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Wig Magazine: "The Vagina Monologues: Too Female-genitalia-friendly for Theater? Not from this Actor's Point of View"


05/21/2001

By Katreen Hardt

The first time I came across Eve Ensler's "The Vagina
Monologues" was in a bookstore in New York City's East
Village sometime in 1998. I was on the lookout for a new
play for me and my colleague, Sigi, an enormously talented
and hardworking redhead who runs the Theater Combinale in
Lübeck, Germany. I remember thinking what a great title; it
certainly got my attention anyway. But after picking up the
book, a thin, vermilion-colored paperback, and leafing
through a few of the monologues, I decided to put it back on
the shelf. A little too feministic for my tastes, I thought.
I am woman, yes, and I am in favor of women's rights, but I
am not a feminist. I do not belong to that generation of
women who, in the 1970's, pressed for ratification of an
Equal Rights Amendment. The book was a throwback to that
time, I thought, a '90's dramatization of "Our Bodies,
Ourselves." Suffice it to say I was having difficulty
imagining it staged.

The following summer I spent in Iowa City, Iowa. Though I
was there to write, I spent a considerable amount of my time
flipping through books at Prairie Lights, the local
bookstore, secretly comparing the works of other young
female writers whose first novels were, unlike mine, already
finished and on display. It was here that, for the second
time, I came across Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues."
And again I remember thinking what a great title. I picked
it up-why, I don't really know; I was already familiar with
the book-and began to read. I still considered it feministic
yet the majority of the monologues, from an actor's
standpoint, were simply too good to ignore. I bought two
copies-one for myself and one for Sigi. She didn't like it
(a play in which the word vagina appears 132 times might be
considered scandalous to the average American, but not a
German); she, too, was skeptical. "How is this interesting?"
She asked me the first time we spoke on the phone regarding
the production. It was an honest question that I did not
have the answer to. But we both agreed that there were some
good female monologues (a rarity in the theater) included
among the collection. And so it was because of these
characters, and their personal vagina stories, that the two
of us decided to pursue the rights.

For the record, this was before Eve Ensler was performing
her one-woman show at the Westside Theater, an Off-Broadway
venue in midtown Manhattan, to sold-out crowds six nights a
week. And it was before "The Vagina Monologues" was being
performed by three well-known TV or movie actresses all
sharing the stage together before being rotated and replaced
by three other well-known TV or movie actresses in theaters
across the United States and Canada. And it was long before
the recently defunct kozmo.com was selling the book on its
website with free delivery in under an hour. It was a sheer
coincidence that while we were trying to find out who in
Germany even owned the rights, Ms. Ensler was getting ready
to re-open her show at the 249-seat aforementioned location.
("The Vagina Monologues" originally premiered in 1996 at
Here, a Soho theater, where it ran for nearly three months
and won an Obie.)

What struck me the most upon seeing the show, or, more
importantly, upon hearing the words spoken aloud, was Ms.
Ensler's delivery; she has incredible knack for timing. I
hadn't realized how funny, how entertaining, how poignant,
how poetic "The Vagina Monologues" could be. Nor had I
realized how important this piece of theater was: There are
bad things happening to vaginas everywhere and it's about
damn time we do something about it. Included in the show
were also two monologues, and a certain happy vagina fact,
that were not included in the book.
Taking "The Vagina Monologues" to Germany

In January 2000, S. Fischer Verlag, the German publishing
house, gave us the performance rights, albeit over the
phone. A contract, they said, would be drawn up and sent out
shortly along with a copy of the translation which, to our
surprise, already existed. They mentioned that there had not
been a lot of interest in the show (they had been sitting on
the rights for nearly two years) although there was a
theater in Southern Germany currently performing the piece
on a monthly basis. We opted for a September premiere,
wanting to open our 2000/2001 season with it, determined to
be the first theater in Northern Germany to come out with
the production. That changed, however, when we were
informed-not but a week later-by the very same publishing
house that there was another theater, a bigger theater, a
state-run theater in Hamburg, a mere 60 kilometers south of
Lübeck, suddenly expressing an interest in the show as well.
And that they, too, wanted to open their 2000/20001 season
with the female-genitalia-friendly production. And that
they, too, wanted to be the first theater in Northern
Germany to do so. Thus, we were told, because the theater in
Hamburg, whose name was kept confidential, could accommodate
more people on any given night than we could, were granted
the privilege of opening first. (It should be noted that
most theaters in Germany are 100% state supported; the
Theater Combinale is a private theater, founded by four
actors 20 years ago, and is only partially funded by the
government.) They chose October. So we chose November.
November 3rd to be exact.

