International Women’s Day 2016 was not the first time East 15 had seen The Vagina Monologues performed. In fact, the school has a long-standing relationship with both the play and playwright; former staff member Monique Wilson facilitated a staging several years ago, alongside a postgraduate workshop with her close friend Eve Ensler, the writer. When it was written twenty years ago, the Monologues broke ground with its bravery and frankness, demystification and celebration of womanhood. Reviewers called it ‘intensely lyrical’ and ‘an incisive piece of theatre history’.
But, as with all revivals of theatre, the question needs to be asked, ‘what makes this piece relevant to this audience?’ Andrea Brooks, head of MA Acting and one of the evening’s performers, answered this succinctly in an interview: ‘Because we all still have cunts, basically.’ It’s true that gender is no longer seen on a binary scale, and is not purely dictated by biology. There is a spectrum. But, as Andrea points out, ‘the space for men, and women, and trans and everybody else, to talk about the distinct experience of womanhood is vital. And it doesn’t happen.’
Seeking to create this vital space for East 15, members of the staff and postgraduate students took to the stage on March 8, 2016 in support of International Women’s Day and particularly in support of One Billion Rising, Ensler’s movement to end global violence against women. After a sharing of self-written work in the Corbett Theatre bar, the women read eighteen monologues that ‘encapture’, as Tracy Collier remarked to me, ‘everything to do with who we are, both physically and emotionally’ and that are ‘really about acceptance.’
The variety in the Monologues is astounding. They discuss everything and anything, from the possible colloquialisms for a vagina across the continental US, to the fact that ‘looking at your vagina is a full day’s work’ involving all sorts of contortions, to the pure and brutal facts of female genital mutilation. The physical response to the figures and method, 80-100 million girls and women under the ‘knife – or razor or glass shard’ was tangible in the room.
Some of them are not so much monologues as compilations of quotes, based on such themes as ‘If Your Vagina Got Dressed’ or ‘What Would It Say?’. But when four women stand together and speak the answers alternately, their voices sound like many as one, or one as many. Their answers were those that women have heard, read, thought, or said themselves, but rarely with as much honesty.
Humour is rife, but is always accompanied by bittersweetness. Kelly Blaze gave a wonderfully heartfelt portrayal of a woman who hasn’t been ‘down there’ since President Eisenhower, complete with New Jersey accent. She talked playfully, mirthfully, about Burt Reynolds fantasies and funny smells. But she also talked about the secrecy, the shame, that accompanies a vagina. ‘It’s a place. A place you don’t go.’ And Tracy mentioned this in her interview, how ‘through [her] generation, the whole things about women either masturbating or being aware of their own bodies in that way… was very scorned on… it was very hidden.’
Tracy also believes in the Monologues’ ability to encourage seeing the beauty ‘in the thing that it is.’ The conclusion to Kelly’s monologue, ‘The Flood’, acknowledges that healing power of discussion, of opening up, of acceptance: ‘You know, actually, you’re the first person I ever told about this, and I feel a little better.’
Equally humourous and biting was Eleanor Smithard’s ‘Reclaiming Cunt’, luxuriating in what is (ridiculously) the dirtiest of dirty words, and Christina Gutekunst’s ‘The Vulva Club’, which shone light on the power of a name.
Other pieces were poetic, and heartbreaking. Christina Kapadocha read ‘My Vagina Was My Village’. In a world where violence floods the land with refugees, it was especially timely, filled with imagery of rape by a cold steel rifle, of a vagina that was ‘all wild autumn field song’ and ‘clean spilling water’ suddenly ‘invaded’ and ‘butchered’. And yet in that sadness, there was celebration of what it had been and the importance of cherishing it.
The two actors that I spoke to, Tracy and Andrea, both had very personal connections to their monologues. For Tracy, the connection came largely from the maturity and space of ‘I Was There’, which is a visceral, tender account of what she calls ‘the complete lunacy that is giving birth’. She had done it several years before and found it interesting when somebody came up to her and said ‘I never realised there was humour in that monologue’, to which she answered, ‘Have you ever given birth?’ ‘Because unless you’ve actually been there… with the husband doing the whole “you’re supposed to count”… and the [Laban] drives, the nurse with her hand up inside in action drive… so actually to be able to sit outside and watch it, and the irony of that situation, was really very refreshing.’
The Vagina Monologues is able to see the vagina as a host of things: a vessel for life, a place of sacrifice or of pleasure. It is a place that can be explored or, indeed, violated. Part of their importance stems from the fact that two women a week in the UK are killed at the hands of their partner, or that in Andrea’s experience, about a third of women in an average theatre group will have experienced sexually related abuse. Whether the issue is violence, lack of acceptance, or rampant inequality, The Vagina Monologues encourages discussion and provokes thought. In our industry of theatre, of media, Andrea believes ‘there is a long, long, long way to go before we can begin to even begin the conversation about whether the access is equal’.
I don’t believe that The Vagina Monologues will ever lose their value as a way for women to celebrate and engage with a vital part of themselves. But Tracy wonders whether they ‘will keep being the vehicle’ by which we ‘keep Women’s Day sacred’. When witnessing the sharing of work that preceded the Monologues that evening, she asked ‘if it was more valid that the work and the beautiful stuff that the students themselves wrote wouldn’t be a better celebration of Women’s Day.’
There’s also the stipulation by Eve Ensler to consider, that no men’s voices are allowed, and the myriad views on that. Andrea really respects that, believing that ‘when you make something as precious as that and you let it out into the world, it’s good to keep the bounds around it.’ ‘The fight isn’t over if it’s only a woman’s fight,’ but also finds it ‘powerful’ and ‘liberating’ to ‘stand as a woman beside other women, whoever they are, staff, student.’ Whereas Tracy ‘completely disagree[s]’ with Ensler’s decision, believing that it’s ‘really, really important that men would be allowed to be part of that event.’
Whether or not performing The Vagina Monologues is the best way to celebrate International Women’s Day in 2016, East 15’s choice to do so created a space in which men and women came together to encourage love and respect for the vagina, and therefore women. Feminism means equality and, as Tracy said so eloquently, equality is ‘just about caring. It’s about people being kind. That’s all it is. Just be kind. Have empathy. If everybody has empathy and is kind, then we’re done.’