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Thursday October 2nd 2014

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Valentines and Vaginas

({V-Day Pensacola 2014})
By Sarah McCartan

“I bet you’re worried.”

“We were worried.”

“We were worried about vaginas.”

And so begins the introduction to the groundbreaking play brought to life by Eve Ensler, “The Vagina Monologues.” In 1994 Ensler set out to tell stories she had gathered interviewing real women — stories tackling everything from women’s sexuality to rape and abuse.

Individually, some are stories of pleasure. Some pain or humiliation. Some even danger. They are stories, previously unexposed, presented publicly in a manner that is both compassionate and heart wrenching. Together these stories show that one woman’s story is every woman’s story.

“The Vagina Monologues” lit a spark that has since ignited global conversations and an entire movement by the name of V-Day. Founded by Ensler and now actively recognized in 167 countries, V-Day is a global activist movement to end violence toward women and girls — moving toward a world in which women and girls are free to thrive, rather than merely survive.

The “V” in V-Day, honored on Valentine’s Day, February 14, stands for victory, valentine and, of course, vagina. On and around this day, groups across the world organize events, including “The Vagina Monologues” along with other performance pieces and screenings to promote awareness in their respective communities, while raising funds for local organizations.

In the year 2012, volunteer activists around the world produced over 5,800 V-Day benefit events. Last year, V-Day honored its 15th birthday by launching the One Billion Rising campaign, focused on the startling statistic that one in three women on the planet will face violence in her lifetime — adding up to one billion women and rising.

Monologues in Motion
This year V-Day is happening locally thanks to V-Day Pensacola — a group of independent women who have joined together to put on a performance of the “The Vagina Monologues.”

While some are brand new to the performance, others have been a part of previous productions, and for some, the play was a deeply rooted part of their adolescence. All members of V-Day Pensacola are uniting together to bring to life something they collectively deem both meaningful and powerful. V-Day Pensacola is comprised of bartenders, librarians, art teachers, chefs, artists, healthcare professionals and designers.

“None of us are actresses. None of us are professional activists,” said V-Day Pensacola founding member, Jennifer Shellman. “The great thing about the stories is that they are real women’s stories. You don’t have to be an actress. The stories themselves are really captivating.”

Shellman first saw “The Vagina Monologues” as a teenager. Having read Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” book while at the time becoming more interested in women’s issues, seeing the off-Broadway production of the monologues by herself at age 16 in New York City was nothing short of a transformative experience.

“It opened my eyes to women’s rights as a movement. [After seeing it] I didn’t feel so isolated from some of the things I was noticing in the world and some of the questions I was having,” Shellman said. “It was hilarious and touching, and the stories were totally universal.”

In college at Florida State University, Shellman was part of the Women’s Center organization that put on a production of “ The Vagina Monologues.” Upon returning to Pensacola in 2008, she teamed up with friends to bring the production to life in a word of mouth, somewhat underground effort. The production took place at Sluggo’s Vegetarian Restaurant’s Brownsville location on V-Day 2009.

“One of the things I stand by is the punk ethic of DIY. So I thought what if I ask some girls if they want to do it?,” Shellman said. “That’s the great thing about V-Day, any group of women can spend their extra time putting together this performance.”

Not only did they max out capacity at 100 people, they had individuals lining the walls and even more peering in from the outside. They also made $1000 to benefit victims of domestic abuse served by Favor House of Northwest Florida.

Since the initial birth of “The Vagina Monologues” in the 1990s, and even since the group’s last Pensacola performance five years ago, the play has expanded to a wider global audience.

“It’s now become a play that is no longer some niche feminist play, but something that all women and men kind of know about,” Shellman said.

Teaming Up
Eliza Espy, another member of original V-Day group, eagerly hopped on board with Shellman to bring V-Day Pensacola 2014 to life. Like Shellman, she was introduced to “The Vagina Monologues” and the severity of issues women face at a young age.

“Being a women, odds are this [violence] will happen to you at some point in your lifetime, which is so disturbing,” Espy said.

Espy notes that although there have been stigmas eliminated over the years regarding the play as a whole, there are still misrepresentations of what the play is about and the bigger issues it is bringing to light.

“The idea that the same play is performed all over the world on the same day is a beautiful metaphor for me that one woman’s story is every woman’s story,” Espy said.

“I think a lot of these women, especially the women who were telling stories that ended up bringing them a lot of shame or humiliation or pain, just wanted to be heard. I want people to understand that these are human beings and real experiences.”

Espy and Shellman joined together with members of the original cast, as well as new voices, to bring the monologues to life again, this time in a space that can accommodate a larger audience.

