Seventeen female-identifying students sit in chairs arranged in a semicircle on the Memorial Chapel stage. The lights dim as the young women take note of one another’s presence, some engaging in conversation, others slouching comfortably in their seats. With the stage and audience primed for the ensuing atmosphere, the show is set to begin.
“The Vagina Monologues,” the brainchild of playwright Eve Ensler, was first performed in 1996 at New York City’s HERE Arts Center. Since then, the production has been performed by theater groups and schools nationwide and is regarded as a landmark work of feminist art. At the University, it has become an annual tradition that is both a theatrical project and a social justice initiative. Proceeds from ticket sales this year benefitted New Horizons Domestic Violence Shelter, a Middletown-based emergency shelter for women and children escaping domestic abuse.
The primary goal of “The Vagina Monologues,” first articulated during the 1996 production, is to bring the dialogue on female sex, sexuality, and gendered expectations into a public space. To create the original show, Ensler conducted interviews with 200 women, who provided their perspectives on sex, relationships, and violence. Using anecdotes from these interviews, she wrote the first round of monologues, which have since been revised on several occasions.
The tones and topics of the monologues ranged widely: some were proud, some displayed impassioned anger, and others dealt with heartbreaking accounts of trauma. Often, contrasting monologues followed one another, keeping the audience’s attention in a tight grip, and proving that the show’s subject matter is anything but monotonous.
One of the goals of this year’s performance was to employ a cast that was diverse in terms of personal and performance background, according to directors Eileen Connor ’18, Jessica Perelman ’17, and Eva Weintraub ’16. For a number of students involved in the production, “The Vagina Monologues” was their acting debut. These students were able to develop and enhance their performance skills by working privately with the directors and by practicing alongside women who were supportive and encouraging.
Tina Glusac ’18 has appeared in the University’s production of The Vagina Monologues for the past two years. This year, her monologue centered on the reclamation of the word “cunt,” one that, at least in the United States, has long been used to insult women.
For Glusac, one of the show’s most appealing aspects is how evocative it is for audience members. This quality is present to an extent in each and every monologue, even when there is only one person speaking on stage. According to Glusac, this sense of two-way communication took root in later rehearsals, prior to the addition of an audience.
“Throughout the performance, we get to experience each monologue and have genuine reactions and connect with one another” Glusac said. “That connection, I think, helped foster a real sense of sisterhood within the group once we all were able to rehearse together during tech week.”
Xandra Ellin ’18, who performed in the show for the first time this past weekend, also commented on the bond shared by cast members. Having been assigned a monologue that challenged her to take risks beyond any she had encountered in her previous theater work—faking not just one but multiple orgasms onstage—Ellin spoke about how the cast’s encouragement helped her to be more daring.
“There was definitely an immediate chemistry between all of us,” Ellin said.“Even though we technically spent very little time together, it’s the closest I’ve ever felt to a cast. Just an unbelievably supportive, wonderful group of people–none of whom I really knew before this week.”
Although this year’s show was certainly met with critical acclaim from audience members, “The Vagina Monologues” has been received with disapproval in the past. Some have called the monologues “outdated,” claiming that they draw too heavily upon the “white feminism” that marginalizes women of color and members of the LGBTQA+ community. Seeing as the monologues were written two decades ago, there is an irrefutable truth to such an assertion, something that Connor, Perelman, and Weintraub acknowledged in their directors’ note in the show’s programs.
However, despite the script’s inherent shortcomings, the directors chose to continue the University’s “Vagina Monologues” tradition because of the types of conversations it has promoted in the past, and the attention it has directed toward fundraising initiatives. To further this awareness, the directors plan to organize a facilitated talkback event within the coming weeks that will address the topics brought up in the monologues.
Hopefully the show’s positive takeaways can continue to be reinforced on a larger scale by productions outside our community, ideally in environments as tolerant and open-minded as the one that gathered this weekend under the soft Chapel lights.