Read about V TO THE TENTH in “The Big V-easy”
Originally published in:
New Orleans Times-Picayune
The Big 'V'-easy
'Vagina Monologues' playwright Eve Ensler plans a star-studded V-Day 10th anniversary performance here in April
When playwright Eve Ensler first performed "The Vagina Monologues" in 1996 at a small downtown New York performing space called The HERE Theater, "There were maybe 50 people in the audience," she said.
On April 12, "The Vagina Monologues," which has become a worldwide phenomenon, launching the V-Day project to end violence against women, will play the 17,000-seat New Orleans Arena with a cast scheduled to include Jane Fonda, Glenn Close, Jennifer Hudson, Ellen DeGeneres, Charmaine Neville, Salma Hayek, Rosario Dawson, Ashley Judd, Julia Stiles, Marisa Tomei and Oprah Winfrey, for whom Ensler is writing a new monologue.
April 11 and 12 will find the Louisiana Superdome interior turned into a pink and red vagina -- "with a big vagina entrance," Ensler said -- as a setting for performance events, parties, parades, workshops, wellness and education programs, speakers, even spa treatments, which will be free to residents of New Orleans and the Gulf South. (Men are excluded only from the spa.)
For those two days, New Orleans will be "the Vagina Capital of America," Ensler said. "We're coming here to say that we should celebrate New Orleans, cherish it, protect it, just as we do our vaginas, and make sure it goes on and on."
Ensler penned "The Vagina Monologues," culled from interviews with more than 200 women, at a time when the word vagina was rarely used except in a medical context. In just 11 years -- directly as a result of her play -- the word is in common usage, in headline type, prompting new euphemisms -- such as Winfrey's "Va-jay-jay" -- to join the parade of nicknames, both delightful and derogatory, that Ensler collected in her play.
"Naming is about existing. Naming things says they exist," she said, although she made a face when told of "Talk Soup's" recent "Vaginapocalypse."
By turning her reportage into art with stories both humorous and harrowing, laughter existing side-by-side with first-person accounts of sexual mutilation, torture and atrocity, Ensler created powerful theater that has been performed in 45 languages, and a movement that has taken on a life of its own. There are V-Day activists in 119 countries, Ensler said.
The New Orleans event -- "V to the 10th" -- marks the 10th anniversary of the V-Day Project and will be the culmination of thousands of worldwide productions of the play, as is the case every February and March, and Ensler's own 20-city U.S. tour. A 10th anniversary edition of "The Vagina Monologues" will be released along with the paperback edition of Ensler's book "Insecure at Last."
To date, performances of the play have raised more than $50 million for local anti-violence groups in more than 120 countries. V-Day now raises "more money than any group in the world to stop violence against women," Ensler has written, "four to six million every year, which is the cost of 10 minutes of the war in Iraq."
Visiting New Orleans this week with several members of her V-Day team, Ensler said she expects the April events to attract attendance "between 30,000 and 40,000.
"Every year, we have our major V-Day event in a different city, focusing on women's problems in that city," Ensler said. "There are so many reasons to have it in New Orleans, from the vanishing wetlands to the man-made levee failures that flooded the city to the abandonment and complete neglect of human beings. Violence against women was committed physically, economically and environmentally. And the women of New Orleans, the 'Katrina Warriors,' totally understand that.
"In New Orleans, Katrina exposed what was going on here, the lack of resources, the lack of care for its poor in general and its women in particular. And we are finally seeing people standing up and saying 'No' to this, to the destruction and desecration of a city and its people. Our government is so concerned with 'securing the world,' they have forgotten to protect their own people. They have made the people here profoundly unsafe.
"As a result of disaster, I think we are seeing a profound change happening in New Orleans, a shift in perception, and we want to continue shining a spotlight on that."
There will also be a disbursement of money to local, sustainable, long-term projects for women in the arts and business.
In addition to the all-star staging of "The Vagina Monologues," Ensler has nurtured and served as dramaturge to a local production that will be featured in the Superdome April 11. Called "Swimming Upstream," it tells the storm stories of local women.
