Performances of Eve Ensler's 1996 off-Broadway hit "The Vagina Monologues" have become a staple around Valentine's Day on college and university campuses across the country.
But this year Gunn High School students are mounting a full production of the 14-monologue show that frankly explores aspects of female sexuality.
"No one says 'vagina' in everyday life because of how much it's discriminated against, even though it's a medical term," said Gunn senior Wendy Kraemer, producer and assistant director of the show.
Feeling inspired by a "sense of empowerment" she felt after watching the HBO film version of "The Vagina Monologues," Kraemer decided to try launching it at Gunn.
She enlisted senior Holly Wright, her friend and fellow actor in past theater productions, to direct the show.
"One of the reasons 'The Vagina Monologues' makes people feel so uncomfortable is that the whole concept of mystery and intrigue around femininity and womanhood has been the cultural norm," Wright said. "That's one of the things it tries to break through.
"People here really do have such open minds and, once they get past the title -- which is kind of a shocker -- and get to know what 'The Vagina Monologues' is really about, they usually really open up to the idea," she said. "Or, if they don't, they at least recognize the merits of doing such a performance."
Kraemer applied for permission to put together a performance through Ensler's organization, V-Day, which calls itself a "global activist movement to end violence against women and girls."
V-Day permits campus productions of the monologues under strict guidelines: 90 percent of profits must go to a local organization working to end violence against women and girls and 10 percent to V-Day; performances must occur between Feb. 1 and April 30; organizers and supporting teams should not be paid; admission should be charged.
Ensler's rules also call for "no male actors," with the added stipulation that men be "included and encouraged" to be involved in other ways.
The guidelines also stipulate that "No one should be turned away from participating in your event in some capacity."
Wright and Kraemer have assembled 14 Gunn student actors, ranging from freshmen to seniors, with additional backstage and technical help from others, including Kraemer's twin brother Evan and other male students. Proceeds will go to Bay Area Women Against Rape.
Kraemer and Wright said they made a presentation to Gunn's Site Council, which passed on becoming a sponsor. But they did get support - - and fiscal sponsorship -- from the Gunn Theater Boosters organization, as well as encouragement from theater teacher Jim Shelby.
Gunn Principal Katya Villalobos also expressed support.
While it's "not typical for a high school to have this production ... 'The Vagina Monologues' do highlight three issues around women: women's health, violence against women in all its forms and breaking the silence around these issues," Villalobos said.
"Using 'The Vagina Monologues' as a vehicle to have these items discussed to an audience is a great way for individuals to access them. Like other performances and productions, Gunn Theater will let audiences know that some of the material may not be suitable for younger audiences," the principal said.
Though somewhat conflicted, their parents have been supportive of their efforts, Wright and Kraemer said.
"Any normal mother would be, like, 'What? What are you doing?'" Kraemer said. "Mine had that reaction too but, when I explained it to her she was very supportive of what I wanted to do."
Said Wright: "My parents are pretty awesome too, although I definitely make my dad feel very uncomfortable whenever I talk about it. It's something he really supports, but he really doesn't like to hear that his teenage daughter is spending a lot of time talking about vaginas.
"But he's really glad that I'm doing this project."
While rare, high school productions of "The Vagina Monologues" are not unheard of.
Berkeley High School is also mounting a production this year, as are a host of Bay Area colleges and universities, including Stanford University, San Jose State University, Mills College and Sofia University.
"The majority of responses I've had have been positive, and people are very excited to see high school students tackle a difficult subject head-on," Kraemer said.
"I see it as a message not only of empowerment, but also teaching people that change is possible."
Gunn's 90-minute production will be held in the school's Little Theater Friday, Feb. 14, Saturday, Feb. 15 and Sunday, Feb. 16, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $5 at the door.
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