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   "The Vagina Monologues"- Too Female-genitalia-friendly for Theater? Not from this Actor's Point of View
By Katreen Hardt

The first time I came across Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues" was in a bookstore in New York City's East Village sometime in 1998. I was on the lookout for a new play for me and my colleague, Sigi, an enormously talented and hardworking redhead who runs the Theater Combinale in Lübeck, Germany. I remember thinking what a great title; it certainly got my attention anyway. But after picking up the book, a thin, vermilion-colored paperback, and leafing through a few of the monologues, I decided to put it back on the shelf. A little too feministic for my tastes, I thought. I am woman, yes, and I am in favor of women's rights, but I am not a feminist. I do not belong to that generation of women who, in the 1970's, pressed for ratification of an Equal Rights Amendment. The book was a throwback to that time, I thought, a '90's dramatization of "Our Bodies, Ourselves." Suffice it to say I was having difficulty imagining it staged.

The following summer I spent in Iowa City, Iowa. Though I was there to write, I spent a considerable amount of my time flipping through books at Prairie Lights, the local bookstore, secretly comparing the works of other young female writers whose first novels were, unlike mine, already finished and on display. It was here that, for the second time, I came across Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues." And again I remember thinking what a great title. I picked it up-why, I don't really know; I was already familiar with the book-and began to read. I still considered it feministic yet the majority of the monologues, from an actor's standpoint, were simply too good to ignore. I bought two copies-one for myself and one for Sigi. She didn't like it (a play in which the word vagina appears 132 times might be considered scandalous to the average American, but not a German); she, too, was skeptical. "How is this interesting?" She asked me the first time we spoke on the phone regarding the production. It was an honest question that I did not have the answer to. But we both agreed that there were some good female monologues (a rarity in the theater) included among the collection. And so it was because of these characters, and their personal vagina stories, that the two of us decided to pursue the rights.

For the record, this was before Eve Ensler was performing her one-woman show at the Westside Theater, an Off-Broadway venue in midtown Manhattan, to sold-out crowds six nights a week. And it was before "The Vagina Monologues" was being performed by three well-known TV or movie actresses all sharing the stage together before being rotated and replaced by three other well-known TV or movie actresses in theaters across the United States and Canada. And it was long before the recently defunct kozmo.com was selling the book on its website with free delivery in under an hour. It was a sheer coincidence that while we were trying to find out who in Germany even owned the rights, Ms. Ensler was getting ready to re-open her show at the 249-seat aforementioned location. ("The Vagina Monologues" originally premiered in 1996 at Here, a Soho theater, where it ran for nearly three months and won an Obie.)

What struck me the most upon seeing the show, or, more importantly, upon hearing the words spoken aloud, was Ms. Ensler's delivery; she has incredible knack for timing. I hadn't realized how funny, how entertaining, how poignant, how poetic "The Vagina Monologues" could be. Nor had I realized how important this piece of theater was: There are bad things happening to vaginas everywhere and it's about damn time we do something about it. Included in the show were also two monologues, and a certain happy vagina fact, that were not included in the book.

Taking "The Vagina Monologues" to Germany

In January 2000, S. Fischer Verlag, the German publishing house, gave us the performance rights, albeit over the phone. A contract, they said, would be drawn up and sent out shortly along with a copy of the translation which, to our surprise, already existed. They mentioned that there had not been a lot of interest in the show (they had been sitting on the rights for nearly two years) although there was a theater in Southern Germany currently performing the piece on a monthly basis. We opted for a September premiere, wanting to open our 2000/2001 season with it, determined to be the first theater in Northern Germany to come out with the production. That changed, however, when we were informed-not but a week later-by the very same publishing house that there was another theater, a bigger theater, a state-run theater in Hamburg, a mere 60 kilometers south of Lübeck, suddenly expressing an interest in the show as well. And that they, too, wanted to open their 2000/20001 season with the female-genitalia-friendly production. And that they, too, wanted to be the first theater in Northern Germany to do so. Thus, we were told, because the theater in Hamburg, whose name was kept confidential, could accommodate more people on any given night than we could, were granted the privilege of opening first. (It should be noted that most theaters in Germany are 100% state supported; the Theater Combinale is a private theater, founded by four actors 20 years ago, and is only partially funded by the government.) They chose October. So we chose November. November 3rd to be exact.

I received my copy of "Die Vagina Monologe" (pronounced dee VAH-geena mo-no-lo-ge) in the mail on Valentine's Day. I took this as a positive sign. In the eyes of Ms. Ensler, Valentine's Day is also known as V-Day and it is an annual event, started four years ago, to call attention to violence against women. To my disappointment, however, it turned out to be a rather incomplete translation-only some of the monologues had been translated and not one of the introductions-making it a bit thin in terms of content, not to mention coherency. Missing were also the two additional monologues, and the happy vagina fact, that I'd first heard, and first become aware of, the night I attended Ms. Ensler's performance-material that was not only very comical, but extremely vital to the overall structure of the play. As without it, the show was destined to become exactly the type of show I wanted to avoid-both as actress and audience member. That show being a bunch of pissed-off feminists sitting around insinuating that men are the ones to blame for any problems or issues, be them mental or physical, that they might have with their vaginas with a bit of trivia i.e. responses from the 200 women Ms. Ensler interviewed when asked the question "If your vagina got dressed, what would it wear?" thrown in for good measure. I made it my mission to obtain this new, additional material. Not only was it important in terms of character balance, but it was the stuff that would ultimately set us apart from the state-run theater in Hamburg and, for that matter, all those other "Vagina" productions soon to be cropping up all over Germany.

