"'Vagina.' Doesn't matter how many times you say it, it never sounds like a word you want to say." That's Eve Ensler in the prologue to her immensely popular play "The Vagina Monologues," which began as a one-woman show performed by Ensler off-off-Broadway four years ago. The play is currently in production off-Broadway, with rotating three-woman casts. Alanis Morissette, Julie Kavner and Marlo Thomas were recent performers; Claire Danes is among those onstage now.
The play condenses 200 interviews Ensler conducted with women about their vaginas into a series of character-driven monologues. The research process transformed Ensler from a woman who hesitated to say the word "vagina" to a performer who said it 128 times per show. Ensler has taken advantage of the play's success, using it as a political vehicle and in fund-raisers for international women's charities. "V-Day" benefits, staged by celebrity actors on Feb. 14 for the last three years, have routinely sold out; one show in Los Angeles alone raised approximately $250,000. Meanwhile, college students across the country are eagerly staging the show, and HBO will tape Ensler performing it in August.
I recently met Ensler for breakfast at City Bakery in New York, days before she left on a four-month worldwide trip to research her next project. I found her confident and hugely enthusiastic, amazed and overjoyed about recent self-discoveries -- physical and emotional. "Through the course of doing the show," Ensler said at one point in our interview, "I feel like I've reentered my vagina. And that has completely changed my life."
The New York Times said that many people think of you as "the Messiah heralding the second wave of feminism."
[Laughing] Yes. I call myself "messiah" every day, and I'm making everyone refer to me as that.
How do you feel, hearing that kind of thing?
I try not to think about what people think of me. You can't, because then you get hung up in all the people who love, you, and you've also got all the people who hate you, because of what you're doing. What I feel excited about is the work. And I feel that with "Vagina Monologues" and V-Day, we are, in fact, creating a huge movement. And if I have contributed to that in any small way, it is my deepest privilege and honor.
I really want to help stop violence toward women. I feel I'm here to do that, to work on making that happen. I think that anytime you get clear about what your mission is or what your focus wants to be, things start to come together in your life. Lack of clarity -- which I think plagues women particularly, so much of our lives -- to me is very connected to lack of desire. We don't get to understand what our desires are. Doing "The Vagina Monologues" was, for me, reconnecting to my desire, allowing myself to know what I wanted. That just made me so happy. And then to get to actually do it -- to have the clarity, to know my desire and then to get to manifest it -- you know, life doesn't get better.
Humor feels very important in the show. What role do you think it plays?
When people are laughing, they process things in ways they're not conscious of. And a lot of times, places where they're closed up, where they have a limited way of thinking, open up. So I really believe in laughter. There is enormous community that happens around it. When I was younger, I was more didactic and more polemical. I was insecure, and I didn't really believe that my message would come through. And now, after writing for a long time, I have more of a security that what I'm saying will be heard, and I don't have to beat people over the head with it.
When did you feel like you wanted to create "The Vagina Monologues"? Was there any sort of an epiphany?
It was all very accidental. I just stumbled upon questions and started asking people casually, and before I knew it, I was down the vagina trail. I don't think I consciously set out to do this. I mean, who would have done that? It would have been such a weird thing to do. It was more that it took me. And I have to tell you, I feel the last five years I have been hostage, in a very good way, to this thing. When I did it off-Broadway for months and months, I really felt like my job was to keep my body in shape -- that it was a much bigger thing than me and that I just had to stay in shape, but it didn't really have a lot to do with me, ironically.
The intro to the show mentions the difficulty of saying "vagina." I had to laugh because, going to the theater, I had this very courtly, polite cabdriver. I told him where I was going, which theater, and he asked what was playing, and I couldn't tell him. I said it was a one-woman show, and he said, "Oh, really, it's called "One-Woman Show"? But I felt like I would horrify him if I said it, and I just couldn't.
[Nodding] At the beginning of this, it was like, "What am I doing?" But I don't have issues with vaginas anymore.
Has writing or doing the show changed how you feel about your body?
It's completely changed that. I think when I began doing the show, I was completely disengaged from my vagina, disconnected. I lived in my head. Now I feel right with myself. I'm in my body, and I really like it in there, and it's the motor of my life. You know, before, I was kind of living -- I was hanging onto the car door, and a lot of times it was throwing me off. And now I feel like I'm in the car, and it's my car, and I determine where it goes. And that's the best thing that's ever happened in my life. As I said to you at the beginning, I know what I desire. I don't feel apologetic. When you feel insecure, you either beg people to let you in or you demand to be let in. But when you are in your body, you just know that you're in. You don't ask permission, and you don't hurt people.
It's a long journey. You have to do a lot of work, particularly if you've been raped or violated, because the degree to which you are disassociated and leave yourself is profound, and it takes a long time to come back. But you can come back, and that's the good thing.
I think a lot of times, what we're told is that if we've been raped or violated, we'll never come back. Sex will never be good again; we'll never feel good again. I think that you can fully recover; you can totally get your body back; you can totally get your sexuality back. You just have to do work, and you have to go through fire. And then, when it's over, it's over, and you move on. But you have to make a decision, too, not to live as a victim anymore, and not to see yourself as a victim, and not to be treated as a victim. And that's a huge thing to give up. Huge.
That mind-set can take so many forms: anger, fear, guardedness.
Mm-hmm. And also, there are all of the people you've gotten to take care of you on some level or another because you are a victim. There's the fear of not being taken care of if you stop being a victim. You know what? People don't take care of you when you're not a victim. [Laughing] They don't. Things change. But that's OK. You take care of yourself.
I wonder if you'd like to address something I read [in Salon] recently. Camille Paglia called "The Vagina Monologues" "ravingly anti-male" and said it represents a "painfully outmoded brand of feminism." Any comment?
