Photo by Joan Marcus
“When I was a radical militant feminist, I wanted to be right more than I wanted to win,” admits award-winning playwright Eve Ensler to the 100-odd college-age women (and a sprinkling of men and university instructors) who are attending an October “V-Day” workshop at Cal State Long Beach. According to the hugely successful author of The Vagina Monologues, a post–September 11 epiphany has caused her to rethink her responses to violence — part of the reason why she is in Long Beach, again teaching people how to produce her play so as to benefit organizations dedicated to ending violence against women.
Now in its fourth year, the V-Day campaign raises awareness about violence against women through near-simultaneous worldwide performances of The Vagina Monologues. On or around Valentine’s Day, Ensler’s play is performed in different cities, with all proceeds donated to organizations working to end rape, battery, incest, female genital mutilation and sexual slavery. This year some of the money will be donated to organizations assisting Afghan women.
At Long Beach, Ensler is meeting with participants of the V-Day College Campaign, a part of the larger V-Day movement. Although the purpose of the workshop may appear dictatorial — a playwright issuing instructions on how her play should be produced — Ensler’s message is about self-sufficiency. And who better to explain the hurdles of producing a controversial play than the person who wrote it?
Early productions of Ensler’s 1996 play, which has now run for nearly a year at the Canon Theater in Beverly Hills, were dogged by censorship. When the play was about to open in Albany, New York, the production team was informed that the local Hearst newspaper refused to run ads with the word “vagina” (this despite the fact that Patty Hearst was set to star in the play). At the Long Beach workshop, Ensler discusses potential hurdles to successful college productions, including censorship, uncooperative university administrators, and patrons who faint during the Bosnian-rape-victim monologue.
She goes on to field questions from the audience, and her approach underscores her message of empowerment: She encourages last year’s participants to answer questions posed by new V-Day recruits. In another workshop segment, she leads the participants — a youngish mix, many of whom are wearing spaghetti-strap V-Day tank tops, yoga pants and rave tennis shoes — through a series of highly engaging acting and directing exercises. At the outset, participants are asked to go around the room telling the group why they’re participating in V-Day. One says, “I’m participating in V-Day because I’m tired of frat boys writing ‘Nice Pussy’ on the white board outside my dorm room when I put up a picture of a cat.” Later, participants break into groups of 20 to act out concepts like “angry vagina” as ensemble pieces. In another segment, Ensler demonstrates how to give effective stage directions to actors.
Between exercises, Ensler shares anecdotes, several of which touch on the violence of September 11 and its aftermath. One comes from the child of her stepson, actor Dylan McDermott. Ensler — who, clad entirely in black, resembles a dominatrix more than she does a grandmother — says her 5-year-old granddaughter has spoken of a new tactic for dealing with playground skirmishes: “When the boys act out of control, start kissing.” Ensler, echoing that spirit, tells the workshop participants to meet on-campus hostility with tolerance and understanding — she argues that doors (and minds) will unlock when enemies are greeted with compassion rather than enmity.
For Ensler, the enemy includes the Taliban and other fundamentalists, local and foreign-born, who seek to oppress women. Explaining why some of the V-Day proceeds will be donated to organizations helping Afghan women, Ensler describes being smuggled into Afghanistan to meet with the women of RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. Not only did Ensler see underground schools where women are taught to read and write, she also visited a clandestine ice cream parlor. For the Long Beach crowd, she pantomimes a woman lifting her burka to eat ice cream, then says, “I don’t want to live in a world where women are not allowed to eat ice cream.”