ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly

The Vagina Monologues

by  BARRY BLAKE



Today we are talking about the vagina. That's V-A-G-I-N-A. Vagina.

So if there's something else you'd rather discuss -- something like Survivor II or the baffling yet painfully obvious causes of the energy crisis, or when lawyers and dogs get together -- then skip along past this.

But if you are even slightly interested, steady on, stout reader, and I'll explain why the vagina is today's topic.

From sex ed to theater arts

The other day I had a long talk with Kristy Hellum. Hellum has been teaching sex ed classes, mother/daughter workshops, and overseeing similar projects under the auspices of Six Rivers Planned Parenthood for the last 11 years. She is a tall, lanky woman with bouncy, brownish-blond hair peppered with a few strands of gray. Although her forehead is serious, she flashes a ready, shining smile to reinforce a particularly telling irony. She doesn't wear make-up. In mid-thought, when she is cranking up to say something tied together by emotion, her eyelids flutter with hummingbird speed.

She was raised in what sounds like a typically American Kodak Family of the 1960s and '70s, except her father was a sociology professor at the University of Montana in Missoula who liked a good cause. Kristy also likes good causes and taught guerilla theater at that university for a time. She moved to California, got a theater arts degree in directing from Humboldt State University and recently finished post-graduate work in psychology at the Institute of Imaginal Studies in Petaluma.

About this degree, she says, "It's around leadership, community, making a difference and changing the soul of the community and what needs to be done. It's about being and doing."

Hellum is passionate about her work. And she is serious about her current project, The Vagina Monologues, which will be presented in three locations Feb. 9, 10 and 17.

In the how-will-I-recognize-you? part of arranging for the interview, I mentioned that I would be the one wearing the clown nose. Saying that made me feel like I was a pretty entertaining-type guy. She noted off-handedly that she would bring along her vagina. The amused tone in her voice told me she had a sense of humor and the bit was designed to throw me off balance. It did.

When we met, she plunked down on the coffee table the vagina -- a brightly colored, satin, stuffed sculpture about one foot long and eight inches wide, complete with labia and a pearl-encrusted clitoris. She had a wry smile on her face.

200 productions nationwide

"It happened because it came across the Internet in an e-mail sent out to Planned Parenthoods across the country, and I thought -- I just knew -- it was for me," Hellum said.

"I had seen the name, The Vagina Monologues, in the Bay Area, and I didn't even know what it was. The name just grabbed me.

"When I teach sex ed with teen girls I see they don't know what it is called. They don't name it. They're ashamed. They cringe when I say `vagina.'

"So when I found out what the play was, the name, it just felt so right. I knew instantly (her fingers snap a loud click) I wanted to direct it."

Soon Planned Parenthood joined with HSU to produce a version as a fund-raising benefit for Humboldt Women for Shelter and the Northcoast Rape Crisis Team. This is a first for this four-player partnership in Humboldt and it is part of a larger coalition of groups working to end violence against women.

"Vox: Voices for Planned Parenthood," a nationwide program to educate and mobilize young Americans who support reproductive health and freedom, is collaborating with the V-Day College Initiative 2001. On or around Feb. 14 (V-Day/Valentine's Day/Vagina Day) about 200 productions of The Vagina Monologues will be performed in cities across the country.

And why are these groups working so diligently? Over 500,000 women are raped every year in this country. One in three women will be raped within their lifetime. The Rape Crisis Team receives about 800 telephone calls a month.

Casting the show

Hellum began looking around for actors ages 16 to 65 for the eight roles during the winter holidays.

"I knew I would find women who had to be in the play," she said. "It wasn't about auditions; I didn't want that. I knew women would just come forward. It was kind of word of mouth. I mentioned to television people I was looking for older actors. They gave me a couple of names.

"One, Bonnie Mesinger was my professor at HSU. I read this part and knew she had to do it. ... I knew Jean O'Hara, a co-worker had to be in it."

Why do these people have to be in it?

"Because they are compelled by their life's work, either by a completion of their healing or helping someone else heal, to turn around and give that to them," she said.

