Kelsey Peters vividly remembers the first time she saw The Vagina Monologues in college. Women described their vaginas in detail. They shared vagina pet names. At one point, a performer encouraged the audience to yell the c-word like a rallying cry. “I was crying halfway through,” Peters recalls. “All the monologues [were] so powerful. It was just women onstage talking about things that affected me, a representation that I hadn’t seen before. It was so empowering.”
Years after that poignant performance, Peters is now directing The Feminine Experience, a Monologues tribute show at Washington Improv Theater opening February 25. In its third annual iteration, the production features 21 performers sharing stories about sex, menstruating, and what they see when they look in a mirror placed strategically between their legs, all prompted by the audience.
“When we were casting, we were aiming to represent ‘What is the feminine experience for so many different types of women (or not women)?’ ” Peters says. “We were looking to cast women of different backgrounds, sexual orientation, races, ages, and body types. We really wanted people to look at this group and say, ‘This is a group that shows what women really look like, and we don’t always see that.’ ”
The night of, audience members can contribute potential titles for a monologue on slips of paper, as at a traditional improv show. Peters will quickly sort through the suggestions and select roughly two dozen prompts. Improvisers will then divulge personal stories about their own experiences—instead of acting as fictional characters. “The performers will find out the title of the new monologue at the same time as the audience,” says assistant director and performer Krystal Ramseur. All suggestions are fair game and don’t need to refer directly to Monologues.
Although the first Vagina Monologues premiered more than 20 years ago, Peters and Ramseur feel the show is still relevant. Recently, it’s been criticized for a lack of inclusion of trans and non-binary identities. Some colleges have canceled performances or made name changes for the same reason, a critique that was front-of-mind for the showrunners. “When we changed the title of the show to The Feminine Experience this year, we were intentionally opening up the show to elevate the experience of all women,” says Peters. Some performers do identify as trans or non-binary.
Despite the controversy, the play remains impactful. Ramseur saw The Vagina Monologues for the first time only a few years ago, and it prompted her to reflect on the lack of sexual frankness in her own family. “The idea of women talking about masturbating? Especially in my family, we don’t talk about that at all,” she says. “We don’t talk about dating. We don’t talk about sex. We don’t really even talk about periods. To see women talk about their bodies, their strengths and experience, it was so liberating.” That’s the feeling she hopes to recreate for the audience.
The Feminine Experience will show at Washington Improv Theater on February 25 and March 4. Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at the door. All proceeds will go to House of Ruth, a local nonprofit supporting victims of domestic violence.