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Play faces constant changes at ND

Eileen Duffy | Friday, March 2, 2007

As this year’s production of “The Vagina Monologues” – which is being staged off campus for the first time in the event’s six-year history at Notre Dame – draws to a close, it’s unclear how the performance will play out next year.

This year marked the second time the College V-Day Campaign made an exception for Notre Dame.

For the more than 600 American colleges and universities performing Eve Ensler’s “Vagina Monologues” as part of the Campaign, two requirements are asked: that the play be performed on campus, and that proceeds from ticket sales go to local charities. Notre Dame’s production had followed those two guidelines and was even one of the leading schools in its fundraising efforts, according to V-Day’s Media and Communications Advisor, Susan Swan – until last year.

Following last spring’s maelstrom over academic freedom and Catholic character at Notre Dame, University President Father John Jenkins determined the “Monologues” deserved a place on campus, but solely as an academic event. He said the play could be performed in an academic setting – for example, a classroom – if it refrained from selling tickets.

Swan said V-Day made an exception last year and allowed students to perform the play without charging the audience because the organization appreciated the passion and “empowered” disposition of Notre Dame “Monologues” organizers.

But for the two charities to which Notre Dame’s “Vagina Monologues” had been contributing, the South Bend YWCA and the S-O-S Rape Crisis Center, this came as unwelcome news.

“I would say we have a serious budget deficit in our domestic violence program, and yet we see the number of clients we’re serving grow by leaps and bounds,” said YWCA director Linda Baechle. “We have to scramble to cover the program … we count on the revenue stream [from Notre Dame’s “Vagina Monologues”] and then it’s a challenge to find replacement money.”

Organizers were able to charge for tickets again this year when they did not receive the sponsorship they needed from academic departments to perform on campus, again prompting the V-Day officials to grant them an exception.

But off campus is just where the Cardinal Newman Society (CNS), a non-profit group dedicated to preserving the Catholic identity in Catholic institutions of higher education, says “The Vagina Monologues” belongs.

Each fall, the CNS targets Catholic schools where the play is scheduled to be performed, and sends them packages – complete with scripts of the play, excerpts from Catholic catechisms, Pope John Paul II’s encyclical on “Love and Responsibility,” statements from Fort Wayne-South Bend Bishop John D’Arcy and other Catholic documents to bring to light the contrasting nature of the play and the Catholic readings.

“Academic freedom, the way it was taught to me, is the freedom to teach what’s right, not the freedom to teach what you want,” said Marc Perrington, CNS outreach director. “And, academic freedom only realistically applies to the academic part of life, not the social part of life. If you bring academic freedom into the social part of life, what’s to stop Catholic schools from having pro-abortion groups on campus, that may be antithetical to Catholic teaching?”

Perrington was quick to note that of the about 12,000 lines of text in the copy of “The Vagina Monologues” he owns, only approximately 150 deal with violence against women.

“The base nature of the play, of the acts described in the play, really don’t have any kind of academic basis. They’re not improving academic life on campus,” he said. “You hear from the V-Day organization and from the people that put it on, ‘We’re bringing awareness about violence against women … but it’s not.”

This year’s “Monologues” director, junior Sarah Muscarella, still believes the play educates the community – and in a way “Loyal Daughters” could not address.

“‘The Vagina Monologues’ tackle issues that people at Notre Dame have never experienced,” said Muscarella, who plays a Bosnian victim of gang rape in this year’s production.

“It’s just another perspective,” she said. “I think it’s important for Notre Dame kids to look at experiences of people that aren’t like them. We’re all so similar on this campus and have very similar experiences. … I think it’s important to explore other things.”

But for the play to stick to the V-Day Campaign’s objectives and two stipulations – execution in a venue on campus and the donation of ticket proceeds to charitable institutions – Assistant Vice President for News and Information Dennis Brown said Jenkins would have to be involved.

“I would think that if organizers presented a case to Father Jenkins – he’s obviously a reasonable man who demonstrated last year that he listens – he would certainly listen,” Brown said. “Whether that would change his position, I can’t say.”

While rumors have suggested Notre Dame was opposed to contributing to the local YWCA because the national YWCA identifies itself as pro-choice, Brown said those claims are absolutely false.

Ticket sales are prohibited, Brown said, as a result of the administrators’ decision to change the status of “Monologues” from a theatrical production to an academic event.

“When something is presented in an academic setting,” he said, “there is not an admission charge, or pass-the-hat, however funds might be collected.”

Gender Studies and history professor Gail Bederman agreed and said while she personally supports the YWCA, she would never bring in “so-and-so from Yale University” to raise funds.

“That’s not what we do,” she said. “It’s not my job to raise money; it’s my job to teach history.”

The University’s policy distressed Muscarella, however.

“It just confuses me,” she said, “because I feel like giving charity is the one thing Notre Dame knows how to do.”