A LIFE IN THE THEATRE: Playwright-Activist Eve Ensler

By Mervyn Rothstein
31 May 2011

 Eve Ensler at Superlove, V-Day's ten-year anniversary celebration at the Louisiana Superdome.
Eve Ensler at Superlove, V-Day's ten-year anniversary celebration at the Louisiana Superdome.
Photo by Paula Allen

Meet The Vagina Monologues' playwright Eve Ensler, recipient of the Tony Awards' 2011 Isabelle Stevenson Award. She shares some personal photos, exclusively with Playbill.

*

"From the first time I walked into a theatre," Eve Ensler says, "it felt like a place of enormous mystery and freedom — where people could say and do things on a stage that were about our lives, and people could hear things onstage they couldn't hear normally in life."

Playwright, performer and activist Ensler, 58, has been delving into that mystery and enhancing that freedom, on and offstage, for more than 30 years. She is best known for The Vagina Monologues, which has been translated into at least 48 languages and performed in over 140 countries. She just won the Tony Awards' Isabelle Stevenson Award for her "substantial contribution of volunteered time and effort on behalf of a humanitarian, social service or charitable organization." Ensler says her group, V-Day, has raised $80 million in the battle to stop violence toward women.



"I was very honored, very moved," she says. "It's been a very rough time, an intense time, because I was diagnosed with uterine cancer, and the day before I heard about the award I had gotten a report that I was cancer-free a year. I felt really happy that I had lived to get" the award.

Ensler fell in love with theatre at Middlebury College in Vermont. "I was writing poetry and directing plays, and when I got to New York I didn't know what plays to direct. So I decided to try writing a play." The work, When I Call My Voices, was first performed in 1983 "in some loft downtown, and ended up moving to Ensemble Studio Theatre. Then I met Joanne Woodward."

Eve Ensler with Dylan McDermott in 1987.
photo by Paula Allen

Ensler's adopted son, Dylan McDermott, was studying acting at Neighborhood Playhouse. "I wrote another play. Joanne Woodward was directing him. He gave her my play, and she loved it and worked on it in class. Then came a big moment — full of chutzpah. I said, 'Could I write you a play?' I loved Joanne Woodward. She'd been an incredible role model for me because we'd both been very active in the nuclear disarmament movement. She said, 'Write me a play.' I wrote her this one-woman play, The Depot, about nuclear disarmament. She directed Shirley Knight in it, and we toured across America."

Vagina Monologues happened by "accident. I didn't mean to be writing it. It was something I was taking notes on. As I asked women questions, I realized there was a whole underworld of stories, things women had never talked about." She "began to see this worldwide epidemic of violence against women."

V-Day is a movement in 140 countries supporting "grass-roots activists who put on the play to raise money in villages and towns for groups that work" to stop that violence. It also supports groups that can't put on the play. "We've opened safe houses to prevent female genital mutilation in Africa. We've opened safe houses in Iraq, Egypt, Haiti. Our biggest project opened Feb. 4 — City of Joy, in Congo. It's a facility for women who have suffered gender violence in the horrible war in Congo."

Her newest work, I Am An Emotional Creature: The Secret Life of Girls Around the World, was published as a book last year. A stage version is opening this summer in South Africa, then heading to Paris and Berkeley Rep in California before arriving Off-Broadway.

"What I want to do is more of what I'm doing. I love writing, and I want to be a better writer. I'm interested in how theatre is a tool for revolution and social change."

Eve Ensler shares some of her favorite photos with Playbill.com: