Spotlight: V-Day Taconic’s Briana Packen and Tiffany Rachelle Stewart On Performing ‘The Vagina Monologues’ At A Women’s Prison and Why That Matters

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No doubt, Eve Ensler’s Obie Award-winning play The Vagina Monologues is a powerful piece of art and expression of the female experience. It’s inspired women (and men) across the world. But the liberating play is maybe not something you’d come to find within the confines of a prison. The ladies of V-Day Taconic wanted to change that. V-Day Taconic is a local effort within V-Day’s global One Billion Rising campaign to end violence against women and girls – Taconic being Taconic Correctional Facility, a medium security women’s prison in Bedford Hills, NY.

Last week, members of V-Day Taconic held an exclusive performance for the women at the prison featuring an inclusive cast of formerly incarcerated women, trans actors, professional actresses, and activists. Below, two cast members, Briana Packen and Tiffany Rachelle Stewart, share their thoughts on why they joined V-Day Taconic, what they learned from performing in the women’s prison and what they hope the inmates, and all of us, can take away from their experience.

Note: On May 8th, V-Day Taconic is presenting a performance of The Vagina Monologues at Cherry Lane Theatre to benefit the Women’s Prison Association. More on that below.

What motivated you to join the cast of V-Day Taconic?

Briana Packen: Elizabeth Mackintosh is initially what (or I should say who) motivated me to join the cast of V-Day Taconic. Her passion and fire as an activist encouraged me to use my art as a platform to have my voice heard in often silenced discussions of violence against women.

Tiffany Rachelle Stewart: I was initially recommended to the creators of V-Day Taconic by Stephanie Ybarra, who was my producer when I acted in the Public Theater’s Mobile Unit production of Pericles last fall. We had a run at the Public, and also toured the show to many non-traditional venues including Taconic Correctional. Acting at the Public Theater, in Shakespeare no less, was a moment I had longed for as an actor. But the experience of acting in the women’s prisons ended up being the part I cherished the most. Bringing Shakespeare and storytelling to communities who didn’t have the often-taken-for-granted-privilege of getting to the theater, was a thrilling and humbling experience. The women at Taconic were so responsive to the work we shared! They laughed, they cried, they shouted, they exclaimed, and they clapped like thunder when we took our bows.

Also, The Vagina Monologues is so much about trumpeting women, trumpeting women’s choices, and trumpeting women’s bodies. So the opportunity to do THAT in a place like Taconic, where women have essentially been stripped of much of their power to choose by virtue of being locked up – it was an opportunity I could not miss. I can’t wait to be in the company of the women at Taconic again, some of whom I’ll likely recognize, and share that community experience of theater once more.

What have you learned from other members of cast?

BP: Other members of the cast have showed me their many very personal variations of what it means to be a woman. These likenesses and differences in our journeys have magnified an overall common bond of strength in vulnerability.

TRS: It’s an amazing thing when you can learn so much about yourself and so much about life, simply by sitting in the presence of a diverse, intelligent, group of women who have lived a range of very different life experiences. I felt that on the very first day of rehearsal. The energy was electric! I was obsessed and hooked as each woman went around and spoke not only her name but her truth. I knew that I was sitting in the presence of greatness–of years and years of wisdom, triumphs, tragedies, survival, and great passion. There’s really no other group of people I desire to be around, than those who have the courage to walk with that type of fullness. Really, what is more stunning or sexy than that? Nothing in my book.

What monologue(s) are you performing?  What are the central messages? How are these monologues relevant (for women in general and women in prison)?

BP: I am performing “Hair,” “My Short Skirt,” and “They Beat The Boy Out of My Girl.” “Hair”s central message is you can’t pick the parts you want to love. Vaginas, women – we are a whole package. Take all of me: the good, the bad, the “ugly” (for lack of a better word) or you don’t get any of me. I think this message is important for the women in prison to hear because being incarcerated is something considered bad or ugly. It’s not the only part of who they are, yet it is something they are forced to confront daily. The very thing that makes us feel shame or humiliation is often the part of us that cannot be ignored. No matter what we do to rid ourselves of it, it comes to the surface demanding our attention. We have to learn to love it to understand its function. This monologue puts that thing front and center.

