Eve Ensler(Photo: Susan Johann)
Eve Ensler
(Photo: Susan Johann)
"Vagina. Va-gi-na. It sounds like an infection at best, maybe a medical instrument." That's one of the opening lines of Eve Ensler's Off-Broadway phenomenon The Vagina Monologues. Using words like "deep" and "multi-layered" to describe the show may be accurate; however, they reek of double entendre. And this article is not really about vagina. It's about Eve. All about Eve.

The 47-year old Eve Ensler has had an incredible life as a playwright, activist, screenwriter, lover, adoptive mother and grandmother. She and her adopted son, Dylan McDermott of TV's The Practice, are extremely close, and the birth of his daughter Coco is the focal point of the closing vagina monologue. These days, Ensler's energies are channeled towards V-Day 2001, Saturday, February 10, 7pm at Madison Square Garden.

Ensler originally conceived of V-Day back in 1998 when she realized she had to do something to stop worldwide violence against women and girls. "Every time I performed the show, women would come up to me afterwards and tell me horrifying stories. I knew something had to be done." The Vagina Monologues became the focal point for the annual V-Day benefit event.

For this year's V-Day--intentionally scheduled near February 14 as a kind of Vagina Valentine's Day--over 70 female luminaries, including actors, writers, musicians, and activists, will participate in a landmark live performance of Ensler's play. Among those scheduled to perform are Jane Fonda, Glenn Close, Gloria Steinem, Queen Latifah, Winona Ryder, Ricki Lake, Kathy Najimy, Marsha Mason, Julie Halston, and Ms. Ensler herself. In addition to the original monologues, Ensler will unveil new works written especially for the occasion, performed by Oprah Winfrey and Calista Flockhart.

I recently spoke with Ensler about her long running Off-Broadway hit, the show's international impact, art, and activism.

********************

THEATERMANIA: Let me begin by observing that you have the perfect name for your life's mission.

EVE ENSLER: I know. I've always found the name Eve to be a huge responsibility. Or sometimes I wonder if my name was actually part of my decision to become who I am.

TM: In your biography, you describe yourself as a playwright first and an activist second.

EVE: I wouldn't call it so much an order as an arrangement. My art and my politics are symbiotic; I cannot separate the two. When I was younger, I was in great conflict between my two parts, I couldn't seem to find a way to bring them together. Then I wrote a show about nuclear disarmament called The Depot, which starred Shirley Knight and was directed by Joanne Woodward. The show incorporated both parts of my being. That was the first time I said, "Oh, I get it!" Neither one comes before the other.

TM: And both your art and your activism grew out of your background?

EVE: I have always had this intense impulse to create, and I have always desired to change the way things are. In the beginning, I wrote to survive. I was both sexually and emotionally abused by my father. When I was younger, I felt I had no control over my own world, that there was no way I could improve my situation. However, I figured if I could make the world a better place for someone else through my writing, then I might benefit. I had to imagine a world where I could have control. I believe if you survive violence of any form, it embeds itself in your DNA on the cellular level of your being. You can ignore it and deny it but, eventually, it has its moment with you and it must be confronted. When that moment came, it was the only thing I could address. After that, I had my life back, and the life choice I made was to focus on the issue of violence against women. That's why I started V-Day.

TM: You seem very excited about this year's event.

EVE: This is going to be the biggest one to date. The first V-Day was held in New York City, the second in London, the third in L.A. This year, V-Day is back in New York, and 50 cities and 260 colleges will participate simultaneously. It's truly awesome. I can't believe the combination of forces and people who will be in that room: women from every human rights group in the world, women from almost every single country in the world, huge corporations. It took very deep feelings to organize this event, 18,000 people gathering to stop violence towards women.

TM: Do you label yourself a feminist?

EVE: Definitely. I find the word activist a little broader but, of course, I am a feminist. An activist keeps agitating and pushing and doing and creating ideas to transform a given situation. As an activist and an artist, I keep trying to locate the truth as I see it.

TM: Have veteran feminists--people like the late Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, and Betty Friedan--given you positive feedback?

EVE: I'm 47, so I was the next generation, and all of those women were my mentors and inspiration. They have all been extremely loving and supportive. In fact, Gloria is part of this year's event, and so is Erica Jong.

TM: I know the genesis for The Vagina Monologues came from a conversation you had with a friend who expressed negativity towards vaginas. You then interviewed 200 on the subject. How did you find them?

EVE: I began with people I knew, talked to them about their vaginas. Each story seemed more incredible than the last. After each interview, every person said, "Oh, but you really should talk to so-and-so." Before I knew it, I was on the Great Vagina Trail! Then, while I was doing the show down at HERE before it moved Off-Broadway, I posted signup lists after each show so people who wanted to be interviewed could be contacted. I got a lot of women like that. I also visited homeless shelters and gynecologists' offices.

TM: You must have had mass amounts of material. Do the monologues ever change?

EVE: They used to change, but now the line-up is pretty much frozen. Originally I performed the show alone, but now it has evolved into a script for three women. Additional monologues can be found in the published book of The Vagina Monologues.

TM: Where do transsexual and intersex individuals fit into your work; i.e. people who identify as women but were technically born male?

EVE: I did speak with some transsexuals when I was researching The Vagina Monologues. Somehow, none of the interviews became monologues. However, none of my interviews with women going through menopause made it into the show either. I find I am particularly interested in invisible women, the homeless and refugees. I see them as everyone's possible outcome. But I am interested in all women, in all people. I wish I could include everyone.

TM: You were basically a scientist, compiling data. Not every bit of information could be used.

Ensler performing The Vagina Monologues(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Ensler performing The Vagina Monologues
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
EVE: And I had to balance my research with my art. Not every interview made for a strong monologue. I am working on a new show called The Good Body, which focuses on other parts of the body besides the vagina. I may be able to use some of that material in my new work.

TM: Have you ever gotten any negative reactions to your show, women who just did not relate?

EVE: Definitely. Some women have found it appalling and obscene or vagina-centric. I have found that most reactions really have nothing to do with me or my work; they have to do with those individuals themselves.

TM: Is there anything you would like to add regarding V-Day?

EVE: Just that we must continue to address the profound seriousness of the issue of violence against women. We must constantly get it into people's consciousness.

********************

For more information about V-Day and V-Day 2001, click here to visit the website www.vday.org