I received my copy of "Die Vagina Monologe" (pronounced dee
VAH-geena mo-no-lo-ge) in the mail on Valentine's Day. I
took this as a positive sign. In the eyes of Ms. Ensler,
Valentine's Day is also known as V-Day and it is an annual
event, started four years ago, to call attention to violence
against women. To my disappointment, however, it turned out
to be a rather incomplete translation-only some of the
monologues had been translated and not one of the
introductions-making it a bit thin in terms of content, not
to mention coherency. Missing were also the two additional
monologues, and the happy vagina fact, that I'd first heard,
and first become aware of, the night I attended Ms. Ensler's
performance-material that was not only very comical, but
extremely vital to the overall structure of the play. As
without it, the show was destined to become exactly the type
of show I wanted to avoid-both as actress and audience
member. That show being a bunch of pissed-off feminists
sitting around insinuating that men are the ones to blame
for any problems or issues, be them mental or physical, that
they might have with their vaginas with a bit of trivia i.e.
responses from the 200 women Ms. Ensler interviewed when
asked the question "If your vagina got dressed, what would
it wear?" thrown in for good measure. I made it my mission
to obtain this new, additional material. Not only was it
important in terms of character balance, but it was the
stuff that would ultimately set us apart from the state-run
theater in Hamburg and, for that matter, all those other
"Vagina" productions soon to be cropping up all over
Germany.

One of the many advantages of having "The Vagina Monologues"
running in New York during this time was that it made it a
whole lot easier for me to figure out who it was I had to
get in touch with for an updated copy of the script. Through
Ensler's "people," I was also given permission to translate
this new material: "Because He Liked To Look At It," a
woman's tale of how, after having a good experience with a
man, she comes to love her vagina, "My Angry Vagina," a
lament about feminine hygiene products, gynecological exams
and thong underwear (a monologue originally written by Ms.
Ensler for Whoopie Goldberg) and "Who Needs a Handgun?" an
amusing quote from the book "Woman: An Intimate Geography"
by Natalie Angier. (In the meantime, of course, this
material is available to anyone in the newly revised "The
Vagina Monologues: The V-Day Edition.")

In June I flew to Germany for the first time to begin work
on the production. We hired a director, a meticulous and
warmhearted woman by the name of Stephanie, and, together,
over the course of the next four weeks, the three of us
translated, adapted, re-wrote and re-worked some of the
material in the script that had, in our opinion, been poorly
translated. Many of the euphemisms for the word vagina, for
example, were meaningless to a Teutonic audience. Ulrich
Stock, a book critic for Die Zeit, wrote in his review,
"Waterkant? Excuse me, please? Is this supposed to be a
translation of water cunt?" It wasn't until our first
read-through that we realized, what with only two actresses
taking turns reciting the lines, our "Monologues" were
unwittingly taking on the predictable characteristics of
dialogue. Hence the hiring of our third actress, a beautiful
young woman called Nina.

The Problem with the "V-word"

We started rehearsals in late September; in October we began
promoting the show, hanging posters in shop windows,
distributing the theater's program around town, calling up
radio and television stations. Being that we were in Germany
(and not in prude America) we expected few, if any,
problems. I reminded my colleague of some of the obstacles
Eve Ensler had faced with her production. How there had been
complaints, for instance, regarding the banner hanging in
front of the Westside Theater in New York. (I think it was
the size of the word vagina, rather than the word itself,
that people found offensive.) How one television station had
tried to produce a show about "The Vagina Monologues"
without using the word vagina. And how at some theaters,
where Ms. Ensler performed on tour, recorded voices on
box-office answering machines said only "Monologues" or "V.
Monologues." My colleague, Sigi, at the Theater Combinale
assured me that such censorship wouldn't happen in
Germany-not in the year 2000. To her complete and utter
disbelief, however, it did.

