The sounds of laughter, tears and gasps filled the Kenworthy Performing Arts Centre Feb. 10 and Feb. 11.
Members of the Palouse community filled nearly every seat in the house to watch local women share their stories and experiences at “The Vagina Monologues.”
The high turnout for the performances was a pleasant surprise for Lysa Salsbury, director of the University of Idaho Women’s Center.
“Last year we were concerned the monologues weren’t speaking to as many people as it used to,” Salsbury said. “With the great turnout this year, we’ve been reminded yet again that yes, these stories are still powerful and yes, they are still relevant to our campus.”
Since 2002, the Women’s Center has hosted a performance of activist Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” almost every year. The annual performance of the monologues is part of the center’s local V-Day campaign, a global activist movement used to spread awareness about gender-based violence through benefit performances.
Salsbury said the monologues have always been an important performance for the Moscow and UI communities, offering an opportunity for students and community members alike to discuss and engage in discourse about women’s issues. In recent years, Salsbury said she noticed attendance was declining.
Salsbury said the Women’s Center tried a couple of different tactics to combat this decline. A few years ago, she said the center replaced the monologues with another work by Ensler called “Any One of Us: Words from Prison,” which shared the experiences of incarcerated women.
“Attendance at that performance was significantly lower,” Salsbury said. “It didn’t have the same amount of name recognition and outreach. It just didn’t leave as powerful of an impact on the community.”
This year, Salsbury said the Women’s Center decided to get rid of Thursday night’s performance in response to the decline. She said the center also decided to try something completely unique in comparison to year’s past — bring in the stories of local women.
“Having that personal voice was very powerful,” Salsbury said. “I think the monologues are so special, because they are the stories of real women, but having women from our own community sharing theirs, from their heart and the depth of their experience, made this year’s performance more moving than usual.”
There were two “spotlights” on local women’s stories. One piece involved four women who faced different experiences of workplace harassment. The other was the story of a transgender UI student who shared her definition of womanhood.
Salsbury said she thinks the current political and social climate in the country was another key factor causing the turnout at the performances.
“In the past few months, I’ve been certainly feeling a prominence of concern around the way women are treated socially, politically and economically,” Salsbury said. “Since the Women’s March, there’s been a galvanizing of activism around women’s issues and the turnout at the performances was part of that response. I think this time has stirred up people’s interest and need to hear those stories again, placing women’s stories once again at the forefront.”
At the performances, the Women’s Center sent out evaluations in the programs for the audience to fill out, so the center could assess what they did well and how they could improve. Bekah MillerMacPhee, assistant director of programs at the Women’s Center, said she has gone through about a third of the evaluations and said the responses have been overwhelmingly positive, particularly around the two local spotlights.
“I think that the performances are making people feel more connected and less isolated,” MillerMacPhee said. “There’s been many people who have come up to me since the show, and said they identified with both of those stories.”
MillerMacPhee said the time after the performance is a great opportunity to engage in follow-up conversations. She said she plans to talk to student groups on the UI campus and people in the Moscow community about how they felt about the performances and where they would like to see it go.
Salsbury said the performances painted a picture of how the Moscow and UI community supports and rallies around women and other marginalized groups.
“The Moscow community has always been supporting, and people have been coming to monologues for years,” Salsbury said. “I think the turnout was confirmation that that support is still present and very visible today.”
Taryn Hadfield can be reached at email@example.com