By Miranda Stephenson
The Vagina Monologues is a play by V, formerly known as Eve Ensler, which takes the form of a series of monologues and choral pieces. It is based on a series of interviews conducted by V in the 1990s, where she talked with 200 women about their views on topics such as the body, identity, community, sex, and sexuality. The Cambridge charity production will be performed on the 14th February at Clare Cellars. You can buy tickets here.
The following interview was conducted by Girl Talk’s Miranda Stephenson, in conversation with the director of the Cambridge production of The Vagina Monologues, Anna Piper-Thompson, and her assistant directors, Katie Burge and Georgia Greig. All views expressed are those of the interviewees.
CN: rape, sex, swearing
Miranda: So I thought to start off with, could you talk a little bit about the background to the Vagina Monologues and why you’re excited to stage it?
Anna: For me, the idea of this production started when I first read the play when I was about 13 when my drama teacher gave it to me. It had a really profound effect on me and my life and my relationship with my body, and there were experiences vocalised in the play that I couldn’t vocalise for myself. It was just a monumentally important thing to me. And then I started doing a paper on tragedy here last term, and I reread the plays for the sake of that paper, and I was like, this needs to be a thing. I need to do a production of this. And I thought it would be good to make it more Cambridge based by introducing some new writing to it, so it could relate to students a bit more. I knew a lot of people here would feel spoken to with the monologues.
Katie: Yeah, I also read it a few years ago, during a sticky time and, just, yeah, it felt like a breath of fresh air. I like the way it’s structured, how it’s just a series of voices and how it showcases so many different perspectives – and there are high points, there are low points, it makes you laugh. There are moments that really make you reflect and experiences you can relate to and experiences that also feel so alien. I think it’s really encompassing and it’s not trying to tell you how to feel. It’s not meant to be one specific thing. That’s what’s so nice about it. That’s what’s also so nice about including new writing in it. The new writing really grounds it in place and it’s not this sort of foreign object. You can work with the Monologues, they’re malleable.
Miranda: Is the new writing in the style of the original monologues? How do the different pieces work together?
Anna: Well, I like that unintentionally, probably, the new writing speaks to other pieces that were already present. Cunts Birth More Than Babies, an original piece, speaks to the piece on pregnancy that’s already in there, I Was There In the Room, and also I Was 12 And My Mother Slapped Me, which is about the first time you get a period, how you learn about periods and what it actually feels like. So, yeah, I really like that they respond so well to each other.
I mean, one of the writers explained to me that their piece was a response to the title as a transgender woman, and what that title meant to them. I think it was a really important addition to the play because in the past, it’s been very limited to a very particular idea of womanhood.
Miranda: Yeah, I wanted to ask about that. How are you addressing the parts of the play that some people might feel are potentially exclusionary or reductive? For example, the title?
Anna: Well, from the very beginning, I wanted to make clear that we did not equate vaginas with womanhood. I wanted to keep the title because I felt that people who knew the Monologues would come and see the show, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that vaginas equal women. As a queer person myself, it was really, really important to me that that came across. I was very clear that you didn’t have to be a woman to be a part of the production either. I really wanted to make sure that everyone who wanted to be involved could be involved, because feminism isn’t just for women, you know?
Georgia: I one hundred percent agree, because it’s not like the title’s defining the pieces. It’s kind of like the pieces are in dialogue with and debating the title. So like you were saying, you stressed that you wanted people who don’t necessarily identify as women to be part of the production, because they can still engage in the themes that the whole body of work represents. I think that’s something fantastic.
Anna: Yeah. And I mean, we’ve also changed some parts of some of the monologues to be more reflective of current ideals.
“The Monologues were never intended to be this static thing you’re not allowed to touch or change.”
Miranda: How have you changed them?
Anna: So there’s one which is called The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy, and we changed it because there was an element of it equating women with vaginas. It says something like, “I love women. I love vaginas. I do not see them as separate things.” And I was like, mm, don’t like that, and the performer also brought up to me that they didn’t like that either. So we changed it to be, “I love vaginas. And I love people who have them. Take, for example, women; I love women”. So we have changed quite a few lines. And then some of the others, we’ve changed for, not that reason, but just to make them more relatable.
