In 2003 I let myself be talked into directing the second year’s production of The Vagina Monologues in a rural town in central British Columbia. I didn’t really think such an edgy play would work there, even though it had the year before. I was wrong.
A framed poster hangs on the wall of my office. It advertises a performance of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues. On the back are handwritten notes from an unlikely cast, all inexperienced actors. They’re written to an equally inexperienced director, me.
The setting must surely have been one of the most unlikely venues for such an edgy production: a small town in the heart of British Columbia. Patriarchal values were comfortably entrenched there. Aligning ourselves publicly with an avowedly feminist production was risky.
So was taking the stage to talk openly about experiences and parts of our bodies that are the stuff of taboos and obscenities.
Somehow we stumbled our way to a standing ovation, even though I was sure in the first few casting sessions we didn’t have the talent to pull it off.
Starting with stories
The producer, who was executive director of the local women’s centre, and I agreed we would find a place for anyone who showed up. After listening to some stumbling read-throughs, I began to doubt the wisdom of our optimism.
So we backed up. A cast member with experience in dance and movement helped us loosen up. We tried some theatre improvisation exercises. But mostly, we told stories.
After the third session, I wrote to a friend: “The women are really opening to each other, and today I received an extraordinary e-mail from one of them. She told me of her mother’s death, of the brother-in-law who abused her son, of the pain from her sister and her father, who won’t believe the son’s charge (though the court did). And then she wrote of her experience so far with The Vagina Monologues, of the healing that is beginning because of her participation. That made all the work worthwhile.”
Some of the women knew each other well, others only on sight. Others were strangers. What they all brought into the room was trust. As the stories they shared drew them into the shark-infested waters of their lives, their fellow actors wove a web of safety that pulled them back to solid ground.
Outside the rehearsal space, their lives went on as before. One young woman from a rough crowd missed a rehearsal after she was beaten up by a gang of girls. Another had to take time out when her brother’s girlfriend was shot in the face.
But week after week, every woman who could make it showed up for rehearsal. What had seemed an insurmountable task, deciding who would read each monologue, proved easy. The women figured it out themselves.
They seemed to gravitate toward readings that stretched their comfort zones, that resonated for them, or that shed light on something they had found puzzling or disturbing.
Closing the circle
After weeks in a circle, always able to see each others’ faces as we worked through the play, we were ready for the stage of the community’s 400-seat theatre.
We had found a place for every one of the more than twenty women who wanted to perform. Some performed solo. Others choreographed choral readings. Everyone spoke. Their combined voices rocked the hall and brought the audience to its feet.
Writing’s the way I try to make sense of the world. So while the applause was still ringing in my ears, I wrote to a friend:
“In a vase on the kitchen counter, a dozen fragrant red roses remind me of a stunning performance to a sold-out house. The standing ovation they got tonight was richly deserved. Every woman gave a topnotch performance. The producer and I thought back to the first casting call, when we sighed and wondered how on earth we’d turn a group of women without an ounce of drama in them into a production worth the price of a ticket. We had underestimated them. Tonight they all shone.”
The power of shared experience
Each woman’s experience of the play was a story. I’ll share a few of them. These aren’t their real names, but the stories are exactly as I wrote them after the performance.
Sandra, the girl from the rough crowd, “told me it had made a huge difference to her self-esteem. Even if the effect is temporary, for the weeks she’s been with us she’s seen herself reflected in the eyes of a group of women who see her as talented and special. In her own mirror she’s been a party girl with no reason to believe she had any kind of a future. To us she is full of spark and verve and intelligence.”
Brittany, a fresh-faced woman in her early twenties had only a few lines. For her, “the act of getting up in front of an audience, even for a few lines, meant overcoming a lifelong fear she never thought she’d conquer.”
Meredith “had been flat and quiet in rehearsal, but last night she took courage from a receptive audience and cut loose.”
Cindy “only came to a rehearsal because I e-mailed an invitation. I didn’t know her well but thought she’d bring an elegance and grace to it. She was surprised that I’d asked her but came, insisting she’d read at most a few words as part of one of the choral pieces but that she preferred to work backstage. She ended up taking on one of the longer monologues, speaking with a quiet passion and helping me stage it so that it was a very powerful, moving piece. Her mustering the courage to perform was a major step. She said she’d tried many times to read or speak to an audience, and each time an attack of anxiety had silenced her. Still, she was there on stage last night. She didn’t fall apart. Her voice didn’t quake. And her gentle husband was enormously proud.”
In the weeks after the production, cast members stopped me on the street or e-mailed to tell me of the people who had approached them in the grocery store or the line in the Post Office, to tell them how wonderful they were and, often, to tell them their own vagina stories. They were the heroines in this small story, the women who were willing to stand up on stage, in front of a packed house, and speak honestly about experiences that for most women are outside their comfort zone, even with friends.
It was telling their own stories to each other that gave the untrained cast the strength and freedom to deliver the monologues as if they were personal experiences. What I had hoped would happen did: “What I wanted was for the women to become part of a whole, for their participation to be a story in itself, for them to find in the words they were reading some reflection of their own experience. I wasn’t sure that would make good theater, but it did.”
Cathryn Wellner, 2010