As some of the readers of this blog know, I was recently in a production of ‘The Vagina Monologues’. In fact, many of you came to see it, and I had people from all across the world emailing me words of encouragement, which I really appreciate – so I want to begin this post by thanking you all for that.
I have decided to write this post because I think it is important that I share what being in ‘The Vagina Monologues’ was like. I’m aware that audience members only experience the cast’s performances on the night, but do not get much insight in to things like: the transformation many cast members underwent, the revelations made during rehearsals or the feelings experienced while performing the monologues.
Firstly, I thought I would tell those who do not know about my role in the monologues.
It was certainly a bold casting decision on the part of the directors – I was chosen to perform the monologue ‘Reclaiming Cunt’.
I think a number of people might wince just at reading the word ‘cunt’, and understand that this is a hard monologue to grapple with if you struggle with that word. Plus, the orgasm sounds half way through the monologue make it even more of a challenge to perform. Yes, saying the ‘c word’ and moaning orgasmically in public – I think that is quite a tall order for anyone.
For those who do not know, I am an overly polite English girl. My voice is stereotypically English (think along the lines of Julie Andrews or Kate Winslet) and whilst I am getting better at it (especially after the monologues), I do have to work on not being too inhibited. Therefore, when I found out what my monologue was I was nervous about how it could be performed by me – the very antithesis of the wonderfully liberated American women I had watched perform it on youtube. But hey, I’ve shouted ‘cunt’ and moaned in front of over roughly four hundred people now – I think I’ve done rather well with letting my guard down.
Now that you have a flavour of what I was involved in, I would like to share the aspects of ‘The Vagina Monologues’ that the audience is not always able to access: what I understand the importance of the monologues to be, the experience of working with the rest of my cast, and my personal journey towards ‘reclaiming cunt’.
To begin with, why I believe that the monologues are so important.
‘The Vagina Monologues’ (1996) were created out of Eve Ensler’s ‘Vagina Interviews’. Eve has interviewed women about their vaginas, sex, relationships etc. all across the world. Some of my favourite recurring questions that women have been asked are if their vaginas wore outfits and could speak what would they wear and say? What great questions – think about it. (My vagina would adorn itself with wild flowers and instead of saying things, I think it would sing a lot). The content of the monologues draws from these interviews. The topics the entire production spans is tremendous. Pubic hair, various names for vaginas, orgasms, the way vaginas look, female ejaculation, cervical exams, rape, the clitoris, moaning, masturbation, genital mutilation, birth – to name a few. Furthermore, the monologues are constantly evolving. Eve edits them and writes a new monologue addressing current issues every year.
I think this is part of what makes the monologues so unique, and significant, not only for women, but society as a whole. While watching it there are so many topics you can relate to (maybe things you have never openly discussed) or learn about (there are so many aspects of the female experience we can remain blind to). The monologues provide an outlet to discuss topics like those mentioned above – and I think one of the greatest challenges to feminism is finding the space or means for women to express concerns, or just be able to talk openly about their experiences. I’ve often found that women struggle to discuss issues close to them. I think it is notable that in our first cast meeting we were all asked what drove us to be part of the monologues and that my response was that I’m British and a girl – so I feel that on two fronts. Thanks to my nationality and gender I feel that I’m often expected to be reserved – a ‘good’, quiet British girl. I wanted to push myself to defy this and saw the monologues as a place I could do so. I think it is so important for women to engage with and feel comfortable in themselves – the monologues, to me, serve as a means to raise issues people are less aware of, and give women a voice.
Now, to discuss my beautiful cast members.
Each production of ‘The Vagina Monologues’ is different. Each production consists of a different group of women (or sometimes men depending on the director’s vision), with different backgrounds, that they bring to their performances. I think it is not unusual in theatre for actors to bring a personal element to their performance. But, in the monologues I think it is unavoidable – the subjects are so sensitive that performers have to be vulnerable. This is part of why I loved my cast – and what I take my hat off to our directors (Marian and Teddy) for – our cast was so varied. We were all of different ages, academic backgrounds, cultures, sexual backgrounds etc. I think that really showed in our performances. The audience was able to witness, through all of us, how diverse and uniquely beautiful women can be.
However, the audience had just over an hour to see what all of the wonderful women in my cast are like. Whereas, I had the joy of getting to know and watch my cast mates grow over months. Being part of the monologues was like being part of a family (a happy family of ‘vagina warriors’ – that’s what we ended up being called). This close, family atmosphere did not just appear from the first day. It developed because being in the monologues is highly cathartic. It was impossible to be so vulnerable in your performance and not share that with the other people you were working with. Naturally, what is said amongst the vagina warriors, stays with the vagina warriors – so no details – but, a large number of my cast mates shared sensitive information with me. As a result, I became even more in awe of them as I got to watch them fight their demons and share themselves so openly on stage. It was eye-opening and humbling to work with so many strong, brave women. We all rose up (like true warriors), opened ourselves up to the audience and supported each other through the whole process. I ended every performance not only feeling proud of myself, but proud of the amazing women I was lucky enough to work with.
Last, but not least, my personal journey through the monologues.
