A few weeks ago I saw an announcement about auditions for “The Vagina Monologues” to be staged at Naropa University in Boulder, CO. Anyone with a vagina was welcome to try out. My normally still, small voice within shouted “Yes!”. My heart pounded, so I knew I was on the right track even if I didn’t know exactly what the “yes” was about. To be on stage? To powerfully deliver words? To participate in a group activity?
More than a decade ago, I saw “The Vagina Monologues” in London with a friend ‘whilst’ on a UK business trip. Then, vagina was largely an unspoken word and I had been slightly anxious at even voicing the idea. The play seemed edgy, tickets pricey, and I wasn’t sure she’d go along. Luckily she did. The performers – fearless, saucy, and sensual – could not have been more different from the buttoned-down universe of management consultancy I had stumbled into and would later leave.
Walking across the campus the night of the auditions, I imagined there would be women from around town, from tattooed 20-somethings to silver haired septuagenarians. Not knowing where I was going, I followed a group of chatting young women with backpacks into a brick building, down a flight of steps, through a foyer and into a large room. The play’s two directors, one with close cropped hair, another with long locks, ushered us back into the foyer to sit. As I looked at the other hopefuls, most of them at least a decade younger than me, if not two, my excitement collapsed like a flat tire. No one else had salt and pepper hair or, as far as I could tell, had entered the age of orthotics. It was as if I had crashed a sorority. Watching the young women sit on the floor, slumped against the wall or leaning against each other, texting and chatting, I felt a stone of envy drop into a deep pool of sadness. My experience at Bryn Mawr College, where I dedicated myself to the sport of extreme studying, had not accommodated many carefree, relaxed moments where the focus was something other than meals. Contrary to the dominant narrative, my undergraduate years were neither the best time of my life nor a period of self-discovery. As an unrepentant and relentless grind, it never occurred to me to audition for a play. That wouldn’t have been serious enough, maybe even a frivolous waste of tuition dollars.
I wondered if the “Yes!” I felt came from the beckoning future or the slumbering past. Was I trying to make amends to my younger self for not letting her experiment and explore?
All I knew was that my self-consciousness intensified, as if I were suffocating in the silo of conditioning that claimed I was too old to be there and insisted it’s not “normal” to hang out with people of different ages, as if we couldn’t possibly offer each other something. I gripped my water bottle, preparing to get up and leave the fun and expression to the younger crowd. But I remembered that big “Yes!” and remained with the discomfort of feeling like the odd woman out. I reminded myself that I was there to take one step only, that of the audition. I wanted to at least add that experience to the menu of my life. My participation in the play itself was up in the air; at that point, I didn’t know the rehearsal schedule and if I’d be able to attend.
A few minutes later a woman whose hair boasted more silver than mine waltzed in and sat down next to me. I exhaled.
“I’m glad I’m not the only older vagina here,” I said. We both scanned the foyer.
“No kidding,” she said, raising her elegant eyebrows. She quickly assumed the role of greeter, welcoming newcomers and telling them where to sign in. I still hadn’t figured out how to belong.
The directors handed out sample monologues, many of which dealt with sexual violence and war. I had forgotten about these wrenching stories in the play. I couldn’t imagine memorizing horrific and sorrowful tales and reciting them on stage. What had I been thinking?
Eventually it was my turn. I left the foyer, entered the audition room and sat in a chair in front of the two directors. They asked, “If your vagina could talk, what would it say right now?”
I froze, even though it was supposed to be an ice breaker.
“Umm…” I stalled. I was not in the habit of kibitzing with this part of my body and sharing that with strangers, but it was time to get over that. FAST. Why remain an accomplice to ridiculous taboos in a culture that more easily utters the words “murder” and “rape” than “vagina”?
“It would say that it’s happy I just ordered a new vibrator.”
The words sounded tinny to my ears, rather than bubbling forth with excitement. They smiled. Maybe I hadn’t flunked. I told them I preferred not to read a disturbing monologue. Did they have any funny ones?
“Can you do accents?” asked the one with short hair with the delightfully exotic name of Olivia Tullos-Sisca. “We have southern, New York Jewish, British.”
“I’m Jewish but I can’t speak with a New York accent. I’ll give the British one a shot.”
She handed me a book open to that page for a cold read. I dove into who I imagined the character was for a few minutes, eliciting some laughs and a sense of liberation, despite my unevenly applied and inaccurate accent. They thanked me and called the next person. It turned out that anyone who auditioned and committed to all the rehearsals could participate; they’d assign parts later. The choice was mine.
“Um….yes..,” quivered the voice within, now daunted by the prospect of memorizing a monologue.
At the first rehearsal, we sat in a large circle and introduced ourselves while passing snacks around. The directors guided us through movement games and silent improvisational exercises where, divided into smaller groups, we moved spontaneously while balancing space and tempo, creating off-the-cuff choreography. Without having to use words, I felt more at ease in my body and in the collective. By the end of that first gathering, our various birth dates didn’t matter. I smiled in relief for narrowly escaping the age silo and embracing uncertainty. I still don’t know what I said “Yes!” to, but at least I’m along for the ride.