"We came down here several months after the storm and saw women who were already addressing problems in a variety of ways," Ensler said. "Carole Bebelle, (the director) of the Ashe Cultural Arts Center, had gotten a group of women active in the cultural community together, who had already started meeting to talk about their feelings in relation to the storm. Then they started writing about them, from three perspectives: before the storm, during the storm and after the storm."
Included in this group are Carol Sloane, Troi Bechet ("who has written some wonderful songs," Ensler said), Karen Kaia-Livers, Carol Sutton, Adella Gautier, Kathy Randels, Dollie Rivas, Anne-Liese Juge-Fox, Tommye Myrick and Dina Roubeze.
Just last week, Kenny Leon -- who directed August Wilson's final play, "Radio Golf," on Broadway, was long associated with the Alliance Theater Company in Atlanta and now has his own group, The True Colors Theater Company in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. -- came to a reading of a first draft of the work, assembled by Ensler.
Leon will direct "Swimming Upstream" here and the plan is to take it beyond New Orleans. Several national theater artists also may be involved.
"The intention," Bebelle said, "is to have the voices of New Orleans women heard and to create a work that will last, that will tour, that will bring continuing attention to what we have faced and are still facing here.
"The fact is that when anything like this happens, women have the harder struggle. They are the ones who hold up the men, the children and elders of the family. With Katrina, it was convincing their families that they were going to make it, to keep going until we could get to a place where we could catch our breath and see the situation more clearly.
"We have had the time now to ruminate and tell this complex story with perspective. Theater allows you to do this. This is no sound bite. It has been a year in the making. We have created exciting theater, with the help of two theatrical dynamos -- Eve and now Kenny Leon.
"The thing I like about it," Carol Sutton said, "is that it is an uplifting, inspiring piece, with a lot of humor in it."
"It's still a work in progress," said Dollie Rivas, "but we were encouraged to let everything out."
Troi Bechet, the actress-singer, has written four songs and one, "Going Back Home," allowed her to unleash a lot of feelings she said she hadn't allowed herself to express since the storm. "It's about not letting tragedy wash away all the things that our city means to us," she said, "what makes this home. It speaks to what we love about the city and about the strength and fortitude we need to move forward.
"All of us involved in 'Swimming Upstream' feel a need and a responsibility to help bring this city back," Bechet said. "And at the first reading of the play, you could feel that spirit embodied in everyone in the room. We, as creators of music, art and theater, need to let the world know what this city really is. Our story needs to continue to be told, because it's going to take years to recover."
"What Eve told us was, 'Write what's true,' " said Anne-Liese Juge Fox. "She has a way of creating an atmosphere of intimacy immediately. And with so many different kinds of women contributing, you meet people you might otherwise never have met, hear stories you wouldn't otherwise have heard. And Eve knows that there's a power in this."
"Even at this stage, I can see that 'Swimming Upstream' is going to be beautiful," Ensler said. "And it's happened the way all this work has happened, with women talking and sharing with each other at a grass-roots level."
Ensler's work involves constant travel and 14-hour work days, "eight to 10 of those hours on V-Day," she said. Does it allow her a personal life?
"My love is my work," she said, "and my work is empowering women. My life is taken. But I have people I love and who love me in different parts of the world. (Among them is stepson Dylan McDermott and her two grandchildren.)
"I'm on the road 90 percent of the time and wherever I am, I feel I'm home. I can't tell you how fantastic, how freeing this is.
"The more I do this work, the less of me there is and the better I feel. By taking my life, it has given me a life.
"If you put something out there, something will come back."
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CURTAIN LINES: "Saying the word I was not supposed to say is the thing that gave me a voice in the world."
-- Eve Ensler, in her introduction to the 10th anniversary edition of "The Vagina Monologues."
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V-DAY TO THE TENTH
WHAT: The Tenth Anniversary of V-Day, celebrating the worldwide activist movement to end violence against women.
WHEN: April 11-12 at the Superdome, featuring performance events including the locally created theater piece "Swimming Upstream"; speakers; economic, education, empowerment and wellness workshops (details to be announced in January). An all-star production of "The Vagina Monologues" will be April 12 at 7:30 p.m. at the New Orleans Arena; tickets $25-$1,000.
TICKETS: Now available at www.vday.org/tickets. Go to Ticketmaster link.
The general V-Day link is vday.org.