In December, I heeded an inner Yes! and auditioned for The Vagina Monologues (VM) at Boulder’s Naropa University. I wasn’t sure what, exactly, my Yes! had been about until I received my lines. That I wasn’t assigned very many caused my big fat Yes! to shrink to a more flaccid “Hmm…OK.” Perhaps the Yes! had been inspired by the possibility of having a larger role, or more and/or funnier words with which to play. Perhaps I had hoped that I’d be assigned a part that would stretch me beyond the confines of my often matter-of-fact persona, so that rehearsing and performing would fast-track me to personal freedom if not transformation.
That reality did not match my vaguely articulated and unrealistic expectations was nothing new. Bridging the often enormous divide between my imaginings and what is actually at hand is grist for spiritual practice. I had committed to being in the show, so backing out wasn’t a choice for me, even though several others did. Could I still enjoy myself, learn and grow? Could I find a Yes! anyway, maybe not the same one, but another?
The directors instructed us to memorize our lines by mid-January, the first rehearsal after Naropa’s winter break. In addition to two other small parts, which had more room for playful expression, I had been assigned to share the closing monologue, “One Billion Will Rise for Justice”, with two others. This monologue connects the play with One Billion Rising (OBR), a campaign to raise awareness about violence against women that VM playwright Eve Ensler launched in 2012. The play is typically performed on college campuses in the run up to to V-Day, February 14, when OBR events are held worldwide. The directors had color coded the text of the closing monologue so we could each identify our parts; looking at the red, orange and blue words on my computer screen, I had a hard time imagining three people performing it. Could I trust that the directors had envisioned it? Could I release my preferences and surrender to their judgment? Acting is, among other things, about ceding control, at a minimum to the text and the directors.
That “One Billion Will Rise for Justice” (a cross between an invocation, invitation, and call to arms), flew in the face of my acting fantasy made it harder for me to embrace it. Once I started working with the text, my irritation mounted. My writer self disliked the passive constructions and imprecise expressions. A director explained that it’s meant to have international relevance, yet it lacked the specificity that could have made it more universal and powerful. There was a “one size fits all” quality to it which, as any self-respecting vagina knows, doesn’t always work when it comes to panties, tampons, penises, vibrators or, I’d posit, words. Shouldn’t there have been the option to customize that monologue according to the particulars of each venue, to connect more authentically and with greater relevance to local audiences? Why not invite each cast to write and perform a finale from the heart…or from local stories and statistics on rape, assault and domestic violence? The directors, heeding the V-Day rules, did not allow tinkering with the text.
Still, I wanted to whip out my red pen and change and rearrange words, add syllables to some lines, subtract them from others. I wondered why I couldn’t just let the words be. Or, to paraphrase saucier monologues, why was “my pussy so pissed off” about it? Was I envious of Eve Ensler’s platform or had I detected something awry with the premise that, um, like a hibernating clitoris, I couldn’t quite put my finger on? All I knew was that memorizing my part felt like trying to swallow a massive, scratchy uncoated tablet. Eve Ensler’s words stuck in my throat. My body wanted to reject them, perhaps believing them to be invaders of that deep place where my own words struggle to birth themselves.
The merit of my objections aside, I knew I was in the grip of resistance, a sabotaging force field. When a person memorizes words, the syllables inhabit her cells, making it possible to perform them authentically rather than coming off like a tight-lipped, tele-prompted politician. Could I figure out how to mash up this text tablet, mix it into honey roasted peanut butter and slowly introduce it to my wary digestive tract? It would only have to live there a few weeks, perhaps tucked inside a curve of my small intestine, after which I could excrete it. In the meantime, one woman assigned to the closing monologue dropped out, so my remaining scene partner, a talented actress and burlesque performer, divided that person’s assigned words amongst the two of us. That we were no longer a ménage à trois felt less cumbersome, and part of my Yes! returned.
As rehearsals progressed, I witnessed others growing into their roles and the play slowly taking shape under the directors’ keen guidance and careful attention. They noticed subtleties of intonation, pacing and movement that otherwise escaped me, tweaking what I thought were already good performances into much better ones. Observing this evolution was both a thrill and a rich education, yet my own part was still lodged in my craw, wedged there by a growing chagrin that I still couldn’t swallow and metabolize it. That rehearsals occasionally ran out of time before we had a chance to run through the closing and receive directorial input didn’t boost my motivation or trust in the process. My Yes! had all but disappeared.
Was it curled up and hibernating deep inside my vaginal canal, not to emerge until after the show?
As the performance dates approached, my turmoil intensified. I didn’t want to make an ass of myself on stage or disappoint fellow cast members, yet I was stuck, despite the efforts of my patient scene partner to coax me along, despite the fact that I had recorded our attempts and listened to them. I rehearsed in the shower, in the car and while out for walks. The words now swirled in my head but my body still rejected them as antigens. Would shopping for a red and black outfit for the show get me in the mood, help lubricate the text? At Goodwill, I found a short-sleeved dress glittering with black sequins, something I wouldn’t normally wear. I paired it with red pants and boots. While I was glad to have assembled my costume, the sartorial boost didn’t change the fact that my delivery was still more akin to that of a tele-prompted politician than an impassioned performer.
Readers of this blog know that I defend last-minute-itis and have observed that things can change in an instant. My awareness that life and my own process can suddenly flip kept me in the game even though I had not reestablished contact with my Yes!, even though other cast members’ mounting excitement only deepened my dread. In the final fifteen minutes of our last rehearsal, on the eve of the opening, the directors had me and my scene partner face each other and push our hands together to create an energy circuit and get us into our bodies. That stance didn’t work for my partner, so instead we stood by side by side facing a wall, our backs to the room. We pushed against the vertical surface, elbows bent, while reciting the monologue. This “off the wall” technique worked: the words poured forth, some even carried by a current of deep emotion. One fellow cast member later said my delivery gave her chills.
As we turned to face the group, I realized what else had been interfering: my insecurity about sharing the spotlight with a woman who, whether she is performing burlesque or not, communicates with her whole being, commanding attention. In anticipation of being overshadowed or compared unfavorably, I had let the remaining air out of that Yes! balloon and given away my power. This internal reflex, as rapid as it is subtle, was nothing new, yet never before had I become aware of it so instantly and viscerally.
A director reassured me that I didn’t have to mimic my partner’s style in order for us to jointly occupy the stage and deliver an effective closing. If I could stand comfortably in my body and use my voice, that would be powerful. And enough. I could say Yes! to that, both for the three performances and in life.