NORFOLK, Va. — Norfolk marketing and communications executive Karen Levy Newnam has theater and non-profit roots, and these worlds meet in her involvement in RipplAffect.
Now in its fifth year, RipplAffect has produced a series of benefit performances of Eve Ensler’s plays, primarily The Vagina Monologues, to raise awareness and money for the YWCA of South Hampton Roads, among others, and support survivors of domestic violence and rape. RipplAffect has raised about $20,000 for the YWCA to date.
Three performances this month mark the local premiere of Any One of Us: Words from Prison, a collection of monologues conceived by Ensler and developed from writings by women serving in prison. LaToya Morris directs. Newnam, a founding member and principal of RipplAffect, produces and acts in the play.
We spoke by phone about a week ago for the following Q&A, which has been edited for clarity and length. As happens around here, I’m writing about a friend — and someone I admire for her heart, drive and commitment to the Hampton Roads community. Additional full disclosure: my wife, Cortney Morse Doucette, is a founding member of RipplAffect.
The performances are scheduled for 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m., Sunday; March 16-18; at The Perry Family Theatre, 485 St. Paul’s Blvd., Norfolk. Make reservations and get information by calling (757) 339-0578. Credit card ticket sales also may be made by clicking this link. Tickets are $15.
I hope you’ll come away from this Q&A with a sense of how the arts can be used to support local charities, and I hope you’ll check out one of the upcoming performances. Additionally, Newnam speaks about some of the practical aspects of production — and about how conversations and ideas can become something that pays dividends.
There is one word below — hopefully, only one word — that may make you a bit uncomfortable. So you know.
Q: Let’s talk a little about RipplAffect. This is the fifth year, right? How did this start?
I was at a networking lunch with a group of women I met through Leadership Hampton Roads [now LEAD Hampton Roads]. We kept in touch and got together once a month. I was talking with Dorothy Dembowski, who is a friend of mine, just about plays that we enjoy and theater we hadn’t seen in a while, and just started saying, ‘Gosh, wouldn’t it be interesting to produce a play, and, if we did produce a play, why would we do it?’ And she had a lot of interest in women’s issues, as well. I did The Vagina Monologues years ago, a really great way to bring light to some of the issues facing women everywhere, but to particularly bring focus to issues in Hampton Roads.
I started talking to some of my friends in the theater. We said, ‘Okay, if we’re going to do this, why are we doing this?” We started talking about the issues that were important to us and the power of theater and the arts to really make those issues accessible. We weren’t interested in starting a non-profit to raise money that other people were raising or to start a non-profit to offer services that other people were doing a great job of. But we could certainly produce theater in an effort to bring more attention to what they were doing and help them raise money for the good work that already was happening.
Q: The first year you decided on The Vagina Monologues. Had you figured out you would be working with the YWCA before you decided on the play, or did the play come first?
The play had come first. I was at a fundraising luncheon for the United Way, and I ran into the executive director of the Y. I had been on their board in my early twenties. I said, ‘Some friends of mine and I would like to produce The Vagina Monologues, and we want to be able to partner with an organization that supports survivors of domestic violence and rape, and we thought of you and I wonder if you’d be interested.’ She said, ‘My goodness, we have an intern – her name is Denise Hughes – and she’s been wanting to produce The Vagina Monologues for the same reason. Why don’t I connect the two of you?’ So that’s really how it started. I connected with Denise. She’s amazing. She was a big part of the organization until she went into the Peace Corps. … It just really came together.
Q: The first performance was at the YWCA, wasn’t it?
The first four were at the Y, actually.
Q: Some of the readers who aren’t from here won’t know the layout of the YWCA in Norfolk, but they’ve got this – what’s a wonderful meeting room, but not necessarily a wonderful theater space. But you guys kind of transformed it.