TRS: I’m performing the monologue “The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy.” This monologue is everything! I’m so glad I get to embody it, because it tells the story of one woman’s journey to her authenticity, which she found to be ripe with and sexual freedom and bravery. I relate to this deeply as I have traveled quite a distance myself in terms of my own authenticity, including my sexual ownership. The woman in this monologue speaks of having found her calling as a sex worker to other women, and that she lives to make women happy in the deepest, most profound way she can. While my journey hasn’t been exactly that, it has been brazen, unexpected, and very, very pleasurable. Aside from that, the monologue is just extremely fun to do! I’ve never gotten to have multiple orgasms on stage in my life. I plan to live this moment fully. Oh yes.

Why is it important to have a conversation about vaginas in a women’s prison?

TRS: It’s important to have conversations about vaginas everywhere! All the hidden secrecy and shame surrounding vaginas has proved dangerous at worst, and exhausting at best, for women since the beginning of time. The only way to combat ignorance is to TALK about the things that people don’t want to talk about. That’s what I love so much about The Vagina Monologues. They talk about everything that women are taught to hide or be quiet about concerning our womanhood. The Vagina Monologues SPEAK and speak loudly. Being that silence is deadly, to me this type of work does nothing short of give life.

What are you most looking forward to about the Taconic performance?

BP: I’m most excited about seeing these women as an extension of my community. I’m grateful for the opportunity to lose my stereotypical idea of bars and jumpsuits. I am part of and exciting empathetic group of activists who are going in to share and be compassionate to who the incarcerated women are as human beings, not “Inmate number so and so.”

TRS: I’m most looking forward to the energy of the room. Not the energy of the prison, not the energy of institutionalization (physical and mental), but the energy of the 200 women sitting there ripe and ready to receive these monologues. Women who have lived more than I can probably imagine. Women who are so much more that the reason they’re in prison, but who are mothers, daughters, friends, grandparents, and aunties. Women who also have dreams just like I do, women who also love sex, who have deep capacities for love and anguish, and who long (like everyone else) to be free and to LIVE the life that they most desire. I look forward to THEM, and to honoring their fullness by giving them my own.

What do you hope the women of Taconic take away from this performance?

BP: I hope these women will see us as allies. I want them to know we are championing them. Their mental, emotional and physical health are important to us. So is their safety. They are loved.

TRS: I hope the women at Taconic take away a sense that they are not alone. I hope they take away a sense of a larger community of women, even outside of those prison walls, who champion their greatness, their strength, their beauty, and their complexity. I hope we give them a chance to laugh, and a chance to holler and get it out. I hope we give them a moment to enjoy the magic theater…to lean in and get carried away to somewhere only the soul can go, by something as unassuming as listening to a story.

More info about the benefit performance May 8th: 

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The Vagina Monologues

Written by Eve Ensler
Directed by Jenna Worsham (Broadway’s The Heidi Chronicles)

Friday, May 8, 2015 at 8:00PM

The Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce Street
New York, NY 10014

Enjoy a talkback with Tony Award-winning playwright Eve Ensler, the cast, and director following the performance.

Tickets start at $35

Available through: The Cherry Lane Box Office
Online at http://www.cherrylanetheatre.org/onstage/the-vagina-monologues/
Or OvationTix 866-811-4111

An Obie Award-winning whirlwind tour of a forbidden zone, The Vagina Monologues introduces a wildly divergent gathering of female voices, including a six-year-old girl, a septuagenarian New Yorker, a vagina workshop participant, a woman who witnesses the birth of her granddaughter, a Bosnian survivor of rape, a trans woman who recounts her journey from childhood to adulthood, and a feminist happy to have found a man who “liked to look at it.”

First performed at Taconic Correctional Facility on April 22nd, V-Day Taconic’s production highlights women involved in the criminal justice system – a population that is very much affected by gender-based violence.  Join us for an evening of unbridled laughter and heartfelt storytelling in conjunction with V-Day’s One Billion Rising campaign to end violence against women and girls.

All proceeds from this one-night event will benefit Women’s Prison Association.

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