Two weekend ago, I spent my Saturday at a wonderful show called the Vagina Monologues. For the week following the show, I attempted to put into words what the show was about, what I thought during the show, and how I felt (enlightened) after the show. But I struggled to write anything that I felt truly encompassed what the show was about. So I reached out to one of my sisters (and friend I made before MIT through FRC), Erin B. ’15 to write a blog about her experiences as part of the cast. This beautiful piece captured everything I pictured in a blog about the Vagina Monologues, but couldn’t express in words.
I never thought I’d be performing the Vagina Monologues; heck, I never thought I’d be writing a blog post that contained the word “vagina”. But here I am.
I first heard about the Vagina Monologues in my freshman year. An alum of my dorm was the producer and emailed me asking me to audition. As a shy freshman, even the thought of talking about vaginas in front of an audience made me blush; I told her I’d rather support the cause by being in the audience (all the proceeds go to charities which help women). Even after the first monologue last February, I knew I had made a grave mistake; I knew I needed to be in the cast.
Why? The Vagina Monologues are about so much more than talking about vaginas in front of a large audience. For an audience member, they are about addressing things that often are swept under a rug: if we don’t talk about them, maybe we don’t have to think about them. The monologues address things like domestic violence, sexual assault and rape, and female genital mutilation; they also explore much brighter topics, like the wonder of childbirth, female empowerment and sex positivity. As an audience member last winter, I left the show with the feeling that there were so many more conversations that needed to happen on campus, and when I visited the dressing room to congratulate a friend, I realized that the cast was having those very conversations.
Fast forward about 8 months to auditions. I was a musician in high school, so I’m accustomed to performance. However, rather than walking onstage and holding a trombone to my face, I have to use my body and voice to convey how I’m feeling (which is angry, according to the piece I was asked to prepare). I immediately become aware of how awkward my body is. My stance is haphazard. What do I do with my hands? My voice sounds the same no matter what I try to do with it. My palms start sweating and I begin to question my decision, but I carry through with the audition and immediately treat myself to a soy latte afterwards, to quell my shaking nerves.
When the cast list is released, I know I have made the right decision. I am to be one of three girls in the introduction; though I have never met the other two (one a freshman in my dorm, and one a post-doc in the biology department), I am eager to spend IAP interacting with them as we rehearse. But I digress. First, we meet as a cast. We learn the vagina cheer (“Go, vaginas, go go, vaginas!”), talk about fundraising ideas, meet the rest of the cast, and then strip to lingerie for a photo shoot for the advertisements (which traditionally include cast members, but no faces). Standing around, I realized that the other members of the cast were already empowering me: if I didn’t have their encouragement and infectious confidence, I would have never comfortably stood around in my underwear. It was a positive feedback loop: because others were confident, I felt encouraged and confident, and because I was confident, I then in turn encouraged others to be more confident. I didn’t want to put on my jeans and sweater to walk back to my dorm; I wanted to prance around and feel brave. However, a quick glance confirmed that it was snowing (which seems to be the norm for Saturdays in Boston this winter), so I put on all my layers before heading home.
Over IAP, I spent many hours in an empty classroom with the two other intro ladies and our director. I got to know them well. We laughed about awkward dates and weird people at the gym. We shared frustrations with our health. We grew to understand each others’ strengths and weaknesses and played to them. Most importantly, through feedback from each other, we learned a bit about acting. (You guys, my hands don’t just hang there awkwardly anymore!)
So, here’s what Kirsten actually wanted me to blog about when she asked me to write about being a cast member: the actual show. The reason I’m only getting to it now is because VagMo is about so much more than the weekend in which the rest of campus sees it. It’s about how the cast can empower each other and how we can carry that empowerment across campus, and there’s a lot more to that empowerment than just the performances. But, here we go: the show.
Actually performing was an exhilarating experience. After weeks of “pause so the audience can laugh” in rehearsal, it was nice to hear actual laughter. On opening night, the alum who contacted me my freshman year (and who has become one of my closest friends in the past year, surprisingly) sat in the second row; seeing her doubled over at one of my jokes (Eve Ensler, the author of the monologues, allows casts to write in a few regionally-relevant things for a few of the monologues. They are the most open-source production I have ever heard of.) was one of the best feelings in the world, and I found it so hard not to break character. Seeing so much of campus come to see the show was fantastic, because I know it facilitated dialogue as much as it provided entertainment.
As a cast member, I spent about 40 hours with the rest of the cast in the week of the show, and we had so many discussions. We had warm-ups in which we shared stories about ourselves (not necessarily our vaginas, since not every member of the cast had one), and in the dressing room or between rehearsals, we continued these conversations. We talked about sex. We talked about menopause, birth control, and polycystic ovarian syndrome. We talked about consent. We talked about rape. At one point, someone started writing her problems (literally, a Course 8, physics, proof; MIT students still find the time to p-set between shows) on the chalkboard in our dressing room, and others began to do the same; then, after looking at a wall of problems, we began to write empowering things on the board. I saw things like “being single helps me get back to my priorities” and “my body can run a half-marathon, and that’s a beautiful thing.” Talk about inspiring.
We talked about the fact that if the show made us want to address these things, perhaps it would do the same on campus. We talked about how we could make things better on campus. On Sunday afternoon, I didn’t want to leave the cast after our matinee. I felt like I had found a supportive family and felt closer to them than I did to many other people on campus.
I know that I am lucky to go to a school where there are student groups for sex positivity and violence prevention and response. I know that I am lucky to have a family of vaginas (and a subsequent email list) who I can come to with concerns and they will help me understand them. And though there is still so much that our society can do to address women’s rights, I know that I am lucky to live in a culture where these kinds of conversations can even occur. The show made me appreciate these things.
The week after the show, I was soldering with a classmate for a robotics class, and he told me he really appreciated the show. He mentioned it had opened his eyes to issues and viewpoints he had never seen before and afterwards he did quite a bit of research. I asked him if it facilitated conversations he wouldn’t have had otherwise; he agreed that it had. Mission: accomplished. ☺