The trial of prominent CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi is a hot topic for many Canadians. Perhaps one of the most divisive cases in Canadian legal history, this story brought the many nuanced and complicated facets of sexual violence- many of them oppressive and problematic- to the forefront of mainstream discourse. “The Ghomeshi Effect”, as coined by numerous print media outlets, has resulted in a flood of literature, discussion, and initiatives geared towards addressing and changing current attitudes, legislations, and other legal barriers surrounding survivors of sexual assault. Moreover, local theatre artists like Jessica Ruano are taking up the gauntlet and lending their voice to the cause. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Ms. Ruano to discuss her newest play- the aptly titled, The Ghomeshi Effect which opens tomorrow evening at the Gladstone Theatre. A piece that blends verbatim text with choreographed dance, Ruano hopes that the content will inspire a call to action within audiences and, given the various community outreach events that have been organized throughout the run, it appears as though this company is prepared for any necessary follow through.
Brie McFarlane (BM): Why did you choose verbatim and dance when it came to expressing this narrative? As opposed to strictly just verbatim or just dance; or even, perhaps, verbatim and docu-drama for example.
Jessica Ruano (JR): DV8 [Physical Theatre] definitely inspired me to explore this form and I think because I’ve seen all three of their recent shows that do this… I just felt that being a person in the audience had a massive effect on me. It’s almost like the words were hitting me intellectually and emotionally- you know, like the statistics you hear and the quotes or whatever; and the movement was hitting me in the gut, like, viscerally. And I think that the combination of those effects is what makes the material stick with you. It’s not just somebody like talking at you and lecturing, it’s almost enveloping you in the actual feeling of what’s going on. And because sexual violence is so much about the body it just felt like movement had to be an important component of that.
Also, I had just seen Amelia [Griffin]’s show feelers as part of TACTICS and I really liked where she was going with that. I thought it would be cool if the two of us worked together and brought our different skill sets together. I liked that she was passionate about that subject matter and that she obviously has the skills in dance and choreography- I remember we went to a photoshoot with Andrew Alexander and I said to her right after, “hey, I have this idea and I would love to work with you on it” and that was over a year ago back in November (2015).
BM: Speaking of inspiring intellectual and visceral feelings, how would you address the general theatre-goer who might be wary of this piece being very triggering? What does The Ghomeshi Effect bring to the stage as a theatrical event?
JR: I would say that Amelia and I both have taken great care that this show is not triggering. We recognize that people have all kinds of triggers and that the subject matter is quite dark. But we certainly don’t think we’ve been exploitative with the material. We don’t go into- and because of course these are coming from real life interviews right? And so the interviewees themselves often did not go into graphic detail. Often they’ll say something like, “and then I was raped.” And they don’t really tell you what that entails, it’s your imagination that does that for you. So, I don’t know, maybe in some ways that’s even more dangerous to let your imagination work for you.
We’ve also tried to level the play so that if there’s a scene that’s quite dark we try and contrast it with something a bit lighter afterwards to sort of ease people out of things. We’ve really looked at every scene and been like, ‘okay this is how we are experiencing this scene, how do we go to a different direction?’ and so I think definitely this piece will probably make most people feel something- and I think that’s what good theatre should do. It’s definitely not an apathetic kind of piece, but I also think that for the most part people should be able to handle it just fine. And we have said that for every performance if you feel the need to leave the theatre, we won’t be offended- please do and there will be support workers available for you, like, if people need to talk.
BM: I’m always wary, just personally, of theatre that becomes therapy- not that there’s not a space for that, but that when I go out to the Theatre, as the institution, I want to be able to think critically about these intense emotions that I’m feeling or question them; or I want to challenge the dominant structures around us.
JR: We definitely tried to avoid that too. There are anecdotes but there are also expert opinions. We’ve interviewed lawyers, parole officers… so they deliver a more objective, like, ‘this is what I do in my work, this is what I’ve observed, this is what I can see’, and then you also get the, ‘I had this experience, oh my god, emotions’ , but then it’s paired other things that are less emotional. So like any good play I think that it has layers and levels and a nice little roller coaster effect.
BM: It seems like it’s more about the environment surrounding sexual assault, you know the workers within the community…it’s not just the victim versus the perpetrator.
JR: The structure of the play is trying to look at all levels like going to the police; going to a lawyer; going to court; all the different things you might do [post-assault] and considering what that means.
BM: Now, because you’ve dealt with a lot of backlash before the play even went up, or was even written really, what would you say to those “undecided viewers” who feel like this play has already made up its mind or to those who feel like you’re not being impartial enough?
