Twenty years ago, when actress, playwright and activist Eve Ensler first wrote The Vagina Monologues—a series of stories based on 200 interviews with girls and women around the world—she intended it as a celebration of body and sexuality, despite the often traumatic experiences delivered on stage, of rape, and betrayal, and sex work, and bleeding.
A decade later, when the show was still being performed around the world by dozens of actresses including Idina Menzel, Gillian Anderson and Viola Davis, Ensler launched V-Day, turning her play into a global activist movement to end violence against all women and girls, including transgender, and gender non-conforming people.
Now, as The Vagina Monologues hits its 20th anniversary—in the midst of a galvanizing moment of storytelling by women affected by sexual assault and harassment—a recently launched Philadelphia theater company is debuting a reconceived take on Ensler’s classic production.
V2: Creation Myth, the first production produced and directed by Lauren Leonard of Earlie Bird Productions, is a collaboratively-written staged reading by, with the exception of two contributors, all Philadelphia residents ranging in age and ethnicity, who will explore female sexuality, empowerment, and solidarity. The play, which premiers this weekend at Philly PACK, will be performed by a group of enthusiastic volunteer non-professional actors through a part memoir, part composite style of theater.
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V2 extends the themes of The Vagina Monologues while largely following the same format to reflect the current political climate, focusing on topics revolving around sexuality, white privilege and complicity, motherhood, race, assault, aging, work, and more. That makes it different from the versions of the original show that have been raising controversy around the country the last few years, including here, where Vagina Monologues was recently cancelled at Temple, for being too white and too cisgender—in other words, not modern-day feminist enough.
“It’s an updated version of what happened because of the election but also just some personal women’s tales,” says Leonard, an East Passyunk resident. “And some things we’ll talk about are very mundane or universal, but then there are experiences that people have had that you hope no one you know ever has.”
Leonard is actively involved in local politics; she’s a past president of the Queen Village Neighborhood Association, and was part of the Ready for Hillary organization during the 2016 election. She remembers being shocked by the outcome. “I’m a pretty privileged person,” she says. “And that was the first time things felt real because of an election, and I realized the people I know and love could be impacted over the course of the next four years because of this.”
“A lot of this is listening to each and hearing other people’s stories,” Leonard says. “Whether it’s someone saying ‘I learned that, I didn’t know that or that happened to me,’ the hope is people connect a little more on a human level by having some constructive civil dialogue.”
Quickly thereafter Leonard started reading. A lot. She sought to understand this new and alarming political space she found herself in and along the way came across her old college copy of the original Vagina Monologues, from when she studied at Temple University. For Leonard, it was a reminder of how powerful the work was and still is—and how people are yearning for a safe space to talk about women’s issues.
So she got a group of women together and put on a sold out show last year that was well received across the city. This inspired Leonard, who works full time in real estate development, to continue creating, which is what sparked the momentum for V2: Creation Myth this year.
As a collective piece, the stories in V2 weave together in a way that, though reminiscent of the original, are wholly of today, says Heather Shayne Blakeslee, writer/editor for the production. “It was interesting to me that so many women were using images that are elemental in nature,” she says. “Things about the ocean, fire, water and waves, because I think that’s in our subconscious right now. We’re waiting for a big change and looking for ways to make a new start.”
The new stories will cover topics around biology and identity, and the audience will hear the voices of the “other woman” and the “older woman.” Letters written by parents to their young daughters, musings of the pros and cons of welcoming a baby into the world, and thoughts revolving around pleasure will be shared throughout the evening.
After this weekend, Leonard says she hopes to hold productions at the Fringe Festival next fall, and make a variation of V2 and The Vagina Monologues an annual event, bringing a more varied group of voices into the show. The aim, for now, is to bring people together and point to where collective stories might overlap, rather than divide. “The biggest challenge is that there are just so many stories to tell,” Blakeslee says. “How do you do that in a way that reflects all of the different situations people are in?”
Earlie Bird launched last December, as a company that welcomes non-playwrights and people who don’t necessarily consider themselves writers or performers to join and share their creativity and voices. As with all its performances, Earlie Bird will also donate proceeds to the community—this time, a portion of the proceeds will benefit Planned Parenthood Southeastern Pennsylvania and the Women’s Community Revitalization Project, which is committed to social and economic equity for women and their families living on low incomes.
For the future of Earlie Bird and its upcoming productions, Leonard is interested in themes of “work” and what that means for individuals and their communities. And with each new production Earlie Bird puts out, Leonard plans to have a community element as well, in order to keep dialogue open and inclusive.
“A lot of this is listening to each and hearing other people’s stories,” she says. “Whether it’s someone saying ‘I learned that, I didn’t know that or that happened to me,’ the hope is people connect a little more on a human level by having some constructive civil dialogue.”
Tickets are on sale now. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets. February 23-24, $25, Philly PACK, 233 Federal Street.