Eve Ensler on trafficking drama and why Mad Max is feminist
Playwright Eve Ensler created a theatrical phenomenon when she wrote The Vagina Monologues. Almost 20 years on, she has advised the stars of the new Mad Max film and written a play about trafficking, which receives its premiere at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds on Tuesday.
"Theatre is one of the most powerful tools on the planet to bring about any kind of revolutionary change," she declares.
The writer was responsible for a revolution of sorts when The Vagina Monologues, her series of stories drawn from interviews with women about their bodies, helped demolish taboos in the late 1990s.
That propelled her to become a powerful activist with another revolution in her sights - to end all violence against women and girls. She set up the V-Day movement with that aim in mind.
Now, she has returned to the stage with Avocado, a short play that tells the story of a woman who is trafficked (in an avocado box) and goes from one oppressive situation to another.
Ensler cites the recent case of Mary Jane Veloso, a Filipino who went to Indonesia to work as a maid and said she was tricked into carrying a suitcase containing heroin. Sent to prison and sentenced to death, she was spared execution at the last minute.
Why did you write Avocado?
I'm really interested in the lives of so many women in this world who are put through various oppressions. You think you've escaped one only to discover you've tumbled into the next.
The stories of many women who are trafficked or contained or denied asylum are stories we don't really know because so many of their lives are disappeared lives.
I just wanted to go into the head of a person who is suffering those kinds of oppressions.
Was it inspired by one person?
No. But ironically, as they were about to go into rehearsals, this terrible story of Mary Jane Veloso happened.
What can a play show that a news report cannot?
One of the great things about theatre is that you have a direct experience of someone and you're in the room with them. People who are these invisible soundbite stories become human beings and you suddenly go, 'I had no idea'.
Until that moment, those people aren't real to you. What happened to them isn't real to you. So you don't really care about them.
The Vagina Monologues is still performed around the world - do you still keep track of it?
During the V-Day season there were 1,000 places that did it last year. And recently a group of women organised a production of it at the Taconic State Prison [in New York]. It was incredible to see women laughing and screaming and crying and to hear their experiences.
I know a person who brought The Vagina Monologues to her bank in Singapore, and all the women in her bank performed it.
And it was performed in the European Parliament by members of parliament, and last year Haitian women performed it in the Haitian parliament. There are all these amazing contexts it's being performed in now.
Did it change people who saw it?
One of the reasons I wrote The Vagina Monologues was that I had done a lot of interviews before I created a theatrical piece and I was hearing so many similar stories - but every woman thought she was alone in that experience.
Nobody knew other women were having that experience because we weren't talking about it. And when women discovered that this was a universal experience, they were suddenly not alone, so that gave them power.
Have reactions changed over the years?
When the play started, it was so hard to have it done anywhere. Every person who brought it to their city or country or college - there were huge taboos and huge walls up. That's really changed in most places.
There's part of me that always thinks, 'Oh God, this play will eventually become outdated'. And then I think, 'Why hasn't it become outdated? Why are we still here, struggling against patriarchy and struggling where women are yet to feel liberated in terms of their sexuality and being equal in the world?'
You were an advisor on Mad Max: Fury Road. What did director George Miller ask you to do?
He wanted me to work particularly with [the actors who played] the five wives. Because I've spent a lot of time in places like Bosnia, Haiti, Afghanistan and Congo, he wanted me to give them context about what happens with women who are trafficked and enslaved and raped.
There has been a debate over whether it is a feminist film.
People sometimes don't know what feminism means. To me feminism is not that complex. It means women are equal. We have equal roles, equal rights, equal pay.
If you look at this film from an objective point of view, women are equally capable of fighting. Women have equal desires. Women are independent and have agency over their own lives. They exist without men.
To me, what was very exciting about this film was the range of women characters and the range of ages. They weren't relegated to one role. To me that's feminism.
What do you think of the way women are portrayed in other films?
I haven't seen many films in my life where women are portrayed as equally capable of defending themselves and other people.
This is an action movie. Do I go to action movies? No. But I do believe those films have an enormous impact on mainstream culture. To see a film where women are capable fighters and capable of determining their own destiny to me is significant.
You think it will have an influence on people who watch it?
I do. I've already heard from so many women who are happy to see women not portrayed as pathetic.
I also love the older women in that film - that was brilliant. When do we even see older women in movies? The older women get, the more amazing they get. And in culture, they get more and more erased. So that alone was significant.
Avocado is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds from Tuesday 26 May to Saturday 30 May.