May 5, 2023

‘Name it and say it’ — The Vagina Monologues continues to empower

Professor Shirley Steinberg leads annual staging of iconic play in its first in-person production since pandemic onset
Two women are seated at a table. The woman on the left gestures with her hands as the one on the right looks on. The table holds two laptops and several water bottles.
Shirley Steinberg, right, and co-director Shannon Jones lead a table read at the first rehearsal for this year's staging of the Vagina Monologues. Zoltan Varadi, Werklund School of Education

Some 27 years after it first premiered off-Broadway, The Vagina Monologues still packs an empowering punch, according to Werklund School of Education professor Dr. Shirley Steinberg, PhD.  

“Some things are not very in-your-face in Canada, but The Vagina Monologues is very much a direct, distinct, out-there production that names what needs to be named, and it feels good,” she says. “If you're a person who has not named what needs to be named, and you're able to do it with 30 sisters and people that are all together, it just feels safe — and it has made a difference.” 

Just to be clear, what needs to named is indeed the word “vagina,” but, as Steinberg explains, much more as well.  

“Most of the time in literature and in film, the male body is about strength and power and often the notion of a woman's body is about submission,” she says. “This reverses it. This is, ‘I’m saying it. I’m saying it loud and proud. This is how I feel. This is my body, and these are the stories that I have.’ Some of the stories are very funny, and some of the stories are very poignant, but they're very much about self and about how one's body and one's gender identity or one's way of seeing themselves all kind of blends in together. 

It's not about ‘poor me.’ It's about, ‘This is who I am, and I'm going to name it and say it.’

A cast of both veteran and neophyte performers will be doing so loud and clear at the Calgary Central Library on May 25. The event marks the ninth time Steinberg has directed or co-directed Eve Ensler’s iconic play, but the first time this University of Calgary production will be staged off campus, not to mention its first in-person performance since the onset of the pandemic. 

Although the performance will be held downtown, it’s still very much a UCalgary affair, with about three-quarters of the cast coming from the university, including several faculty members. Steinberg says the diverse span of performers who have participated from year to year — the youngest cast member ever being 17, with several others well into their 70s — has resulted in an intergenerational effort that aligns with her academic research, which includes focus areas such as youth and activism, diversity, equity, and inclusion, and women in leadership. 

A group of women stand around a table reading from scripts

No selection process, no auditions — Shirley Steinberg says if you identify as a woman and want to be in the play, then you're in.

Zoltan Varadi, Werklund School of Education

“The cast is always almost like a family, and it recreates itself every year,” she says. “I love that these women come together; it's an interesting span of people. Some are very, very shy and have never done theatre before, never done any acting, and they kind of love the idea [of doing the play] because it's an equity-based production.” 

What this means in practical terms is that if you want to be in the play, then you’re in the play — there’s no audition or selection process. Importantly, the casting call is open to anyone who identifies as a woman. 

Steinberg says that while they remain faithful to Ensler’s original text, each year the team makes “inserts” to keep it relevant to contemporary issues. This has included references to #MeToo, COVID-19, and acknowledgement and inclusion of Indigenous womanhood. And while the socio-political milieu in which the play debuted in 1996 may seem like alien terrain, ultimately The Vagina Monologues still resonates in 2023, albeit in some cases for some very dispiriting reasons.  

“Sometimes it's just like, are you kidding? Is this still a problem? You know, things to do with battering or humiliation,” she says. 

“But then there are new things. Around 2015, we put in our own monologue on being transgender, because Ensler had not added to it. So, we added to it. We try to always move it with what's going on at the time.” 

Tickets for the Thursday, May 25 (7:30 p.m.) performance of The Vagina Monologues at the Calgary Central Library are available here.

A portion of all ticket sales will be donated directly to the Awo Taan Healing Lodge Society.

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