‘Vagina Monologues’ confronts taboo issues of sexuality

Posted on 29 February 2012

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By Lauren Sarner, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Wednesday, February 29, 2012

At an institution that began as all-male and whose social scene is still largely dominated by fraternities, almost 60 female Dartmouth students are bringing the taboo discussion of vaginas into the spotlight in “The Vagina Monologues” beginning tonight. The performance, being staged for the 12th consecutive year at Dartmouth, is the culminating event of the annual V-Week, which centers on awareness of sexual violence and female sexuality.

“The Vagina Monologues” was originally written by playwright and activist Eve Ensler in 1996 and was based on interviews with hundreds of women on all topics relating to female anatomy. Dartmouth’s staging includes Ensler’s original monologues, but student submissions have also been incorporated into the play since 2011, according to director Mia Jessup ’12, who also included recordings of cast members discussing their bodies beginning in this year’s production.

“If you don’t feel comfortable articulating thoughts about that part of the body, it gets so much harder to talk about issues concerning it like sexuality, like assault,” Jessup said.


Hikaru Yamagishi ’12, who organized V-Week, said sexual violence and the failures to “address egregious offenses against woomen’s bodies” remain prevalent because of people’s discomfort with the topic. Jessup also said that comfort with the female body, and particularly with the word “vagina,” is important in confronting conversations about assault and rape. The monologues, however, are not solely about assault and rape. Joan Leslie ’12 will share her own monologue, which discusses her becoming more comfortable with expressing her femininity.

“I grew up with my mind set of it as something we don’t talk about,” Leslie said. “When I initially wrote it, I wasn’t sure how it would be received.”

She added that the encouragement she has received during rehearsals has been reassuring.

“I was very conscious of my decision not to make my [monologue] anonymous,” she said. “This is something I want to share with the rest of campus so that they can reach this point too — grow to express themselves.”

Because these topics are taboo — Leslie describes vaginas as “the Voldemort of our bodies” — women need confidence and support during rehearsals, Jessup said. She explained that the monologues differ from ordinary theater productions in that acting is not the sole focus. The play prompts audience members to consider what their own monologue would be, according to Jessup. Dani Levin ’12 — who is performing the concluding piece in “The Vagina Monologues,” an editorial written by Ensler for The Huffington Post — reiterated the role of “The Vagina Monologues” as initiating personal reflection among both cast and audience members.

In addition to acting, each rehearsal involves both silly and serious cast-bonding exercises, including sharing personal stories and playing games involving perceptions of the female experience, according to cast member Julia Schneider ’12. Since acting is not the sole focus, the monologues involve girls from all corners of campus life. Some have personally experienced sexual assault, some have friends who have been affected and others have never been involved in V-Week until auditioning this year on a whim, Schneider said.

“It’s been an incredible experience so far,” Sarah Wildes ’13, who is participating in the monologues for the first time this year, said. “I’ve met so many awesome women I’d never even heard of or met before.”

In each rehearsal, “vagina” is said around 200 times, according to Wildes.

“It desensitizes you to the word, in a good way,” she said.

Each year, “The Vagina Monologues” focuses on a different spotlight monologue. This year, the spotlight is the sexual abuse that occurs in Haitian refugee camps. Sexual violence, however, is an uncomfortable topic for many to confront because of its personal nature, Yamagishi said.

“In war, it’s not embarrassing to say your arm was cut off, but rape involves private parts,” she said. “It’s emotionally scarring and personally embarrassing — no one wants to be publicized like that.”

Sarah Jewett ’12, who is performing a monologue, said that “The Vagina Monologues” is an opportunity not only to raise awareness but also to offer a platform for a public discussion of a topic usually kept quiet.

“I think sexual assault is one of the worst, haziest, most confusing issues,” Jewett said. “I think a lot of people here are affected by it. ‘The Vagina Monologues’ are good about making people aware.”

Jewett will perform the monologue “Reclaiming Cunt,” which requires her to simulate an orgasm onstage.

“I have to pick the place I rehearse strategically,” Jewett said. “Rehearsing in my house makes my male housemate slightly uncomfortable.”

Levin emphasized that “The Vagina Monologues” does not just aim to raise awareness or increase comfort with the topic but serves as entertainment, as well.

“People politicize it and only talk about the angry aspects of it, but I have also never laughed so hard at a performance,” Levin said. “We want people to laugh. It’s supposed to touch every emotion — you will laugh, you will weep and you will get pissed the f*ck off.”

While praising her monologue for bringing issues of sexuality to the surface, Jewett acknowledged that the topics covered may still be uncomfortable for many audience members.

“Any sort of boisterous opinion can be freaky to people who don’t feel the same way,” she said.

Although it is very female-focused and features an all-female cast, the monologues are not meant to aliente men in the audience, but simply to convey the female experience and help them understand, according to cast member Eliana Piper ’14.

“I think it’s not a woman issue play, but people issue,” she said.

It might make male audience members uncomfortable or squirm, but everything said in the monologues is something that needs to be said, according to Schneider.

“The point isn’t to alienate or victimize them,” Wildes said. “Men should feel included and on the same side.”

Jessup said, however, that discomfort is not necessarily bad a thing, especially in art.

“If seeing it discussed onstage makes you uncomfortable, then we should get to the point where the issue doesn’t need to be discussed onstage,” she said.

“The Vagina Monologues” will be performed in Moore Theater at the Hopkins Center tonight and on March 1 at 7 p.m. A reception entitled “Vulvapolooza” will follow at the Top of the Hop. The reception will feature various booths selling items, and proceeds will benefit the Upper Valley organization WISE , a crisis line available to victims and survivors of domestic and sexual violence, according to the event’s co-chair Isabel Murray ’12.

“Come and engage and listen, and when you’re uncomfortable, acknowledge that to yourself and work past it because that’s how people learn and grow,” Levin said.

http://thedartmouth.com/2012/02/29/arts/vagina