The actors of 20% Theatre Company performed “The Naked I: Insides Out” in Beckham Hall on Sunday, Oct. 5 to kick off Wesleyan’s Pride Week. The third in a series of shows produced under “The Naked I” title, “Insides Out” is the result of an open call for original written pieces about queer and trans* individuals. While the original production, which premiered in February 2014 in Minneapolis, Minn., was composed of 25 of those submissions, the version performed at Wesleyan contained only 11 of those original 25 pieces, all of which were monologues.
The version of “Insides Out” that was performed at Wesleyan resembled Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues,” only instead of centering on a specific anatomical part, it was concerned with the narratives of queer and trans* individuals. As with “The Vagina Monologues,” each monologue in “Insides Out” was self-contained and was performed with little to no assistance from props. These similarities are not coincidental. While “The Vagina Monologues” influenced its creation, “The Naked I” series of plays is also a form of commentary on “The Vagina Monologues.” Most prominently, it tackles the issue of inclusivity, something that the members of the “Insides Out” cast found “The Vagina Monologues” to be lacking.
“I remember seeing ‘The Vagina Monologues’ when I was either a firstyear or sophomore in college and being like, ‘Woah! That exists! Cool!’” said Robbie Dunning, an actor in the production. “[B]ut every year when I saw it, it became less powerful because it wasn’t furthering conversations, and it wasn’t speaking to me because every year that passed, when I would see it again and support it at my school, it felt less inclusive. And also, when I finally felt comfortable and powerful enough in myself as a person to be like, ‘Wow, I really want to do this theater, and I really want to be involved,’ it was after I had come out as a trans* man, and they had a policy at the time that was like, ‘If you don’t identify as a woman, then you can’t be involved.’ And I was like, ‘This is interesting. I do have a vagina. That’s complicated.’ Inclusivity is an issue that I think ‘The Naked I’ just blows apart.”
Claire Avitabile, the executive director of 20% Theatre, explained that the goal of “The Naked I” is to tell as many different stories as possible. Whereas “The Vagina Monologues” tells a set number of stories each time it is performed, give or take a few additions or subtractions, “The Naked I” aims to constantly be telling new stories.
“[W]ith Toby Davis’ permission—he wrote the first ‘Naked I’—20% Theatre has [created] and continues to create new plays,” Avitabile said. “So it’s like, what we’re missing is that ‘The Vagina Monologues’ could keep going. There are hundreds more stories to be told, and that’s what we’re doing with this project. Because it doesn’t just stop with the first 20 stories that were staged. There are just an infinite number, so we’re going to keep making new ‘Naked I’ plays and making sure that voices get heard and stories get told that haven’t yet.”
For Yusef Bornacelli, another performer, “The Naked I” provides an important medium for individual expression in the context of a larger group.
“It’s a really almost overwhelming feeling when you get to be a part of something that you don’t get to see,” Bornacelli said. “Trans* and queer voices are often just left to the backdrop of everything else, and when you have artists who come together and want to tell our stories and tell their stories, who want to share things that are so personal and intimate, and places that we’ve all been, and feelings that we’ve all had, it’s almost like a release of all the things that you wish you could communicate all the time but don’t and can’t.”
While the Wesleyan production contained only 11 monologues, it still managed to present an incredibly diverse array of experiences. The speakers ranged in variety from the cisgender mother of a trans* child concerned about the way her child was being treated to a lesbian who felt constrained by the labels of “butch” and “femme.” The monologues varied not only in content but in tone as well. Some were incredibly serious and heart-wrenching, while others were lighthearted and funny. The monologues constantly played with viewers’ expectations and challenged their preconceived notions of gender and sexual identity. For instance, in “Man-Ish,” the speaker, portrayed by Dunning, proclaims that it took six months for hir to realize that ze was in a same-gender relationship. While one could easily expect the speaker and hir partner’s gender identities to fall on either side of the traditional gender binary, it is revealed at the end that both identify as “man-ish,” challenging viewers’ notions of what it actually means to be in a same-sex relationship.
But while “Insides Out” may affect the way that the members of the audience think, it has also had a powerful impact on the performers themselves.
“I don’t think it’s an understatement if I say that being in ‘The Naked I’ has really changed my life,” Dunning said. “Being in something that is so empowering as ‘The Naked I’ was a revelation…because it changed my view of what I could do as a trans* performer and as a writer and an activist and an educator, in the context of all of those things. They also gave me this amazing community that I’d never had before. I’d never been in a room with that many trans*gender people as the cast of ‘The Naked I.’ I suddenly had this community that I’d been looking for and wanting and had a really great medium through which to get to know and become family with all these incredible trans* people and really wonderful allies, and I’m also really excited at the possibilities it brings for writing future things.”