This story was originally posted in November 1996, but is here updated in connection with the Feb. 14, 1998 V-Day event.
In a small, darkened black box theatre, the lights come up and reveal a petite brunette with a soft, kind face approaching a podium. She confesses:
"I'm worried about vaginas."
Native New Yorker Eve Ensler isn't worried about much else right now, although she explains that prior to writing her one-woman show The Vagina Monologues, currently playing off-Broadway at HERE, she was slightly concerned. "A lot of my work has to do with liberating women. I couldn't be thinking about that without thinking about vaginas. I wanted to know about what women were feeing about their vaginas. As I talked to women, I was so awed and amazed by what people were telling me that I began to think, 'there's a piece here.'" At present, Ensler is a "big chunk of excitement." With four major projects going on, she has everything she's worked her whole life for. She is directing a benefit reading for the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children of her play Necessary Targets, starring Meryl Streep and Angelica Houston on Broadway. She's been hired as the head writer of a new TV show being developed by Kathy Nijimy, and as she performs the Vagina Monologues at night, by day she puts the finishing touches on Cookie Chandler, a screenplay for Goldie Hawn.
Necessary Targets, the script that lured superstar Streep back to Broadway (even if for one night only), was inspired by Ensler's journey to what was once Yugoslavia. Upon reading an article in Newsday which sported a cover picture of Bosnian women who had been raped, Ensler, whose commitment to healing women's issues results from her personal experience as an incest survivor, was blown away and knew she had to travel there. She told Lauren Lloyd, an executive at Hollywood Pictures, "I want to go to Bosnia and I want to write a film about Bosnia." Lloyd offered to send her there and optioned her screenplay.
Ensler shares the depth of her feeling for and connection to the war victims, "I was raped and beaten by my father . . . the way I survived it was that I fantasized justice. And so the way I continued to survive it is by writing women who live through it and explode it and survive it, reveal it and transcend it-- transform and then transcend."
Ensler couldn't get into Bosnia, so she visited Bosnian refugees in Croatia and Pakistan. "It was truly devastating and profoundly moving," Ensler said. She discovered that she could not remain separated from the Bosnian women by her agenda to write the movie, or her more subtle agendas of "doing good" and healing them. In the article "Rachel's Bed" published in the March-April 1995 issue of Common Boundary, Ensler reveals her own transformation as a result of the trip, "I had to be present with them. I had to be vulnerable, I had to love."
Upon returning, Ensler did write the film A Possible World, which she describes as "an out-there, radical Utopian feminist film" about two girl victims of the war, one who escapes the horrid reality through her mind by creating an Utopian landscape to live in. The film has not been picked up yet. Ensler says that the film is "totally not commercial."
Writing "Rachel's Bed" inspired Ensler to write a play about her own experience, so she pitched the idea to the New York Shakespeare Festival, who commissioned the script for a reading at The Public. The reading featured 1996 Tony nominee Lois Smith (Buried Child), who will recapture the role she read at the Broadway benefit.
After the reading, a very moved David Philips, board member of the Women's Commission For Refugee Women and Children, approached Ensler about doing a benefit for the Commission. Ensler was honored and her relationship with the Commission began. Earlier this year, Ensler gave a benefit performance of The Vagina Monologues on behalf The Center for Women War Victims in Zagreb, Croatia, which is supported by the Commission. The Commission solely supports women and children, providing technical expertise to refugee agencies and giving voice to refugee women and children. Actress Liv Ullmann serves as the honorary chairperson.
In Targets, Streep will portray a Fifth Avenue psychiatrist, who travels to Bosnia with the intention of "saving" the refugees, and ends up being saved herself. Regarding the leading lady, Ensler said, "They said to me, 'who do you think should do it?' and I said, 'well, I wrote it for Meryl Streep.'"
She did not anticipate how effective producer Willa Shalit would be in getting the scripts to Streep and many other stars, including Sam Waterston, Angelica Houston, and Cherry Jones, all who have agreed to do it.
Ensler feels strongly about the message of the play, which is partially about the process of becoming real. "When you allow reality and community [into your world], you become a mess. That's where we all should be going, is into the mess world, because all our agendas and our 'good' desires to 'do good' really end up protecting us and defending us from feeling what we need to be feeling. Unfortunately the lessons we learned in this country is not to fall apart and that picture is killing most people. So I say, come into the mess."
