V-Day event by creator of The Vagina Monologues gets set to turn 10 in April (Toronto Star)
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Anyone who ever doubted the power of art to effect social and political change has never heard – impossible as this seems – of The Vagina Monologues.
Gathering stories and statements from women about the body part that dare not speak its name, New York playwright Eve Ensler put together the show and first performed it as a one-woman monologue in the basement of a SoHo café in 1996.
Daring to utter in public the V-word, she launched a worldwide movement to stop violence against women, which led to the formation of V-Day two years later.
She's an old-school feminist in a contemporary guise, a petite warrior in fighting trim dressed in ninja black, with a T-shirt bearing the pink, stylized vagina symbol that is the banner for V-Day. And in this year of American elections, she's out stumping for the issue she says political candidates would rather not discuss. One in three women, surveys have consistently shown, is either raped, beaten or abused.
"When I started this I had no idea of the (size of the) epidemic of violence against women," she says. "I just wanted to survive doing the play. I just wanted to get the word out of my terrified mouth.
"I had no idea how women had hungered to have happy sexual lives and to be in their own sexuality and feel good about their sexuality and how far away some women are from living that life."
The Vagina Monologues had a demonstrably empowering effect. "When I started doing this you couldn't say `vagina' on television," Ensler says. "I seriously believe that naming things, giving visibility to things, allows people to have agency over them. When women can't identify their genitals or their body parts, often they are disassociated from them, so they have no power over them and no rights over them."
After she did her first tour of the play, which was still pretty much an underground affair (but later earned her an Obie, the award for off-Broadway theatre), Ensler realized The Vagina Monologues could be a tool for change. After each performance, "so many women came up to me and waited in lines to tell me how they'd been violated."
She began to offer the script as a means of raising money to fight violence against women. In 1998, the play became the basis for V-Day, an annual event first celebrated on Valentine's Day that now can occur any time in the first three months of the year.
This year, Ensler and a staff of nine, who administer a website that stands in for an office, will see some 4,000 productions of The Vagina Monologues in 1,500 locations around the globe. The play has been produced in 45 languages in 120 countries. V-Day raises from $4 million to $6 million annually, with the 10-year tally at $50 million.
Ninety per cent of every dollar that comes in, she says, goes to fund women's shelters and safe houses, raise awareness, promote legislation or establish community anti-violence programs. And The Vagina Monologues continues in commercial productions; it has been running for seven years in Paris and eight in Mexico City.
The Monologues' power to move an audience not only to laughter but to action stands in inverse ratio to its simplicity.
Comic Maggie Cassella remembers when she did the show in 2001 along with actor Margot Kidder and singer Amy Sky at a theatre on Yonge St.
"I'm a product of late '70s feminism," she says. The message was not new for her. But the play became a relaunch for feminism in an era when women's liberation was losing ground.
"To be able to perform that in front of women for whom it was empowering made it empowering for me. What Eve did was she reignited a movement."
Ensler's life as an activist has not eclipsed her writing. She has published two more plays – The Good Body and The Treatment – and a book, Insecure at Last: Losing It in Our Security Obsessed World, since her name became inseparable from the V-word.
But this time of year she is working rooms in support of the movement to stop violence against women. And she makes a very persuasive orator. In Toronto Tuesday as the keynote speaker at Nightwood Theatre's FemCab event in honour of International Women's Day (today), she spoke about the small victories and the long road ahead for a movement the need for which has not diminished.
In the lead-up to April 11-12, when V-Day will celebrate its 10th anniversary with an enormous event in the Superdome in New Orleans, Ensler has honed a new weapon in the form of the word femicide, a term she uses to describe systemic violence against women. When she mentioned it in a meeting with a U.N. official after reporting on her trip to Congo, he told her he was "uncomfortable" with the word.
"When I started doing this work 15 years ago, I think I believed, or maybe hoped, that violence against women was something random, or individual or accidental," she says. "But after visiting 50 countries, after hearing thousands of stories, I don't believe that any more. I believe there is a global pattern that is systematically undermining and destroying women."
Using the acknowledgement of global warming as her analogy, Ensler speaks of a pattern of violence around the world – escalating violence and an unspoken agreement among world leaders to turn a blind eye to the systemic and often horrific treatment of women and girls. "The problem," she says, "calls for billions of dollars, not mere millions" – still a fraction of what America spends on the war in Iraq.
With the spotlight on the women of New Orleans, V-Day's Katrina Warriors will welcome thousands of women delegates, speakers and entertainers including Salma Hayek, Oprah Winfrey, Faith Hill, Jane Fonda, Jessica Alba, Jennifer Hudson, Glenn Close, Julia Stiles, Ali Larter, Sally Field, Marisa Tomei, Calpernia Addams, Rosario Dawson, Kerry Washington and musicians Common, Eve and Charmaine Neville for a weekend shindig that will include free medical and wellness treatments for the beleaguered women of New Orleans and the largest ever production of The Vagina Monologues.
"I'm a firm believer in movements," says the 54-year-old author and grandmother to the two children of her son, actor Dylan McDermott, whom she adopted after marrying his father.
"I was brought up in the '60s where I saw people's movements stop a war. As V-Day grows, it's going to be possible to say we are going to end the violence. But we have to keep going deeper into the issues, such as how poverty is interrelated with violence against women, how racial shaming is interrelated and, really, how we bring up boys."
The issue, she says, is not a women's issue to challenge the future of the human race. In New Orleans, in a place where women were raped and abused during Katrina's rampage, she proposes to set the agenda for ending the subjugation of women with words, not war.
"Really, I think it's going to change the world. I do."