Woman Warrior, LPC alum, returns to her theater roots
by Timothy Cech
She developed a collection of voices. She could shift her expression dramatically in an instant, contort her face to assume a character. She crafted entire worlds with her imagination, which was fueled by her desire to escape.
Then Eleisa Cambra would take those inner, private productions into the outer, public neighborhood. While girls her age labored over tilting lemonade stands in her Cold War Era-suburb, she performed shows for the neighborhood children. Makeshift curtains and cutout Styrofoam were the stage props for puppet renditions of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.”
She was a star actress and dedicated director. Her parents’ house was Broadway. She sold bags of popcorn for a nickel to an attentive audience. They didn’t know how much they were keeping her alive.
They couldn’t know. The beatings and sexual abuse she endured were camouflaged behind painted doors and manicured lawn. The domestic façade is how the abuse continued unchecked into her adolescence. Her mode of survival was endurance. Her way of enduring was escaping. Her way of escaping was absorbing herself in these worlds.
“What I had to do to make it out of my family’s home alive,” she says, “I would go through the glass. The glass in the mirror. And live my life in this other world.”
Today, 50 years later, Cambra is preparing another show in a different place.
Walking into her condo is a special kind of disaster. The carpet is ripped from the living room, and only the coarse gray concrete leads a path through crusting paint buckets and water-damaged U-Haul boxes. A litter of adopted felines scramble past the tatted and blonde woman as she moves through the mess and into the equally disheveled master bedroom. Whatever enigmatic explosion was set off in this home left no evidence, remains hidden from sight, or maybe was never really destruction in the first place but some kind of unconventional evolution.
The likelihood of this third scenario becomes apparent in the backyard. Here is where former Las Positas College theater production student Eleisa Cambra refers to as “the healing place.” It has a mysterious symmetry and order with the arrangement of potted lilac and ivy, a few gifted from family and even more inherited from deceased friends. Icons and messages are hidden in the draping greenery. A bent-forward powder white troll. A porcelain Buddha with a Happy Jack pirate hat. Parallel lines of sunlight pierce an awning fixed above a redwood patio. This is less a backyard and more an optical illusion with a transient mental twist. Every piece serves some imperceptible and vital purpose.
This backyard, in actuality, is a declaration. This is Cambra’s choice to transcend into freedom over writhing in pain. This is Cambra, rejecting existence as a survivor of sexual abuse and embracing life as a superhero of woman empowerment.
To merely survive, negotiating the static of trauma, is not enough. Her purpose mandates the walls of gender inequality be knocked down with a sledgehammer.
Yet she knows a single person cannot wring out the injustices soaked into society. For Cambra, engaging the Tri-Valley community with an ever-changing troupe of warrior women, it is an attack at some of the load-bearing support that separates women from true equality. And it all began with a series of monologues performed by non-actors.
“We’re not victims anymore,” she says. “And I’m not a survivor. I’m not. I’m a motherfucking warrior.”
LEFT PHOTO: Eleisa Cambra in the backyard of her home in Pleasanton, Calif.
RIGHT PHOTO: Buddha statue with a ceramic pirate hat representing Cambra's son Drew.
And she is back. The annual production of “The Vagina Monologues,” put on by The Tri-Valley Haven, had been dormant for five years. But now it is returning along with Cambra, its pioneering director — set for April 5 to 6 at the Bankhead Theater in Livermore, during Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
Currently 17 actresses are cast, most from previous productions, and Cambra already knows where the forthcoming rehearsals will be held.
“Here in the healing place.”
Cambra is imagining the 2019 fundraiser with bigger ambition. On the Saturday of the performance, she is planning a women-centric festival with stalls, pop-ups and musicians. She sees the event, which is open to men, as a public opportunity to keep the collective voice of women heard, at least at a regional level.
The show’s return comes at a particularly resonant time in gender equality. Cambra is a model of the times. Her life is a microcosm of women’s current defiance of abuse and degradation. She epitomizes how trauma has not quenched the spirit of resolve. It is a battle she continues to fight even at age 59.
Earlier this year one of Cambra’s best friends, whom she declines to name, sexually assaulted her by forcing oral sex from her.
She now keeps a dagger in her car.
Cambra refuses to have her purpose shattered or allow injustice to alter her ethic. In doing so, she’s chosen to use her experience for a greater purpose.
“It has not been an easy life,” says Wendy Wisely, Cambra’s former instructor at Las Positas. “The cards that she’s been dealt, and continues to be dealt, are ones that will break a lot of people. She never let those burdens come into the rehearsal space. Ever. But if you knew her, you knew it was there. It just makes you want to try harder for her.”
