Last October, a group of students began collecting stories from other female students, looking for material to put together a play about people’s lives at Bowdoin.
In an email sent out to campus, the group explained: “By performing monologues about our own experiences and perspectives, we hope to give voice to a broader, more diverse range of the experiences of women in our community.”
“We left it very open,” said Amanda Spiller ’17, a sociology major who conceived of RISE: Untold Stories of Bowdoin Women. With help from a core group of five students, and many more in various capacities — Spiller worked through the fall and winter to bring the play to fruition this spring.
Rise is based on The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler, an episodic play that incorporates stories culled from 200 interviews Ensler conducted with women about gender-based violence, womenhood, bodies, and relationships. Since 1999, Bowdoin students had performed The Vagina Monologues each year on campus.
But after being involved in the Bowdoin production of the Monologues for three years, Spiller wanted to do something that was more connected to Bowdoin, and to make “a relevant, feminist piece of work.”
She continued, “We wanted a range of stories and experiences, and we wanted as much representation as possible.” Women from all class years, and from different socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnicities, and countries contributed. Three faculty also shared their stories.
Using this material, Spiller and her co-collaborators — Emiley Charley ’17, Mariam Nimaga ’17, Ellinor Heywood ’19, Rebecca Fisher ’17, and Aziza Janmohamed ’19 — came up with a script made up of 31 monologues. Some monologues are serious and painful; some are lighter and more comedic. All the language in Rise comes directly from contributors.
Fisher explained: “We had to consistently check back in with ourselves and decide whether we wanted to honor the truth in the women’s stories, which might not always have been getting at a particular message, or if we wanted to send an explicit message to the audience,” she said. “Ultimately, we chose the former.”
In March, fifty-two students tried out for Rise, and all fifty-two were cast. In April, the cast gathered on the stage in Kresge to perform Rise in two sold-out performances. Proceeds from the $5 tickets were donated to Sexual Assault Support Services of Midcoast Maine.
Different audience members called the play “thought-provoking,” “poignant,” “candid” and “funny.” Lisa Flanagan, the interim director of the Baldwin Center and advisor for multilingual students, said, “I was struck by the breadth and depth of the piece. The cast diversity, spectrum of narratives, and actors’ ownership of the material captured the entire audience….The ensemble and creators made something really memorable.”
Senior Lecturer in Spanish Genie Wheelwright said, “Many of us have seen Vagina Monologues multiple times and it’s good, but this had so much more impact because it was real stories from Bowdoin. That changes us. I walk around campus now aware that individual students and staff actually had/have these experiences. These things didn’t happen just to some stranger across the world. That’s so important.” She added that she hopes the tradition of Rise carries on with new stories each year. “Will we ever not need this?”
Spiller said that until gender-based violence stops on campus, students do need this. She wants Rise to continue, and is hoping future student directors encourage contributors to carefully craft their stories, perhaps in a writing workshop, so they become even more effective on stage.
At the end of the yearlong process of working on Rise, Spiller — who is preparing to spend a year in Mexico teaching English as a Fulbright fellow — said she is reaffirmed in her “faith in the sisterhood. And in the incredible power of women.” She added, “I think I already knew this but women have so much to say and as a society we are completely remiss to not listen to them.”