Eve Ensler Rising

Eve Ensler Rising

With a new play, Emotional Creature, and big plans for V-Day 2013, the activist playwright reaches for new heights.


Photo credit: Lindsay Aikman/Michael Priest Photography

I have known Eve Ensler for almost thirty years, and I have never talked to her about my vagina. We have done lots of other things. In the early 1980s, before she was a famous playwright, author of The Vagina Monologues and founder of the global anti-violence movement, V-Day, we were part of a group that camped out in Battery Park to protest nuclear weapons entering New York Harbor. We danced the can-can across the entrance to the Nevada nuclear test site in 1987 as part of a demonstration against the Reagan administration’s resumption of nuclear testing. To highlight the lack of affordable housing and the power of rich developers in New York, we served brunch to homeless people on long, white, linen-covered tables in front of the Plaza Hotel.

Eve and I danced, laughed, got arrested, got released, but we never talked about my vagina. Not that Eve didn’t ask. She once tried to persuade me by saying she was short of “happy vagina” stories. My vagina was happy enough, but it wasn’t about to talk. If you’re looking for happy parts, muttered my radical feminist self (to herself), why not the clitoris? Besides, isn’t women’s liberation supposed to be freeing us from biology as destiny, identification by body part?

As the 1990s advanced, Eve drew more into theater, I into journalism. We slept in the streets less and traveled the world more, on crisscrossing tracks; I to Northern Ireland, Central America, Haiti, the Middle East, Croatia, Berlin; she to Berlin, Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, Haiti, later Afghanistan.

Then, in 1999, I found myself participating in The Vagina Monologues at Madison Square Garden. The whole event was wildly improbable. Part ringmaster, part mistress of ceremonies, Eve stood in bare feet in the gaping hugeness of that 18,000-seat stadium. Jane Fonda performed giving birth; Glenn Close exploded the word “Cunt!” loud enough to rock the very highest bleacher. I helped to hold a piece of glass for one of Elizabeth Streb’s dancers to fly through, after which Queen Latifah stormed past us and into the spotlight, bellowing, “This is a Rape Free Zone!”

Madonna, eat your heart out! Eighteen thousand people—teen trendies, twin-set professionals, peacenik grandmas, dads, sons, lovers, kids and teary feminists—were all suddenly screaming one word, “Vagina!”

It was then that I told my snarky intellectual self to take a hike. I told the radical feminist to take a break, and I gave up the snark about all things Ensler.

Eve had stopped asking me about my vagina, but she hadn’t stopped asking. She had kept on, asking more than 200 women everywhere she went. What she tapped into wasn’t the clinical truth of individual bodies but rather a broad body of evidence of an invisible, silenced epidemic of rape, assault, brutalization and hate that scarred women of every age, every race, every class, on every continent.

Propelled by what she heard, Eve didn’t just write a play, The Vagina Monologues, and perform it herself for years. She created a fundraising engine for grassroots groups working to combat violence against women, and she sparked a movement. V-Day was founded in 1998 and incorporated a couple of years later.

Once she had earned what she says was a healthy sum and “enough” from the commercial production, Eve gave many of the rights to the play to those who wanted to perform it to raise funds for anti-violence groups in their communities. Facilitated by the small officeless staff of V-Day, The Vagina Monologues has raised more than $90 million for grassroots anti-violence projects, mostly from nonprofessional performances around Valentine’s Day. There have been 5,800 performances around the world in 2012. V-Day has also conducted yearlong “spotlight” campaigns and contributed directly to groups in particular danger zones, including Afghanistan, New Orleans, Haiti, Juarez and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

For the fifteenth anniversary of V-Day, Ensler is calling for an escalation. She wants 1 billion women (and those who love them) to “rise, strike or dance” on February 14, 2013. Participants can do whatever sort of action works for them. The point is for so many people to act together, and to be seen to act together, that attitudes change, Ensler told me in October.

“Fifteen years ago, we started V-Day to end violence against women. Fifteen years on, we’ve had a lot of achievements, but the violence is still going on…. People can say the word ‘vagina.’ They talk about violence against women, but they don’t realize how central it is to our lives. We can either keep picking up the scattered body parts of women all over the world, or we can escalate.” Bring a billion people to take action all at once, and Eve believes One Billion Rising (OBR) will make more than a statement. It will show the existence of a movement. “The earth will move, and attitudes will shift,” she says.

