V-day for Hong Kong women
A play in which women talk openly about their anatomy is causing controversy - and packing theatres - wherever it appears. Amanda Watson talks to the people behind The Vagina Monologues
A CURIOUS THING has been happening in the Philippines this month. Tickets for a play there are flying out of the box office - but the producers are facing an impossible task getting sponsors for the show. 'And the most bizarre thing,' says New Voice Company artistic director, Monique Wilson, 'is that despite the fact the play is about women's empowerment, it's the company bosses who are women who are far less receptive to our approach for backing than the men.'
Suggestions have been made to Wilson that in order to get sponsors hooked the title of the show would have to change. Could The Vagina Monologues please be renamed The V Monologues, she has been asked. She has also been told that by putting the show on, she is destroying the moral fibre of the Philippines. Vagina is not a word she's allowed to say when discussing the play on the country's radio and TV stations. Meanwhile, Wilson looks certain to fill her 700-seat Manila venue several times over.
Singapore Repertory is also very interested in putting on the show 'but I said to them, 'Umm, I think you'd better read the manuscript first' ', Wilson says. And then there's the reaction in Hong Kong to look forward to later this year when the show arrives at the Fringe Club for a 12-night run. If the authorities feel the urge to cover up naked statues, how is a show which incorporates sketches like the ranting My Angry Vagina going to go down?
It's been like this since the monologues first hit the bookshops in New York in 1997. Author Eve Ensler raised a lot of eyebrows - and a lot of money - with her 'series of casual vagina interviews'. Her book became a one-woman show, starring Ensler herself and is now mostly done as a three-hander. The Vagina Monologues has become a pop culture hit in the West and celebrities are still lining up to appear in it three years on. New York first lady Donna Hanover won tributes for her courage in agreeing to appear in the off-Broadway production, causing husband Mayor Rudolph Giuliani political embarrassment when he was running for the US Senate. There was the little matter of the play's explicit subject matter and Ensler's friendship with Giuliani's opponent Hillary Rodham Clinton. With his prostate cancer and their 16-year-old marriage unravelling, Hanover postponed and has only just agreed a new date for her debut.
The high-profile role-call continues. Celebrities talking audiences through such topics as orgasms, pelvic exams, rape and childbirth, have included Susan Sarandon, Whoopi Goldberg, Winona Ryder, Kristen Johnston, Kate Winslet, Lily Tomlin, Melanie Griffith, Kirstie Alley, Claire Danes, Mary McDonnell, Gillian Anderson, Lara Flynn Boyle, Marisa Tomei, Roseanne and Alanis Morisette (substituting for Calista Flockhart).
It's not, it seems, just the lure that money raised from the performances goes to charity. It's that even for the less-than-constrained Hollywood set there seems to be something liberating about standing in front of a crowd and delivering sketches like The Little Coochie Snorcher That Could, Because He Liked To Look At It, or The Vagina Workshop, about a real-life class taught by an American woman who hands out mirrors to participants.
'Men talk about their genitalia all the time, but for women, that whole thing is still shrouded in mystery,' says Wilson, 30, who runs one of the few avant-garde theatre groups to thrive in the Philippines, where musicals are more the norm. 'And from talk about vaginas comes other very pressing but undiscussed feminine issues - everything from rape and incest and abuse to our dreams and fantasies. It's not just about standing on stage and saying the c-word. It's opened up a whole spectrum of things women can finally talk about.'
What lifted Ensler's play from resembling some heart-sinking throwback to 1970s feminism is both its humour and its pace, splicing one tough issue - the tale of a Kosova woman's seven-day military gang rape, for instance - with sketches like the ode to the clitoris. And, yes, there's also the fact that women are still not comfortable referring to their anatomy. Ensler knew it when, after years of tackling women's issues, she suddenly realised there was one major area of their lives she wasn't discussing. 'I was worried about vaginas,' she says. 'I was worried about what we think about vaginas, and even more worried what we don't think about them.
So I decided to talk to women about their vaginas, to do vagina interviews, which became vagina monologues. I talked with hundreds of women. I talked to old women, young women, married women, single women, lesbians, college professors, actors, corporate professionals, sex workers, African American women, Hispanic women, Asian women, Native American women, Caucasian women, Jewish women. At first, women were reluctant to talk. But once they got going, you couldn't stop them.' Ensler's mission has been to highlight the staggering rates of physical and sexual violence perpetrated against women. Wilson, in preparing for the Asian debut of the play, believes that's already happening in the Philippines, given the strong reaction to the play. She expected controversy when she decided to stage it, but was unprepared for how intense the feedback has been.
'Our phones are ringing off the hook. People want us to put this on all over the place. I think it's the fact the Philippines is a very Catholic, very conservative country for one thing. Young people, both men and women, are buying the tickets, and I think it's going to open up the kind of discussion in our society that I hoped it would. We have so much to talk about here, in a country where women leave to become sex slaves, where the maids who go abroad know many of their men are playing around while they're away supporting the family,' Wilson says.
'I'm not a politician, but I know the play is an amazing platform to provoke change. By the very nature of the show, the audience aren't just spectators but participants. We become very complacent about what happens to Philippine women abroad and this will open up discussion. Women in the Philippines are only just taking their place in society, voicing their issues. We have so many unwanted babies everywhere, we don't teach women how to take care of themselves. This is an important piece for the Philippines right now.'
Wilson has the copyright for three years and intends to take her production - with a rotating cast of actresses - around the region. The play has always been performed in aid of charity. Wilson will take the show to New York next year as part of 'V-Day' fund-raiser, an event celebrating women and calling for an end to sexual violence. In the Philippines, money will go to Gabriella, the umbrella group for many Philippine women's organisations. In Hong Kong, it will benefit the Association for Filipina Overseas Workers.
Wilson, the ex-Miss Saigon star and child of the theatre - her father is a film director, her mother an actress - read the book when it first came out but only saw the play in New York in February. 'I was squirming in my seat. The subject matter is so in your face. And it's so fast you don't have time to process it. I think I'm pretty liberated but there's still so much none of us discuss, so much about our rights and freedoms. The Vagina Monologues is very life-affirming. 'By the third monologue you just no longer care about the word 'vagina'.'
The New Voice Company presents Eve Ensler's play, featuring lusty, outrageous, poignant and brave stories based on interviews with women (in English). Oct 3-14. Fringe Theatre, Fringe Club. Bookings at the Fringe Club: 2521 7251.