At the American Repertory Theater, Eve Ensler has big ideas for women, on and off the stage.
It’s no exaggeration to say that playwright Eve Ensler ushered in a new wave of feminism. Nearly 20 years ago, with her Obie Award–winning show The Vagina Monologues, she proudly reintroduced women to their power and their parts. Since then, the Tony winner has written a number of books and had numerous plays produced, but one of her proudest legacies is V-Day, a global movement she launched to stop violence against women and girls. The One Billion Rising campaign, an offshoot of V-Day, has seen people across the globe take to the streets decrying violence against women. In 2014, Ensler began a three-year collaboration with the American Repertory Theater, which included last December’s world premiere of her play O.P.C. (for “obsessive political correctness”), a dark comedy about consumerist culture. She spoke with Boston Common about her commitment to activism, her relationship to ART, and her plans for the future.
Your advocacy has attained worldwide impact with One Billion Rising. Yes, it feels that way. It’s incredible. I just feel so honored and privileged to have this life of being in solidarity with women around the planet. One out of three women on the planet will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. That’s over a billion women, and that’s only the women we know who have suffered violence firsthand. I can’t think of anything that reaches that many numbers and has that much impact.
You were just in Pakistan, where women may be placing themselves in peril by speaking out and participating in a movement like this. Every country has its own degree of risk in speaking out. In America we sometimes think we’re post-racial, we think we’re post-feminist, but both of those are illusions. I think in the countries where we supposedly have these liberations, it can be harder to address misogyny, because it’s more insidious, more cloaked.
Do you believe you have a responsibility to speak out for women? Once you become awake to the depth and pervasiveness of something like the violence against women, there’s no way you can’t be involved in it until it stops. It’s not something where you go, “Well, that’s interesting, now I’ll get on with my life.”
What is the role of art, and specifically theater, in influencing these issues? I’ve always believed in the revolutionary power of theater, since my early days seeing how, unlike any other art form, theater goes right into you. It’s like a physical experience, and I think when things change in your body, when the chemistry of your DNA gets altered, that’s when real change happens.
When you’re writing a play, is it your deliberate intention that when it lands in a theater, it will lead to some change?
That’s an interesting question. I don’t know if it’s so consciously deliberate. Sometimes it’s an investigation, an act of curiosity. And sometimes it’s because something in the world is really pissing me off and I want to address it. With The Vagina Monologues, it was plain and simple curiosity. I was really curious what women felt about their vaginas.
How does having the institutional support of the ART make a difference for you as a playwright? I got to do so much work that I really wanted to do on O.P.C. and so much investigation of the issues with the cast. Also, we were able to link it to Harvard to deepen our investigation of those issues. It is fantastic to be in a community of people who are engaged in an ongoing way with your process as a writer, with your evolution as a writer.
Have you charted out what you want to do during the rest of your three-year collaboration with the ART? I’m in the process of adapting my memoir as a play. That’s going to be the next project. And then I’m working on a new play and a musical that will follow; I’m just planting the seeds and researching those now.
Considering the impact you’ve had with The Vagina Monologues and with your more recent work, do you relish that success? Or do you just go nose to the grindstone and keep plowing forward? The second. [Laughs] One of the great things about age is that when you’re younger, you have this massive self-hatred and low self-esteem coupled with absurd grandiosity. When you get older, you just hunger for your place in the circle. And that feels like home now. These next years, what I want to do more than anything is write and see what creative madness can be stirred up.