The 2006 economic downturn was reaching a quickened dip. In the following years, state and federal funding for crisis programs and shelters, such as the Livermore non-profit Tri-Valley Haven, were set for critical cutbacks.
According to a 2011 survey of domestic violence programs by Mary Kay Inc., 47 percent of shelters had limited their services due to the economy. Of those programs, 72 percent canceled or scaled back their services, while 63 percent eliminated staff positions. And the Tri-Valley Haven was not impervious to the financial crisis.
The issue, however, didn’t decrease with the services. In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control found that about 1 in 5 women in the U.S., and 1 in 71 men, have experienced rape or attempted rape in their lifetime. Nearly half (44.6 percent) of all women and just over a fifth (22.2 percent) of all men have experienced other forms of sexual violence — including sexual coercion, unwanted touching and noncontact unwanted sexual experiences.
It was in that climate, in 2006, when Cambra was working as de-facto resident stage manager at the Village Theater. Before one show at this tiny space in Danville, she greeted a group of friends just before curtain up. Among the group was an employee of a local women’s crisis center who harbored her own theatrical aspirations.
“We really needed a fundraiser and also to get word out to the community,” says Christine Dillman, director of sexual assault and counseling services at the Tri-Valley Haven.
The Haven, as it’s called, is the only rape-crisis center in the area. It also provides off-site shelter to families escaping domestic violence.
Key services offered by the Haven were at risk. Unbudgeted client necessities such as medicine, shoes and functional kitchen appliances. Even basic needs like electricity and running water. Everybody was in jeopardy.
To address the looming funding reduction, Dillman and the administrative staff of the Haven imagined a production of Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues.” The proceeds would help mitigate the problem. The play, originally written as a one-woman show, was culled from over 200 interviews with women and explores subjects ranging from the serious to the comic. Each monologue addresses truths of female experience through meditations on identity, empowerment and oppression.
Though the primary aim was raising vital donations, the Haven also believed a dramatic production could help galvanize the community in a time of anxiety. Without the resources, experience or womanpower to mount such an event, they required someone who not only understood their vision and mission but also could make it reality.
They found Cambra.
“Honey!” Cambra said to Dillman. “You just hit the jackpot!”
Eleisa Cambra pictured with her sons Erik (left) and Drew (right) as adults. Photo courtesy of Cambra.
In 1995 Cambra and her two young sons, Erik and Drew, fled to the Bay Area to break free from her abusive husband. They referred to this journey as “The Great Escape.” The abuse had extended beyond emotional and physical to insane. In the months leading up to “The Great Escape,” Cambra’s husband had poured gasoline over the backyard garden and lit a match. It wasn’t the last straw but the opening salvo for a level of domestic abuse that up to that point remained behind curtained windows. Although Erik and Drew were never targets of this behavior, eventually Cambra saw the chance for a new life and she took it.
Leaving with her boys represented a new start. Life as a battered wife is such a prison she saw single motherhood as liberation.
“I was really lucky I was able to raise these guys. I was so lucky with them,” Cambra says.
A sense of play was encouraged in their new home. Cambra devised a made-up language, equal parts gibberish and alliterative syllables. Where Drew could understand these cadences, Erik couldn’t translate.
“He’d say, ‘We need a grown-up in the house.’ And I’d say, ‘Tag! You’re it!’” Cambra recalls. More attuned to conventional family dynamics, Erik carried this quality into his adult years. He ultimately married and then fathered two children of his own, both of them girls.
Cambra was 36 when she enrolled at Las Positas College as a theater arts student. Her youngest son, Drew, was often her sidekick in class as she studied under instructors such as Wendy Wisely and Ken Ross. From 1996 to 2002, Cambra crewed on nearly every student production as stage manager, from the Elizabethan “The Tempest” to the contemporary “The Laramie Project.” In the Mertes Theater hallway, the walls are covered with photo mosaics of past productions. Cambra and Drew’s faces are all over them.
“She was a good model for the family gets involved,” Wisely says.
It was Wisely who first referred Cambra to regional theater as paying gig while working in the public school system as a special-needs counselor. As with LPC productions, her son came with the package. He built and designed sets during her tenure at theaters in Lafayette and Danville.
She had long recognized theater to be her purpose in life. Drew, who became a highly regarded tattoo artist in later years, shared her passion.
Until the night she was offered and accepted “The Vagina Monologues” gig, Cambra had only been a stage manager. So directing for the Haven was a significant first. Despite being an unpaid volunteer position, it was for a cause greater than general entertainment. Contributing to an institution that advocated for domestic abuse and sexual assault survivors was an opportunity too special to decline.
