It’s surprising to hear that the author of “The Vagina Monologues,” the popular theater piece that deals quite frankly with the female anatomy, long felt disconnected from her own body.
It was something she observed and endeavored to whip into shape, Eve Ensler says, but it remained separate from herself. This changed when she was diagnosed with uterine cancer in 2010. Her treatment and healing sparked a connection not only with her own body, she says, but with its relationship to the natural world.
She explored this change in mindset in her 2013 memoir, “In the Body of the World.” Now she takes it onto the stage with a world premiere adaptation commissioned by the American Repertory Theater and directed by its artistic director, Diane Paulus.
“When I look at my work, it has been this ongoing quest to figure out how to get back into the body,” says Ensler, on the phone from her home in New York. “I think with so many women on the planet who’ve been beaten or raped or harassed or traumatized, they have been in the struggle of being able to live in their own skin, their own bodies — which of course is what connects us to each other. When we’re disconnected from our body we’re disconnected from each other. We’re disconnected from the earth.”
This will not be the first time Ensler talks publicly about her sometimes contentious relationship with her own body. In the 2004 play “The Good Body,” she mixes in her own experiences with stories from women around the world struggling with body image issues. But when she performs “In the Body of the World,” she says, it will be a much more intimate experience for her.
“ ‘The Good Body’ had pieces of me in it, but it was many other characters. ‘The Vagina Monologues’ was about other women, it wasn’t really about me at all. This is the most personal thing I’ve ever done,” she says.
The ART production, which begins performances on Tuesday, continues a three-piece residency that began last season with “O.P.C,” a satirical comedy about a young freegan and her mother, a US Senate candidate (the title stands for “obsessive political correctness”). Ensler and Paulus are working on a third new piece to appear in a future season.
Paulus’s first contact with her new collaborator came innocuously enough — Ensler was looking for tickets to “Pippin” on Broadway, the show that won Paulus a Tony Award for best direction of a musical. But it started a relationship that led to the present residency. With Paulus helming “In the Body of the World,” this is their first time working directly on the same project.
“She is full of so much energy and has ideas pouring out of her for more theater pieces, and I soak them up,” Paulus says. “She’s really committed to how she can make an impact, not only through everything she does as an activist but how she can make an impact through her voice as an artist.”
Ensler has spoken widely about systemic mistreatment of women and collected stories from trouble spots around the world, a process she’s likened to being a war photographer. She founded V-Day, an activist movement opposing violence against women, and its campaign known as One Billion Rising. Ensler received a special Tony Award in 2011 for theater artists who’ve worked in support of humanitarian causes.
When she received her cancer diagnosis, she was in the process of meeting with women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo who’d been raped or otherwise traumatized. Out of those conversations came City of Joy, a therapeutic residential program for Congolese women who’ve experienced violence.
In the play, which is staged in an approximation of Ensler’s New York City loft, the playwright/actress describes her experience of seeing her own illness as part and parcel of violence being done to the physical world. Though she’s the only person onstage, other actors are occasionally heard in voiceover. Projections will also help evoke the sense of traveling through the settings of a series of memories, from the city to the Mayo Clinic to the Congo.
While acknowledging the gravity of the subject matter, Paulus says she hopes “In the Body of the World” will end up sparking upbeat feelings among audiences.
“For someone who is so not afraid to look at what most of us don’t want to look at,” she says of Ensler, “she cherishes beauty. She cherishes joy. So a lot of the things we’re talking about have to do with what kind of joy the theater can bring, and I feel that will be part of this piece. As intense as this memoir is, there’s a lot of joy in it and a lot of humor and affirmation. It’s really about healing. It’s less a cancer story and more a story about: How do we heal?”
‘As intense as this memoir is, there’s a lot of joy in it and a lot of humor and affirmation. It’s really about healing.’Diane Paulus, on the adaptation of Eve Ensler’s “In the Body of the World”
So for all her efforts to combine art and activism, does Ensler feel that women are making some real social progress?
“As soon as women begin to have serious victories and begin to really start moving forward in substantial ways, patriarchy rears its head and it just bucks you off the horse and says: ‘No way, you’re not coming in, you’re not going to exist here,’ ” she says. “We move forward and then we get pushed back. What we have to do next is move forward — and then move forward again.”
IN THE BODY OF THE WORLD
Presented by the American Repertory Theater. At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, May 10-29. Tickets: Starting at $25, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.orgJeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.