One of the many advantages of having "The Vagina Monologues" running in New York during this time was that it made it a whole lot easier for me to figure out who it was I had to get in touch with for an updated copy of the script. Through Ensler's "people," I was also given permission to translate this new material: "Because He Liked To Look At It," a woman's tale of how, after having a good experience with a man, she comes to love her vagina, "My Angry Vagina," a lament about feminine hygiene products, gynecological exams and thong underwear (a monologue originally written by Ms. Ensler for Whoopie Goldberg) and "Who Needs a Handgun?" an amusing quote from the book "Woman: An Intimate Geography" by Natalie Angier. (In the meantime, of course, this material is available to anyone in the newly revised "The Vagina Monologues: The V-Day Edition.")

In June I flew to Germany for the first time to begin work on the production. We hired a director, a meticulous and warmhearted woman by the name of Stephanie, and, together, over the course of the next four weeks, the three of us translated, adapted, re-wrote and re-worked some of the material in the script that had, in our opinion, been poorly translated. Many of the euphemisms for the word vagina, for example, were meaningless to a Teutonic audience. Ulrich Stock, a book critic for Die Zeit, wrote in his review, "Waterkant? Excuse me, please? Is this supposed to be a translation of water cunt?" It wasn't until our first read-through that we realized, what with only two actresses taking turns reciting the lines, our "Monologues" were unwittingly taking on the predictable characteristics of dialogue. Hence the hiring of our third actress, a beautiful young woman called Nina.

The Problem with the "V-word"

We started rehearsals in late September; in October we began promoting the show, hanging posters in shop windows, distributing the theater's program around town, calling up radio and television stations. Being that we were in Germany (and not in prude America) we expected few, if any, problems. I reminded my colleague of some of the obstacles Eve Ensler had faced with her production. How there had been complaints, for instance, regarding the banner hanging in front of the Westside Theater in New York. (I think it was the size of the word vagina, rather than the word itself, that people found offensive.) How one television station had tried to produce a show about "The Vagina Monologues" without using the word vagina. And how at some theaters, where Ms. Ensler performed on tour, recorded voices on box-office answering machines said only "Monologues" or "V. Monologues." My colleague, Sigi, at the Theater Combinale assured me that such censorship wouldn't happen in Germany-not in the year 2000. To her complete and utter disbelief, however, it did.

No sooner were the posters-with the play's title, author, and director's name written inside the form of an upside down triangle-hanging in front windows of numerous shops throughout Lübeck, did they disappear. NDR, a regional television station which has covered many Theater Combinale productions in the past, warned us, "with that title you can forget about appearing on television." Even ticket sales were unusually slow for the theater-only the premiere was sold-out. Die Lübecker Nachrichten, the town's local newspaper, wrote an article about us entitled, "Das Problem mit dem V-Wort" (The Problem with the V-Word) sighting above issues. Magazines like Stern and Focus soon picked-up on the story and suddenly we were national news. All because of a word. A word apparently so powerful that the mere mention of it is enough to create controversy in two distinct countries on either side of the Atlantic. It goes without saying that we looked forward to our premiere with a small sense of trepidation.

But good news travels quickly. Immediately following the opening we were bombarded with phone calls; the theater's answering machine was filled to capacity the next day with messages from people in search of tickets. And despite the fact that our outgoing message articulated perfectly the play's title, would-be audience members, suddenly faced with the dilemma of having to SAY the word vagina, nervously giggled and stuttered their way through inquires often requesting tickets for such shows as "The Vaginal Monologues," "The Monologue Piece" or, simply, "That Show Next Thursday." Even before the reviews were out, it was clear that "The Vagina Monologues" at the Theater Combinale was a hit. And what a hit at that.

All of a sudden audiences, who would have otherwise left the theater following a performance, were sticking around to eagerly discuss the play over a glass of wine. Both men and women rejoiced over the "leichtigkeit"-the ease by which the monologues were presented. Wives, who had brought along their husbands, secretly thanked us for saving them "certain discussions" at home. (While other, older women insisted that they ought to be able to keep a few secrets for themselves.) A group of younger women, spurred on by "My Angry Vagina" shared amid roars of laughter their most intimate gynecologist stories. On a more serious note, conversations could be overheard on the subject of female genital mutilation and the atrocities inflicted upon the rape camp victims of Bosnia. Whatever the subject matter, at the heart of it all, was the vagina. People were talking about the vagina. And better yet, people were using the word vagina as if it were the most natural thing in the world; the sense of disgust or shame or guilt usually associated with the word had disappeared.

In March 2001 we were invited to perform in Nürnberg as a part of their International Women's Day Festival; it was to be a private performance for women only. We had been aware, even before our arrival, of the problems they had been having with publicity. A poster-with a drawing of an orchid that looked suspiciously like a vagina-had been banned by the city and they were concerned about whether or not anyone would even show up for the performance. In the end, six hundred women cheered and applauded us as we walked on to that stage that night. It was a rock star experience if ever I've had one.

With so much support for "The Vagina Monologues" (the show is still running Off-Broadway and now in Los Angeles as well as other theaters all over the world), the time has come for women to start speaking openly about their experiences. By sharing our own stories we can help heal a past full of negative attitudes and violence against the most sacred part of the female body. There is a personal vagina story inside every single one of us. And the theater is in need of more good female monologues.

Author/actor Katreen Hardt has been acting with the Theater Combinale, a German theater company, for more than 10 years. Her involvement with Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues," from her pursuit of the German performance rights in 1999 to touring with the successful production in 2001, has been by far the most rewarding. Katreen has appeared in two Hal Hartley movies: "Henry Fool" and "The Book of Life." She lives in New York where she is at work on her first novel. Katreen Hardt is also the author of the story which ran on this site last month, "I was Gwenyth Paltrow's Body Double."
 
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