The first The Vagina Monologues fundraiser required six months of rehearsal for Cambra and the cast of three non-professional actresses employed by the Haven. The production compensated for lack of sheen with DIY creativity. Memorizing the material posed a challenge for the actresses, so Cambra crafted props with the monologues on them and incorporated them into the performance action. Even the lighting represented this attitude of ingenuity.
“Somebody’s boyfriend had lighting for a disco thing, so we had this weird lighting,” Cambra says.
The show opened April 20, 2007, at the Livermore Veterans Memorial Building, and its single performance exceeded the Haven’s modest expectations. All 200 seats were sold.
“We realized after the first show that we needed a bigger venue,” Dillman says.
The 2008 and 2009 fundraisers moved to the 507-seat Bankhead Theater in Livermore for a non-profit rate and added a second day of performances, a trend that continues today. Aside from the cost of renting the space, all money earned has gone to the Haven.
The number of actresses would also expand. The 2008 cast increased to 12, and the 2009 cast jumped to 23. Auditions opened to the public, drawing the participation of KKIQ radio personality Faith Alpher. In a Pleasanton Weekly article published four days prior to curtain, Alpher said, “This production is one of the most intense pieces of work I have ever done. My experience in “The Vagina Monologues” is a very personal one. I really feel like I’m healing from the inside out.”
Vicki Thompson, five-time veteran of these shows and director of domestic violence services at the Haven, says, “It’s impossible to do this without being touched personally by it.”
The 2008 cast of "The Vagina Monolouges" rehearses at Tai-Valley Haven in Livermore, Calif.
Photo courtesy of Carolyn Staehle.
Cambra directed six of the eight productions between 2006 and 2014. She only missed the two because after the 2009 fundraiser she took a sabbatical to rehab from shoulder surgeries. It was during this time she experienced sexual assault.
Her arm was in a sling as she recovered from home. Someone pounded belligerently on her front door. Cambra opened to find an old fling staring through the exposed space.
She said she fooled around with this man, whom she declined to name, for years. But she had ended the relationship months prior. She told him to leave. He pushed through the thin barrier between them, overpowering her and charging into her home. He justified the intrusion by insisting to use the bathroom.
Before long, he was trying to lift up her shirt. Pain shot through her injured arm as she fought to keep her clothing on. Saying the word “no” offered little safeguard against his persistence.
He didn’t penetrate her, but his predation left a significant mark.
“I am not invincible,” she remembers thinking to herself. “I mean, here I am 40-something years old, and I’m going, ‘Oh shit. I’m not invincible.’ I have never felt so vulnerable.
“Even from when I was little and this was happening, I think because I would go through the mirror, nothing really touched me back then as far as feeling vulnerable.”
The trajectory of Cambra’s life has been a continuous rejection of victimization, and her fidelity to this attitude wouldn’t keep her out of action long.
Two years following the assault, the Haven asked Cambra to direct the fundraiser again. For the 2013 and 2014 shows, they were switching the venue from the Bankhead Theater to the Mertes Center for the Arts at Las Positas College, Cambra’s alma mater. She accepted.
“I wasn’t going to let what other people did affect my character,” she says.
The 2013 show raised $35,000. This bounty is crucial even in more financially stable periods. Funding seldom covers vital-but-random expenses, such as medication for a five-year-old or a pair of shoes for a toddler. Such often isn’t covered by grants, and there is little flexibility for general use.
After the 2014 fundraiser closing night, Cambra wouldn’t participate in anything related to theater, either as director or spectator, for another five years. Her return this year carries the weight of two bookending events. The most recent is the 2018 sexual assault by her best friend.
But it is the first event that changed life forever.
On Nov. 11, 2015, her son Drew took his own life.
She received the news days after a hip surgery, while recovering from home. Confined to bed and immobile, a network of friends, family and actresses surrounded Cambra as the world became its darkest.
The loss of Drew motivated Cambra to again embrace the purpose that has guided her path since childhood. He, too, is in the healing place.
Before ripping up the carpets, painting the walls and remodeling the condo from the inside, Cambra began with the outside.
While crafting her backyard sanctuary, she was given potted wandering gypsy, a gift from her son Erik and his family, and hung it above a wooden potting bench next to a Buddha statue. She chose a ceramic pirate to represent Drew. The decoration didn’t last. It fell and was irreparably broken. Among the scattered pieces, the skull and crossbones hat somehow survived.
It sits now on the head of the stone Buddha. So now Drew is symbolized as Buddha wearing a pirate hat.
“After Drew died, I’m invincible again,” she says. “When you have the worst day of your life, and you know it, you don’t give a fuck. Nobody can do anything to me that’s going to rock me. Ever. I think because I have that, I need to use that. For good.”
The print version of this article stated that 22 women had been cast for the 2019 production of "The Vagina Monologues." As of Mar. 28, 2019 there are 17 cast members.