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Penn Monologues Credit: Michelle Bigony

The stories told at the first performance of The Penn Monologues this spring were not easy to swallow.

College senior Rachel Romeo’s dealt with the scars of her childhood sexual assault. Nursing senior Alex Drewicz talked about cervical cancer. Wharton and College sophomore Juan Carlos Melendez-Torres wrote on the struggles of Puerto Rican women.

But, in the words of Romeo, “If my story helped even one person to not feel alone, it was worth it.”

And it seems that The Penn Monologues touched many more than one person. According to College sophomore and co-producer Rebecca Adelsheim, even though the project was very much “thrown together” at the last minute, the group got 49 submissions and the performance sold over 200 tickets. The show was so popular that she and College senior and co-producer Liat Fleming-Shemer took pity on the latecomers and snuck extra people into the venue, the Terrace Room in Claudia Cohen Hall.

“We broke fire code,” Adelsheim said.

The Penn Monologues sprung from a conversation that started during the preparation for a production of The Vagina Monologues. A small group of the participants began to feel that The Vagina Monologues, which first ran in 1996, needed an update.

“It’s not that they are outdated,” said Romeo, who participated in The Vagina Monologues last year and is now director of The Penn Monologues. “It’s that some of the voices are not as compelling to a college community, where we live different lives and have our own stories to tell.”

The project the group came up with is different from the original Monologues in several ways. Adelsheim explained that The Penn Monologues were performed in a smaller setting than The Vagina Monologues, which took place in Irvine Auditorium, making the experience more intimate. Only members of the Penn community were allowed to submit. And, finally, The Penn Monologues incorporated the male voice.

Melendez-Torres, one of the three male performers of the night, said that he has always regarded himself as “a womanist.” Coming from a family of very strong women, Melendez-Torres explained that he wanted to give voice to the experiences of Hispanic women in a Puerto Rican culture that is particularly centered on “machismo.”

Melendez-Torres was born in Philadelphia, but both of his parents were raised in Puerto Rico and came to the mainland for college. He said that growing up in a home where his mother worked and his grandmother raised the children informed his perspective on the struggles the women in his life had to go through “in terms of patriarchy and general social barriers.”

From a male perspective, The Penn Monologues filled a gap that The Vagina Monologues had left on campus, Melendez-Torres said. Even though there were only three males in the first performance, the project allows a venue for men who identify with the movement to support it in a substantial manner.

Romeo said that the male voice was one aspect that The Vagina Monologues particularly focused on. She said men often feel disenfranchised and even victimized by The Vagina Monologues, but the male voice is one that needs to be heard.

“It was very important to us to have a man’s voice in the show because they have so much to say,” she said. “In many ways, it was a reaction to The Vagina Monologues.”

The group tried to incorporate a more diverse audience by holding writing workshops in the weeks leading up to the submissions deadline, according to Romeo. Students would meet and talk through each story, focusing on both the writing and performance aspects of the piece. A lot of people had expressed interest in writing, Romeo said, but they weren’t sure how to put their thoughts to paper.

Melendez-Torres expressed appreciation for the workshop aspect of the project. He said that it was difficult for him at the beginning to discuss such personal material, but the workshops helped him to find his voice.

“At first, I didn’t know how to assimilate myself into that community,” he said. “But the process of workshopping and getting to know everybody else there made me comfortable to a degree that I never would have imagined. I never felt out of place.”

It is that level of comfort and community intimacy that makes The Penn Monologues so successful and so unique. Romeo said that she is hoping to reach out to an even wider community this year, including different ethnic groups and the lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender community. The performance was so popular last year that the group is considering having two performances instead of just one in the future.

“We want every voice to be heard,” she said.

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