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The Vagina Monologues’ returns to campus amidst controversy

Tae Andrews | Wednesday, March 26, 2008

It has been discussed, deliberated and debated, hyped and hated, criticized, condemned, lambasted and lauded. Controversy over “The Vagina Monologues” has raged from the pages of this newspaper to the quads of Notre Dame’s campus to the streets surrounding her borders. In the months prior to this week, the only thing missing from the controversy embroiling this campus surrounding was the actual performance itself.

Now, finally, “The Vagina Monologues” takes center stage at Notre Dame.

At the show’s heart lies a core of committed young women dedicated to putting on the performance even in light of having to place themselves at the center of the controversy. This group of organizers includes seniors Jordy Brooks, Lisa Rauh, Cathy Steinmetz, Sarah Muscarella and sophomore Miriam Olsen.

What ties each of these young women together is her determination to share a story of sexual violence, whether it be her own or a friend’s.

“Beyond my own experiences dealing with close friends who have been the victims of sexual violence, I was inspired to join primarily for the empowering and positive environment I believe the ‘Vagina Monologues’ creates,” Rauh said. “In addition, I realized that in considering myself ‘lucky’ for having escaped such victimization, I was only accepting that there was a problem. The Monologues offered a venue to address this epidemic of violence against women.”

Director and sophomore Stephanie Newsome agreed, saying, “I have had very personal experiences with sexual assault, which have forced me to speak out in any way I can to stop this violence.

“It is a lot harder to dismiss something when we do not have a vested interest in it, but as soon as it becomes personal, then we cannot remain ignorant or quiet. These stories are personal, and that is why we must tell them.”

“What has inspired my continued involvement are all of the wonderfully kindhearted, accepting and motivated women I have met through [being involved with the performance],” Steinmetz said. She has spent the past three years involved with the show in one capacity or another. “These are women who are passionate about respect for the genders and stopping violence.

“I have also seen the play positively impact the emotional lives of my friends who are survivors of sexual assault and I have seen the play spark interest in individuals to take action to stop violence against women,” Steinmetz said. “For many students at Notre Dame, it becomes more than just a play, it becomes an inspiration and for some the beginning of a movement.

“The stories in the play are real, we would like to share them with the University and we hope this will spark discussion and action regarding awareness of ourselves as sexual beings and awareness of the sexual violence that is inflicted upon individuals every day.”

It has been a long, arduous trip for the Monologues organizers in taking Eve Ensler’s vision from script to stage. This week’s three performances of the show represent the culmination of several months’ worth of work. Back in September 2007, the organizers approached several departments they believed would have academic reasons to sponsor the event. After receiving conditional approval from two departments, the group held auditions in late December.

At the beginning of this semester, Rauh and company set to work on establishing the dates of the tentative event with the University. Having agreed upon dates, the group submitted a final proposal to the Dean of the College of Arts and Letters, who signed off on the proposal around the time of spring break. The organizers’ responsibilities included meeting with academic departments to discuss sponsorship, soliciting professors to be on the panel and attending organizers meetings one to two times a week.

In terms of the production itself, Newsome said that the nature of the script afforded her a large degree of creative freedom in putting on the show.

“One of the great things about directing this script is that it is so minimalist,” she said. “The script does not call for a set, or specific lighting, or even a stage. For this production, there is no line between the audience and the actors. And by ‘breaking the fourth wall,’ I hope we can engage our audience and spark conversation.”

The structure of the show also provides for some flexibility in its presentation. In addition to ‘core’ monologues which recur every year, the production ensemble decided to add other monologues of Ensler’s and a “Spotlight” monologue designed to keep the show relevant. This year’s Spotlight monologue focuses on women living in New Orleans and in the Gulf South amidst the rebuilding period post-Hurricane Katrina.

“Directing this show has only been a challenge because there is so much controversy circulating around it,” Newsome said. “But I suppose that is what makes it the most rewarding, because we overcame so many obstacles to be here. After months of anticipation and struggle, here we stand, more beautiful than ever.”