While there are high hopes that the reading of Targetswill get picked up by a big producer, Ensler is thrilled to be performing The Vagina Monologues, a collection of different women's stories, interwoven with Ensler's poetic style, exploring the topic of the female genitalia.
Ensler says, "The reaction to it has been really positive and not in a typical way. People have responded personally to it. They examine issues. . . when I traveled, we did Q&A's afterwards. It amazed me how vulnerable people were willing to be. People have been really fantastic."
This is the second time Ensler performs ...Monologues at HERE, a performance space in lower Manhattan that houses HOME for Contemporary Theatre and Art, where Ensler serves on the board of directors. After first performing the piece two years ago in little venues around New York, she toured the show around the states for over a year. Last year, HOME ran ...Monologues at HERE for two performances only. This year, she has a full month (Oct. 3-Nov. 10) run, including a small stage set.
HOME also produced Ensler's Extraordinary Measures, an AIDS play performed by long-time collaborator and dear friend, James Lescene, including music written by Bill Harper performed by three back up singers. Last year, her Floating Rhoda and the Glue Man starring Dylan McDermott played to sold out houses at HERE through the end of its run.
Although audiences raved about Floating Rhoda..., a less than laudatory New York Times Review prevented it from getting picked up by other venues. Ensler found herself with months of down time, which served possibly as a resting period for the immense amount of work the writer /director/performer has recently cultivated for herself.
Until now, the road to success has been a rocky one which Ensler cherishes with her entire being. After surviving many years of loneliness, rejection, a sense of not belonging, and an isolation that was, according to the playwright, "very, very deep and profound," she realizes, "I had to do a lot of work to survive that... It forced me to get my act together in order to keep going as an artist. All that work ultimately created my character. . . I would not trade this journey for anything."
Years ago, she had a big break when her play The Depot, about nuclear arms, garnered the interest of and was directed by Joanne Woodward, as a play at Williamstown and then further developed into film at the Sundance Film Institute.
However, the next year her play about homeless women did not follow in Depot's footsteps. "No one was interested in them. It wasn't an issue that people wanted to deal with," Ensler said. As a political playwright, Ensler comments on the artistic challenges at hand; "There have been moments when my work is fashionable. Then people try to attempt to determine me as one thing . . . Who people determine you to be at any given time is none of your business, you can't focus on that. You have to do the work that's in your heart and the work that you're compelled to do . . . It's up to me to determine who I am."
Ensler is "old enough to know better" than to speak her age. She doesn't appreciate the associations people have with women's ages, that trigger them to utter predictable responses to a given number, i.e., "Well you look so young!" She began playwrighting after graduating Middlebury College, where she "was an insane radical and got into lots of trouble." She was accepted into the Yale School of Drama as a director, but couldn't afford to go. "I had terrible years after college," Ensler said. Living in New York, she couldn't find anything she wanted to direct. She fused her poetry and directing into playwrighting.
Then Ensler bottomed out on drugs and alcohol, while living alone as a waitress. Through support groups and great battle with her past, Ensler cleaned up. She says, "When I got sober my life began to turn around."
Now Ensler fully enjoys her creativity, while living with her mate of seven years, artist Ariel Jordan. Like the title character in Floating Rhoda. . .. . . Ensler fell in love with Jordan upon seeing his work. Jordan co-wrote a film Sissy Wonder with Ensler, and largely influenced ...Monologues.
Ensler states, "I'm grateful to be able to do what I love...What I feel that I'm connected to is the river of my voice. I'm living in that river now. It took me a long time to have a river. . . [I've] gone through enough experience to trust and feel connected with it, not to mention [connected] with consciousness. I find it's an evolving, fluid notion that keeps pulling me along, and my job is to be flexible and be loose and to serve it and show up for it."
Eve Ensler will be showing up Wednesday-Saturday at 8 PM, to perform The Vagina Monologues at HERE , 145 Sixth Ave, south of Spring Street, in previews through Oct 16, running through November 10. Tickets are $15 -18.
Necessary Targets will premiere at the Helen Hayes Theatre, on Oct. 21 at 8 PM. $100 & $300 benefit tickets are limited, call (212) 838 2660.
-- By Blair Glaser