Production photo from The Whores, courtesy of V-Day Toronto
We first told you about The Whores, Charles Crosby’s docudrama about five sex workers and the industry in which they work, during last year’s Fringe Festival. It was one of our top picks then, and it’s back for a two-performance return engagement this weekend in a special V-Day presentation.
If you’ve ever been to a performance of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, you likely have a sense of what V-Day is all about. In 1994, Ensler wrote The Vagina Monologues to publicly address female sexuality and sexual violence, creating a series of stories based on interviews conducted with two hundred women regarding their views on sex, relationships, and violence. In the wake of the huge success of that play, Ensler and a group of New York City women established V-Day in 1998—an international campaign whose mission is to end violence against women and girls—using the proceeds from a celebrity-filled performance of The Vagina Monologues as seed funding.
By staging performances of The Vagina Monologues, and organizing benefits, screenings, and other events, V-Day aims to raise funds for various gender-violence-related causes and organizations. Each year, V-Day organizers select a spotlight campaign to highlight a particular issue or cause; this year, it is Women and Girls of Haiti, and the goal is to increase awareness of the rising level of sexual violence, particularly in refugee shelters, in that country, and to raise funds to build three safe houses, four legal assistance offices, and support local anti-violence campaigns.
In Toronto, local V-Day observances include performances of The Vagina Monologues at every university campus, and performances of The Vagina Monologues; A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant, and A Prayer; Any One of Us: Words From Prison; and The Whores at the Workman Arts Theatre, with proceeds going to the Metro Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children, and 10% set aside for the international campaign for Haiti.
We caught up with the director of The Whores and Any One of Us, Tanisha Taitt, to talk about V-Day.
Torontoist: What made you decide to get involved with V-Day?
Tanisha Taitt: I auditioned for The Vagina Monologues on a whim in November of 2005, because I was extremely familiar with the show after having been an usher at the Canadian premiere six years earlier. At the time I had no idea what V-Day was, but I was cast in the show and very quickly found out. It ended up being the perfect fit for me, as I had worked as a crisis line counsellor with the Rape Crisis Centre. I have always been passionate about social justice and as a survivor myself, the cause of ending violence against women was already extremely close to my heart.
Why did you choose to produce The Whores instead of V-Day’s usual selection of Eve Ensler pieces?
We are producing all three of V-Day’s official shows—A Memory A Monologue A Rant and A Prayer; The Vagina Monologues; and Any One Of Us: Words From Prison—in addition to a special presentation of The Whores by Charles Crosby. Directing The Whores for the Fringe last year made me so much more aware of the reality of violence as a day-to-day component of sex work. V-Day is about ending violence against all women, not only the ones whose professions pass the test of meeting our moral approval. These women are still daughters, sisters… mothers. So I was already interested in including the show as part of V-Day this year. But then after the landmark court ruling came down, striking down key components of federal prostitution laws, I knew without a doubt that I wanted to revisit it.
What was the rehearsal process like, both for the Fringe production and this one? What approaches were taken to help the actors find authenticity and truth in the stories they were performing?
It’s important to me to keep some laughter and affection in the rehearsal process because I’m often dealing with very heavy material. The other show that I’m directing for V-Day this year, Any One Of Us, is considerably darker than The Whores, so again, keeping “the light on” so to speak is crucial.
As a director, the most important thing for me is to allow the actors to create the characters for themselves. Along with the group work that we do, I always work individually with every actor in my shows. The actors have to create a detailed backstory for their characters, because to me a scene is not about the moment before, but the lifetime before. I also have a rehearsal with each actor during which I have an in-depth conversation with their character, and the actor is in character the entire time. They have no idea what I’m going to say to them or ask them, and those are always very powerful because it forces the actor to make decisions about the things their character would do and say separate from the script. It’s very revelatory, and pretty intimate. It’s me and the actor in my living room and they have total freedom to emote however they need to. In the end, they find the authenticity of the characters themselves.
How will this production differ from the Fringe show last season?
It’s an interesting combination of similarities and differences. The most significant difference is that it’s an all new cast. The original cast did a great job and I’ll always have a special place in my heart for that production, but I was very interested in exploring the characters anew and seeing how interpretations would differ in the hands of five new women. It always fascinates me that the words on the page can be exactly the same, but the way that two different actors internalize those words can be very different. We’re also in a different venue which automatically colours things as well. The show was quite different in the theatre that we did it in for the Hamilton Fringe than in the one we performed it in for the Toronto Fringe, which kept things exciting and kept me on my toes.
How do you feel about this year’s V-Day spotlight campaign, regarding women and girls in Haiti? Do you feel that funding safe houses for survivors of violence is a strategy that will make an impact?
I’m very excited that Haiti was chosen as this year’s spotlight, while at the same time I’m deeply saddened that this had to be the case. The statistics regarding Haiti and sexual violence are shocking: a mind-numbing 75% of the women in Haiti have been been raped. That is INSANE to me. Sadly, following natural disasters—which often leave men feeling helpless and emasculated due to job loss, inability to provide for their families, etc.—this helplessness morphs into rage and the incidents of sexual violation tend to skyrocket. So you have a country with an already horrible record for violence now out of control when it comes to rape.
I’m very proud that V-Day has taken notice of this crisis and that 10% of all of this year’s proceeds from around the world will go to our safe houses in Haiti. I also need to mention the ongoing work that we are doing for the City of Joy in the Congo. The Congo is no longer our spotlight—it has now become a permanent part of V-Day. Well, I hope not permanent; I pray that the day is on the way when the need for that is no longer necessary. The atrocities there simply cannot continue indefinitely
The Whores will be performed at the Workman Arts Theatre (651 Dufferin Street), Saturday March 12 at 8 p.m. and Sunday March 13 at 4 p.m. Tickets are $16–21, and are available in advance online.