So for example, again in The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy, there’s a reference to a Texaco gas station in the middle of somewhere in America, and we changed it to a Shell petrol station in, like, a town in the UK. We really wanted to make sure it felt relatable, because I think that’s a really important part of the show – that the audience feels spoken to and feels like they understand and are a part of this conversation. Because that’s really what it is. It’s a conversation starter, but it’s also a way to bring ideas or knowledge to people or ways of responding to your relationship with your own body or your relationship with your loved ones, your relationship with everyone around you.
Katie: It’s so cool, because it feels like V, the original writer, never intended the Monologues to be this static thing you’re not allowed to touch or change in any way. It’s just constantly evolving.
Miranda: Do the monologues ‘officially’ evolve? Or is it more a case of each individual performance including their own new writing and edits?
Anna: They also do evolve themselves; there’s a new monologue added every couple of years when a big political thing happens. We don’t have all of those in our show because we were time-limited, and they’re not necessarily part of the whole thing, but we did include some of them. So for example, Say It has been included, which is a testimony of Japan’s comfort women. That was a newer monologue that was added. We also included They Tried To Beat the Girl Out Of My Boy, which was another newer addition that V made, which is about violence against transgender women.
“Dialogue is so important for this production.”
Miranda: And how much creative freedom have you had when ordering and structuring the monologues? What has the process been for that?
Anna: Certainly you can play with them, because originally they were performed by one woman, and so we have obviously had to change that. So for example, in the original there’s a series of questions and then video fragments from interviews, because all the monologues are based on original interviews that V did. And so instead of having that series of questions, we’ve kind of broken them up and put them around the monologues, to create more texture in the performance.
Georgia: I guess it’s all about the dynamics of how it all works together, because like we were saying, it’s a dialogue and discussion. So sometimes if it’s too geared towards one theme, it doesn’t feel so varied. And that’s why we’ve had to take some of the original monologues out to balance the themes.
Anna: Even the monologues that we’ve kept, we’ve moved them around so that they can have conversations with each other, so you’re not overwhelmed with one emotion for too long. You get to have that relief, but also in a respectful way. For example, I didn’t want a really deep monologue to be followed by a purely hilarious one. There are stepping stones between them to create that nice texture.
Miranda: And was there any monologue in particular that was especially difficult to direct?
Anna: Yeah. Well, before we answer that question, I should say that my directorial approach was that I really wanted to allow both Georgia and Katie to be able to take monologues on by themselves and be in charge of them. I wanted that intimacy of, like, one director and one actor. I didn’t want us to interject over each other or anything. And I never wanted to be the person that was like, “No, what I say goes!”. I wanted to make sure it was a collective experience.
“It’s a really encompassing play but it’s not trying to tell you how to feel.”
Georgia: The hardest one for me to direct was a student-written piece called I Dream by Evie Chandler, which is the piece that was written in response to the title, the Vagina Monologues. That was difficult because I myself am not a transgender woman, so I couldn’t really come to it and be like, “This is how I envision the piece. This is what you’re gonna do.” The process is supposed to be collaborative, but also, there’s a limit here to what I can bring. So really, for me, the focus of directing this piece was allowing Evie to tell me exactly what she wanted to do, whatever she felt comfortable with doing, what her mindset behind the piece was, and then focusing on language and tone and rhythm and body language. It was more direction in terms of performance rather than intention. I think that was difficult in the sense that I didn’t have as much control over that piece, but again, it was collaborative, and it was completely fine, because that’s the point of our production.
Katie: In my experience, there’s a piece called Over It. It’s all about being “over” rape culture, and it starts as a long list of scenarios and things that weigh on people’s minds every day. It feels quite inescapable. So, it was trying to turn that into something that’s not weighty and heavy, but more into something that becomes cathartic. It ends with this kind of rallying call to open up and start talking about these things. The piece should stay with you in a non-negative way, rather than weighing on you the way it weighs on the person speaking.
Anna: For me, I would say it was probably Crooked Braid. This is based on experiences of four women who experienced domestic violence, and topic-wise, it’s just a very emotional piece, because you know it’s the truth and you realise this is the actual reality of some people. The element of being respectful of the original people’s stories, but also feeling the emotion of it and having to deal with that while also trying to act and do justice to these stories… It’s a difficult thing to balance. Something that we’ve been very aware of, is that we want the welfare of the crew to be of primary importance.
