Meghan Gardiner was in the middle of a run of her one-woman tour de force Dissolve, about sexual assault, at the University of Toronto when word surfaced about those rape chants at universities on both sides of the country.
"I was outraged," says the University of British Columbia grad. "This show is going on its 11th year … and it's going to continue to unfortunately be relevant every single year and every single September, especially."
It would be great to think a play like Dissolve – about a university student who goes out for a night of partying and is sexually assaulted after her drink is spiked – was a relic. No longer necessary in our enlightened age.
Of course, we know this not to be true. If there was any question about that, we all received a stark reminder with these horrible cheers (where the word "young" is spelled out in such a way that "u" stands for "underage" and "no" stands for "no consent").
As officials at UBC and St. Mary's University in Halifax (and if you think these are isolated incidents confined to these two institutions, you're kidding yourself) scramble to enact measures to ensure there won't be a repeat performance, consider art as a catalyst for change. A show like Dissolve – which uses humour to entertain and engage the audience before its dark turn – can ignite a clearly necessary conversation.
"It elicits a caring. You care about this character that has finally said, 'This is what happened to me, and this is how I felt,'" says Deb Pickman, one of the co-founders of Vancouver-based Shameless Hussy Productions. "That's what art does: It lets you into another person's experience."
The proudly feminist theatre company has this year mounted a new production of the work – updated to reflect the social media explosion, and now with actor Emmelia Gordon playing the 16 roles, including a bunch of people who could intervene or help, but don't.
Shameless Hussy – which will receive an award this year from the International Centre for Women Playwrights – has a mandate to tell "provocative stories about women to inspire the hand that rocks the cradle to rock the world." Dissolve was a good fit.
"It's theatre that kind of slaps you in the face and goes 'wake up,'" says another Hussy co-founder, Renée Iaci, who directs the show. "That's the kind of theatre that Deb and I really want to do."
(Ms. Pickman also works at UBC's Department of Theatre and Film, but was speaking here as a Hussy.)
This week, Ms. Gardiner, Ms. Gordon, Ms. Iaci and Ms. Pickman – one each, we realized, in her 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s – gathered to talk about the show, the chants, sexual assault (try to find a woman who has not been assaulted, or doesn't have a friend who has been assaulted, we agreed) – and the role art can play to address the issue.
"A lecture might make you think. A safety presentation might make you think," Ms. Gardiner says. "But art can really make you feel."
For Ms. Gardiner, word that Sauder School of Business students at UBC had participated in the offensive chant hit particularly close to home. She created the show at UBC, right next door to the business school. In 2000, Ms. Gardiner, starting the last year of her BFA, was assigned to create a premise for a one-person show. After several failed attempts, she finally went to her professor, Stephen Heatley, for help. He asked if there was anything she needed to get off her chest.
There was. The previous spring, Ms. Gardiner had been at a house party where her drink was spiked. She did not wake up alone. This – something she hadn't told anybody – was what she wrote about. "I remember being terrified, but then literally thinking, 'Well, it's never going to be performed publicly, so why don't I start writing and go for it?'" says Ms. Gardiner. "And then of course I wasn't censoring myself and so it just poured out of me."
The process was cathartic, and the play, while not purely autobiographical – she took dramatic licence – was a powerhouse. Two years after graduating, Ms. Gardiner expanded it for the Vancouver Fringe Festival. Immediately, she began fielding requests from schools, universities, conferences. She has performed the play from Manhattan to Haida Gwaii – and at least 20 times, she figures, at UBC.
She holds a talkback session after each performance, and is inevitably asked why she wrote the show. Her answer for the first two years: This had happened to a friend.
"I think I had done probably 100 shows before I realized I had to admit that it was my story, because I needed to encourage other people to get the toxins out of them," she says. "And if I was standing up there telling them to do that and encouraging them to seek help, I just felt like a fraud if I didn't admit that it was my story. And when I started doing that, that's when the power of the show really came together."
Last year, Ms. Gardiner – pregnant and needing a break – approached the Hussies about taking it on. Their new production will tour the Lower Mainland next month and further afield in B.C. in February. One can only expect there will be more requests, in light of recent events.
"It's very bittersweet, the success of the piece," Ms. Gardiner says. "Because if sexual assault wasn't such a problem, we wouldn't be going into the 11th year with a brand new cast and a new production. Being put out of business [is] deep down what I really truly want. But that's not going to happen any time soon."