of open conversations about very personal experiences and feelings, and you get really close to people, and it’s just very, very, very girl power-y, but in kind of a great way,” Beckman explained. “[But] also, I have a lot of problems with Eve Ensler and think that ‘The Vagina Monologues’ generally give a very one-dimensional or have a very one-dimensional perspective on female sexuality, and [I] definitely think that’s a big problem.”
Over the course of the show, performers pointed out a number of issues with “The Vagina Monologues,” ranging from its narrow focus on women’s vaginas to even questioning what the definition of “vagina” is. As Jackie Soro ’14 concluded towards the end of her monologue, “The Vagina Monologues,” while groundbreaking at one point—and having inspired and empowered a number of women over the years—has now become outdated. Perhaps “The Shmagina Dialogues,” with its variety of nuanced, enthralling performances and depictions of sexuality, is the very challenger that “The Vagina Monologues” needs.