There’s a whole lot of vagina talk going on in Denise Bagnell’s house.
She has never acted before, but Bagnell is looking forward to making her debut in The Vagina Monologues, taking place at The Bronson Centre from Feb 20 to 22. From learning her lines to talking about sexuality and violence against women, she’s been using the word vagina a lot lately.
“My son hasn’t really said a whole lot about it, but my daughter thinks that it’s very awkward,” Bagnell says.
Awkwardness notwithstanding, Bagnell’s 16-year-old daughter, Kamryn, is on board and is volunteering with the production, likely as an usher, Bagnell says. Whether one takes part in The Vagina Monologues as a performer or an audience member, the play is important because it challenges misogynistic assumptions about women and sexual violence, Bagnell says.
“I think there’s so much work still to be done,” she explains. “There’s still so much that people don’t understand about violence against women and sexual assault. There’s a lot of victim blaming, and there’s a lot of shame around women’s bodies and femininity. It was really important to me to be a part of removing the shame and allowing people to speak freely about their bodies and their experiences.”
Bagnell identifies as a lesbian, a word she prefers over gay or queer.
“I like that it means women who love women,” she says. “It’s a strong word. I know some people don’t like to be labelled. Maybe I haven’t always fit in this box because I have dated men. I’ve got two children who were conceived through natural insemination, but [the word lesbian] represents who I am today.”
Bagnell is performing the monologue “I Was There in the Room,” which is about childbirth.
“It was written from a grandmother’s perspective, the grandmother watching her grandchild coming into the world,” she says. “I have two kids of my own, so I was obviously there in the room, but I also got to witness a close friend [giving birth]. She invited me into the delivery room when she had her son, so it was just such an amazing experience. When I decided to audition for the Monologues, I read through them and that really resonated with me. I read for it, got it and I love it. The piece, I think, was made for me.”
The Vagina Monologues was first performed as a one-woman show in 1996 by American playwright Eve Ensler. The play has since been translated into more than 48 languages and is performed around the world as a fundraiser for organizations that work to end violence against women. Locally, this year’s proceeds will go to the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Ottawa and the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre.
In January, a women’s college in Massachusetts cancelled plans to stage the Monologues, citing concerns it isn’t trans-inclusive. In response, Ensler wrote a piece in Time saying that her play never defined a woman as a person with a vagina and that trans performers have always been welcome to perform the play. As well, an all-trans production in 2004 inspired the monologue “They Beat the Girl out of My Boy.”
The Ottawa production will include “They Beat the Girl out of My Boy”; although there aren’t any trans performers this year, producer Sandi Stoliar says every effort is made to be inclusive of all women. With a relatively short timetable, volunteers put on a fundraiser and try to reach out to diverse communities, but ultimately they can cast only women who audition, Stoliar says.
While newer monologues like “They Beat the Girl out of My Boy” have been added over the years, some critics maintain that The Vagina Monologues is too focused on the experiences of white, middle-class, heterosexual women. Locally, Stoliar and Emily Olding, who is co-directing the play with Di Golding, say this year’s cast is diverse, featuring women of different ages, ethnicities and experiences.
“There will always be criticism, but right now, what Eve Ensler has done is provide a vehicle to raise money in our community,” Stoliar says. “We may not each one of us agree with every word in the play, but still the main focus is to raise awareness and hopefully become more inclusive as we evolve.”