Transcript by MaryD / Scan by Richard K
I Am Woman
Gilbert Wong talks to Lucy Lawless about vaginas
Lucy Lawless is having a home birth. The contractions begin, so she clambers into her spa pool where she the delivery will take place. There's people all around. Her Canadian-born doctor, her husband producer Robert Tapert, her young daughter Daisy from a previous relationship.
Lawless doesn't know how she knows, but the doctor announces that her waters have broken. The birth seems imminent. The doctor calls out instructions,
"Okay, okay Lucy, take it easy, e-a-s-y, now reach down and put your fingers inside your vagina." Daisy, then nine, turns pale and flees the room. Eventually Lawless' son Julius arrives safely.
Lawless laughs uproariously. "Fingers and vagina are two words that aren't meant to be in the same sentence."
I don't know Lawless personally and even if I did I doubt there would be any reason for me to be asking her for a vagina anecdote. Good sport that she is, Lawless volunteers the story, relevant because the actress is making her professional debut on the New Zealand stage as one of the three actresses (the others are Danielle Cormack and Madeleine Sami) in the Auckland Theatre Company production of Eve Ensler's play The Vagina Monologues, the first play of the company's 2002 Decadence season, scheduled to coincide with the company's 10th birthday.
Clearly she would not have considered the play if she had any hang-ups about the most taboo part of the female anatomy. But after one read-through she was convinced. "It was funny but also heart wrenching...and that's why it needs to be done, because women need to stop feeling ashamed.
In the United States and Britain The Vagina Monologues have transcended the stage to become a bona fide social phenomenon, barnstorming its way through thousands of productions in the West End and on Broadway and collecting awards on the way. Although it's a theatre staple in Los Angeles, New York and London, Lawless has never seen the play and does not plan to for fear of influencing her own performance.
Playwrite Eve Ensler began the project after a friend talked about the effects of menopause. Curious about her friend's response, Ensler went onto to conduct 200 interviews about vaginas with a wide range of woman, accounts that range from the humorous to the tragic.
The show was first performed by Ensler off-Broadway in the mid-1990s and quickly became a hit. Star power subsequently climbed aboard with the likes of Glenn Close, Calista Flockhart, Whoopi Goldberg and Alanis Morrisette performing the play. Close became so excited by the implicit message of empowerment that she had an audience of 2500 chanting 'c**t', which might be too much to ask of an Auckland theatre crowd. Lawless has no plans to repeat the feat.
A play about female empowerment seems an obvious follow-up for an actress who spent six years in a leather skirt and bustier as Xena, Warrior Princess. But Lawless has firmly separated herself from her alter ego, a potent symbol to a legion of feminist fans.
Besides, she says on her mobile phone from Los Angeles, she was brought up to believe that girls can do anything. Her father, former city councillor Frank Ryan, and mother Julie Ryan, will be in the audience and she admits to a sense of unease about their reaction, even though she recalls how matter-of-fact and honest her mother was about sex education. Put that do to the strength of the taboo.
Lawless is intrigued that, when expressed crudely, a portion of the female anatomy has come to be the worst obscenity in the language. "It's the worst thing to say because the vagina belongs to your mother. That use comes from some primitive sense of sacredness rather than profanity. That's the politics of it that appeals to me., that people do not associate power, strength or sacredness with the vagina."
In Studio City, Los Angeles, where she lives part of the year, Lawless has continued to work - a guest part in the X-Files, a walk-on in the film Spider-Man, but her current focus is on the coming birth of her third child, due in April. Imminent childbirth did not diminish her desire to act again. After attending a play reading by the ATC in Auckland earlier this year, she realised that her life lacked something.
"I'm actually looking forward to being that frightened again. It's a case of me losing my love for what I've been doing. I had forgotten about the nuts and bolts of acting because I was so busy with all the other things that came with my rose in Xena - as the producer's wife and the star and the need for publicity. I considered myself one of the morale leaders in the show and my acting suffered."
She's not complaining...really. Celebrity has brought a more comfortable life.
But with success behind her, perhaps she can finally brave the possibility of failure. After too long on magazine covers, websites and gossip columns, she had a hunger for the immediacy and relative anonymity of the stage.
"What I want now is to not be anything other than another actor on the stage and only being responsible to your acting colleagues in that moment. I hope it will feel very freeing. There are no special effects, apart from a bit of lighting and music. Nobody is going to edit out my bad performance."
The Vagina Monologues
directed by Oliver Driver, Auckland Theatre Company, Maidmeat Theatre
February 14 - March 16
The lowdown on down under comes Downunder. A canny mix of star power and proven material should pull in new audiences curious about a play that is not so much drama as oral history. American style (February 14, V-Day, is a charity performance with proceeds going to women's groups).
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