“The Vagina Monologues” has been performed worldwide since 1996, everywhere from college campus auditoriums to the Off Broadway stage. “The Shmagina Dialogues,” on the other hand, will be performed for only the second time on campus next weekend, when students at the University gather to listen to monologues written by fellow students about their own sexual experiences.
Gwendolyn Rosen ’15, who co-directed “Monologues” and will be performing in “The Shmagina Dialogues,” explained that the project was born last year out of two students’ dissatisfaction with “Monologues.”
“Two seniors—Emma MacLean [’14] and Olivia May [’14]—got together and felt like their voices weren’t represented in ‘The Vagina Monologues’; they didn’t connect with any of the pieces,” Rosen said.
May and MacLean were frustrated primarily by the fact that “The Vagina Monologues” conceives of womanhood as being based on biology, or the idea that one must have a vagina to be considered a woman. Some students, including Delilah Seligman ’16, who identifies as a trans girl, find this notion of femininity problematic. This year, “Monologues” author Eve Ensler added a new monologue from the point of view of a trans woman, which Seligman performed in “The Vagina Monologues” last weekend.
Even so, according to Isabel Alter ’17, who stage managed “The Vagina Monologues” this year and will be performing in “The Shmagina Dialogues,” the former still pushes an ideal of sexual freedom and sex positivity, which to some is not a unilaterally healthy message. In constructing the first iteration of the show last year, May and MacLean hoped that their own production would provide a platform for students who felt that their experiences hadn’t been heard.
“‘The Shmagina Dialogues’ is a place for students to respond to ‘The Vagina Monologues’ and tell their own stories,” Alter said. “There’s something unique about hearing people tell the stories of people—either their own stories or stories of other people in our community. We all get in our bubble, so it’s good to hear about people’s experiences in relation to sex and sexuality.”
“The Shmagina Dialogues” is a place for students to express themselves outside the confines of Ensler’s script; still, Willa Beckman ’15, the director of “Dialogues,” hopes to foster a healthy relationship with “The Vagina Monologues.” The directors of “Monologues”–Alyssa Domino ’17, Hannah Rimm ’15, and Rosen –are similarly committed to examining the show through a critical lens, but maintain that the original show is nonetheless significant.
“We have to recognize that ‘The Vagina Monologues’ was a watershed moment in feminism and in women’s performance,” Rosen said. “It was the first time that a lot of people heard the word ‘vagina’ used on stage, and I think that gets lost at Wesleyan. We talk about sex so openly, which is such a wonderful thing, but I think it’s really important to reflect back and see where we were and where we’re going. Even though we’re using ‘The Shmagina Dialogues’ as the next step in this conversation, we wouldn’t be there without ‘The Vagina Monologues.’”
Beckman tried to promote collaboration between the two productions as much as possible.
“I’ve been in ‘The Vagina Monologues’ before and I really didn’t want anyone to feel hurt or attacked by what we’re doing, because the whole point is to be inclusive,” she said. “I reached out to the people in ‘The Vagina Monologues,’ and we’re collaborating with them to put together a panel discussion after Saturday’s performance of ‘The Shmagina Dialogues’ in order to talk about how sexuality is presented through art.”
Despite the objections it raises, “The Vagina Monologues” continues to have a profound effect on University students.
“The first time I saw [‘The Vagina Monologues’], I was a freshman here, and it really hit home for me,” said Penina Kessler ’15, a performer in “The Shmagina Dialogues.” “We’re raised in a culture where women don’t get up and talk about their vaginas that often, and just bringing those issues to life and speaking about them in a public space wasn’t done a lot historically, and isn’t done enough now.”
“The Shmagina Dialogues” will take a different shape this year than it did last. The changes began the moment the pieces were chosen: the writers participated in two writing workshops with Nicole Stanton ’15, who edited the performers’ monologues to ensure that they articulated the writers’ purposes without muddling their voices.
“We also broke up the reading and editing with writing exercises,” Stanton wrote in an email to The Argus. “The exercises gave us sometimes unexpected opportunities to open up about our sexual educations and laugh at kitchen table conversations with parents. One of the most interesting prompts we did was ‘imagine sex in your perfect world.’ Musing about what ‘ideal’ sex would look like, feel like…exposed a lot of the problems with sex and the way it’s talked about. The most exciting part, I think, was that ‘perfect sex’ was entirely different for each person.”
The exercises, according to Stanton, illustrated the way in which “The Shmagina Dialogues” showcases diverse conceptions of sexuality.
“That moment just emphasized the importance of what ‘Shmagina Dialogues’ is doing—getting out of the ‘scripted’ nature of sex and articulating the ways in which it’s something we all experience distinctly,” Stanton said.
The rehearsal process has also been more structured this year, and the set is more complex. According to Alter, there will be introduction and conclusion sections throughout the performance and videos of students interspersed with the monologues and scenes.
The cast hopes that “The Shmagina Dialogues” will become an annual occurrence.
“When you have a performance, you can only include so many stories in one show, but really we could go on forever,” Rosen said. “If this project continues, every year there will be new stories and new experiences shared, and the more times that we do, that will lead to a community with less stigma and judgment.”