As I mentioned earlier, when I was given my monologue I was nervous. Before being cast in the monologues I could not say the dreaded ‘c word’ at all. In fact, the first time I brought myself to say it properly and clearly was in my audition. I never thought I would actually perform the monologue (honestly, I did not think I would get cast) – I took my audition as a small moment to let myself go and something to look back on as ‘that time I pushed myself to be bold’. Well, when I found out that I would in fact be required to say ‘cunt’ hundreds of times in rehearsal and then eventually on stage, I realised that my small outburst where I let my confident alter-ego roam free would have to be prolonged.
So, moving from my audition, through rehearsals, to the final performances was a difficult, but ultimately rewarding experience. I find it easy to withdraw and be a ‘quiet, well-behaved English girl’ when I feel vulnerable. I knew that to do justice to this monologue I had to break that. I was determined to push myself out of my comfort zone and perform it properly – I owed that to the women Eve Ensler interviewed, my cast, my directors, myself and all of the women across the world who do not have opportunities to be vocal or powerful. So many women in the world are denied a voice – the privilege I had been given of a chance to be vocal was not something to squander.
I came to learn to say ‘cunt’. This seems so ridiculous to me now, but it honestly took weeks and weeks of just making myself say it over and over again. Now I am able to say it without a second thought. In fact, over time I really came to love saying ‘cunt’. Every performance I would stand in the centre of the stage, ready to say my first line – ‘I call it cunt’ – and would feel a smile already forming. I felt so powerful, ready to unleash this word upon the audience and show people that women can say (in fact, ‘reclaim’) the word ‘cunt’ and enjoy it.
Interestingly, the mother of one of my friends told that me I was ‘too nice’ to say ‘cunt when she discovered that I was performing this monologue. That just made me love my monologue even more – I wanted to show that even ‘nice girls’ can say ‘cunt’. That is what this monologue is about – defying convention and reclaiming the ‘c word’. Being told that you are a ‘nice girl’ is a bit of a double edged sword. Of course it is always lovely to hear that someone thinks you are nice – and I would only ever want to be respectful of others and make that impression. But, at the same time, being a ‘nice girl’ can be limiting. A nice girl doesn’t make a fuss, a nice girl often accommodates others before herself, a nice girl doesn’t say ‘nasty’ words like ‘cunt’. In a way, being a nice girl can silence you. Women can be made to feel like they cannot be outspoken or assertive because that’s not ‘nice’. Even on the basic level of reclaiming cunt, you can be told that you should not do that because you are a nice girl. I think my monologue, ‘Reclaiming Cunt’, shows you that is not the case. Any girl (including nice girls) can take that word and revel in it. And that’s where I commend the work of my directors once again – to take a voice like mine (with all its associations of politeness, reservedness etc.) and have me reclaiming cunt showed exactly that.
There was another aspect of my monologue that I battled with – in some respects more so than saying ‘cunt’. Making orgasm noises. At one point in ‘Reclaiming Cunt’ a number of words beginning with ‘u’ are recited – ‘under, up, urge’ – and then those words are followed by ‘ugh. ugh.’ It seems logical that those ‘ugh’s are interpreted as orgasmic – the words before them can all be understood sexually, and build towards a climax. Furthermore, all of the performances of the monologue I watched out youtube interpreted the ‘ugh’s that way.
Making those noises was intimidating – they are particularly intimate, and certainly make you feel exposed in front of people you do not know (and people you do know come to think of it!). I was frightened. I was afraid to share such intimate noises with strangers, and to sexualise myself. I am not, and never have been, a girl to turn heads or be considered particularly sexy – and, in a way, that is a safe place to be.
At the beginning of the rehearsal process I was not committing to my moans. I made them rather quickly and half-heartedly. It was obvious how uncomfortable I was. As a solution, my director suggested that I could perform my ‘ugh’s like a British expression of excitement instead. I’m afraid this is a sound rather hard to articulate in words – think of a group of British people in the countryside, playing croquet and saying things like ‘Ugh! Yes! Jolly good!’ It’s a deep, short, satisfied burst of sound, often accompanied by a little fist pump. For a couple of rehearsals I made happy British sounds and left the moans behind – I escaped my discomfort. Whilst this felt more comfortable, it did not feel right. I knew that I was not pushing myself and taking the easy way out. I had to give such a powerful monologue my full commitment. I saw, and do see, ‘Reclaiming Cunt’ as inspiringly liberated. The woman performing the monologue not only has to reclaim ‘cunt’, but also her sexual nature, by revelling in a word associated with her genitalia to the point of making orgasm noises.
As I have said before, I feel that women are often unable to be particularly vocal, or made to feel they are behaving in an improper manner if they become outspoken. I think the sexual nature of my monologue, reaching its peak at the orgasm sounds, is a powerful defiance of that. The monologue presents a woman entirely comfortable in and enjoying her sexuality. I think just for other women (and for men) to witness that is eye-opening. It was my duty to show that. So, I tried making orgasmic sounds in rehearsals again. And the second time around I felt powerful, not embarrassed – because I knew that I was conveying an important image to my audiences, and learning something myself.
All of this is why I loved my monologue and being in ‘The Vagina Monologues’. On a greater level I felt connected to the rest of womankind – the monologues share issues significant to our gender and make sure that they are heard. On a personal level, ‘The Vagina Monologues’ gave me newfound confidence – being part of them is one of the most empowering things I have done. If anyone ever has the opportunity to see, or be in, ‘The Vagina Monologues’, I could not recommend it more. My mother and sister were so moved by them that they came to watch them not once, but twice..
My lovely cast: