Eve Ensler: Melding Art and Activism

At the 2011 Tonys, Eve Ensler was honored with the Isabelle Stevenson Award, which “recognizes an individual from the theatre community who has made a substantial contribution of volunteered time and effort on behalf of one or more humanitarian, social service or charitable organizations.”  For decades, Ensler has been intertwining creativity and proactivity.  She recently stated at an AMREF event where she received a Distinguished Humanitarian Award, “I am an artist, and that’s where everything comes from.”

Ensler recently sat down for an evening with Pat Mitchell, President of the Paley Center for Media, to specifically discuss the genesis of the connectivity between her two passions.  It began early in her life, when Ensler began writing to keep herself grounded in the midst of a home life that included abuse.  It “saved her.”  She became passionate about “other wrongs”—homelessness and nuclear disarmament prominent among them.

During the Regan era, Ensler reached out to Joanne Woodward to collaborate on her play, The Depot.  The year was 1987. Woodward directed and Shirley Knight starred. The piece embodied an anti-war and anti-nuclear point of view. Ensler related the experience of traveling the United Sates and building the anti-nuclear movement—saying, “Oh my God, we can use theatre to impact this.” It was her epiphany that there was a way to use theatre for social activism.

To tackle the subject of homelessness, Ensler started interviewing women who were living in shelters, developing relationships with them.  Ensler, a riveting speaker who regularly employs humor to drive a point home, said of the New York City at that time, “There were masses of homeless people.  We still don’t know what Giuliani did with them.”

Concern with other people’s estimation of her endeavors has never been a stumbling block for Ensler.  While she was, in her own words, a “way, way, way downtown playwright,” a critic asked her why she thought there was not more political theatre.”  Her deadpan response was, “It has something to do with the critics.”

Ensler forged ahead with her innovative one-woman show, The Vagina Monologues, in 1996.  Currently, there are more than 5,000 performances of the script in 140 countries every year.  When Ensler was in Congo in February, she came to understand that “there’s been this unfolding.”  It taught her how connected people are. Women have approached her not to say that they had seen the play, but to inform her that they had acted in the play.

Recognizing that The Vagina Monologues could be more than just a play, Ensler detailed her love of theatre and her steadfast belief that “it was the greatest tool for revolution and change.”  Gnawed at by the constant perception that “the world was in a state of emergency,” she admitted, “I couldn’t just do a play knowing that there was also the possibility that a theatre piece could stimulate people to action.”  Pointing to the power of reviews to make or break a production, Ensler said, “Critics are teaching people what to buy.  What about saving humanity?”

The Vagina Monologues has been the vehicle that gave birth to V-Day and City of Joy.  On the fact that she has given a large portion of the play’s rights away, Ensler opined, “What’s enough? How do we determine what’s enough?  That said, let’s use it to help others.  What are you going to get in life that is better than that?  A skirt?”

Ensler also spoke about her work at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women, a maximum-security prison in Westchester County, New York.  Invited by Glenn Close to become involved, Ensler started a writing group on-site.  It was, she said, “a profound experience.”  In line with Dostoevsky’s conviction, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons,” Ensler spoke about incarceration and the “real story of America.”  Reflecting on the extent of the abuse that the prisoners had suffered, she put forth, “The mind either shatters and self-destructs—or acts out.”  She discussed the structure of the writing program, a model that has now been duplicated.  Every week the women undertook a different exercise, yielding release and transformation.  For the participants, the day when the actors read their words was a “legitimization.”  Ensler described the level of “truth-telling” at Bedford, and how the women had shown her “what it was to go inside and come out.”  She noted that the work was traveling globally with V-Day, commenting, “And that’s what art does.”

After the interview concluded, the lights dimmed, and a pin spotlight illuminated Ensler. She delivered an intense soliloquy from her book and play, I Am an Emotional Creature.

The transition form activist to actor was seamless.

This article originally appeared on the website cultureID.

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