Even Ensler Makes the World Dance
by jill sieracki
When Eve Ensler wrote her groundbreaking work The Vagina Monologues and debuted it at New York’s HERE Arts Center in 1994, the author and activist was just hoping “the critics wouldn’t destroy me; I was not imagining some movement.”
Now, on February 14 the play that beget Ensler’s V-Day movement—which aims to end violence against women and girls through education, activism, and fundraising—escalates into One Billion Rising, a global event that will mark the organization’s 15th anniversary with an antiviolence call-to-action, namely by encouraging women and men to publicly dance to bring attention to the cause. “I think this might be one of the largest volunteer actions ever,” says Ensler about One Billion Rising, which at press time had participation commitments from organizations in 190 of the world’s 196 countries. “I’m not sure I thought any country, including ours, would embrace this movement when we started. But we’ve seen people sign up in Iran, Pakistan, all over Africa in countries I never would have thought, like Somalia, Sudan, and Congo.”
Just as the momentum of V-Day has lifted the philanthropy from grassroots to global, so has One Billion Rising, which launched in New York in February 2012. The recent escalation was launched with a new song, “Break the Chain,” by Tena Clark, an accompanying music video by South African filmmaker Tony Stroebel, and the video series I Am Rising. “Our model is expanding, not branding, so the whole idea is that you take [One Billion Rising] and you make it what works for you,” says Ensler of the uprising, which in New York will include high-profile supporters like Anne Hathaway, Dylan McDermott, Kerry Washington, and Idina Menzel, as well as women dancing for freedom at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine and in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. “Some are rising to stop sex trafficking; some people are rising to stop female genital mutilation; some individuals are rising to stop acid burning, but what’s great is that everyone is being fueled by everybody else.”
This spring also marks the release of Ensler’s next book, In the Body of the World (Metropolitan Books). “It’s really about how [battling] cancer led me to understand my body [and its place in the world],” says the Tony Award–winning playwright, who revealed that she was facing uterine cancer in 2010 and is now close to three years cancer free. “I feel fantastic and lucky.”
On top of her already overwhelming schedule, Ensler also recently released her latest play, Emotional Creature, at Manhattan’s Romulus Linney Courtyard Theater. “I think, to some degree, it’s the next movement, it’s the next phase,” says Ensler of the play that grew out of her 2010 book, I Am an Emotional Creature: The Secret Life of Girls Around the World (Villard Books). “It’s focusing on the trials and the obstacle and the victories of girls and what they’re struggling with. It’s already given birth to something called V-Girls, which is the next wind of V-Day. It’s this network of incredible girls who are beginning to do activist work all over the world.”
Both the book and the play are an extension of Ensler’s lifelong work, telling the stories of the women who inspire her. “I was just in Mexico City, where this amazing woman named Rosi Orozco spends her life fighting to get girls who are sex trafficked and sex slaved off the street,” says Ensler. “Then I was in Guatemala, where a woman named Anna Cruz spends her life fighting to prosecute men who are killing 700 women a year in Guatemala. Then I was in Lima, [Peru], where I spent hours with a group of activists who opened the first shelters. I love these women so much. They’re not getting the attention I am getting; they’re not getting the love I’m getting; they don’t have the privilege that I have—I feel I’m doing so little compared to what they’re doing in their communities.”
It’s hard to believe that today, after The Vagina Monologues has been translated into 48 different languages and performed in more than 140 countries, Ensler’s early days were decidedly more humble. “I was scared to death,” she says of that first performance of The Vagina Monologues at New York’s HERE Arts Center. “ I had no idea what I was doing. I had never really performed anything before. The whole thing was just completely crazy. Fortunately you do things when you’re younger and, in hindsight, if I had thought about it, I would have never done it.”
Thankfully, Ensler, who won an Obie Award for the work, did perform the play and has subsequently brought real change to millions of women. “I have seen changes that have been brought about by V-Day’s work that I find very, very moving,” says Ensler whose V-Day movement has since its 1998 inception raised more than $90 million and reached over 300 million individuals. “We look at the house we helped to open in Africa 10 years ago in the Masai Mara, where this amazing woman named Agnes Pareyio stopped the practice of female genital mutilation. I can look at the girls who are graduating from City of Joy—a recovery sanctuary for rape survivors in the Congo that includes counseling, literacy skills, and vocational training—who are walking away as leaders. We did that, so it’s exciting.”
Born in New York, Ensler studied English literature and theater at Middlebury College. After graduation her career path mirrored that of many other aspirational Manhattan artists—waiting tables. But Ensler found inspiration in the works of other noteworthy women, such as Joanne Woodward and Shirley Knight. “They were my mentors,” she says.
With all her work—the books, plays, and activism—Ensler’s goal has always been to “go out of business” and put an end to injustice against women across the globe. “I believe it’s possible to end the violence, I do,” says Ensler. I love my life. I can’t imagine what I’d rather be doing. Every time one woman gets free or every time one woman comes into her voice, it’s like some part of humanity gets restored.”
photography by margot duane (ensler); CAROL ROSEGG (EMOTIONAL CREATURE); RYAN LASH (TEDX)
We go behind the scenes with the sexy British actor on his Gotham cover shoot.