Eve Ensler wants you to listen to your vagina. If you don’t have one, perk up your ears and try eavesdropping because vaginas have an awful lot to say these days. Though it would be hard to miss the meteoric impact of Ensler’s play “The Vagina Monologues” or her “V-World” crusade, there’s still plenty of room for this Obie Award-winning playwright to continue sculpting a femme-friendly world. In less than five years, Ensler’s monologues concerning the untold stories of varying vaginas have wrangled a flock of celebrities, raised almost $20 million to stop violence against women, and been referenced in everything from “The Simpsons” to “Sex and the City.” In the last year, 1,058 performances of “The Vagina Monologues” took place across the globe. The play has appeared in 40 countries and in 35 languages, boasting that an estimated 2 million people have screamed the word “cunt!” while attending the show. Before her recent lecture at UCSB, Ensler took a break from giving voices to women (and genitalia) across the globe to speak to Artsweek about what helped give the megaphone to the little voice downtown.
Artsweek: What have you been working on lately? What are you speaking about on this tour?
Eve Ensler: We just finished a tour around the world – the V-World tour – where we’ve gone to all these different and amazing V-Day events across the globe. I’m looking at this emerging movement that I’ve been seeing with women all around the world to end violence against women. But really a movement that’s happening in spite of a much more war-driven [sentiment] that’s not about dialogue or considering the future. I’m talking about Bush primarily. I’ve had the privilege in the last three years and particularly in the last six months to see this, what I like to call “V-World.” It’s a completely different paradigm that has to do with ending and transforming violence. It has to do with understanding that if people are fed and have education and are treated well, it diminishes violence.
In a nutshell, can you describe the birth of “The Vagina Monologues”?
It began with a conversation I had with a friend about menopause and she said some things about her vagina that really surprised me. So, I just started asking privately, “What do you think about your vagina?” and what every woman told me was more surprising than the next. I started writing these things down and before I knew it, I wrote one monologue based on the story of a woman who really moved me. Then, this whole thing just happened, and it’s been so unexpected. I always say this, but I feel like I have been serving this huge thing that’s much bigger than myself, and it’s been such a huge, huge privilege to be doing this incredible work.
How did you pick the stories for your monologues?
First they were from friends and then, when I started perform the show, I would put a sheet up at every performance so women could sign up if they wanted to be interviewed. After every show there’d just be a list of women who volunteered to share their stories.
How did the monologues eventually roll into V-Day?
It started off downtown [NYC] in a little theater, won an Obie, and then I went around the world performing it in all these little, grassroots venues. Everywhere I went, people would literally line up after every performance to talk to me about how they’d been abused, beaten, battered, damaged or hurt in some fundamental way and I was really, really shocked. I was going to stop performing “The Vagina Monologues” because I felt so irresponsible knowing all this information and not doing anything about it. In ’97 we got a whole group of women together and came up with this idea of “V-Day,” which is Vagina Day, Valentine’s Day and Victory Over Violence Day. We asked all these great actors to perform and they all said “yes.” It was this great miracle, the first vagina miracle. The initial performance was really successful, but what was more important was that it really launched this energy, this feeling that we were onto something so positive and so powerful. I really believe we’re in the midst of creating a vagina revolution. It’s incredibly thrilling and daunting.
Do you feel the strong embrace of the college community with “The Vagina Monologues”?
The college campaign moves me deeply. When young women change, the whole world will change. Young women are the future. Just to see the changes on college campuses: that “vagina” is a word young women say, that they feel good about their vaginas, that they know how they work, that they know they have agency and rights; they think about it, are bold about it, and joyous. It’s fantastic.
Were you always comfortable with using the word “vagina”?
No! Not at all! When I started doing this, I couldn’t believe I was doing it, myself. I started to perform it and I was utterly terrified. I said to myself, “What am I doing?” I’d be getting into the moans and thinking, “Why am I doing this?” No, it was all very new to me as well.
How have you perceived the response to “The Vagina Monologues” from men?
From the men that have seen it, it’s fantastic. They completely get it and are completely into it. I always say to women, “if you want to meet a good man, go to ‘The Vagina Monologues.'” I think men learn to be better lovers, better partners and ask really good questions. A lot of guys at college campuses have asked me what to do with girlfriends that have been raped: How to be supportive? How to nurture them? How to be tender with them so they like sex again. I’ve been so moved by men since I started doing “The Vagina Monologues.” It’s kind of restored my faith in them.
What future projects do you have lined up?
We’re about to launch this documentary directed by Abby Epstein that follows the V-World movement. It takes place in all of these different countries and shows how the movement has impacted people far and wide. I’m also working on a new piece called “The Good Body,” which is all about women’s bodies around the world. It’ll be the same format as “The Vagina Monologues,” but more personal in a way. Along with these other women, it’s also my story and my own relationship to my own belly; what it means to not have a totally flat belly and that whole journey. Also, just what the body means and how women mutilate and change and hide and bury their bodies in order to fit in with their particular culture. Then, I’m also working on a whole new series of monologues about teenage girls.
Is there a particular performance of “The Vagina Monologues” that stands out in your mind?
I saw a group of young girls perform it in Bosnia, and seeing them do “My Vagina Is My Village” in a place that was destroyed by the Bosnian war was pretty shocking and amazing.
Lastly, the vagina gets an awful lot of attention in all this. Where’s the clitoris’ spotlight?
Oh, the clitoris is everything. We’ve added clitoris facts to the book [The Vagina Monologues] and offer a workshop called “My Vagina” where they help you find your clitoris. Yes, it’s all about the clitoris.