The Stories They’ll Tell
The 2014 production of “The Vagina Monologues” will take place at Artel Gallery, Friday, Feb. 14. Proceeds from the event will once again go to benefit the work of Favor House of Northwest Florida. Although preceded by a silent auction beginning at 6 p.m., “The Vagina Monologues” performance itself will begin at 8 p.m., and last 90 minutes.

When it comes to the monologues themselves, if you come in with the preconceived notion that the word vagina means you can expect a play about women eating ice cream on their period, you’re going to be in for a surprise. Each monologue speaks to a specific facet of being a woman and carries a different theme.

“There’s one about giving birth. There’s one about being a dominatrix. There’s one about women being raped as a form of war. None of them really overlap, and it is a good mixture. One will be sad, while another will be really funny,” Shellman said.

Each member of the V-Day Pensacola production selected her own monologue, a story she felt strongly drawn to.

Shellman selected “My Vagina was My Village,” a monologue telling the stories of Bosnian women being raped in rape camps in the mid 1990s. This will be her first time performing this specific monologue.

“I wanted to do this one because I want to bring awareness to how even now, rape is used as a way to hurt and humiliate women. They use rape on these Bosnian women, most who were Muslim, in order to humiliate them and make them feel like ruined women. And the best way to make women feel terrible about themselves is to sexually or physically abuse them in some way. It’s a way to break their spirit,” she said.

Espy is revisiting the same monologue she performed previously at Sluggo’s. It’s one that takes a turn away from violence, and looks toward something else that remains what some may consider to be an uncomfortable topic to present in a public capacity: women’s sexuality.

“I am doing the same monologue because it’s one not a lot of people want to do. It’s called ‘The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy,’” she said.

While Ensler has introduced new, spotlight monologues into the mix over the years, this is one in particular that remains part of the foundational lineup, and one Espy refers to as sort of an ‘outcast’ monologue. The monologue is the story of a female sex worker who only works with women and enjoys giving women pleasure. She is a woman who owns her own sexuality, and outwardly enjoys the expressive sound of her own voice, her moans.

“If it were a man talking about his sexuality no one would bat an eye. When people are confronted by a woman who is not embarrassed or ashamed by her sex life, they don’t know what to do with it,” Espy said.

Each woman performing a monologue in this 90-minute production will be uniformly dressed in black, with a hint of color and holding the stories on note cards. The note cards are a gentle reminder that they are not performing, but rather using their own voice to allow other women’s stories to be heard.

The 12 monologues range in length, and alternate between those with more heavy themes and others that provoke laughter. Between each monologue there are what Shellman refers to as “happy vagina facts and sad facts.” Happy facts being those of the more lighthearted variety, while the sad facts are startling statistics.

Here’s an example of a “sad fact” you might hear: “Every year over 300,000 women will be raped in America. This is the year 2014. This is the world we live in,” Shellman said.

Community Ties
Although not performing a monologue this year, Rachel Moore has been a founding participant and V-Day Pensacola organizer, and was a part of the 2009 performance at Sluggo’s.

Beyond the monologues, Moore is drawn to the social activist aspect, and the essence of community that “The Vagina Monologues” continue to support both globally and in the individual communities in which it is shared.

“I like being part a social movement that’s so widespread, but at the same time getting to feel a connection and closeness with the women working on the play and knowing what we’re doing for women in our own community.”

As Moore notes, violence toward women and girls may be a global issue, but on our home front in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, domestic violence remains a real problem. That’s where Favor House of Northwest Florida comes in.

“Last year with a combination of outreach services and shelter, Favor House served 1600 individuals between Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties,” reported Director Sue Hand.

Although Favor House serves both men and women, Hand confirms, it still is predominately a women’s issue. “Ninety-nine percent of those in our services are women,” she said.

In addition to offering shelter for victims, Favor House provides an abuse hotline, and a number of outreach and education services.

“Education is needed so our community will understand our offenders need to be held responsible,” Hand said. “I think that people don’t understand when it’s not happening to them. We judge things by what is happening to us.”

In 2012, the FDLE reported 3,527 cases of domestic violence in Escambia County, with 3,096 reported by the Escambia County Sheriff’s Department, 427 by the Pensacola Police Department.

Although recent numbers in our own community show that domestic violence incidences have decreased, as with the case of rape and other violent crimes, there is a gap between the number of incidents actually occurring and how many of those cases are reported.

2,707 is the number of 2013 cases reported by the Sheriff’s Department that was recently highlighted. Although down from 3,096 reported in 2012, this number is still believed to only represent a small percentage of those individuals affected.

“Domestic violence is just like rape in that it is only reported 25 percent of the time. If we only judge our community by reported incidences, we are lacking the component that tells us how serious it is,” Hand said.

