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Returning to the Vagina

March 5, 2013
Vagina Monologues cast during rehearsal on the staircase in the main lobby of my building. (Photo by Patrick J. Paglen)

Vagina Monologues cast during rehearsal on the staircase in the main lobby of my building. (Photo by Patrick J. Paglen)

I spent four years of college with the Vagina.

Enjoyed every minute of it.

Looked forward to the next time I would be part of the Vagina.

Left the Vagina behind at graduation.

(or so I thought…)

This weekend I returned to the Vagina.

The Vagina Monologues.

Actors after getting all wet in a rehearsal for "Vagina Was my Village".

Actors after getting all wet in a rehearsal for “Vagina Was my Village”.

I decided to direct it again on a whim. In November, 2012 I was a participant in the Old Vic/New Voices site specific/immersive directing lab. It turned my perspective of theatre upside down. I left finding it totally realistic that I could be happy never making theatre in a traditional space again. My imagination and soul were on fire. If THIS is what those people across the pond are up to then I have 2 choices. Either start swimming or start making some site specific work in NYC. It became apparent that I need to make site specific theatre and I needed to make it in my apartment ASAP. I felt The Vagina Monologues was a good place to begin because of my familiarity and history with the piece and it’s relevance and adaptability  to any space. The Vagina Monologues also fits Co-Op Theatre East’s mission statement and marked our second time as a company participating in the V-Day Campaign.

As I mentioned, I was a college V-Day organizer for 4 years. Producing and directing The Vagina Monologues on campus at Pace University was my pride and joy. Each year I came up with a theme and setting for the piece. One year the stage was set up as a restaurant, the next year a school with a Vagina Basketball Team and Vagina Cheerleaders… while it sounds bizarre, there was funding for sets and costumes so we utilized it to its fullest extent. (By the way – The Vagina Basketball Team year won us a “National Production Excellence” Award) We had large casts with anywhere from 20 to 50 students, faculty and staff members in it. We also had free reign of the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts in lower Manhattan, which seats 700+. I had it pretty good for a student director.

2005. The year we turned the first half of the second act of Vagina Monologues into a dance piece.

2005. The year we turned the first half of the second act of Vagina Monologues into a dance piece.

Six years later, with life experience The Vagina Monologues has taken on an entirely new meaning much deeper than it ever did for me as an undergraduate student, beginning to wrap my head around the injustices and harrowing statistics of rape, sexual assault and murder facing women around the world. Having now had the unfortunate (and fortunate) experiences described in many of the pieces, I felt a deeper connection and appreciation of Eve Ensler’s work. I imagine that every few years I will have a new understanding of the pieces as I continue to grow. Some of the pieces that somewhat affected me as a student had me curled up in the fetal position this time around.

“Crooked Braid”, based on interviews by Eve Ensler with women from the Oglala Lakota Nation was one such piece that had me in the fetal position. It’s always been a favorite because it addresses the cycle of violence and how its generational. However, this time it was deeply personal because I have direct connection with the struggles of Native American communities through the work my boyfriend does in developing Native theatre. 1 in 3 Native American women are beaten or raped in her lifetime. This is a national disgrace. I see how the violence and legacy of colonialism has affected Ryan and his community and cannot help but think of what our daughter’s future will look like (should we have one) if this rampant violence continues.

I wanted to explore what the piece would look like completely scaled down to its bare bones with a cast of six in my building. Originally, I considered only doing it with 3 women but there are so many talented actors I want to work with, I brought in 6. I invited some of my favorite brave actors to play with me. There were no promises of what it might look like or even if it would work. We worked together in breaking down each piece, talking about where we could set the piece that serves it best in the space (either my apartment or building itself) and how it fits into the overall context of the larger play.

Patrick J. Paglen runs through lines for "I Was There in the Room". This unconventional casting choice was a moving surprise for audiences.

Patrick J. Paglen runs through lines for “I Was There in the Room”. This unconventional casting choice was a moving surprise for audiences.

