The MIT Monologues performed last weekend. MITMo is an offshoot of the Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler, but all of our monologues are written by current or past MIT students, about experiences we’ve lived.
Before each performance, the performers and directors would come together and sit in a big circle on the stage, underneath the red curtains we’d just hung. Most of us were in the black-and-red we’d wear onstage, and the green or pale pink of street clothes stood out. We’d only begun to practice together that week, but already we felt like something bigger.
I met the producer in the blur of EC Rush. She pitched the concept to me sometime between smashing fruits with baseball bats and watching my friends dye their hair. It sounded up my alley; I love writing, and this would be a new direction, branching out from fantasy fiction. Speaking in front of strangers sounded cool but intimidating, and that was a long way off.
During fall the producer and I met up intermittently in different classrooms around campus. She asked for my ideas. Something deep? I suggested, then decided, No, something lighthearted, something ironic. A lot of the monologues are about struggle, and justifiably so. I wanted one that was just empowerment, irreverence, joy. I threw around a lot of ideas, and the producer asked good questions to narrow them down.
I settled on writing a piece about exploring sexuality, at your own pace and in your own time. About listening to your body and respecting your boundaries. About brief, meaningless encounters, where the only relationship that deepens is the one between you and your desires. I wrote about tinder dates.
When I pitched this concept to the producer, she took it in stride. She asked more questions, which helped me pinpoint what I was really trying to say. I figured out what I wanted to write, then procrastinated for several months.
Come IAP, rehearsals were slated to begin, and I sat down and typed out the first draft of the monologue. Over time the wordcraft changed, a handful of paragraphs were added or erased, but the structure stayed the same.
I started going out with strangers when I was eighteen.
I was in Spain, travelling alone. I met a flamenco dancer for hot chocolate and invited him to play mental chess with me…
When I write fiction, I try to come up with the right details to describe a character, small things that show what they do and what they think, the space they create in a scene. This wasn’t fiction; there were so many details, some misleading, some mundane. Did I describe how he made pasta, called it authentic although the sauce came from a can; how he counted in Spanish when he went up the rows of the chessboard? He said “Can I kiss you?” and I said “Can you?” and he said “I’m asking,” and eighteen-year-old me was oh so impressed.
In the end I included none of those things, just the fact that he forgot where his queen was, and the way his fingers curled in my hair.
I showed the producer the whole piece, asked what she thought it meant. That led to one of the most useful editing sessions I’ve experienced. I could see where my metaphors and implications hit home, and where they were wildly off. I kept asking, what made you think that? And she pointed to paragraphs, lines, single words. I highlighted what to change.
The next week, I came in with an edited version, and more of the meaning rang true.
The producer and I met up in more classrooms to practice speaking. The first time, I stumbled over many words. A few lines were more explicit, and my voice dropped to nearly a whisper, finger me hissed in the space between me and the empty seats.
I fell into the headspace of presenting, of how to tell a story not just with words but intonation, pacing, body language. I used a voice unlike the way I spoke day to day. I tried to make it louder, to fill the space around me.
One time, a couple girls came in to find a bag one of them had left. I was in the middle of the monologue. I didn’t slow down, even when I reached a certain line about a certain date from summer. I said exactly what transpired, looking straight at the producer, and then I said, deadpan, “I think we should pause for a second.”
We did, and we did not laugh until the bag-searchers had left.
Then we started from the top.
Next came rehearsals with the whole cast.
I remembered again to be nervous. I stared at the clock above everyone’s heads as I hit certain lines, clung to the intonation I’d practiced so many times. But afterwards, people clapped and were kind. I scurried off the stage, holed up at the back, and watched the other rehearsals. I started to see how my monologue was part of a tapestry.
I met the cast, all of them lovely people. I felt the weight of all of our work, how much time and effort had been poured into each monologue. I thought of the handful of directors, meeting every writer and actor again and again, helping them perfect their words.
At the final rehearsal, we did an exercise where we said a random line from our monologues onstage, the same line three times: happily, then angrily, then sad. I kept laughing at other people’s lines — they were funnier out of context — but as I waited for my turn, I had the sudden feeling that I could drop out, if I chose. The Monologues were already a tapestry. They would be complete and good without me. It would be a shame, because the producer spent so much time with me; a shame because if this was hard, then I should do it.
I hadn’t even considered that I was challenging myself, stepping out of my comfort zone, when I signed myself up to perform a monologue about tinder dates. I wanted to tell the story right, to make my points clearly, to entertain. But that was the whole of it.
I thought of how annoying it would be to say I almost did the Monologues. How the one I’d written would linger in my google drive, not fully appropriate for the blogs, not really belonging anywhere else. So I stayed.
Then came the actual night. I dressed up in black and red, rushed to put on makeup. We sat upon the stage, beneath the red curtains. The empty seats rose above us. We went around the circle, answering questions: who is someone you love (many people said their friends or siblings, though one said her boyfriend, and another said her ducks); what brought you to the Monologues?
Before long the audience arrived, and they arrived in droves. We scrambled to check tickets and covidpass, hand out programs and direct people to their seats. It was lovely — there were people I’d psetted with, dorm mates, people I’d met in clubs, or classes, or just somehow knew the names of.
On opening night, I didn’t watch the beginning of the show; I was too nervous for my performance, midway through act one. I paced backstage, muttering my lines to myself. I said a few over and over, determined not to trip over the sentence structure. The person before me finished her monologue, the audience cheered, the lights went down. I ran onstage, took a breath, and then the lights were up agian.
We’d positioned the stage lights in the front row. They were so bright that you couldn’t make out faces, just the glimmer of eyes. I took a breath, said my first line. My voice filled the room. There was a sort of magic to the stage, the quiet in between my words, the laughs I didn’t expect.
As I walked off, shaking, a friend of mine texted me and I just started grinning. At intermission I bounced from person to person, happy each of them was there. The high of being done that first time felt amazing.
Some people said that they related. One person quoted, in their own words, exactly the meaning I was trying to impart.
I’m thankful for everyone who put this together. Part of what I loved was that set week was exhausting. I understood what my theater friends went through in high school. And it was entirely extracurricular. We were pouring so much effort into creating a space for a handful of days, an art piece that lingers as long as the audience does, and then vanishes. I said that monologue aloud three dozen times, memorizing every line, every pause and nuance, but no one outside the cast heard it spoken more than once. I like the impermanence.
I snuck in at intermission, watched the second act in full. A different night, I watched the first. I loved everyone’s monologues.
Thank you to everyone who came out! What a mosaic we created.