I'll be happy to respond to that. First of all, I don't think any brand of feminism is outmoded. I think the world is so desperate for feminism at this point, for the liberation of women, it's mad to even think about how deep that need is. There are a few other people who have said, too, that the play is anti-male. I don't really know what they mean. Is an examination of the condition of women anti-male?
I'm looking at the facts of rape and incest by men against women; I'm saying this is a serious issue that we need to deal with. If you want to call that "anti-man," that's one perception. I'm calling for an end to violence. I'm asking men and women to take responsibility for the eradication of women that's going on in the planet right now, the amount of battery, burning, shooting, suffocating and annihilating of women in every country in the world that is so out of control. If calling attention to it and if demanding an end to it is seen as anti-male, I don't know what to say.
I do know that the men I know who come to see "The Vagina Monologues" do not seem to think so. In fact, most men come up and say, "Thank you -- I had no idea; I knew nothing about vaginas; thank you for inviting me into this world." Also, I'd like to point out that there are many "Vagina Monologues" that treat men very lovingly -- and to say that I have never been attacked by a man, in the press, for being anti-male. So that's a fascinating thing. I believe that most men are embarrassed and ashamed of the amount of violence that's happening, and when it's talked about or dealt with, they feel relieved. In the college initiative all around the country, young men are deeply involved in productions of the show. And men have produced it everywhere I've been.
Your current director is a man.
My director's a man; my producer in New York is a man.
What's the college initiative?
In '98, we did it in 65 colleges, and in '99 it was 150. These are all kinds of schools -- some conservative, even Jesuit. Next year, we think it's going to be at between 250 and 300 colleges. Of all the things we're doing, this is one of the most exciting to me, because young women are being revolutionized and are standing up. And just the process of putting this on on their campuses -- producing it, directing it, publicizing it, rehearsing it -- is a political act.
Are you surprised by all of this?
[Nodding vigorously] The last years of my life have been a huge shock. I'm just beginning to get my bearings. I'm surprised at the widespread success of "The Vagina Monologues" -- completely surprised -- and I'm surprised at how it keeps expanding. You know, out of this run of "The Vagina Monologues," $10 out of every ticket goes to V-Day. So we can raise a lot of money -- I mean, a lot of money! The fact that it's become this politically activating piece of theater, it's just shocking -- that we're off-Broadway, that we're getting all these fabulous women to do it for the cause, that we can do more events for the cause. And, you know, I'm happy, I'm really happy, because it allows me to keep doing more work like this.
Tell me about V-Day.
Our mission with that is to create cultural events, mainly using my work, that will be a catalyst for energy to end violence. And we want to bring existing groups together, to unify them, so that they're more focused in their purpose. We have three paid consultants, who do the producing; besides that, everything is volunteer. And for V-Day 2001, we have booked Madison Square Garden for a huge event. So far Glenn Close has agreed, Jane Fonda, Alanis is going to do it, Melissa Etheridge, Joan Osborne. All the women who have ever performed "The Vagina Monologues" have been invited to come back as the Vulva Choir. Audra McDonald is singing. It's going to be truly fabulous -- that will be the evening. During the day, we're going to have an international symposium on all the groups in the world that work to stop violence toward women. And there'll be chats and videos and talk backs, so women can come all day long.
You're also working on some newer things. There's "Necessary Targets," a new play.
I wrote it during the Bosnian war. It's about Bosnians, the Bosnian refugees, but it's actually about two Americans who go to Bosnia, as so-called help, and in the process are radically transformed. It's had all these amazing, kind of star-studded readings, where we've raised a lot of money for Bosnian refugees. Meryl Streep did a reading on Broadway, and Glenn Close did a reading at the National Theater in Sarajevo, with a group of Bosnian actors, for 400 Bosnian refugees. So it's had this remarkable life. And now, finally, I'm one step away from it coming to New York. You know, things always take longer than you think they will. I really thought this play would be done about three years ago, but now is the right moment for it. I trust on some fundamental level that things find their way into the world at the right time and place, and you can't force them. If "Vagina Monologues" had happened a day earlier, it wouldn't have had the life it's had.
So the play is very dear to my heart. And then "Points of Reentry" is the new project that I'm starting, going around the world for four months. I'm interviewing women all around the world about their bodies -- how they mutilate, change, transform, hide their bodies in order to fit in with their particular culture.
Where will you be going?
Everywhere. I'm going to Rio, to L.A., to Moscow, to Afghanistan and Turkey, to Paris, to the Bahamas, to Nigeria, to South Africa, to India, to Thailand and to Tokyo! And then we'll spend a lot of time next year in the States.
And how did the Bosnian cause in particular end up striking you, being so dear to you?
It started with a photograph I saw on the cover of Newsday of six young girls who had just been returned from a rape camp in Bosnia. I couldn't believe there were rape camps in the middle of Europe in 1993. It's one of those things: You go, "What?!" So I just knew I had to go there, had to go and see what it was. There are certain events in history you have no protection from. They just come into you, and you have to do something about it or you'll go insane.
The beautiful thing is, at that point in your career, you were able to do what you wanted to do.
Of course it meant not doing a lot of other things that were commercial -- whatever. But, so what, you know? You make the decisions you make. It was an amazing opportunity, going there and being there, and staying for months in refugee camps with Bosnian refugees. It was very profound.
What are some things you're looking forward to, personally or otherwise?
Well, I'm looking forward to going around the world. I'm looking forward to spending more time with my granddaughter [the child of Dylan McDermott, Ensler's son through adoption]. I love that girl, love her, she's an angel. I'm looking forward to the HBO thing. I'm really looking forward to V-Day. And I'm looking forward mainly to the day when women aren't being raped or beaten. That's it. Then we can all relax a little.