Katie: There’s a lot of things here which the actors have never spoken about, and which I, for example, haven’t necessarily ever spoken about, and you have to be conscious of that.
Miranda: And The Vagina Monologues is fundamentally about speaking about things which have been deemed too taboo to speak about before. Do you think the word “vagina” is still taboo in 2023?
Georgia: For me, it depends on context. Because I would love to be like, “vagina”. Like, it’s a word. But everyone has a different experience with that word. For some people, that’s a really difficult word to say or to hear. Because of personal experience, the ideas associated with vagina might be quite difficult for them. Or some people perhaps, again, haven’t really spoken about it, don’t really think about it, and so to hear it so openly is a bit jarring. So I think there’s still an element of demystifying “vagina” and taking away the theoretical attachments to it.
Anna: Yes. I mean, based on the reaction that I got from people when I first said I’m doing this play, they were like, “Oh…”. You know, even if you don’t consciously think about it in everyday life, as soon as you say, “I’m doing the Vagina Monologues,” there is a very intense reaction from a lot of people. Sometimes that’s like an, “Oh yes, that’s great!”, but then that reaction is still attached to the sense of the word “vagina” needing to be something. And sometimes the reaction is more conservative. I had people ask me, when I was designing the publicity poster, whether I can even put the word “vagina” on a poster. They were like, “Can you have that around town? There’ll be children.” And I’m like, “Oh, but it’s a very normal word.”
Certainly, I think there’s still a way to go with making vagina just a normal word. And the play also asks the question whether people use the word “vagina” in sexual activity as well. No, they don’t, not really. So, there’s lots of different perspectives in the play that I think are still relevant today about the use of the word “vagina”. But I think also from doing the production and the responses I’ve had, there is definitely still some sort of… energy around that word. Where on one side, people take it as a rallying cry, and the other side is more conservative about it.
Miranda: And is the play for both of those people?
Anna: I think so. I think the play is for the people who will feel empowered by it. But I also think it’s to make a statement. These are stories that must be listened to. And I think if people who don’t believe in or don’t understand or know about these things can hear them, if our production has the possibility of changing their opinions or teaching them something, then that’s so incredibly important. I mean, I’ve had conversations with people about the fact that I’m putting it on and they’re like, “Oh, I’d never really thought about that”. Or they’ll do more research into it. I have a friend who went away and watched a documentary about Japan’s comfort women when I told them about that monologue. Certainly, it can be a point of conversation for all people. I think for the group that are like, rallying, it is much more of an empowering experience to go and see the show. And they feel very much a part of the production, I think. Whereas on the other side, it’s more of a learning curve.
Georgia: Theatre is a very good way of bringing these issues into discussion. If I go to see a movie or go to the theatre with a friend, we leave the theatre and we ask each other, “What did you think about that? What was your favourite monologue?”. Dialogue is so important for this production.
Miranda: Great. And – this is my last proper question – I wondered if you could say a little bit about the charities your ticket sales will be going to?
Anna: Yes, absolutely. We’re performing The Vagina Monologues as part of the V-Day movement, which is a project where specifically a lot of American colleges will put on productions of The Vagina Monologues on V-Day. And when I say V-Day, it’s a reclaiming of Valentine’s Day, and “V” stands for vagina rather than “Valentine’s”. And all the tickets sold will go to the V-Day campaign, which gives those donations to different grassroots charities, and those change every year. This year, the donations will go to VOICES, the Beyond Incarceration Project, One Billion Rising and City of Joy.
From my understanding, there hasn’t been a V-Day production of the Vagina Monologues for a very long time in Cambridge. They’ve done productions with the Vagina Monologues, but they’ve done them as runs in Corpus or the ADC, and I was really, really adamant that the purpose of this was not for theatre. It was theatre for charity – on V-Day.
Miranda: Alright. That’s it then. Anything more to add?
Katie: Watch the show! Donate. Bring anyone. Bring no one.
Anna: If you don’t have a Valentine’s date, come along. If you do, come along. Be involved in some capacity even if you can’t see the show – think about the purpose of the play! Have conversations with people. You don’t necessarily have to come and see it, but look into the movement, read the play! It’s been such a wonderful environment to be in, working on this, and I cannot wait for that to be on the stage and the audience to be a part of that as well.
Image credits: Katie Isaacs
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