Exactly. We talked about getting theaters, and the folks at the Y said, ‘You know, it would mean a lot for us if we could bring new audiences into our building.’ So they have a very, very large multipurpose and meeting room …
We got in touch with fabric companies that support theaters, and we ended up ordering from a company out west. We ordered yards and yards and yards of black fabric and had it cut. I remember people with sewing machines and hemming and ironing, and we masked the entire space in black. Before that it was, ‘How do we turn this into a theater?’ That was one thing – let’s take the definition of the space away by masking the walls from floor to ceiling in black. Then we used some platforms to make some stage space, and actually that first year Natasha [Bunnell] directed, and she really had this vision of making the space even more vaginal. I think in between the black curtains we had flashes of red fabric. It was really something else. So when you bring the chairs in, you put a platform in, and you bring in the lights, and everything is black, it became a cozy theater.
Q: You have folks who are at, maybe, different levels of experience. I always found that the productions that you guys have done, that’s been really meaningful and informed the performances. Can you talk about the different kinds of people who have been involved in your performances over the years?
The first years, we really pulled a bunch of friends together, and said, ‘Hey, come do this with us.’ It was a phenomenal experience. We had some very talented actors. It was probably the second year that we had gotten a new director from outside of the group, and she brought in a bunch of women we didn’t know. So the group started getting bigger. The third year we actually advertised auditions. Little by little, new people entered the group. I think what speaks most to what it means to people was the fact that this year, besides myself and Cortney, the three young women – I say young women and I date myself – who are really instrumental in making this happen joined us along the way. [In addition to Morris, the director, they are Anna Sosa and Eileen Quintin.]
To some people it’s, ‘Oh, my gosh, I really want to do The Vagina Monologues.” Or ‘Oh, I need to do a play; let me audition.’ And then other people come into the fold, and it really touches them. Our director, LaToya Morris, has two jobs, and she’s doing this. She actually chose the play we’re doing, as well. This year we decided we needed a break from The Vagina Monologues.
Some people will do the show and be great at what they do and walk away. That’s fine, too. Other people, it’s the whole idea that through their acting they can elicit this thought process in people. They can open their minds to something that’s going on that they might not have thought about before and then hopefully give back in some way. It really has affected key members who keep coming back here year after year.
Q: You’ve had lawyers, students … Is it a challenge to bring people who don’t have theater experience into the story?
The year we did that the most, we were looking at it from a marketing perspective. How can we increase the audience? A lot of people, when they do productions as part of V-Day, will get members of the community to be involved. I reached out to folks, whether they were philanthropists or lawyers or radio personalities. That year, we pulled in a radio personality and a lawyer, and neither of them had acting experience. It definitely helped increase the audience, but it was an amazing process seeing someone who you consider a lovely person but is fairly reserved take one of the, I think, hardest monologues to do and get up on stage and, in character, talk about her vagina.
It’s pretty amazing. Challenging. You have a group of people and the director says, ‘You need to be off book by the 10th.’ Half the people are saying, ‘What does off book mean?’ When we have someone like that, we usually buddy up with them.
Q: The Vagina Monologues really does speak to people year after year. Could you please talk about why you think this material is something that is worth being performed and worth bringing people together in support of a community organization?
It amazes me, but at this point so many people haven’t heard it. It’s an interesting mix of humor, innocence, and just really, really in your face, dirty, ugly reality. I think for every moment of, ‘Oh, my goodness, I can’t believe they just said that’ or just horror at somebody’s plight in one of the monologues, the play also does a good job of bringing you around to the lighter side and just letting you enjoy a laugh, and then it wraps up with ‘I Was There in the Room,’ the monologue about birth, really celebrating women.
That’s one of the nice things with the new play, too. The final monologue in Any One of Us really wraps things up in a nice way. I think that’s why it’s successful.
We did The Vagina Monologues for a new group this summer, and I actually got into some intense conversations with one of the members of the board who was horrified and asked me to do some editing of the monologues and asked me to cut some of the monologues. It just got to the point where I had to say, ‘If you don’t think this is the right play for your organization, then you need to find someone else to do this for you.’ It’s not our mission to do easy theater. It’s our mission to make a difference, and this is how we make that difference. She had wanted me to cut [the monolgue] ‘Cunt’ and there were some other monologues she wasn’t comfortable with. We ended up doing the play, as is. At the end, she was just really touched. I think some of it probably offended her sensibilities, but I think she understood it. The audience, which was a different audience for us, was probably the best audience we’ve ever had.