While Favor House has individuals referred to them from other area non-profits such as Manna Food Bank, they are an entirely independent organization, and the only one of their kind in the immediate area.

“You have to be trained in what to do and we are the only certified experts in the two county area. It’s one of the things we need to do — ongoing awareness. If they don’t need us they don’t look for us,” Hand said.

Still, on top of their extensive work with victims of abuse, Favor House offers an entire program focused on offenders.

“If we don’t change the offenders’ behavior, they are going to have another victim,” Hand said.

Not only is it vital to focus on the behavior of the offender, but equally as vital to eliminate the miscommunication and misinterpretations surrounding how those being victimized define violence or how it isn’t.

“We still have women that come and say, ‘I’m being verbally abused, but he hasn’t hit me, yet’ or perhaps they were pushed. People have a way of judging [what constitutes] violence by what they are experiencing,” Hand said.

While Domestic Violence Awareness month takes place annually in October, like any form of violence, it remains an everyday issue, and one that Hand feels is especially important to bring light to on Valentine’s Day, a time when many victims may be more inclined to give in to the manipulation tactics of their offender, amidst a holiday centered around glorified affection.

“I think Valentine’s is a really appropriate time to spotlight the issue. That’s when the offenders are going to say ‘Baby, forgive me,’” Hand said.

V-Day Pensacola hopes to help Favor House as much as possible with the proceeds from this performance.

“I hope that people are entertained and enjoy themselves. I hope that it makes them think about some of the issues and also that it just really raises as much money as possible for Favor House, and I think it’s an important thing to do,” Moore said.

A Worthwhile Date
The V-Day Pensacola women have worked diligently to make this experience one that will offer a meaningful Valentine’s experience for all.

“Personally I think it’s a great Valentine’s Day,” Espy said. “I would be very impressed if someone took me to this as a date. Everything goes to a good cause. And you get to watch this beautiful, funny, intelligent, sexy play.”

“I really hope that people who come and see it have a really good time on Valentine’s Day, doing something that isn’t just going to dinner and buying roses for someone,” Shellman said.

“I also hope people realize that activism and social awareness doesn’t have to be this big scary thing that you have to be part of a big organization [to do]. It can be a grassroots things that you can do with a group of friends. I hope people realize they can do the same thing with the things that they care about.”

THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES
WHAT: V-Day Pensacola Presents “The Vagina Monologues”
WHEN: 6-9:30 p.m. Friday Feb. 14
WHERE: Artel Gallery, 223 S. Palafox
COST: $5 entry
DETAILS: Facebook.com/vdaypensacola

To learn more about Favor House of Northwest Florida, visit favorhouse.com.
For more about the V-Day movement, visit Vday.org

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V-Day Pensacola 2014 Cast Members
Erin Cuneo: Cast member (The Vulva Club)
Eliza Espy: Cast member (The Woman Who Loved To Make Vaginas Happy)
Cleopatra Griffin: Cast member (Say It)
Claire Inabnit: Cast member (The Vagina Workshop)
Frances Jacobi: Cast member (I Was There In The Room)
Emily Lullo: Cast member/Set Designer (Because He Liked to Look At It)
Jasmine Miller: Cast member (My Angry Vagina)
Rachel Moore: Cast Member/Event Coordinator/Social Media Director
Jennifer Shellman: Event Coordinator/Cast member (My Vagina Was My Village)
Cori Perez: Cast member (Hair)
Alexa Reed: Cast member (My Short Skirt)
Jamie Tincher: Cast member (The Flood)
Samantha Williams: Cast member/Graphic Designer/Set Designer
Kara Woodson: Cast member (Reclaiming Cunt)

Art Auction
Although “The Vagina Monologues” will be taking center stage at Artel beginning at 8 p.m., in an effort to make an entire night of it and help raise even more money for Favor House, doors open at 6 p.m. to welcome in guests for the silent auction. Donated art pieces for the action include photography, hand made jewelry, drawings, paintings, prints and ceramics, all courtesy of a wide range of local artists. Each unique piece makes for a worthwhile memento from the event, or perhaps even a last minute Valentine’s gift. During this time guests are invited to mingle and enjoy drinks from a cash donation bar.

Raffle Prizes
In addition to the silent auction, guests will be invited to purchase a raffle ticket. Not only does purchasing a $1 raffle ticket go to benefit Favor House, it allows you the opportunity to potentially go home with a prize. Prizes include gift certificates to local eateries: The Leisure Club, McGuire’s Irish Pub, Sluggo’s Vegetarian Restaurant and End of The Line Cafe, as well as other local businesses such as Stay Clinical Spa, Painting With a Twist, Volume 1 Salon, The Mole Hole and Breathe Yoga Studio.