No sooner were the posters-with the play's title, author,
and director's name written inside the form of an upside
down triangle-hanging in front windows of numerous shops
throughout Lübeck, did they disappear. NDR, a regional
television station which has covered many Theater Combinale
productions in the past, warned us, "with that title you can
forget about appearing on television." Even ticket sales
were unusually slow for the theater-only the premiere was
sold-out. Die Lübecker Nachrichten, the town's local
newspaper, wrote an article about us entitled, "Das Problem
mit dem V-Wort" (The Problem with the V-Word) sighting above
issues. Magazines like Stern and Focus soon picked-up on the
story and suddenly we were national news. All because of a
word. A word apparently so powerful that the mere mention of
it is enough to create controversy in two distinct countries
on either side of the Atlantic. It goes without saying that
we looked forward to our premiere with a small sense of
trepidation.

But good news travels quickly. Immediately following the
opening we were bombarded with phone calls; the theater's
answering machine was filled to capacity the next day with
messages from people in search of tickets. And despite the
fact that our outgoing message articulated perfectly the
play's title, would-be audience members, suddenly faced with
the dilemma of having to SAY the word vagina, nervously
giggled and stuttered their way through inquires often
requesting tickets for such shows as "The Vaginal
Monologues," "The Monologue Piece" or, simply, "That Show
Next Thursday." Even before the reviews were out, it was
clear that "The Vagina Monologues" at the Theater Combinale
was a hit. And what a hit at that.

All of a sudden audiences, who would have otherwise left the
theater following a performance, were sticking around to
eagerly discuss the play over a glass of wine. Both men and
women rejoiced over the "leichtigkeit"-the ease by which the
monologues were presented. Wives, who had brought along
their husbands, secretly thanked us for saving them "certain
discussions" at home. (While other, older women insisted
that they ought to be able to keep a few secrets for
themselves.) A group of younger women, spurred on by "My
Angry Vagina" shared amid roars of laughter their most
intimate gynecologist stories. On a more serious note,
conversations could be overheard on the subject of female
genital mutilation and the atrocities inflicted upon the
rape camp victims of Bosnia. Whatever the subject matter, at
the heart of it all, was the vagina. People were talking
about the vagina. And better yet, people were using the word
vagina as if it were the most natural thing in the world;
the sense of disgust or shame or guilt usually associated
with the word had disappeared.

In March 2001 we were invited to perform in Nürnberg as a
part of their International Women's Day Festival; it was to
be a private performance for women only. We had been aware,
even before our arrival, of the problems they had been
having with publicity. A poster-with a drawing of an orchid
that looked suspiciously like a vagina-had been banned by
the city and they were concerned about whether or not anyone
would even show up for the performance. In the end, six
hundred women cheered and applauded us as we walked on to
that stage that night. It was a rock star experience if ever
I've had one.

With so much support for "The Vagina Monologues" (the show
is still running Off-Broadway and now in Los Angeles as well
as other theaters all over the world), the time has come for
women to start speaking openly about their experiences. By
sharing our own stories we can help heal a past full of
negative attitudes and violence against the most sacred part
of the female body. There is a personal vagina story inside
every single one of us. And the theater is in need of more
good female monologues.

Author/actor Katreen Hardt has been acting with the Theater
Combinale, a German theater company, for more than 10 years.
Her involvement with Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues,"
from her pursuit of the German performance rights in 1999 to
touring with the successful production in 2001, has been by
far the most rewarding. Katreen has appeared in two Hal
Hartley movies: "Henry Fool" and "The Book of Life." She
lives in New York where she is at work on her first novel.
Katreen Hardt is also the author of the story which ran on
this site last month, "I was Gwenyth Paltrow's Body Double."

To see the original article, please click here
http://www.wigmag.com/bigwigs/vaginamonolog_5_21_2001.html.