Sex in the City

What a local audience’s reaction to “The Vagina Monologues” says about Missoula

Story by Erin Gallagher

It’s Valentine’s Day, and scads of people recline comfortably in Missoula’s University Theatre. As the show starts, the already dim overhead lights go down, leaving the room almost impenetrably black before the stage spots come on, illuminating three women whose words enter dangerous territory within seconds.

Dirty sounding colloquialisms for the female sexual anatomy begin to number like candy conversation hearts as one wonders if the people filling the theater will revolt and demand their money back.

Nicole Smith portrays a woman divulging how she discovered the wonders of her vagina in “The Vagina Workshop.” (Photo by Cassie Venaglia)

As it turns out, however, they laugh. And as the show goes on, their laughter only grows more uproarious. The University of Montana’s yearly production of “The Vagina Monologues” is causing laughter that ranges from timid, nervous chortles to deep, rolling tremors of hysterics.

“I thought it was very good laughter, very productive laughter,” said Daniel Viehland, 20, a first-time spectator.

Compared to most of Montana, Missoula is a laid-back center of liberal politics, peppered with art galleries, “hippie” stores and more out-of-staters than the average cowboy-hatted Montanan could wave a branding iron at. At its heart, however, it will always be the little town that grew up on rugged, untamed appeal, and some of its residents will always reflect that.

So how does a town battling between opposing identities treat a subject such as sex?

“I’m open about sex talk,” said Lisa Decelles, a veteran Vagina Monologues attendee. “I do love vaginas.”

“I’ll talk about sex whether you want me to or not,” said fellow attendee Kyndra Gilvarry, a drama major at UM.

Sexual openness, says Missoula’s resident clinical sexologist Lindsey Doe, really varies from person to person, and cannot always be determined by political affiliations. Dividing people who can and cannot handle blatant talk about sex along partisan lines is too linear, she said.

“I’ve never approached it in a way that says, ‘conservatives are the ones who don’t like me and liberals are the ones who do,’” said Doe, who offers services like sexual education and attitude restructuring, as well as classes about different sexual acts. “I respond to the politics by being nonpartisan, by reminding us that even though we might have differences in how we regulate sexual health, everyone can benefit from the knowledge.”

Kerry Burkhardt, whose daughter, Taylor, was in the production, said that Missoulians likely to be offended by the explicitness of the material probably won’t bother coming to the show.

“I think the people who come are expecting it, but they have different comfort levels,” she said.

Many first-timers to this year’s production of “The Vagina Monologues” knew they were in for a night of entertainment, but were otherwise unsure of what to expect. “Vagina” virgin and UM sociology major Beth Fisher, 20, said she “realized it would be comedy, but didn’t realize it would be that hysterical in parts.”

Fellow first-timer Willi Brooks, a 23-year-old broadcast journalism major at UM and part-time writer of the university newspaper’s sex column, said he “expected to hear a lot of people talk about vaginas.”

UM journalism and political science major Viehland found the show funnier than he had expected.

“I thought it was gonna be a lot more serious and I was surprised,” he said.

In a show that boasts stories ranging from the stone-faced and serious to the giddy and unabashed, the most outrageous monologues beckoned the most laughs. “My Angry Vagina,” a feisty, in-your-face monologue, coaxed wild, untamed cackles from the audience with its bald declarations of the injustices of vaginal exams, tampons and products intended to make vaginas smell better.

“I loved the angry vagina one,” said Fisher. “I thought it was a nice rebellion against what people are trying to commercialize for vaginas, making it a commodity instead of a part of the body. What it is is what it should be.”

A similarly outrageous monologue climaxed with the entire audience repeatedly shouting what is arguably the most widely disliked term for the female genitalia. Men and women alike screamed the four-letter word as passionately as if it were a battle cry, undeterred by the idea that others in the room may have taken offense to it. The monologue was so popular, in fact, that many in the audience took initiative and began shouting the word at their leisure during a moment of technical difficulty following the performance.

Brittany Salley-Rains applies makeup before taking the stage as a sex worker for women in “The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy.” Rains’s demonstration of several different moans would become one of the show’s most memorable moments. (Photo by Cassie Venaglia)

Perhaps the biggest hit of the night, however, was “The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy,” a same-sex worker’s account of the different ways of moaning her clients employed. The bulk of the monologue involved the lingerie-clad prostitute brandishing whips and enthusiastically demonstrating each different moan.

“The moaner caught me off-guard,” Brooks said. “I didn’t expect to come and be surprised by much, but that definitely caught my attention.”

The monologues are, of course, not purely about sex-related amusement. Playwright Eve Ensler constructed the show to be not only humorous, but poignant and thoughtful. The show is a component of the yearly V-Day movement to “end violence against women and girls.” Content varies widely, from an old lady with a Brooklyn accent speaking reluctantly about her “down there” to a teenage girl reflecting on her years of captivity to share tips on surviving sex slavery.

When the subject matter turned serious, Missoulians sat in hushed, almost revered silence. These moments, according to Fisher, were among the hardest to handle; Fisher admitted she cringed at a Bosnian woman’s monologue about being gang-raped by soldiers. But that appears to be part of Ensler’s plan, said cast member and YMCA after-school counselor Maia McGuire, 23, who portrayed the old lady from Brooklyn in the monologue, “The Flood.”

“Eve does not pull the punches,” she said. “When something is an uncomfortable subject, she puts it in and says, ‘This is happening, and we should fix it.'”

The V-Day movement began in 1998, and since then has raised more than $70 million and reached millions of people to educate them about violence against women. The student-run Women’s Resource Center at the University of Montana is responsible for Missoula’s yearly production of “The Vagina Monologues,” and has been putting it on each year since 2001. Proceeds from the show go to local organizations; this year’s show supported Missoula’s Watson Children’s Shelter, a home for children who have been victims of abuse, neglect or family crisis.

McGuire, who has been involved with the production three times, said that though the show is never sold out, sexual awareness is not exactly an underground movement in town, and that Missoula is “pretty chill” on the subject.

“Everyone that talked to me about my performance was like, ‘Oh my gosh, you were so good! I was dying, that was so funny!'” McGuire said. “I was randomly hugged by like, 12 people.”

Brooks, a Wyoming native, said Missoula’s openness is one of its charms.

“One thing about this town that’s really great is that people aren’t afraid to talk about really anything,” he said. “It was pretty taboo to talk about sex in Wyoming, so it’s nice to come to a place where people are open about sexuality.”

“I think Missoula is better than most places, but there’s always room for improvement,” agreed Viehland, a Tuscon, Ariz., native and active member of a Missoula pro-choice group and LGBT rights group. “It’s often given more credit than it should be. There’s still sexism and homophobia, but I think it’s better than most places.”

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