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Sundance Film Follows Play's Rise from Theater to Worldwide Movement

Originally published in:
The Salt Lake Tribune

By Vince Horiuchi

There was a time when Jane Fonda had trouble saying that "V" word.

"I was asked to perform 'The Vagina Monologues' about 3 1/2 years ago in Atlanta and I asked to have the play sent to me," she said. "I started reading it, and I thought to myself, 'Oh no, I'm sorry, I have enough problems with controversy. I don't think I need to say the V-word onstage.' So I passed."

But thanks to a persistent friend, she saw writer/activist Eve Ensler's performance of her famous one-woman show in New York. Fonda was floored by its frank stories about how women perceive their bodies, sexuality and self-esteem -- acknowledging that seeing the play had greater impact than just reading it.

"It was one of the most memorable and empowering experiences of my life," Fonda told The Salt Lake Tribune in a telephone conversation from New Mexico. "I don't think I have ever laughed so hard in the theater or cried so hard."

Needless to say, Fonda ended up appearing in the play. Like millions of other women, it touched her on "some very somatic level."

That is an example of how "The Vagina Monologues" escalated from a humble off-Broadway performance to a worldwide social movement against violence launched by Ensler. She calls her organization "V-Day."

Using "The Vagina Monologues" as a fund-raising tool, V-Day has raised more than $20 million to help anti-violence programs worldwide. The cause has attracted other actors, including Glenn Close, Marisa Tomei, Isabella Rosselini and Oprah Winfrey.

A new documentary called "Until the Violence Stops" follows the growing movement around the globe and has its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday at 6 p.m. at the Yarrow Hotel Theater in Park City. Ensler and Fonda, who is a member of V-Day's V-Counsel, will attend. Both women and their roles in the movement are featured in the documentary, which is directed by Abby Epstein.

Ensler wrote the play "The Vagina Monologues" after conducting interviews with more than 200 women about their sexuality, their bodies and their stories of violence and sexual abuse. The play has been performed several times in Salt Lake City.

"I was talking to a friend about menopause, and we got on to the subject of our vagina, and I was sort of wondering what other women thought. So I just started talking to friends, and one thing led to another," she told The Salt Lake Tribune in a phone conversation from Manhattan.

The power of Ensler's play comes from talking about issues that for centuries have been taboo.

"It's a very moving monologue that talks about how the vagina is like a miracle," said the Oscar-winning Fonda. "It can open to receive love or to let a baby out. It can close like a wound and heal itself. It can bring life.

"If the penis could do what the vagina could do, there would be a monument to it in Washington, D.C.," she added. "But instead, vaginas are cut up and sewed and raped and denigrated and insulted, and we are made ashamed of it."

V-Day focus: Last month, Fonda spent a day in Guatemala, where she said no one has been prosecuted for the murders of more than 700 women in the past two years by "death squads." That country likely will be the focus of V-Day in February 2005.

This February, V-Day supporters, which Ensler calls Vagina Warriors, will focus their attention on Juarez, Mexico, where the murders of more than 300 women and girls have have never been investigated, Ensler said. That month, which marks the sixth anniversary of the V-Day organization, 2,500 performances of "The Vagina Monologues" will be given in 1,050 locations around the world.

"It's incredible when you think that six years ago, we were in one theater in New York City," Ensler said, "and now we're talking about 2,500 performances. You see the urgency of this issue."

Utah benefit: As part of V-Day events last February, proceeds from a local performance of "The Vagina Monologues" at the Rose Wagner Theater in Salt Lake City generated $10,000 for the Rape Recovery Center. Additional money also went to The University of Utah's Women's Resource Center and the YWCA, which runs a
shelter for abused women.

"Anything that is bringing attention to the violence against women in our community is a good thing," said Jaimee Roberts, executive director of the Rape Recovery Center in Salt Lake City.

"It takes the shroud of secrecy off of the issue of sexual assault and rape," she added. "It's always historically something we can't talk about, so women can't reach out for help as easily. What Eve . . . and others are doing is saying the shame should not be placed on the person who is hurt but should be placed on the person who does the harm."

Tale of a movement: "Until the Violence Stops," which will premiere on the Lifetime cable television network Feb. 17, chronicles the growth of the movement in 2002 through five international communities. It begins with V-Day events at Harlem's Apollo Theater, where benefit performances of the monologues were held.
Also included are Ukiah, Calif., the Philippines, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, and Kenya, where a V-Day Safe House for girls was opened.

"One out of every three women on the planet will be raped or beaten in her lifetime -- that's a U.N. statistic. We're talking about a global epidemic that is systematically undermining women," Ensler said. "What we all need to do is stop everything we're doing right this minute and focus our attention on saving,
honoring, holding women sacred if we really want the species to survive."

Fonda said that during her travels around the world for V-Day, she has been moved by hundreds of stories of women who have been victimized in some way by cultures that undercut them. But Ensler's play has sparked a new way of thinking, she said.

"You hear about these things, and you begin to love this precious part of you instead of hating it," she said.

"The hope is these women are becoming empowered by this play, and they're starting to get organized," she added. "And word is getting out."