O.P.C. Guide: At The Crossroads
December 4, 2014

Professor Timothy Patrick McCarthy Interviews Playwright and Activist Eve Ensler

The following interview was conducted on May 7, 2014.

TIMOTHY PATRICK MCCARTHY: What inspired you to write O.P.C., and why now?

EVE ENSLER: We are clearly at a crisis in human existence. We see it in extreme weather, rise in sea level and the extinction of plants and animals — something like 200 species a day are disappearing. But the burning and fracking of more and more fossil fuel continue escalating greenhouse gases and the warming. Last summer was the hottest summer in 600 years or so. Storms, drought, flooding. And still, in the West and many other places, mad shopping and consumption continues.

TPM: Front page of the New York Times today. The climate has already changed.

EE: Yes. I’ve been reading books by people who are actually now arguing that it’s over. That there is no way back. There are therapists working with families to prepare them for the end of the world as we know it. Our world is collapsing — severe climate crisis, a mad economic situation, diabolical inequality where 85 people are making the same as 3.5 billion and the 3.5 billion are living in staggering poverty. And with this economic madness comes escalated violence in every direction. So many wars: Iraq, Sudan, Congo, Syria and increased militarization of the planet. We’re talking about 1 out of every 3 women in the world being raped and beaten. How, as artists, do we respond to it? It is so huge and daunting. How can we put our voice into that yawning gulf of impossibility? And how do we speak out with the passion, intensity, warning required without being identified as insane people, you know?

TPM: Yes! I can definitely relate.

EE: I think O.P.C. is addressing this and the split between liberals and progressives. Those who believe change will come working inside a corporate patriarchal racist capitalist system and those who believe change will only come with a whole new system.

TPM: I want to pick up on that because the play can be read in many ways — in all the ways you’ve just described and in others as well. One of the themes is this intergenerational relationship between Smith (the mother) and Romi (her daughter). This woman, this liberal feminist, has raised her daughter to be open minded, to see the world in progressive ways and live in the world according to those values. But Smith also has this expectation that Romi will not live outside the box, much less from a garbage can. And Romi has chosen to opt out because she sees this world that her mother’s generation has helped to create, and she isn’t buying it. What is the play saying about intergenerational relationships among women, mothers and daughters, at this moment in history? What is it saying, if anything, about the state of feminism?

EE: I think we have a very interesting split in time now. On the one hand, we have women who — rightly so — have been fighting forever to have power inside the system. They have been left out, marginalized, underpaid, unseen, and they want in! On the other hand, we have a younger generation that is saying, “Why would I want to be part of a system where that growth, that escalation of consumption, that ambition, that hierarchy creates the incredible economic inequality and climate crisis that is destroying the planet?” I think the play is definitely at that crossroads.

TPM: Radicals are often considered “crazy,” at least during their lifetime. To this point, one thing that really struck me in the play is the moment where Romi has a psychotic “break” that gets diagnosed as having “O.P.C.” This is the big reveal at the end of Act I, where you actually name “it.” (By the way, I love this part of the play — very dramatic!) So Romi is literally psychotic. But there’s a deeper message here about the role of radicals in society: Romi has to have a break in order to disrupt the world in which she’s living. In being diagnosed, she’s actually diagnosing the culture!

EE: Right! And the question remains: is she psychotic? That’s a big part of the play. Is she the crazy one, or the one who’s most in tune with what’s happening here?

TPM: So is Romi the heroine of the play?

EE: I don’t think that’s for me to say.

TPM: OK, let me ask you a slightly different question: does this play need a heroine?

EE: In this play I was really trying to unearth the dialectic, to make visible the arguments that are in many of our heads. I hope the play will get people to ask questions. To challenge assumptions, and break out of our denial. And I hope it will make us laugh. That’s really important. 

