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Friday, February 3, 2023

Speak Up

In the corner of the small coffee shop are Kathy Ewing, 82, and Paula Boenigk, 60. The two longtime high school theater teachers use their indoor voices, but with 30 minutes until close, the shop sits mostly empty while a few patrons dart in and out for an on-the-go drink. What can be heard is Ewing and Boenigk saying “vagina” repeatedly. No one flinches but, honestly, when was the last time you heard an 82-year-old woman say “vagina”? Ewing thinks it’s rare. Her friends skip over the word when they learn she is performing in The Vagina Monologues. “We come from a time when we couldn’t say the word,” Ewing says, “and I’m not sure we needed to spell the thing.” Her peers whisper the word, say only the first letter, or call it “that show.” 

That show, The Vagina Monologues, is a live theater experience involving actresses performing monologues about womanhood. It celebrates women, but Eve Ensler — the playwright, performer, and activist who interviewed women for each monologue — has pushed the show from art form to social movement. The Vagina Monologues  has been translated into 48 languages and performed in more than 140 countries. At times, it is seriously disturbing. “It’s really not about sex,” Boenigk. “It’s about abuse, neglect, and torture of women.” There’s rape, incest, female genital mutilation, and sex slavery. Yet, the show has a comedic side. The word “vagina” “sounds like an infection at best, maybe a medical instrument,” is one line from a monologue. “Hurry, nurse, bring me the vagina.”

Six years have passed since The Vagina Monologues was last performed in Evansville, and the show returns Feb. 26 at the Victory Theatre. Like the last time, women of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds take the stage — all under the direction of one man, Steve Small.

When Julia Carver Kathary of Albion Fellows Bacon Center, a shelter for domestic violence victims, wanted to bring Ensler’s work to Evansville in 2003, she tapped a longtime local thespian to direct: Sue Schriber, a passionate supporter of the Evansville Civic Theatre, Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Reitz Home murder mysteries. Schriber declined and suggested Small. When Albion executives contacted Small, he replied, “Are you sure you’re OK with a man directing this?”

The 60-year-old Small had the credentials for a community performance. His first on-stage experience was with an Evansville summer theater program when he was 9 years old. Now, Small is the president of the Civic Theatre’s board of directors, but he’s hard-pressed to pinpoint a reason he could direct 46 women talking about all things vagina. “I don’t want to portray myself as the ultimate, sensitive, aware man,” says Small. “The big thing was to have sympathy with Eve Ensler’s mission to end violence against women.” With that in mind, Small read the script and had one more concern: Could this be cast in Evansville?

Small became a marketing machine. He called colleagues like Ewing and Boenigk who spread the word about auditions. Nearly 90 women came for two, two-hour sessions. “We could have cast the thing three times,” Small says. “We knew that if there were really that many women (the show) means this much to, we would open it to as many as possible.”

The cast was a mix of experienced and novice performers, bonded by the subject matter and a passion that grew more powerful with three workshops designed by Ensler. The aim is to connect the performers beyond the stage, recognize the importance of the work, and express their issues on stage. At the workshops was Small, who at times felt he had little to share. “Some of the exercises and questions — ‘If your vagina got dressed, what would it wear?’ — I just had to say, ‘I have no idea,’” says Small.[pagebreak]

Despite the lack of proper anatomy, Small was “the perfect director,” Boenigk says. “I think he understands women. He understands the script is not like other theatrical productions. We aren’t acting. We are performing other people’s stories, so he doesn’t allow it to become overacted or open to an actress’s interpretation. It’s the story that counts.” Small is quick to deflect the praise. “If I can contribute,” Small says, “it is something I owe the women in my life: my mother, mother-in-law, two sisters, daughter, and wife.” He recognizes personality quirks and viewpoints from each monologue that reflect a woman close to him.

Though surrounded by strong women, Small learned from The Vagina Monologues. “Even men whom I think are very aware,” he says, “we don’t realize how much women have to think about the possibility of violence.” Those monologues about abuse, rape, and power — such as “My Vagina Was My Village,” which was compiled from the testimonies of Bosnian women subjected to rape camps — are moving pieces but prompt critics of the show to cite these pieces as reasons the production is a male-bashing rant. Boenigk disagrees; the performance builds women’s confidence and self-esteem — and not by demeaning men. “I think all of the pieces say, ‘Be yourself,’” she says. “We are not underclassmen. We are not part-time citizens. Stand strong.” Other monologues depict nature’s plight on women such as “The Flood,” a description of the trauma a woman experiences after teenage arousal causes her to shroud her sexuality in a lifetime of shame.

The opposition may be loud, but the support for the show is louder. When Small first directed The Vagina Monologues, the women performed in front of sold-out audiences. “I would love to be in the audience just to feel that wave of acceptance and understanding,” says Boenigk, who returns for this year’s show with Ewing. Like the last time, she expects the monologues to inspire community dialogues. Small agrees. “It’s like any great piece of theater,” he says. “It’s a real roller coaster ride.”

For more on The Vagina Monologues, see our Guide.

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