“I bet you’re worried. We were worried. We were worried about vaginas.”
These first three lines start “The Vagina Monologues,” but they repeat in my head like a running playlist for the women’s liberation marathon. I’ve been worried about vaginas for a long time. I’m worried about the people who own vaginas, who come in contact with vaginas, who talk about vaginas, and who don’t talk about vaginas. When I’m worried about something, I think the healthiest thing to do is talk it out with a friend. To me, this is the purpose of a performance of “The Vagina Monologues”: an expression of anxieties, past and present, about bodies, sexuality, and womanhood.
Eve Ensler wrote “The Vagina Monologues” after interviewing hundreds of women. Some of the monologues are direct transcriptions of one woman’s interview; others are compilations of common themes. The first performance of the show was a limited run in 1996. Let me state the obvious: For a play with political implications, this one is old. The women’s movement has come a long way since then. Women’s bodies are starting to be acknowledged in our culture; women’s sexuality is no longer a myth.
It raises the question: Does a liberal, progressive community like Wesleyan still need “The Vagina Monologues”? Campus is bursting with discussions about gender and sexuality that include words like “spectrum” and “fluidity.” The word “vagina” is tossed around in classrooms without snickers or smirks. Is it time to move on?
I wanted to direct “The Vagina Monologues” because I think moving forward requires recognizing the past. I’ve had a complicated relationship with “The Vagina Monologues.” When I first saw the show during my freshman year, I was inspired to start opening up about my sexuality. I wanted to start talking to people about my experiences and stop using ridiculous words to refer to my own genitalia. But many people leave “The Vagina Monologues” feeling isolated and essentialized. The monologues recognize experiences that take place through the body. While this is a powerful way to experience the world, it is obviously not the only way to understand life events or come to terms with identity. “The Vagina Monologues” never says this is the only way to recognize the self, but, since the voices of those who do not feel through the body are absent, the implication is there.
After performing in “The Vagina Monologues” for two years and writing my sociology capstone essay on the play, directing the show this year was a way to put a confused cluster of feelings into productive action. I thought hard about why the play had resonated with me so deeply during my freshman year. First, it exuded confidence through both its text and the way each monologue is performed. Second, it introduced me to the idea of feminism as evolving. I saw “The Vagina Monologues” before I had taken an FGSS class to teach me about the waves of a movement, each of which contains achievements and mistakes in its history. My goal as a director of the production was to bring out these strengths while still acknowledging the play’s weaknesses.
The performers were crucial to achieving the first goal. My co-directors (Alyssa Domino ’17 and Hannah Rimm ’15), our stage manager (Isabel Alter ’17), and I debated long and hard over the many talented women we saw audition. We did not pick the women who had the most theater experience, but instead the women who were passionate about what they were saying and wanted to be a part of a community. If they had also been in a show before, that was simply a bonus. Our cast was vital to bringing the show’s “I am who I am” attitude to the production.
Next, our production team wanted to recognize the history of the play while still performing it in the present moment. The production team agreed upon a riot grrrl-inspired aesthetic for the show. Revisiting another moment in feminist history allowed us to recognize “The Vagina Monologues” as another part of the past. Riot grrrl’s approach to women’s liberation also resonated with the production team and the cast: Be loud, be yourself, recognize your experiences, and use art to communicate.
While, as a theatrical piece, the monologues are only one part of using art to spread a message, we encouraged the cast members to add parts of themselves into the production. We created inspiration boards as part of the set with art that the cast members made, pictures of women who inspired them, and mementos from special moments in their lives. These boards, plus a beautiful vagina flag created by Elinor Case-Pethica ’17, created our own Reko Muse: a feminist art space where women could share stories and a creative spirit.
Performance is a beautiful thing because it is completely in the moment. It can never be exactly replicated. We had three amazing, sold-out shows, which raised over $1,000 in ticket sales for New Horizons Domestic Violence services. The powerful energy in the ’92 Theater during those three performances cannot be recreated, but the conversation can continue. Our cast and production team became incredibly close. I am confident that the experience of telling someone else’s story through the monologues will motivate us to share our own, not only with each other but with the campus community. This will definitely be happening next weekend in the Shmagina Dialogues. Several members of “The Vagina Monologues” team, including myself, will be sharing stories because we have been inspired to continue talking about sex and bodies.
It has been an amazing experience to work with so many strong, inspiring women through “The Vagina Monologues.” I think each cast member learned something about herself through the production, and I am honored to be able to pass down the tools I used for my own self-discovery to other women. I am proud to have directed a production in which almost everyone left with something to say. We sparked a conversation. It’s an important one. “The Vagina Monologues” hopes you keep talking.