How 'The Vagina Monologues' Helped with my Depression

Emma Frankart Henterly
Emma Frankart Henterly onstage at Franklinton Playhouse

It’s just before 10 on a Sunday night, and I’m simulating orgasm on the stage of a Franklinton bus-garage-turned-black-box-theater. This isn’t what I expected when I auditioned; in fact, had I known I’d get such a role, I might not have tried out at all. This is nowhere near my comfort zone.

It’s true, I’ve always been a bit of a ham. I made my acting debut in elementary school (title role in “Rumpelstiltskin,” thank you very much). I thrived in my high school’s theater troupe, eventually landing the villainous lead of Milady in “The Three Musketeers.” I got to throw a slap, engage in a steamy kiss and die by beheading. It was heaven.

But in college, classes, part-time jobs and work on the student-run magazine took all my time. I missed the stage, sure, but figured I would get into community theater post-graduation. I was wrong.

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In January 2017, I was asked to emcee the runway portion of the Columbus Weddings Show. I succumbed to stage fright and walked off in tears, humiliated. I had become a stranger to the stage, and in retaliation, it stopped welcoming me.

By the end of 2018, I was in transition. I was coming off a nearly yearlong depressive episode and had that perfect mix of the reckless, don’t-give-a-damn attitude that depression gives me, combined with a newly rediscovered confidence and energy that told me I might be getting better. An acquaintance, Jordan Davis, put out an open casting call for “The Vagina Monologues” on Facebook. Without giving it much thought, I emailed her.

I’d never seen or even read the “Monologues,” but I knew the gist—it’s a play by a feminist, for feminists, and it celebrates All Things Vagina. I arrived at the audition completely unprepared. I did my cold reads—hands shaking, stomach roiling—and wondered how I would do it on stage if I couldn’t be calm enough to read, script in hand, in front of Jordan. Nevertheless, I got a part.

Rehearsals were, at first, unremarkable. My monologues were so short that I memorized them without trying. My topics were less explicit than others in the production; one discussed the purpose of the clitoris, one detailed statistics about female genital mutilation, and one featured me as a transgender woman reminiscing about her transition. I wasn’t delivering the gut-wrenching story of a gang-rape survivor, or yelling about how angry my vagina is. I had it easy.

Then, we started group work.

Jordan asked us to join in during a sketch in which a sex worker expounds on her love of “making women moan.” The cast joins her on stage, in pairs, as she does impressions of various types of moans.

“Come in strong with the moaning section at the end of Beth’s monologue,” Jordan wrote to me in an email with notes on our first dress rehearsal. “You and Susan are the first to come in. … [She’s giggling, so] I feel like I can rely on you a bit more to come in big.”

I broke into a sweat reading that. What had I gotten myself into?

I was first diagnosed with depression when I was 16 and have had a few moderate episodes over the years. As a teenager, I hated talking about it but craved relief. I self-harmed to give myself a sense of control and to broadcast what I couldn’t tell anyone: I needed help.

Over the years, I worked with therapists and went on and off medications, experimenting with doses and formulas. I denied my condition to myself and others and downplayed it when denial stopped working. While we as a society have gotten better about treating depression like a physical illness, not a form of insanity, it still carries a weighty stigma.

In 2018, I spiraled into the worst depression of my life, despite being on a medication that had worked well for more than a year. I could point to a million things that “caused” that episode, or to nothing; depression has a way of creeping in, unannounced and unprompted. It snuck up on me so gradually that I didn’t notice for months.

Recognizing the problem was hard, and getting out of it was harder. I was fortunate to find a new therapist with whom I clicked; my general practitioner provided the gentle encouragement I needed to increase my medication dosage; and my husband stood with me, supporting my journey.

As I recovered, I considered how I would “get back into” my life. I had neglected my hobbies and abandoned my social scene. When I told my therapist that I had auditioned for the “Monologues,” her face lit up: I had taken a big step.

The afternoon before we open, we’re gathered in the tiny audience section of the Franklinton Playhouse. There’s a palpable tension in the air.

“Remember, this show isn’t like other shows,” Jordan reminds us. “This is about community. It’s about connections.” She’s speaking about our freedom to mingle with the audience during intermission, but her words resonate with me on a deeper level. I look around. I barely know any of these women, but the connection and acceptance emanating from each is almost unsettling in its strength.

This connection shows itself in strange ways. It’s in Sara’s pre-show ritual of playfully swatting each of us on the bum, instead of whispering, “Break a leg.” It’s in Chyna and Shannon nervously running their lines backstage during intermission and the rest of us instinctively knowing not to disturb them. It’s in the pet names we use for each other—“pretty lady” and “mama” at first, replaced by the C-word (used often in the play) as we get more comfortable with one another. It’s in one castmate sharing details about her drug-addicted ex-partner. It’s in me, finally opening up about my depression.

On opening night, my stomach is bunched into knots. I’ve been reciting my lines in my head all day, terrified that I’ll drop one. But I get through it, delivering my lines without mistake or incident.

The show’s run is grueling. Seven consecutive evening performances that leave me wired well past midnight, with an eighth matinee to close it out. Still, by the final evening show, taking the stage feels natural and easy. I ad lib a new element in one of my pieces. The next day, an audience member tells me that I was “up there [on stage] like, This is where I belong.” I think to myself: He’s not wrong.

After the show closes, there’s a sense of finality in the dressing room that’s about more than the play itself. I know I’ll see some of these women again. But the finality—to me, at least—is more about the end of that connection we shared. Somehow, in five short weeks, we grabbed onto and held each other fiercely. I drew a strength from these women that I didn’t expect but needed more than I realized.

Later, I find myself alone in the dressing room with Jordan. I thank her for casting me, for giving me the chance to heal in this way.

She tells me it is healing for her, too. “It helps me feel not alone,” she says. “I just feel so much more powerful when we’re a force of women, a sisterhood.” Tears well up in her eyes and mine.

When I first considered writing about my involvement in “The Vagina Monologues,” I thought of it as a light, experiential article. I’m not sure when I decided that my depression would co-star in this piece; maybe that idea was always in the back of my mind.

I asked my editor to join me for coffee outside our office. I was terrified to pitch the idea of writing about the thing I’d spent more than half my life trying to hide, and even more terrified to think that she’d let me do it. I explained my idea and my history, voice and hands shaking like that first night on stage at the Franklinton Playhouse. I cried, and I tried not to feel embarrassed for it.

“I had no idea,” she said. “You always appear so poised, so put together.”

“That’s the point, isn’t it?” I responded. “Depression is invisible, and people who have it get really good at hiding it. It’s embarrassing, but it shouldn’t be.”

Part of my healing this year is about changing the stigma around depression. Now, when people I haven’t seen in a while ask how I’ve been, I am honest. The point isn’t to make people uncomfortable, although (much like the “Monologues”) it often does. In a way, doing the “Monologues” has helped me appreciate the importance of discomfort in the pursuit of personal growth.

“Terrible,” I say. “I was really depressed last year. Things were rough for a while, but I’m getting better.”