TPM: There are many interventions this play is making in the larger discourse and we’ve talked about a number of them. You are so profoundly and powerfully linked to The Vagina Monologues. You’re a feminist icon, and The Vagina Monologues is now a global phenomenon. You have inspired so many students — so many of my own students — and changed their lives. Students have been transformed by seeing The Vagina Monologues, by witnessing it, and by participating in it. But as an artist, you’ve done all this other work. Do you ever want to distance yourself from The Vagina Monologues? Do you think your plays — including O.P.C. — will always be read, principally, through the lens of gender, women, sexuality? Does that bother you? Does it limit your other art? Are these issues you wrestle with?

EE: These are very good questions. None of us wants to be held up or stopped or limited by one stage of our work or career or seen through one lens. We are each so many people. Hopefully we’re all evolving. I think being in a movement where I’ve worked for years to end violence against women has changed my consciousness. It’s made me understand that we can’t end violence against women unless we address poverty, racism, the environment, unless we address homophobia and transphobia, and look at these issues in a more interconnected and holistic way. Of course I will always in my heart and soul be a feminist because I know that when women are free and safe and equal and honored and cherished and thriving in their bodies and beings, all life will thrive as well. But that is not all I am. I have other concerns and curiosities. So I’m in a very exciting and also very destabilizing period in my own evolution because I don’t feel like I fit into any particular box any more. Or maybe this is the organic evolution of feminism to what we are calling quantum feminism.

TPM: In closing, I want to ask you a couple of questions about your collaboration with the A.R.T. As you know, Diane Paulus is on quite a roll these days. She was just named one of Time’s 100 most influential people. What are you looking forward to in terms of your collaboration with the A.R.T., with Diane and her remarkable colleagues? 

EE: I am thrilled to be working with Diane Paulus. She is wildly imaginative and original, and the team at the A.R.T. is just fantastic. I feel very supported and encouraged. I can be much bolder, much more daring. The idea of having a community at Harvard, where we can put on this play and work with the Radcliffe Institute and other partners, and then bring in philosophers, economists, human rights workers, environmentalists, scientists to ask: How do we use this play to expand the current boundaries of our thinking? What I’ve always loved about theater is that it can ignite discourse, activism, and create revolutions. I witnessed The Vagina Monologues give birth to the global movement V-Day and then to One Billion Rising, so I know firsthand the power of theater. How do we use this play to really activate and amplify and support all the really good environmental movements that already exist? How do we push everyone to be bolder and be more imaginative and daring? How do we broaden the discourse and create uprisings in thought and action?

TPM: That’s wonderful. Last question: who are your inspirations? Who are the people you keep with you as you do your work and create your art? 

EE: The people who inspire me are the grassroots women activists who I meet around the world. Women in the Congo who have risen up and are transforming consciousness in the midst of war, in the midst of poverty, women like Christine Schuler-Deschryver who are fierce, brave, loving, powerful leaders. Women in Afghanistan. I have an adopted daughter, Zoya, who just opened an amazing place there where hundreds of women are being educated. Or Agnes Pareiyo, a woman who has been fighting female genital mutilation in Kenya for years. She opened safe houses, created alternative rituals to the cutting and has prevented thousands of girls from being cut. I think about grassroots women who are holding the world together, running shelters for battered women, fighting off fracking and pipelines in their local towns, demanding better pay and conditions for waiters and domestic workers, women who lay their bodies down to stop dams or mountain removal or horrific conditions in factories. These women are the future. I take my lead from them.

Timothy Patrick McCarthy holds a joint faculty appointment in History and Literature and at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he directs the Sexuality, Gender and Human Rights Program at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. He is author or editor of five books, including The Radical Reader: A Documentary Anthology of the American Radical Tradition (New Press, 2003) and Stonewall’s Children: Living Queer History in the Age of Liberation, Loss, and Love (forthcoming from the New Press). An award-winning scholar, teacher, and activist, he is currently at work on his first play, Four Harriets, in collaboration with the A.R.T.

 

Publication date:
October 15, 2014
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