"And people found us. When I asked Lynnie Horrigan, she said, `Oh, my God. I was just driving by Planned Parenthood saying, I've gotta go in, I've gotta go in. I have all this time. I want to do something.' I happened to call the next day. I didn't know who she was. So that was it.

"Serendipity comes to mind. The whole thing has been so serendipitous," Hellum said. She wanted diversity in age, race and sexual orientation. They all found each other.

[photo of rehearsal] Kristy Hellum, director and actress in the production, rehearses with the eight-woman cast.

How were roles assigned?

"They just read the pieces. If two people wanted the same one, we just divided them in venues. As it turns out, we all found our piece. It's so clear. It is my piece. No one else could do it."

In the last three years, in New York alone, the play has been performed by an extraordinary line-up of women. The list of more than 60 includes Glenn Close, Whoopi Goldberg, Susan Sarandon, Brett Butler, Diahann Carroll, Linda Ellerbee, Calista Flockhart, Teri Garr, Nell Carter, Amy Irving, Erica Jong, Carol Kane, Swoozie Kurtz, Marsha Mason, Rue McClanahan, Rita Moreno, Alanis Morissette, Rosie Perez, Annie Potts, Brooke Shields, Marisa Tomei and Marlo Thomas --name just a few.

Promoting the V-word show

You can see how advertising and promoting a show like this might present challenges. But first Hellum went looking for a venue -- a big venue.

"I knew -- I know -- we are going to sell out."

Hellum booked Fulkerson Recital Hall at HSU, and it did sell out for the Friday, Feb. 9, performance. Next she set about getting the Minor Theater in downtown Arcata for the overflow the next night. David Phillips, co-owner of the Minor, was generous and supportive, Hellum said. Phillips was willing to bump a movie to let the production come in for a six o'clock curtain time Feb. 10.

There was just a little problem: the film that was scheduled to be shown after the performance. The Vagina Monologues would be followed by Hannibal and somehow, it didn't seem in keeping with the theme of the evening. So Phillips switched to the more appropriate O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Eureka presented another kind of a challenge for Hellum. She was looking for a venue of about 600 seats but ended up selecting the 900-seat Eureka Theater, another challenge.

"They were okay with it until I told them the name of it and that I wanted The Vagina Monologues on the marquee," Hellum said.

"I see The Vagina Monologues on the marquee of the Eureka Theater on the front page of the Times-Standard. That's what I see."

The irony is obvious. A purpose of the show is to confront violence against women by bringing it out into the open, to talk about it plainly, saying the word vagina, discussing it in honest contexts. But putting it on a marquee in downtown Eureka?

Hellum agreed it wouldn't do to have it advertised as The "Down There" Monologues.. It might be confused with a slide show travelogue about Australia.

The board of the Eureka Theater met a couple of times and finally voted to go for it.

Radio and television executives may also have also been scratching their heads about how to creatively advertise the show. (Planned Parenthood received grant funding for this purpose.)

"I am not sure yet how KVIQ is going to produce the TV commercial. But KMUD and KHSU (both public radio stations) are fine with it," Hellum said.

"It's not a play for shock value. Sometimes it's hilarious. It's not an erotic play. It's not a radical feminine piece, not per se. It's a moving, poignant play about adult women and sexual violence."

The Obie Award-winning play

The Vagina Monologues was written by Eve Ensler and it has been performed all around the country. The Obie Award-winning play is a series of monologues based on interviews with hundreds of women from all over the world about their vaginal experiences.

"Some monologues are close to verbatim. Some are composite interviews. And some I just began with the seed of an interview and had a good time," says Ensler as introduction. Woven through these monologues are significant and sometimes sadly surprising facts.

As part of the agreement with Ensler's production company, the local performances will follow exactly the structural order, design and script of the original production.

The show runs an hour and a half without an intermission. At two of the performances (HSU and Eureka Theater) a pre-show will begin an hour before curtain. This is the educational component.

The monologues range from very funny to very graphic, to very moving. It can be an exceptionally engaging experience for audience members. During the course of the show perspectives are subject to change. There is a lot of unashamed laughter. Someone sometimes faints during one of the more graphic monologues. This is not for kids, although mothers will occasionally invite their teens --and daughters -- "on dates" and vice-versa, she said.

Rehearsals have been powerfully introspective as well as a bonding experience for the cast. Hellum's direction has included a regularly scheduled "ritual" in which cast members share experiences and changes connected with their work on the play. The first run-through, that rehearsal when they all heard and saw the entire show performed for the first time, "There was such power, it was numbing. We wept. We cried, we were so moved we had to take a break."

During the rehearsal I visited, there was great laughter among the cast. They cajoled and teased each other. Their responses were quick, light and easy, and sometimes touching.

The Humboldt County line-up

[photo of Bonnie Mesinger]Cast member Bonnie Mesinger, (at left) who retired after 24 years as an HSU speech communication professor and is one of the founders of the Chamber Readers, has been working on a solo show titled Rouladen for the last couple of years. She remembered having "galvanic skin experiences " -- that is, the hair on her arms would raise -- when her own students would perform.

"I felt so proud and grateful." She said she experienced the same sort of reaction when she recently performed her own monologue in rehearsal. "That was a wonderful feeling."

 

[photo of Jean O'Hara]Jean O'Hara's (at right) background in theater is "mostly involved in activism, education and directing." She directs Spare Change, the show about birth control that tours county high schools. Concerning that infamous run-through rehearsal: "There was a truth for me in every piece. Even if it was a 70-year-old woman. And I think that is how it is going to be for the audience."

 

[photo of Lynnie Horrigan]Lynnie Horrigan (at left) is a member of the Dell'Arte Players Co. with whom she recently did a one-woman show, Trapeze Artist. She also has performed in several Redwood Curtain productions. She notes the edginess with which men approach the show.

[photo of Lynnie Horrigan]Lynnie Horrigan in rehearsal. (photo by Betti Trauth)

"In San Francisco I was standing outside the theater where it was playing. In huge neon lights it said `THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES.' Some dudes approached, talking, excited. As one of the dudes got closer he looked up and said in disbelief, `Dude! It really does say `Vagina.' It was funny the way that word stimulated conversation."

 

[photo of Sue Sorensen]Sue Sorensen (at right) was in This Day and Age with Horrigan at North Coast Repertory Theater.

"They needed an Asian presence," she said, eliciting another outburst of laughter from her fellow cast members. "And here I am once again."

Sorensen said her husband is in charge of the three kids, taking them with him all over town, while she is working on the show. Recently he was in a department store when someone asked their 5-year-old daughter, `Where's your Mommy?'

"She's with her vagina," came the reply.

"She is always with her vagina," corrected her 7-year-old sister.

 

[photo of Shira Frank]Shira Frank, 16, (at left) did Picnic with NCRT and is a member of the Spare Change touring company. The Vagina rehearsals have lighted many conversations with her mother about her experiences, experiences that have "tied into my own life" in very meaningful ways.

 

[photo of Lynne Wells]Veteran actor Lynne Wells (at right) has a long list of important credits: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Quilters, Parallel Lives, and Guys and Dolls are among her favorites. She spoke movingly to the cast. She now knows that she is more than the sum of her parts. This show has enabled her to accept her graying, her aging, but more than that to celebrate and feel the joy in it.

 

Sarah Fisher, an HSU student, (at left) is active in film and theater on campus. Her work here has illuminated her parents' thoughtful and positive upbringing regarding matters vaginal. She hasn't had to unlearn or relearn a bunch of shameful stuff. She realizes her gratefulness to them.

 

Soyka Dobush is right in the mix as stage manager and, says Hellum, "Beti Trauth ... has been doing lots of production stuff for us. She is wonderful -- a workhorse."

Hellum has worked to include men in the show. Adam Liston is doing the light design. Mark Takaha, who does tantra workshops, is building a giant vagina for the entry way of the Eureka Theater. Richard Duning, who "uses a lot of yone and lingham imagery" in his work, has painted some large pieces for the set which will be auctioned as part of the fund raising after the Feb. 17 performance. Hellum calls Duning, "the most vagina-friendly man in the community. He respects women"

Hellum hopes men will see the show and that everyone will come away more engaged and involved.

This is rare, wonderfully purposeful theater and not to be missed.


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