When it first came up, V-Day board member Carole Black was sure she’d misheard. “Don’t you mean a million?” she asked at a meeting. The 1 billion figure comes from a United Nations estimate that one out of three women on earth will be raped or sexually assaulted in her lifetime. Eve did the calculations.

A billion. “OK” said Black, the former president and CEO of Lifetime Entertainment Services. She signed on, and so did groups in 142 countries—in the first two weeks after the announcement on February 14. Today, supporters include the AFL-CIO, National Nurses United, the United Steelworkers of America, Amnesty International, NOW, Planned Parenthood and the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Members of the European Parliament performed the play. The women’s rights minister in France has signed on. So have women’s groups throughout Asia and leaders from seventeen countries in Africa. In the Philippines, the largest union, Kilusang Mayo Uno, has joined the cause, as has UNITE, the largest union in Britain.

Asked how she explains it, Black says, “Eve’s the real deal. She’s the realest, most committed person I’ve ever met. She makes you believe with the strength of her belief.”

* * *

Eve’s beliefs are rooted in trauma and theater. In her 2007 book, Insecure at Last (a meditation on deadly American illusions about safety in the wake of the attacks of 9/11), she describes being raped and brutally beaten by her father, a food company CEO, from age 5 to 10. Growing up in hell (in suburban Scarsdale, New York), Eve was able to step outside herself through writing. “It gave me a place I could go,” she told Pat Mitchell in a televised interview last year.

Her love of theater came in college. A class led to productions, including a college production of The Bacchae, in which Eve remembers playing Agave. In Euripides’ play, Agave kills her own son in an ecstatic, Dionysian frenzy. “I entered the stage with a head on a stick and blood dripping down my arm,” says Eve. “I was sliding in the blood…. It was a marriage instantly.”

There’s a trace of the Dionysian in Ensler. She believes in the power of collective experience, the power of direct action, the power of people having an experience together, in the streets or in the theater. The collective joy of the sort Barbara Ehrenreich writes about in Dancing in the Streets; the sort that enlivened pre-capitalist life but is banished today mostly to pop concerts or, occasionally, political protests.

I think of the theater that brought Eve and me together. We loved the anti-fascist satirist Dario Fo (Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay). We stuck the same black-and-white portrait of Samuel Beckett on our walls. When Harold Pinter won the Nobel Prize, we hadn’t spoken in months, but she immediately picked up the phone to call me, squealing. We thought the theater we were witnessing was theater at its most alive. Similarly, we thought the creative tactics of Abbie Hoffman, ACT UP and the can-can dancers at the Nevada test site were the only tactics tactile enough to touch people’s hearts and move them.

Ensler’s latest play, Emotional Creature, opens at New York’s Signature Theater on Forty-second Street, on November 12. Based on her best-selling book I Am an Emotional Creature, the play explores the lives of girls, sexual abuse, their relationships with power, their own bodies and each other. Eve wants this play to do what The Vagina Monologues did: spark a movement.

In mid-October, on the first day of rehearsals, Eve arrived at the theater emanating urgency. It wasn’t just that the cast was convening barely two weeks before previews. Eve was on fire because she had received word that a 14-year-old girl in Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai, had been shot in the head in what looked like a Taliban assassination attempt. Yousafzai has been a visible activist for girls’ education since age 11. Eve was on the phone to her V-Day partners in the region offering assistance.

“This is why we’re here,” she told the assembled stage managers, production managers, public relations officers, front-of-house personnel, actors, producers and one journalist. She formally dedicated day one of rehearsal to Yousafzai. Carole Black and Pat Mitchell, producers of Emotional Creature, nodded their coiffed blond heads.

Emotional Creature, said Eve, “is about more than a play. It’s about a new way of seeing the girl cell in all of us and transforming consciousness.”

“It’s a bit of a high bar for a play, isn’t it?” I ask two of the young actresses in the cast. I don’t know what I was thinking. They’ve both not only seen The Vagina Monologues; they’ve been involved in college productions. Said Ashley Bryant, “When she first said that about starting a movement, I thought uh-huh. Then I got it that she means it.” “Not only means it, she’s done it,” said Emily Grosland.

“When you go into theater you go in believing you’re going to change the world; and then the world gradually gives you the message that’s not what’s going to happen, and you lower your goals. Eve is a successful businesswoman, an artist, an activist, and she is changing the world. She’s changed my world.”

