In April of 2002, Eve Ensler’s controversial play, The Vagina Monologues, made its Buffalo debut at Studio Arena Theater. The premiere came 6 years after the play first hit the stage in New York City and 4 years after Ensler established V Day as a means of combating worldwide violence against girls and women. A few weeks before the Queen City’s VM premiere, Eve Ensler appeared in her final performance of the monologues, at The Wilbur Theater in Boston, Massachusetts. I was fortunate to witness that remarkable evening of theater and to interview Ms. Ensler the next day at the Boston Ritz Hotel. This is the resulting article that appeared in the Spring issue of EVE Magazine.
Eve Ensler is, without a doubt, THE Vagina Queen. It is a title the forty eight-year-old writer/actress has rightfully earned as the individual most responsible for taking a once unmentionable entity (a woman’s vagina) and elevating it into acceptable everyday jargon. Her vehicle of accomplishment being a theatrical staging entitled, The Vagina Monologues.
For those unfamiliar with “Monologues”, the show began in 1996 as an Off-Broadway production written by, and starring, Ensler. Since that time it has evolved into an OBIE award winning, widely acclaimed, theater event featuring celebrity casts of seventy or more. More directly, it is ninety minutes of funny, poignant, and occasionally dramatic theater, focused on the here-to-fore taboo subject of women and their vaginas.
The script is based on a series of more than two hundred interviews, which Ensler conducted, with women from around the world. “I really feel as if I was picked by the Vagina Queens,” the author/actress states with a wry smile. “I was the perfect candidate with my name of Eve, the fact that I’m an exhibitionist, and that I’m a playwright. It truly feels as if everything that has happened is beyond me and I am just serving some purpose.”
The purpose of which Ensler speaks relates to her worldwide campaign to stop violence against women and girls. It is a cause to which she is devoted, in part, because of her own sexually and physically abusive childhood/youth (suffered at the hands of her father) and also because of the mass response she has received from women who have been abused. “So many women would come up to me after a show and tell me they had been beaten or abused or raped, it was making me insane.” Her crazed state eventually agitated the playwright into the pro-active development of, V-Day.
The purpose of V-Day is to raise money for organizations dedicated to eliminating violence against women and girls, and aiding victims of the same. The original format of the fundraiser was focused on Valentine’s Day, February 14th, a date when Ensler agreed to relinquish her royalty rights for The Vagina Monologues to any performance group interested in staging the production. The financial arrangement is that all proceeds from the once-a-year presentation directly benefit organizations in the community where the V-Day event is staged. The feminist playwright additionally decreed that a portion of the profits from all professional performances of The Vagina Monologues would additionally be earmarked to aide world wide initiatives to end violence against women and girls.
Ensler began her fund raising quest by sponsoring a New York City V-Day “Monologue” performance in 1998. Aided by celebrity supporters such as Whoppi Goldberg, Glenn Close, Susan Sarandon and Calista Flockhart, the event raised $150,000. By the following year, Ensler, The Vagina Monologues, and the V-Day concept were stimulating far-reaching international notice. Performance arenas expanded to include a star studdedLondongala and grass roots performances at over seventy-five American colleges and universities. From that point on, the V-Day Vision grew to include cities around the world and more than one 150 college venues, all of which, in 4 years, have contributed a sum total of more than 4 million dollars.
As V-Day has expanded, so too have the parameters. This year for example, V-Day presentations began on January 25th inWashingtonD.C. (a production that included Ensler) and are scheduled to continue until April. It is a performance timetable that includes 25 shows in such far-reaching locales asItaly,France,Manila,Rio,Bulgaria andMacedonia. Ensler’s plan is to attend the majority of these V-Day presentations. She states that she welcomes the extended road tour, “When V-Day comes along I get to see everybody, all my friends around the world. It’s a huge network.”
Ensler’s worldwide network has evolved, most directly, as a result of the immense popularity of The Vagina Monologues, itself. That fact was recently evidenced by the taping of the stage show for HBO, as well as the 45 versions of “Monologues” currently running in theaters around the globe. According to the prodigious playwright, she oversees each staging, “I am part of the auditions and casting of every production, which I just love. Then once it’s up and running I get bi-weekly or monthly updates.”
Juggling casts, following extended runs, and overseeing a global fundraising foundation are responsibilities that Eve Ensler never imagined when she first began writing “The Vagina Monologues.” “I had no idea that anyone would ever want to do this show,” she says. “I just thought I was going to try it out downtown and then it would go away.” Instead, what Ensler acknowledges has gone away are the demons that once haunted her life. “The first thirty years of my life were so awful and so miserable, but The Vagina Monologues has totally and completely changed that. What was torture to me before has become the greatest liberation and I’m so grateful. I don’t know how long my life will be, but I feel like I’m only in the first half of my life. Like I’m just beginning.”
This rebirth for Ensler has come not only through performing the cathartic monologues onstage, but in collecting monologue material from woman of wide-ranging ages, cultures, socio-economic backgrounds and nationalities. It was a process stimulated by her sense of curiosity. “Throughout the interviews I asked women the things I wanted to know,” she says. “It was less a methodology and more a desire to learn. Then most interviews spurned new questions.”
The answers to her queries, Ensler states, returned in forms that she found both fascinating and abhorrent. “I can’t believe what people have lived through and no one knows about. I am always just amazed by how insulated, isolated and alone people really are.”
The process through which Ensler managed to find women willing to talk about their vaginas is as much a part of this story as the “Monologues” themselves. What began as a random conversation with a female friend on the negative aspects of vaginas caused the writer to wonder if every woman held the same destructive views. Soon she began asking friends to talk about the subject, after which they began referring other women. Ensler notes each session was distinct, “The interviews varied from 30 minutes to 4 hours. Each one was like its own little world. But I think women were willing to talk to me because I had experienced shame and worry in relation to my own vagina. I think they understood that we were all in this together.”
Creating a sense of belonging is exactly what Eve Ensler strives for each time she walks across a darkened, sheer-panel draped stage, sits upon her red velvet chair and throatily utters, “I bet you’re nervous.” Spasmodic titters from the audience confirm her assessment. As the house lights slowly rise, Ensler is revealed wearing a black spaghetti strap dress, red painted toenails and nothing…literally nothing… else. Her severe, angular, coal black hairstyle appears in direct opposition to her lithe, sensual body. As the audience reservedly awaits, Ensler begins, spending the next 90 minutes raising and lowering her listeners on a roller coaster ride through the wonderful world of vaginas. She states, “The point of theater is to get us out of that terrible isolation we live in. Let people know that things go on and that we are all part of an open community.”
While many communities have accepted and enthusiastically embraced the stage presence of The Vagina Monologues, there is a question about a traditional, conservative town such as Buffalo welcoming this out-of-the-norm production. Ensler immediately jumps to theQueenCity’s defense. “I have never been to a city that didn’t turn out to love vaginas, given the opportunity. I’m not worried at all aboutBuffalobeing a vagina city. I know it will be great.”
Before leaving on her 3 month round the world V-Day tour, Ensler performed in a series of farewell Vagina Monologues inBostonandWashington. D.C. They were the first shows she had done in over a year and the direct-speaking woman admits that the time off changed her delivery. “I found that I was much more confident than I used to be. My energy was higher and I wasn’t afraid to go out there anymore.” Ensler also acknowledged her growing popularity and stature as a woman’s rights activist, “I feel legitimized now as if there’s no longer that ‘show me, prove it to me’ attitude coming from people.”
So if performing The Vagina Monologues has become so enjoyable, why not continue? Ensler answers without hesitation, “Because I’ve done it long enough and really I’m ready to do the next thing.” “The next thing” defined as a play, “Necessary Targets” (based on a book Ensler wrote from interviews she conducted with Bosnian women who were raped and assaulted during the war) and a new book called, “The Good Body.” “The book is all about the ways women mutilate their bodies (lipo-suction, breast implants, plastic surgery) in the name of beauty and our obsession with how we look,” she states. “But I can’t perform and write at the same time, so when I come back from the V-Day tour, I have to go in. Be quiet and still, in my interior self, and write for 6 months.”
Conventional wisdom would seem to indicate that no matter how many books and plays Eve Ensler produces, she will always be known as The Vagina Queen. It is a title she accepts, for the time being. “I feel that The Vagina Monologues is what I’m best known for now,” she says. “but I have this new play running inNew Yorkand others will follow.” She further elaborates, “It’s no different than Tennessee Williams who is so highly identified with “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Yet he’s also known for other great plays like, “The Glass Menagerie.” There’s always one play that a playwright is known for, but hopefully by the end of my career it will be the entire body of my work.”
In the meantime, Ensler welcomes the notoriety that the word vagina has brought her way. “I had a dream to have a greater voice and to be heard in the world and I was tortured by that dream. Now with the success of The Vagina Monologues, people are paying attention to what I’m writing about and that inspires me to work harder and write more.” As for the intimidation factor that can accompany such fame, Ensler reticently states, “I try not to think about it.”
What she does think about are vaginas. A word that to Ensler means, “life.” “I think people who are uncomfortable with the word vagina need to get over it. More importantly they should evaluate why saying a word like vagina scares them, but saying a word like anthrax doesn’t?” Ensler’s personal response to that question relates to her definition of the word. “I think people are inherently terrified of being alive. Vaginas are all about life and it seems as if it’s easier for people to face death than to be connected to life. Seriously, think about how many people line up for war, and how many people don’t line up for love.”
The quintessential philosophy of life, compliments of the one, the only, THE Vagina Queen.