Things I learned:

– Show are meant to be performed for audiences. In site specific work the audience creates the aesthetic as much as the space itself. Bringing in invited audiences during tech week is super helpful in the development as it allows for actors to connect and for the company to see traffic patterns and how many people can fit in the space. Our aim was to bring 15 people into the space per show. Through trial and error, we realized 15 people would never fit and cut the audience size down to 10.

– Structuring rehearsal time is pressing. The domestic setting invites a casual atmosphere, which is wonderful for allow actors to feel comfortable. I found it to be a challenge in using time wisely as off-topic conversations became more common. It was harder for me to focus, as I was in my own space than if I were in a rehearsal studio.

– Prepare for the unexpected. Late audience ringing buzzers during intimate moments could be frustrating but also something unexpected to play with. Last night we had an audience member show up in the middle of the piece entitled “The Vagina Workshop”, as he entered, the actor performing the piece welcomed him to the workshop, invited everyone to clap for him as an initiation and invited him to take a seat on his yoga mat. During a matinee, a neighbor was moving furniture up and down stairs which forced us to adjust the entire first half of the show and move it to a less congested spot. Additionally, we dealt with passerbys on the street (nothing will invite uninvited commentary more than five women calling out “Vagina”) and tenants in the building moving through during pieces in the public spaces.

– Illness. During tech week I had a severe relapse of the flu. Bringing cast members over to rehearse in my apartment was dangerous but how could we not run the show? We had to walk a very fine line.

– Light affects everything. We had only rehearsed the show at night, in the dark. We used area lights and controlled lighting in different areas of my building through various flashlights. The lighting set the tone for many pieces.

What COTE’s Production of The Vagina Monologues Did:

– Brought people together. We met neighbors we didn’t know previously. In fact, one extraordinary woman is in my apartment as I write this. We’ve created a writers group that’s going to meet every Sunday evening. This is the reason why I’m successfully finishing this blog post instead of looking at cat memes or facebook.

– Challenged our perceptions of how space is used, manipulated and what can/can’t be done in a space.

– Given the space, it made all of the pieces super intimate and relatable – even the more brassy monologues such as “Angry Vagina”, “Cunt” and “Woman Who Liked to Make Vaginas Happy” were honest, not played for laughs and identifiable.

– Made the issue of violence against women deeply personal. Our feedback was that it brought the issue home in a way that had never been experienced before.

– Allowed the 4th Wall to be broken and for actors to connect with audience and each other in a way that wouldn’t be possible in a traditionally large space.

I sincerely recommend making theatre in your living space (Make art anywhere!).  It will challenge you and allow your imagination to work in ways you never thought possible. Your audiences and storytelling will be in for a treat.

Dominique Fishback and Brenda Crawley rehearse the end of "The Little Coochie Snorcher that Could". (Photo by Patrick J. Paglen)

Dominique Fishback and Brenda Crawley rehearse the end of “The Little Coochie Snorcher that Could”. (Photo by Patrick J. Paglen)

Ashley Signature

4 Comments leave one →
  1. The Reflective Artist permalink
    March 7, 2013 10:45 am

    I love that you did this! Sounds like an awesome production, and I’m sad that I missed it.

    Also, did we talk about OVNV? I did their British Theatre workshop this November as well. Such a wonderful program!

  2. The Growing Artist permalink
    March 8, 2013 1:26 am

    This is great! It’s wonderful how you created a new way of seeing theater. The audience was actually there in the scene with the actors. I love the pictures you included in your post as well! Congrats!

  3. The College Theatre Dork permalink
    March 8, 2013 3:57 pm

    This is brilliant and beautiful and something I wish I could have been involved with or at least seen; but at least, luckily, I was working in my own college production of the Vagina Monologues.

    My vagina applauds you, madam. Bravo.

  4. March 10, 2013 11:48 am

    What an exciting project. Congratulations!!!! Yes, site specific theatre is really a wonderful way to work. you are so courageous for presenting the Vagina Monologues this way!

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