Like Carole Black, Pat Mitchell has never produced a play. A Peabody Award–winning documentary producer and the first woman president and CEO of PBS, Mitchell is president and CEO of the Paley Center for Media. She met Ensler when she was working at CNN in 1997. “Glenn Close called and said, ‘You have to come to Sarajevo tomorrow, because I’m doing a play about Bosnian rape victims with Eve Ensler.’”

“I went,” Mitchell told me.

Out of that visit to Sarajevo, where Close was performing in an early incarnation of Ensler’s play Necessary Targets, came a deep, life-changing relationship. Mitchell became the first member of the V-Day board. Black and Mitchell stepped in to produce Emotional Creature at Eve’s request. They’re a formidable team: two of the most powerful women in media and an activist with a taste for the dramatic.

“There have been times I’ve thought, ‘That could be said more diplomatically,’” says Black of working with Eve. “But that’s not Eve.”

“Eve’s an iconoclast, the outrigger in the canoe,” says Mitchell. “Sometimes you think, ‘Oh my God, where is she leading us now?’”

While Mitchell, like many feminists, backed Hillary Clinton for president in 2008, Ensler opposed her because of her support for the Iraq War. “We most of us have made compromises,” says Mitchell. “She doesn’t compromise. She’s always on the edge, pushing out.”

* * *

Eve’s edge hasn’t led to the easiest of relations with so-called mainstream theater, or activism, or media. In her loft in Chelsea, Eve recalled some of the tensions of earlier days.

“I was confused about being an activist and an artist. They seemed to be at odds. The theater people had problems with me for being political. The political people had problems with me for being artistic.”

In 2002 The New York Times ran a profile titled “Eve Ensler Wants to Save the World.” It still riles her. “The attitude is, how dare you—how dare you be so audacious as to believe you could have an impact?” says Ensler.

It’s as if, confronted by Eve’s ecstatic Agave, critics see only tragedy (Pentheus’ head on that stick). It’s no wonder there have sometimes been clashes. Ensler’s utter lack of ambivalence runs smack up against the media’s cult of “objectivity.”

But the same energy that discomforts some critics is what attracted celebrated director Jo Bonney to Emotional Creature. Ensler and Bonney workshopped the piece in Johannesburg, Paris and Berkeley before bringing this production to New York City. New York is more commercial than it was when Australian-born Bonney arrived in 1979. Coming out of the experimentation of the 1960s, then, “theater, dance, music, film were all part of a bigger social agenda, calling people out on their behavior and the mores of the age.”

In Ensler’s work, Bonney sees what she likes: audiences don’t sit back in their seats. “They lean forward into the performance.” In Eve’s plays, the characters’ questions are asked of the audience. “When I’ve seen her at her best, it’s electric,” says Bonney.

“Electric” is a good word. Eve’s interested in energy that ignites. Just as Dario Fo railed against “dead theater for dead people,” Eve embraces theater that moves people to act, and rails against political talk that leaves people dead to violence.

The root of the Greek word “drama” lies in the word for “deed” or action. Like The Vagina Monologues, Eve wants Emotional Creature to do real work. She’s not interested in intra-feminist fights over essentialism and identity. Emma Goldman is her favorite feminist. Abbie Hoffman is her favorite activist. Like Fo, Beckett, Euripedes and Hoffman, Ensler believes in the outrageous, that which upsets, disrupts. It displaces things as they are to make room for what might be.

I don’t know what evidence the art snarks have on their side, but science backs Ensler and Fo on the matter of change and the brain.

Neuroscientists believe that the structure of the brain leads it to memorize patterns and resist new things. It requires a jolt, they say, to change the brain. Art can jolt, and so can charismatic energy, believes Drew Westen, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory and the author of The Political Brain. Westen says it’s an under-studied field, but he wouldn’t be surprised if charisma has an effect on transmitters like dopamine, which have to do with love and caring. “There is a set of neurons, mirror neurons, which enable us (without [conscious] thought) to feel what another is feeling,” Westen told me. “The art of charisma has that feeling of mutuality, that we both feel the same thing and have the same aspiration.”

Eve is interested in changing complacency enough to end violence against women. On a crack-of-dawn train to Washington not long ago, she put it this way: “What I think I’m particularly good at is creating drama…. I’m good at creating the churning, the outrageous.”

