The Vagina Monologues are not for the squeamish. During the annual performance at the University of Colorado Boulder you’ll see women rip the covers off and lay bare the wondrous mysteries of an oft-ignored region.
In the early ’80s, activist Eve Ensler realized that what the national dialogue lacked sorely was vaginas. She started talking to women, and those interviews became the material for her off- Broadway show The Vagina Monologues. She turned those stories into a show that centers on telling stories — good, bad, angry, funny and horrific.
There’s a monologue about the day-to-day challenges vaginas face — thong underwear, vaginal exams and tampons — and how that pisses the vagina off.
“Why can’t they find a way to subtly lubricate the tampon?” the speaker asks in the monologue “My Angry Vagina.” “As soon as my vagina sees it, it goes into shock. It says forget it. It closes up. You need to work with the vagina, introduce it to things, prepare the way. That’s what foreplay’s all about.”
In “The Woman Who Liked to Make Vaginas Happy,” the room fills with the sound of orgasms, from the machine gun moan to the semi-religious moan to the surprise, triple-orgasm moan.
But then you’ll also hear more painful stories. “My Vagina Was My Village” talks about the accounts of women who lived in Bosnian rape camps.
Since the play debuted in 1994, there have been productions around the world, including the yearly show at CU. Emily Shipley, a senior integrative physiology major, is directing this year’s production and calls the show an “emotional roller coaster.”
She saw the show eight years ago, as a freshman in high school, when her sister performed in it. Four years later, as a freshman at CU, she got a part in the production and has been performing ever since.
“When I first saw it, I was like 13 or 14, still kind of that age where you would giggle every time you heard the word ‘vagina’ or ‘penis,’” she says. “I don’t think I understood or grasped a lot of the things that come up, like the gravity of sexual assault, rape or even having a relationship with your vagina, and exploring your sexuality.
“As I grew with it, [the play] showed me there are so many different ways to explore and express your sexuality. The whole show is about breaking the silence surrounding the vagina and women experiences.”
Along with a powerful message, the performance is also tied to activism. Years after creating the show, on Valentine’s Day in 1998, Ensler and others created V-Day, “a global movement to end violence against women and girls,” according to its website. V-Day encourages worldwide performances of The Vagina Monologues and collects money to donate to anti-violence groups. For CU’s production, 10 percent of proceeds from ticket sales and a silent auction will go to V-Day, while the other 90 percent will benefit the Boulder-based organization Movement to End Sexual Assault.
As the show evolves each year, one thing that stays the same is the diversity of women who perform. All ethnicities, ages, majors and lifestyles are welcome, with no acting experience necessary. Shipley says the broad range of women helps the show appeal to wider audience and includes many unique experiences.
When Megan Denman, a first-time Monologues performer, saw the show a few years ago, she took it as a call for women to stand together and not rely on men to fix the violence problem. Despite her shyness and lack of acting experience, she says she knew she wanted to be involved.
She says the play empowers women to be proactive and confident.
“Some women don’t take pride in being a woman or having a vagina,” says Denman, who thinks the show played a vital part in her self-acceptance.
“The show helps to make women feel more comfortable,” she says. “It’s really changed the way I think about vaginas. I never thought of it as something to be proud of — I wasn’t ashamed but I wasn’t proud.”
But the performers say the show is for everyone, not just women. Monologues performer Kelly Mackey says the show helped her break out of her shell, and hopes it does the same for the audience.
“The show is very eye-opening,” Mackey says. “We discuss a lot of violence against women, and you don’t have to be a woman to know that it’s not OK. You can be a man and see this show and decide what’s good and bad and what needs to change. The audience is just as involved as the performers.”