#50over50: Eve Ensler
I learnt an important business lesson from my experience with today's Person Behind Personality in my =#50over50 list: Eve Ensler. When you have doubts about performing a certain role because of your personal conditioning, think about the organisation you need to do justice to or the larger cause. Delete yourself from the equation!
When the play “Vagina Monologues” first came out in 1996, it caused a huge stir for me. After Gloria Steinem, it was perhaps Eve who created most waves in the feminist literature. It was the shock value of the title and its unabashed tone that appealed to my rebellious young self. It was only after knowing Eve that I got to truly appreciate what she created.
When I first met Eve, I experienced her as a great conversationalist, an in-depth thinker, and a great friend. We hit it off from the moment we met and spoke a lot about India as she loved India as well. It was only after getting to know her and her organization better that I realized her unique contribution. It is not just that she wrote a play but the way the play got popular was the most brilliant move. While there were many performances of Vagina Monologues as a regular play, there were many play readings by popular people that made the play gain its fame. Famous actors, activists, writers, and business people would just read the monologues on a simple stage anywhere. They need not spend days rehearsing to learn the monologues by heart and the play did not need an elaborate stage. The words were so powerful that you could just read them anywhere and you could make the character come alive. One might say that this is what all great playwrights do but what sets Eve apart is how she made this play insanely impactful and created a great flow of funding into social enterprises.
In 1998, Eve launched V-Day: a non-profit organization that used the play as a launch pad for fundraising for ending violence against women and girls. Every February, Eve gives free license to perform the play throughout the month with the condition that all the funds raised be donated to the cause served by V-Day. By doing this, her foundation aided over $100M being donated to various foundations. Thousands of communities across the globe – from high-school kids to trans-genders to thespians perform the play each year and raise money for local organizations. Just this one simple act, one focused call for action caused a revolution in the world's social enterprises. This is what had her win one of the most prestigious Isabelle Stevenson Award at the 65th Tony Awards in 2011, which recognizes an individual from the theater community who has made a substantial contribution of volunteered time and effort on behalf of humanitarian, social service, or charitable organizations.
I also experienced Eve as a playwright when I agreed to be part of a February fund-raising performance in the Bay Area. The director invited tech-industry executives to do the play and I readily agreed. As I was traveling a lot, the director said that she could assign a monologue to me and work with me over the phone and have me show up for only one dress rehearsal the day before the show. I had an insane travel schedule and did not have a chance to even see which part was allocated to me until three days before the play. I was just glad to dust off my theater training from college days and debut on this stage. I had everyone from my God parents to neighbors to friends buy tickets to come to the show. I was all ready to knock them dead with my performance. And then, I opened the play and saw the monologue I was supposed to read and my heart sank.
It was by “The woman who loved to make vaginas happy” describing the details of her career and her love for making women happy. She talks about the different kinds of women she meets and how she makes them climax. And the monologue ends with the character giving a vocal demonstration of a climax. I realized that day that I was a closet prude. Apart from the occasional F word that I casually flaunted, I was utterly uncomfortable reading this monologue, let alone moan on stage and that too in front of a boat load of my friends who were going to show up to support me. But I could not back out of it as I had made a promise. I went through the monologue and could not sleep a wink before the show. And then I remembered my theater class in Portland State University. The problem was that I was reading these lines as though they were coming from me and made no effort to understand this sensitive woman who was determined to make women enjoy sexual pleasure. I thought of all the women who might have been repressed, raped, roughened up and might never have had even one evening of pleasure and then I thought of this woman who made a huge effort to understand each type of woman and dealt with that particular hesitation and made sure that her partner got over that fear.
Eve’s words and her sensitivity toward each woman who was featured in the book showed her empathy coming through each phrase. She dealt with tough issues like rape and child abuse with a language that has the right tone of anger and empathy. I saw my character in a whole new light because of the way Eve made her come alive. I thought of what this woman-character must have gone through in her life to want to do this with different women and not have a committed relationship of her own. Even in her pain, she was generous. She suddenly became the most vulnerable, beautiful character I could play.
I decided to wear my blue satin saree and read the part instead of a western outfit the woman would have been expected to wear. And for final round of inspiration, I watched Meg Ryan do the famous cafeteria scene from When Harry met Sally just before leaving for the performance. I was truly touched by the thought that went into humanizing each character. The prude in me made way for the pride I felt in doing justice to that monologue. On the way back from the play, I was walking behind an older, white couple and I heard the woman say: “Did you see that Indian woman in a saree. Boy! I did not expect that from her. She was great.” I heaved a sigh of relief because I so wanted to do justice to what Eve created.
Eve and I have spent time together in India and in the US, have shared a few meals and conversations. We do not see each other often but I always keep in touch with her progress and watch in admiration: the impact she continues to make across the globe.