I’m barely awake, but Eve’s blood is running hot. Her e-mail inbox brims with news of gruesome atrocities and barely believable acts of resistance, side by side. The previous night’s presidential debate has included not one use of the word “woman.” The scientifically illiterate views of Missouri Republican Todd Akin on rape are not discouraging him from campaigning, or national Republicans from discreetly supporting him for election to the Senate. From the Philippines comes a picture of several bishops in their religious attire, holding up a small sign: “We Are Rising.” A V-Day activist in Australia has sent a Facebook link to news of a tiny outback town that held a 30,000-strong march after a local woman was raped and killed. Subject head: “We Are Rising.” Eve rattles off the news until I beg her for a breather.

In Washington, Eve is the keynote speaker at a town hall convened by Amnesty International. Why Eve? I ask the organizers. Amnesty’s been a presence on college campuses decades longer than V-Day. Program director Cristina Finch answers, “Amnesty International has been working on the issue of women’s human rights for years, but Eve’s passion fires people up in a different way.”

Sure enough, almost as soon as she’s finished speaking, women of all ages form a line at the microphone that stretches almost to the back of the hall to tell her what their plans are for February 14, 2013, One Billion Rising. Those plans range from pot-luck suppers in rural Vermont to a dance party in Washington’s Dupont Circle by teenage survivors of sex-trafficking.

At the office of Farmworker Justice, Eve is introduced to twenty organizers: mostly Spanish-speaking women from the most vulnerable of communities. Farmworker women face violence from police, from poison, from bosses, from husbands, as well as the grinding violence of back-breaking work for starvation wages. As Eve rises to deliver her OBR speech about women dancing and moving the earth, I hold my breath. But already a murmur is going around the room: “Vageena.” It turns out almost all the attendees have seen the play (which ran for ten years in Mexico City). Before I know it, the women are crowding around Eve, fingers poking the air in “V” signs, chanting “Vageena Campesina.”

Mily Treviño-Sauceda, an organizer from Oxnard, California, told me she’d never seen the play, but she and her sister read it at their kitchen table as soon as it came out in Spanish. Referring to Eve, she exclaims, “She goes out very far, and we need that.”

Score another strike against snark. In an era of mealy-mouthed politicians and penned-in progressives—underfunded, dependent on donor dollars and desperate not to offend—Eve’s “realness” is her power. She’s rarely barefoot these days, but she’s still willing to stand exposed in public, even if tears come.

“Most of us have fear-of-failure or fear-of-embarrassment filters,” says public speaking coach Joel Silberman. Not Eve. “Charisma comes from turning off the editor. She’s not afraid of her emotions, and that’s the root of her power.”

Eve says more simply: “If someone goes out there, everyone can inch a bit forward.”

I’m reminded of what social historian Lewis Mumford wrote about the role of magicians in the advance of science: “Their fiery hopes, their crazy dreams…. To have dreamed so riotously was to make the technics that followed less incredible and hence less impossible.”

Eve’s superhuman drive and riotous dreams make the impossible seem probable. She also has a healthy dose of pragmatism and a record of achievement at her back. V-Day grew up with its own means of support, funded solely by productions of the play. The group now accepts foundation dollars but still refuses money from governments. Some very rich people sit on the board, including Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg and philanthropist Jennifer Buffett. But there’s no discernable blunting of Eve’s edge. In June 2010, writing in The Guardian, Ensler called out the Obama administration for telling her that femicide in Congo was not Mrs. Obama’s “brand.”

“V-Day’s the product of a playwright, but there’s strategy behind it,” says Susan Swan, the organization’s longtime executive director. The group hasn’t wavered; it has a big, clear goal: to end violence against women and girls. There are rules. V-Day productions can’t support other causes, no matter how worthy; they have to support local anti-violence programs. As a result, college organizers have formed connections with women off campus. Also, the play has to be performed as written. When she stopped performing the piece herself, Ensler required that the cast of any commercial production include a woman of color. “That very concretely gave a whole cohort of actresses their first break,” says Swan.

Above all, Eve doesn’t just put her words to work. She puts herself in her work.

Westen says that is critical. “Charisma is in many ways an ability to move people to think that important change can happen,” he says. “But it isn’t only words. Performance is part of it.”

Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now!, a Polk Award–winning journalist, sees a constant flow of newsmakers, artists, activists and academics come through her TV/radio studio every day. Eve brings tears to her eyes, she told me, because “Eve does not stop, she maintains a drumbeat…and she creates community wherever she goes. She leaves a place, and there’s a community behind her.”

When Republicans in Michigan censured Representative Lisa Brown for using the word “vagina” in a floor debate over a package of draconian anti-choice bills, Ensler called State Senator Rebekah Warren, co-chair of the Health Policy Committee and former president of MARAL—the Michigan branch of NARAL, the pro-choice group. Ensler proposed performing The Vagina Monologues in protest. Warren, who knew Eve from years of V-Day performances, agreed on a reading on the steps of the Capitol building.

