Eve Ensler changed theatre when she wrote The Vagina Monologues in 1995. Taking a journalistic approach to her writing, Ensler conducted over 200 interviews with women about their thoughts, emotions, and experiences surrounding sex, relationships, violence against women, and more and molded them into a collection of stories. The play has been something like a tornado—picking up followers and strength since its 1996 Off-Broadway run, its Madison Square Garden production, and now the hundreds of productions mounted every year in association with V-Day.
And that is the singular accomplishment synonymous with Ensler’s name. She turned theatre into action. The V-Day organization serves the mission to end violence against women as benefit performances of The Vagina Monologues are presented across the globe with the proceeds going to the nonprofit. She created a model of activism through storytelling.
Her recent In the Body of the World earned raves at Manhattan Theatre Club this year and now, her Fruit Trilogy plays Off-Broadway at Abingdon Theatre Company June 2–23 starring Liz Mikel and Kiersey Clemons.
On May 6, she was presented with the Lucille Lortel Lifetime Achievement Award, but due to timing was unable to share her full acceptance speech. Now, she shares her complete thoughts from that occasion, including her arguments about the need for theatre, how we can support writers, and how we spin only forward in a world where art is not a given:
Greetings, dear theatre community. I am honored and grateful to receive this Lifetime Achievement Award and here to announce that my lifetime is not over. Really just entering the next, hopefully more radical stage.
Looking back at my years in the theatre I am grateful for so much.
I am grateful for my theatre mentors Joanne Woodward and Lynne Austin, powerful and brilliant women who saw something in me before I saw it in myself. Who nurtured me and pushed me. Who weren’t afraid of my politics or my passion or my voice. Who insisted it be funny, who made me be braver with form and structure and storytelling.
I am grateful for producers Diane Borger and Lynne Meadow and, particularly, David Stone who not only stood for The Vagina Monologues, but bravely and almost gleefully went into the face of all who opposed it with genius marketing and artistic courage and seeded the money through it to launch the V-Day movement.
I am so grateful to vaginas and women and The Vagina Monologues who taught me that plays can create political movements and build networks and radical consciousness and raise thousands of activists and lots of money to end violence against women.
I am grateful to directors who taught me less was more, to take off my shoes, to dig deeper. I am particularly grateful to the astounding Diane Paulus for her caring and brilliant work on In The Body of the World and for giving me a home at American Repertory Theatre.
I am grateful to astounding actors who have performed my shows, found heights that I never knew existed, took breathtaking risks, said vagina onstage where no one had said it before.
I am grateful to dramaturgs, particularly Ryan McKittrick, and stage managers and dressers and designers and props people and stage crews and the whole community of people who are essential to making theatre.
I am grateful to my tribe James Lecesne, Monique Wilson, Tony Montenieri, Nancy Rose and George Lane, and my V-Day family who are there to remind me not to read reviews and to trust who I am and to focus on the why of what we are doing.
I am grateful to audiences, particularly to women, who have come to see my shows and told others to see the show. When I first started performing The Vagina Monologues, a male journalist asked with a kind of pity, how I felt that only women were coming to see your show. I laughed: “Only women?! You mean only 51 percent of the population!” Thank you, women!
I am grateful for the struggle. I think the Lifetime Achievement Award should really be called the Lifetime Survival Award. I am grateful to have survived being called polemical, pornographic, prescriptive, in-your-face, out there, overly instructive, strident, militant, too political, extreme, controversial, message mongering, lewd, crude, and obscene. All this pushback forced me to create another path, to be true to my voice. To be a woman concerned with social justice, to be a writer who believes in breaking taboos and telling the stories no one wants to talk about, to write emotionally and overtly passionately, to write monologues and moans, to write about pussies and death and homeless women and bellies and cancer and poop and Congo and war and AIDS and orgasms and sex trafficking and freegans and mystical sexual divinity…well it’s been a hard road.
Now more than ever we need the theatre. Our species is on the verge of either perishing or being born anew. So let’s fight for the theatre. Let’s trespass the boundaries of the powerful, the deal and death makers, the racists and the misogynists, the transphobes and homophobes, the war makers, the immigrant haters, the earth destroyers. Let’s bring in the voices of the marginalized in the many. Let’s raise up each other by raising up artists, brown and black, Muslims and Mexicans, undocumented women and gender non-conforming who are telling the difficult stories, challenging us to reckon with our history, to face our present and pushing us to new altered states of consciousness. Let’s find money—real money—for theatre artists, and subsidies so they can be more daring and not become commercial entities in order to survive.
Let’s honor theatre actors who have given their lives to the theatre above celebrities. Let’s value theatre as much if not more than TV or film. Let’s create a system that doesn’t rely on going to the people who we are resisting or challenging in order to be loved, approved or to survive.
Let’s allow theatre artists—particularly writers—to have careers where they can write a show that resonates with many and others that challenge and disturb. It is the lifetime of an artist that matters, the body of their work.
Let’s make theatre something people can afford so all people can enjoy the theatre and learn from it and write for it and be transformed by it.
When I grew up in the theatre in the ’60s we didn’t even think of doing theatre for money. We didn’t do it to be famous, we certainly didn’t do it to build our brands or get more followers. We did it because we knew theatre was our radical church, our fiery temple, here to evolve the soul of humankind, here to help us come back into our bodies and feelings, here to employ our theatrical imaginations to the evolving of the new paradigm, to connect with each other, strangers in the dark.
The theatre is a holy place. Magic happens here, miraculous accidents happen here. It’s a place for dying and a place for being born, a place for grief and a place for exultation. It is of the moment, in the radiant and terrifying present. It is flesh and blood and sweat and tears where devotion and mettle are tested and revealed. It is the fortress against the virtual, against disembodiment, against disconnection. Where poetry reigns and real transformation is possible. Theatre is the place to make revolution.
Thank you for this award and for this glorious life in the theatre.