Q: Any One of Us is kind of similar to The Vagina Monologues and some of the other theater work that Ensler has done. … This developed from workshops. [The project came out of a 10-year-old writing group involving Ensler and 15 women at a prison, according to V-Day.] Why did this play speak to your director and speak to the group as a whole?
We initially started doing this through V-Day, frankly, because it is easy. [If an application to do the play as a fundraising event is accepted by V-Day, there is no cost for rights.] They provide you all the materials for marketing. For people with full-time jobs, it makes it a manageable process. So when we decided to look at something else – that we wanted to do a different show – the first thing we did was we went and looked at other pieces Eve had done and that were part of V-Day. And, also, we looked at other scripts. …
At the end, it really was the director who called our attention to this piece. I think the main reason was it was really eye opening. Once again, Leadership Hampton Roads – I guess it was a good thing for me – we did a tour of the Norfolk Jail, and we went through all the different floors. What really got to me was the women’s side of the jail. It wasn’t frightening being two inches from the bars where there were men. It wasn’t frightening being in the open areas where there were men. It was all fairly calm. But when you got to the women’s side, there was so much anger and so much aggression – and it wasn’t just bars separating, it was walls and windows, but it was palpable and it was, I thought, a very frightening experience. So when LaToya found this piece, it was the realization that, when you start looking at it, the numbers are staggering – women behind bars who are survivors of domestic violence or rape. Not making excuses for anybody’s actions, but we started realizing the correlation between the plight of these women and the causes we had been trying to bring light to.
Q: Is it a similar experience to The Vagina Monologues?
There are funny moments in the monologues, but I think the ride is a lot rougher. But, again, the final monologue is saying this could be any one of us. It’s not an easy ride. Not to say The Vagina Monologues is an easy ride, but this is entirely different.
Q: Why do you think this is a valuable experience for people to come and see? Why do you think this piece will speak to folks around here?
Hopefully, for me, it makes people want to help, want to support organizations like the YWCA that keep women from winding up in these places. I hope it at least makes them think twice instead of judging. When you think about neglect or you think about abuse, I don’t know that people often think about this side of it. I think making that connection is important.
Q: This production is going to benefit the YWCA again, but you’re not doing it at the Y. Why did you have the change of venue this year?
I just couldn’t see us getting on a ladder again and hanging curtains and sheets and begging for lighting again – not begging. The theater community is really warm. But every year we go out an say, ‘Can we please borrow your lights? Can we please borrow your platforms?’ Buying fabric when we don’t have it. And the idea of really being able to get in a space that already was put together and instead focus on the show itself was really attractive, and it’s been a much better experience.
Q: So the space has been pretty open about having you there?
Yes. We’re at the Perry Family Theater, [home of] the Hurrah Players. And I’ve known [Hurrah Players co-founder] Hugh Copeland since my time at Old Dominion University. Basically, I told him, ‘We ultimately will be looking to have a relationship with a theater where year by year we’re producing in their space. You’re probably not the space for that … ’ Not that Hugh doesn’t support it and believe in it, but they do family theater. It’s a very different audience. So they very graciously – I mean, they have let us rent the space for what worked in our budget. We don’t make any money. It all goes back to the Y. They’ve been great.
Q: Do you see a longterm relationship with this space, or are you looking for another space?
I think as long as they don’t get any backlash – which you never know – I think it’s a great space for us. It’s just a perfect space. We could produce there again. We’ll keep looking. There are other theaters we really need to be talking to and working with, and maybe their mission is a little more in line with us. I respect what Hugh is doing, and part of me does worry, ‘Is he going to get backlash for this?’ I hope not.
Q: Where do you see RipplAffect down the road?
I wish I could tell you. No one wants to let it go, but no one has the time to take it as far as we want to. In the perfect world I would have the money and create a non-profit and hire some of these fabulous women to run it for me. I don’t see that happening any time soon. I think this year we’ll be getting our 501(c)3, and we’ll make it official. And then I’d like to see us have a relationship with a theater so that, once again, every year it’s not running out to find a theater, find this, find that. I’d like to see it get a little more stable that way. In a perfect world we’d be running programs on college campuses. I mean, I think the mission is important, and it really speaks to the strength of the arts and to theater and the opportunity to really have an affect on people and the community.