“It was Friday. The worst time to reach people are weekends…. But how can you beg off a 10 pm conference call if you know Eve Ensler is going to be on it?” Warren said to me.

Three days later, thirteen women legislators, including Warren and Brown, stepped out with Ensler to read the play and found an audience of 5,000 people stretched out on the lawn in front of the Capitol.

“People were looking for some way to respond,” says Warren. Would they have turned out for just a rally? Maybe some of them. “But Eve’s well known as such a fighter for women…it made a difference,” said Warren. Eve’s presence, and the phenomenon of the reading, also brought the media: on MSNBC and CNN the event dominated a news cycle.

“When you look at the world from a place of feminist, or progressive, or any kind of orthodoxy, you can forget where people really are,” says Mallika Dutt, founder and CEO of a global human rights group, Breakthrough, which signed up early to support OBR. In Delhi, Breakthrough booked a 350-seat house for the first Indian performance of The Vagina Monologues. Two thousand showed up, and Dutt almost had a riot on her hands. “She engages people at a level of feeling that’s different from the intellectual language we’ve come to speak,” Dutt told me.

Thinking of feminist orthodoxies reminds me of “the personal is political.” It could be the most poorly understood slogan in contemporary politics. In Eve’s work, the global and the personal meld, as in her life. In 2009, Eve was diagnosed with uterine cancer—stage IV. I got a call. She told me she’d just made it through nine hours of emergency surgery. By the time we could arrange a visit, she was weak from an infection, half her organs seemed to have been removed, and pipes and tubes were connecting her to not one but two waste-container bags. What she wanted to talk about was Congo.

The closer she got to death, she said, the more determined she was to live to see the opening of the City of Joy. The City of Joy, in Bukavu, is a V-Day-funded recovery-and-revival center for women victims of sexual violence in the fifteen-year militia war raging in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In her next book, In the Body of the World (coming out in April from Metropolitan), Eve describes daily calls to her partner at the City of Joy throughout her ordeal with cancer. Christine Schuler Deschryver was on the other end of those calls. The Congo director of V-Day, Schuler Deschryver says she met Eve when she herself was at the end of her rope, frustrated and furious after years of people coming to Congo, promising help and disappearing. “Eve came and stayed,” Schuler Deschryver explained in a phone call.

* * *

In March 2011, the City of Joy opened with a not quite bald Eve in a very short, very red dress, standing side by side with Schuler Deschryver, Mitchell, Black and thousands of Congolese women in Bukavu. Today ninety women, age 14 to 30, are living at the City of Joy house, receiving therapy, learning self-defense and computer skills (thanks to a donation by Google), and preparing to return as leaders to their villages. Did Eve survive thanks to the City of Joy? Did the City of Joy come alive thanks to Eve? It’s not an either/or question. As she describes it in In the Body of the World, her personal survival and the collective project were indistinguishable.

I asked Schuler Deschryver what therapy is like in Bukavu. She tells me it’s not the sort we’re used to in the West. It’s not personal, private, one-on-one in a closed room. Every day at the City of Joy starts with dance, then group storytelling. “In Africa, we live in community. The key to our success is we recover together.” That’s no doubt why Eve loves it.

Fifteen years after the founding of V-Day, fifteen years of brutal war in Congo later, the violence hasn’t stopped. In the news today, I read that Dr. Denis Mukwege, the doctor who inspired Eve to come to Congo—one of the country’s few high-profile people and a past Nobel Peace Prize nominee who has dedicated his life to repairing the broken bodies of brutally raped Congolese women—has narrowly escaped an assassination attempt. His bodyguard was shot dead. Schuler Deschryver is his neighbor. Also in the news: a 10-year-old Dalit girl in India has been gang-raped by village men who videotaped the rape on their cellphones. An American college student, raped by a fellow student, reports being told by her “sex assault counselor” that there was nothing the school could do. Republicans are saying more mad things about rape, and Democrats aren’t getting anyone very excited.

It is hard to imagine violence more ubiquitous or complacency more commonplace. The world needs a jolt. On February 14, 2013, Eve Ensler says One Billion will rise. I believe her.

Laura Flanders blogs regularly on TheNation.com. Her latest dispatch: “Back From the Brink.” is on Democratic victories in the 2012 election.

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