Eve Ensler has a lot to say. When we speak she’s just spent the morning enjoying a little of the spring sunshine in New York, but ask her what she’s up to at the moment and the onslaught begins. It’s understandable.
This is a woman, who since her 1996 play The Vagina Monologues became a global hit, has used the attention it brought as a platform to campaign on just about everything.
In the last two decades she’s written plays on the moral and psychological trauma of being a soldier; protested alongside Sally Field and Jane Fonda to force the Mexican government to reinvestigate the massacre of hundreds of women; organised a summit on democracy in Afghanistan; acted as a consultant on the new Mad Max film; and is about to see her latest work receive its world premiere at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. Every Valentine’s Day for the last three years, she has also been behind the One Billion Rising demonstrations which she believes can help bring an end to violence to women through a day of dance. Yes, that’s right, Eve Ensler believes that bad things can be made better by dancing.
“One Billion Rising was born out of the statistic that one in three women on the planet will be raped or beaten in their lifetime. Violence is endemic and we need to find a way to stop it.
“I’ve always thought that dance is the most powerful means of expression. I remember being out in the Congo with a group of women who had lived through the civil war and who had seen more horrors than anything most of us could ever imagine. However, even though they had lost so much and witnessed so much, the one thing that hadn’t been taken away from them was their ability to dance. For me it’s a symbol of liberation, it’s a very visible way to stand up and say ‘I won’t be suppressed’.”
It’s easy to be cynical about Ensler’s day of dance, but she is used to those who doubt whether such events, along with a little juggling, hula hooping and unicycling, can make the world a better place.
“Sometimes you need a catalyst for change and that’s exactly what One Billion Rising has been. People ask: ‘What difference has it made?’, but the answer is a lot, a huge amount in fact.
“When women in Tacloban in Philippines joined the event it shone a spotlight on the government’s shabby care of survivors of the typhoon and in Bangladesh it has provided a voice for the victims of the Rana Plaza factory collapse. If we want to protest against injustice, we are much stronger together than we are as individuals.
“I thought One Billion Rising might strike a chord with people, but I could never have predicted that it would snowball to such an extent. That tells me there is a need for women to have an outlet, a way of standing up for themselves.
“Do I think it’s possible that there will be a day when we can end violence against women? Some may say I am a born optimist, but absolutely I do. I’ll never forget the woman who said to me that ‘hopelessness is a luxury of privilege’. And she was right. If you are in a desperate situation you have to believe that there is a better life, a way through the horror and the hardship.”
Ensler acknowledges that had it not been for The Vagina Monologues her life and her career would have turned out very differently. Before the very first performance of the show, which has since been staged in 50 languages in 140 different countries, in the basement of the Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village, Ensler was a minor playwright. Given the subject matter, which ran the gamut from menopause to orgasms and genital mutilation, the work didn’t instantly smack of a mainstream theatre hit. However, at times funny, moving and shocking, it developed a life of its own and soon Hollywood A-listers like Whoopi Goldberg, Susan Sarandon and Glenn Close were queuing up to have their name on the bill.
“It was quite unbelievable. It wasn’t uncommon for me to go to a performance and afterwards women would come up to me and thank me for telling their story. It was almost as though it unlocked something in them which meant they were able to talk about the time they were molested as a child or admit that there weren’t satisfied with their current relationship. The Vagina Monologues basically said it’s ok to talk about these things.”
Her latest work, Avocado, which opens in Leeds next week, follows in much the same vein as her previous work. The second play in a trilogy, it was inspired by the thousands of people who each week travel to new countries, searching for a better life and follows one woman’s journey towards freedom.
Ensler worked with the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s associate director, Mark Rosenblatt, on the first of the three plays, which premiered at the National Theatre Studio. Avocado is being staged as part of the venue’s A Play, a Pie and a Pint series which was set up to give a platform to smaller works and bring a different kind of audience into the theatre, one which might pop by after work and where tickets are a fraction of the cost of a main house production.
“Mark was an absolute joy to work with, he has such original vision and so when he contacted me to say he was looking for new work for the Playhouse he asked whether I would be interested in contributing a piece I immediately said yes. I didn’t know at that stage what it would be called, but the subject matter was never in doubt.”
While Ensler is a woman who likes to plough her own furrow, the success of The Vagina Monologues has brought a number of unexpected opportunities. Most recently it meant working with film director George Miller on the reboot of the Mad Max franchise. The film sees Tom Hardy take over Mel Gibson’s role, but it is Charlize Theron who is the real star and Ensler who helped turn it into what critics are calling a feminist action film.
“There are five women at the heart of the film who have basically been bred as sex slaves, but who have finally had enough. He wanted me to talk to the actors about the reality of that kind of life, how they would feel, how they would try to break out of the physical and mental chains they have been bound by.
“The result, I think, is something quite special, but the reaction to it has been just as interesting. There have even reports some people are boycotting the film, because they don’t like the idea of a woman being equal to men in terms of their physical agility. Given that we are now in the 21st century, I find that quite remarkable.”
Ensler knows that changing public opinion can take years, decades even and the rise of far-right parties across Europe, largely in response to the issue of immigration, means that there is more need than ever to put the counter argument across. “I think people are in a very reactionary place at the moment. They feel very insecure and times like these can give rise to some very hardline viewpoints. There is a tendency to rob immigrants of their humanity, to not see them as people. However, sex trafficking and people trafficking is endemic, it’s an industry and everyone affected by it is a victim.
“I have met a lot of asylum seekers and the tales they tell are horrific. These are people who have been trafficked, who are brought to Europe and America in cramped, inhuman conditions and as soon as they land they are arrested and put into prison.
“I worked for a long time in a homeless shelter in New York and that experience taught me how close all of us are to seeing our lives unravel. There’s the banker who loses his job, the lawyer who falls into alcoholism. We are all vulnerable.”
• Avocado, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, May 26 to 30. 0113 213 7700, www.wyp.org.uk