A group of college students set out to turn a play about the woman’s experience into one about experiencing gender in general.
The Vagina Monologues is a piece of theatre comprised of a series of monologues all centered on vaginas and the female experience. Playwright Eve Ensler derived the piece from a series of interviews she conducted with real women. Every year, thousands of people perform the Vagina Monologues as part of V-Day, a movement Ensler started to help end violence against women.
When the show first premiered Off-Broadway in 1996, it was lauded as a brilliant work of political theatre, with the New York Times calling Ensler “the messiah heralding the second wave of feminism.” However, 20 years later, many young people struggle to identify with the Vagina Monologues. Students at Wesleyan University have come up with a response: the Shmagina Dialogues.
“I remember watching the Vagina Monologues in high school and having a very personal reaction of feeling alienated by many of the monologues,” said Olivia May, a Wesleyan grad, in an email interview. “That’s not Eve Ensler’s fault, I can totally imagine how the show had a unique significance in the time it first was mounted.”
May saw the Vagina Monologues as an open suggestion to continue with the process rather than repeating other people’s words, and so during her senior year in 2014, she reached out to fellow Wesleyan student Emma MacLean.
“My experience of living in my body (as a woman, as a person with a vagina, as the multitude of other conflicting or harmonious things that I am) is complicated,” said Emma MacLean in an email interview. “I should say that I think that the Vagina Monologues definitely have a time and a place and that for many it started a discussion that may not otherwise have been possible. But I also feel that it was written two decades ago and does not include many of the nuances of gender and sex that are part of my reality today. (Some would say it nearly actively excludes them.)”
May and MacLean decided to create their own production. They reached out to their college community for people who were interested in talking about gender, sex, and sexuality in non-traditional ways.
“I don’t think I would have felt the urgency to put this show up without the generosity of trans* people and allies at Wes who vocalized their experiences and did the labor of explaining key truths to their cisgender classmates,” said May. “And, there were queer and trans* perspectives represented in the final production that made it what it was in a very literal way!”
The Shmagina Dialogues presented a variety of experiences, expanding beyond the heteronormative and cisgender ones depicted in the Vagina Monologues. May and MacLean made a point of diverging from the format of Ensler’s show. They didn’t want their show to come from the voice of one person, and the show featured group pieces, non-first-person narratives, poetry, and dance. These pieces addressed, in various ways, “personal experiences, political ideas, and artistic nonverbal responses to ‘vagina.’” The title of the show itself focused on the fact that the performance aimed to open a conversation, using the word “dialogues” in the title as opposed to “monologues.”
Since the first production in 2014, the tradition of the Shmagina Dialogues has continued with other Wesleyan students. In 2015, Wesleyan student Willa Beckman produced a second production. She wanted to really emphasize the cooperative nature of discussions of gender and sexuality.
“I really wanted to emphasize the community. I really wanted it to be this really collaborative project from the get-go,” said Beckman. “I developed it as a safe space, and we wanted to have a conversation surrounding Vagina Monologues and how we speak about vaginas and female sexuality in general. We did outreach to get as many voices as possible. We had videos [of students included in the performance]; there were open sessions for people to come in, say something, answer some questions– broaden the scope even more.”
In addition to producing the second production of the Shmagina Dialogues, Beckman performed in Wesleyan’s annual production of the Vagina Monologues three times. She sees value in both productions, but specifically values the Shmagina Dialogues for opening the conversation to more people.
“The reason I love Vagina Monologues so much is because it creates a really wonderful all-woman space. There’s something really nice about having a group of women together being creative. I think that’s really nurturing in a lot of ways,” said Beckman. “With Shmagina, I spoke to two men who were on tech after closing night and they said how interested they’d been to watch the process. It made them think about things in a more comprehensive way. That was really nice. There’s a lot to be said for all-female spaces, but also co-educated spaces that have discussions about female identity or sexuality in general.”
Wesleyan students Zazie Alter and Lilah Seligman are producing this year’s production, after both both writing and performing pieces themselves in 2015. Since its first production, the Shmagina Dialogues has featured a wide range of experiences, ranging from asexuality to mental health to the trans* experience. And, each of these stories come from students themselves, expressing their feelings about gender, sex, and sexuality in creative ways.
“It was really scary at first to perform [my piece]. Sharing with the group that was working on Shmagina was pretty comfortable because these were all people who were also putting themselves in a really vulnerable place by sharing personal stories,” said Alter. “It’s a very interesting thing to have people now something very personal about you. I had a lot of people wanting to talk to me about it afterwards. People have this insight into your life and it might be something they identify with, or something they have more questions about. And so it’s not just that moment on stage, it’s the days and weeks following.”
The Shmagina Dialogues producers, past and present, all emphasize the fact that gender and sexuality are part of an ongoing open conversation, one that began with the Vagina Monologues, but can now only grow.
“What I really hope,” said May, “is that the show continues to provide a platform for anyone who feels that their ideas or experiences about bodies – having them, understanding them, resisting them, creating them, etc. – can be freely articulated in a supportive environment. It felt like a good personal step for me to perform my own Shmagina Dialogue piece, but I think I ultimately got more out of listening to the other pieces. It is a gift to share the imaginative work of how we might lovingly inhabit ourselves – I’m thankful to have learned from this show.”