Behind the Scenes of “The Vagina Monologues”

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The women of “The Vagina Monologues” want you to come.

“We’re trying to make it an inviting atmosphere,” says Jessica Carlson ’16. “We’d like to integrate the actors and the audience.” Adds Simone Hyman ’15: “It’s about the celebration of women, but why can’t dudes feel really comfortable with this too?” Marianna Quinn-Makwaia ’14 chimes in: “Any and all genders should feel comfortable coming to this show.” 

Carlson, Hyman, and Quinn-Makwaia are the directors of the annual production of “The Vagina Monologues,” a theatrical tradition at Wes that leads back (in my estimation) to 2004, according to this Argus article. First written in 1994, the play is adapted from dozens of interviews done by Eve Ensler, who talked to women of all ages and walks of life about their genitalia. She then adapted some of those interviews into monologues and performed her play Off-Broadway for five years. In 1998, Ensler founded a charity called V-Day to incorporate the performance of the play into a larger movement.

HAVEN_061111_-238“V-Day’s mission is simple,” states an article on the charity’s website. “It demands that violence against women and girls must end. To do this, once a year, in February, March, and April, Eve allows groups around the world to produce a performance of the play, as well as other works created by V-Day, and use the proceeds for local individual projects and programs that work to end violence against women and girls, often shelters and rape crisis centers.” Wesleyan’s production is donating its proceeds to the HAVEN Free Clinic: Women’s Domestic Support and Awareness Group. “It’s a free clinic for women who have suffered from domestic abuse. It’s exciting that our ticket sales are going to support a local organization,” says Carlson.

Seeing this production is truly a win-win situation as the audience can both donate to a worthy cause and enjoy a great show. What’s unique about “The Vagina Monologues” is that it incorporates a variety of female-identified students, including some who have never been involved in theater before. Hyman, who performed a monologue last year from the viewpoint of a lesbian dominatrix, says this show was her first performance at Wesleyan. “The cool thing about this show is that people can’t get enough. I’m sure we’ll remain a part of it next year. It’s a really great environment.”

According to the directors, the show has changed dramatically since its inception and the production at Wesleyan has evolved under different creative direction each year. “It’s gone through a lot of transformation since I’ve been here. Our directors last year focused a lot more on the community aspect of what Eve Ensler’s writing about,” says Quinn-Makwaia. Hyman credits last year’s directors, Hana Elion ’15, Tess Jonas ’15, and Dominique Moore ’14 with the introduction of a refreshing change. “It used to be one girl onstage at a time, and she’d do her monologue. What they had us do last year was all of the girls were onstage the entire time. They described it to us as a ‘vagina support group.'”

This year’s production is different thanks to an annual change made by Ensler herself. She writes a new closing Screen shot 2014-02-13 at 7.55.55 PMmonologue every year to fit the current theme of V-Day, which is now “One Billion Rising for Justice.” In addition, the three new directors have put their own artistic spin on the show. “We’ve made a couple of the monologues really interactive,” Hyman shares, “so that instead of the other cast members watching, they’re integrated into the monologue itself.” Carlson reports that the production has been moved back onto the stage from last year’s amphitheater style, along with a couple of other adjustments. “We’ve been trying to exploit the visual aspects of the monologue, working with lights, and incorporating a song as well.” Finally, Quinn-Makwaia has edited the closing speech so that it can be performed by all of the actresses.

The directors affirmed that each production is distinct due to the efforts of the cast, directors, and production team. “It’s different each year in the context of what’s going on in the world and what’s going on on campus,” Carlson opines. All three women affirmed that it is important to produce the play because it sparks discussions on womanhood every year. “It’s a performance and a community,” says Quinn-Makwaia.

Hyman believes that the play performs a vital role on campus. “It’s a very personal and intimate thing. Even at Wesleyan, it’s almost like we’re better at talking about feminist theory, but it’s a lot harder to be like, ‘my vagina would like to tell you a story now.'” Essentially, the directors bring to life the thousands of conversations that occur on campus, be it in the bedroom, in Usdan, in the locker room, at the health center, or over coffee. The vagina is upgraded from a whispered word to a shouted affirmation.

The directors all agreed that the production is poignant and emotionally powerful. “One amazing thing about the vagmolshow is that after you watch it you almost don’t know what to feel because you’re feeling so much,” says Hyman. “These monologues will make you laugh so hard, they will make you cry, each one is so incredibly powerful.”

All of the women asserted that the production is physically and emotionally difficult to coordinate in a month, but they believe in the strength and worth of the project. “There’s been a lot of caffeine, a lot of commitment, but it’s totally worth it,” added Carlson

It’s inarguable that the play opens up discussions about anatomy, menstruation, sexuality (including masturbation and female orgasms), birth, and sexual violence. In a world that is still heavily patriarchal, “The Vagina Monologues” aims to convey a multi-faceted perception of the female-identified experience. However, like any project, the play is imperfect. It has been accused of colonialism, misnaming the female anatomy, and failing to include enough monologues of trans women and women of color.

When I asked the directors what they thought of the show’s criticisms, they said that they often discuss the problematic aspects of the production as a cast. “There could be more diverse experience in the script,” says Quinn-Makwaia. “I think it’s time for a trans* monologue.” (After the interview, my research revealed that Ensler staged the first all-trans* production of the play in 2004, featuring 18 trans* actresses and one new monologue written about the trans* experience. Progress!) Hyman noted that the show, when it was originally written, was based on the experiences of mostly white upper middle class feminists, but the production has diversified to include experiences from women all over the world. However, some feminists have criticized the sections featuring Third World women as colonialist. 

One aspect of the play that has always mystified me is the use of the word “vagina” during the times the character is not talking about her vagina, but instead about her vulva, mons pubis, labia minora, labia majora, or another anatomical part. For me, that terminology leads to more misinformation about the female body. In my research for this article, I discovered that Em House ’09 wrote her senior essay on the show, and that she came to a similar conclusion. According to an interview with the Argus, House stated, “It conflates the vagina with womanhood in a really problematic way. It silences a lot of voices, not just queer and inter-sex folks, but really anyone who doesn’t see the vagina as being representative of their identity. And because claiming the vagina as ‘being liberatory,’ these folks are all kind of mapped out of Ensler’s liberation.”

1836950_10152617510369278_1956408262_oCast member Talia Baurer ’15 chimed in on the persistent use of the word “vagina,” saying, “I had that same issue the first time I watched the show, but I realized that Ensler purposefully used the language that the women used in their interviews, so if they used a certain term for their genitals she would echo that so as not to take their language away.”

All in all, actress Gwen Rosen ’15 points out that the show has a positive message despite its flaws. “For me ‘The Vagina Monologues’ are the first steps for the solution to a larger problem,” she wrote in an email. “I think they get a bad rep for being outdated, and I agree that they are not perfect. But I think it is also important to remember that “The Vagina Monologues” are a series of stories, and while they may not be everyone’s stories that doesn’t mean they aren’t important stories to share.”

Rosen continues that she thinks the production is a jumping-off point for a broader cause. “I think Wesleyan is six steps ahead of “The Vagina Monologues,” but it’s important to remember that the rest of the world may not be there. The production is part of a larger movement, one that goes past Wesleyan, and while we may be ready to take the next steps I think it’s important to remember the starting points to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to work towards progress.”

The directors agreed that the show accomplishes a very important goal. “The Vagina Monologues is about not being silent. We so appreciate that [Ensler] has written this script,” says Quinn-Makwaia. “We can problematize every aspect of it, but this is a phenomenal foundation with which you can continue to build off of,” Hyman chimes in.

Some of the actresses in the show shared that they loved acting and talking about weighty issues in such a supportive environment. “Originally we rehearsed separately so I focused a lot on my own role, but when we put it together you look around and everyone’s here together,” notes Hannah Sokoloff-Rubin ’16.  “The women in this cast and crew are so fantastic,” addsCarlson. “My favorite part of this every year is the people involved. The script and topic are kind of difficult to grapple with, so I love the community of it,” Quinn-Makwaia affirms. 

In short, this year’s production of “The Vagina Monologues” is not to be missed. The cast includes Talia Baurer ’15, Sophie Becker ’16, Grace Bomann ’14, Kimora Brock ’15, Dominique Cameron-Rouge ’16, Sarah Corey ’15, Ceci Cereijido-Bloche ’16, Alyssa Domino ’17, Hannah Rimm ’15, Chloe Rinehart ’14, Gwen Rosen ’15, Regen Routman ’16, Avigayl Sharp ’17, Hannah Sokoloff -Rubin ’16, and Katie Solomon ’15. Lights and sound are by WESU DJ Anabeezy, set and costume design by Dominique Moore ’14.  Tickets are $5 and can be purchased at the Box Office.

Edit: This post has been edited to remove a cissexist sentence. My intention in writing this piece was to start a discussion on the show’s merits while recognizing its problematic aspects, so thank you for contributing to this conversation.

  • insolidarity

    “The vagina (as a broader representation of female identity and sexuality)”
    no
    no
    No
    no
    NO
    this is still a cissexist piece of shit production

    “(After this comment, Hyman acknowledged that not all female-identified people have a vagina, adding, ‘Wesleyan.’).”
    THE FACT THAT TRANS PEOPLE EXIST IS NOT A “KEEP WES WEIRD” QUIRKY QUIRK SPECIFIC TO WESLEYAN.

    fuckin essentialist bullshit no matter how you try to dress it up

    • yup
    • bossypants

      I have removed that statement from the post because it was a cissexit sentence. I apologize, and thank you for pointing it out to me.

      • anon

        Wasn’t it the person being interviewed that said it though? As long as issues of the performance’s limited representation of women/bodies/sexuality is a conversation on campus, we should know where the people putting on the show stand. She made an offensive remark and should be held accountable for clearly not understanding the problem at hand.

        This whole interview is apologist bullshit. Saying “we know it has problems, but look at all the good it’s doing for the cis women who aren’t offended by it!” only further marginalizes the queer identities you claim to care about.