JR: My words are not in the text right? I’m not delivering a- and I’m sure that my feelings about these issues show up in the content that I chose to include, but I also chose to include content that I don’t personally agree with because I think it’s interesting to hear those other perspectives. Like I’ve said, I interviewed forty people- very diverse group of people and I tried to create something that holds a diversity of perspectives. And I think it’s quite clear when it’s a perspective that’s considered an expert perspective such as a person who works as a lawyer, or as a parole officer, or a support worker and I would consider also people who have experienced sexual violence as experts because they are experts of their own experience. Then I’ve also included people who are not really clear on what rape culture is and are kind of considering that. So I think it’s quite clear who belongs to which category and I think that people when they see the show will draw their own conclusions about what they think is correct, or right, or reasonable.
There are some situations where there is no easy answer, so in this play that’s what’s interesting to me. It’s not like I’m going to say, “oh, it should be this way” and be very point blank about survivors it’s more like: look at this situation and what would you do? Is there a clear cut answer? I don’t think so. That’s just one example.
BM: I guess this is why a piece like this is important. The discussion needs to start getting serious; it needs to start getting uncomfortable and nuanced. I also feel like, at the same time, some of us need to keep our noses in our own business…like we should never be saying, “this person is clearly a rapist” because you just can’t know that when you’re not directly involved or if the court transcripts haven’t been released.
JR: I think it’s our reactionary way of living right now especially with social media, I find that people are reacting so quickly to things. If you look at when Jian Ghomeshi put out his Facebook post, first of all, people were just like, “Oh my god, the CBC is totally censoring this guy! He’s just into kinky sex!” And then the story shifted and somehow people were choosing sides. The reaction time was so quick.
BM: Well the fact that he even posted that on Facebook to begin with, it changes so much. Looking at social media- to go off on a complete side tangent: how do you feel like social media has helped or maybe hindered your process? I mean, I’ve probably followed this project from its inception to now its conclusion, because I have you on social media like Facebook for example. So did you learn any tricks that you’ll take forward with you and how do you feel about the Twitter Trolls ultimately?
JR: I’m actually just really grateful that somebody else is now doing marketing because I was doing it to begin with, I was doing all the social media and outreach and now Nina [Jane Drystek] is taking over as the marketing person and that’s been very healthy for me because I think especially with the mean tweets I got very sucked into it. I think, for a few weeks I didn’t work on the play while that was happening because I was….it messed me up quite a lot actually. I started to maybe have these, I don’t know unfounded or not, but these worries about whether I was being exploitative just by putting peoples stories on stage. Now, they all agreed to it, they all volunteered these stories, but to a point I’m like: I’m using peoples’ sexual assault to put on a really cool theatre show, you know what I mean? So I kind of got into that frame of mind for a while so it was difficult for me to just focus on the play.
BM: I just want to say to your credit, having been involved in the Mean Tweets fundraiser myself, I enjoyed that when it came down to it was like: no these trolls are people and we’re not here to make fun of them. It’s interesting though that you bring up your feelings on perhaps feeling exploitative of the material, because I feel like I’ve had the same worries about this particular show; so, could you speak to the outreach events The Ghomeshi Effect is organizing (and have been organizing) in the community and why that was important to you?
JR: Back in June I actually attended a conference with a few of these organizations- I think it was OCTEVAW and SAN Ottawa who were spearheading it; and it was just two days at the University of Ottawa and it was all these free events and it was different ways of understanding how sexual violence is talked about in the media and the legal system and all that stuff. I think it was called “Challenging #RapeCulture in the Legal System”. I just found it super informative and really just a great place to be. So I said to Erin[Leigh] from OCTEVAW right after that conference, “I’d really love for you guys to do something similar for The Ghomeshi Effect”. We were considering having a full day thing, but for various reasons we thought it would be better to do events right before the show so if people are able to get off work early they could come to this and see the show afterwards. So we basically partnered with the five main anti-violence organizations in Ottawa: OCTEVAW, SAN Ottawa, SASC (which is where I volunteer), the Ottawa Crisis Centre, and the Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity.
Essentially there are five events that happen before the performance during the week, except Thursday [January 19th] because we’re going to be crazy with opening, plus on Saturdays we’re going to be doing an arts and activism thing where you can run arts stuff or Amelia is going to be doing Yoga therapy in the theatre and it’s just like a nice hang out session. Yeah, so all that’s happening and, for me, if people are passionate about these issues I feel like this show was our contribution, but the important thing is what people in the audience choose to do next. And if they feel like they really want to do something else now, well, here are five organizations who are amazing; and who will talk to you some more; and are happy to have volunteers or workers; and so it’s kind of just like if you’re feeling really buzzed afterwards here’s something you can do- and we’re doing talk-backs after every show as well because that’s super important.
I went to go see a play, similar subject matter and stuff, in Toronto and I remember sitting there and a lot of people in the audience were vocalizing things during the performance- it was just a reading- but you couldn’t help yourself because of some of the stuff you were hearing. And they didn’t do a talk-back afterwards! And I remember feeling like: everybody here wants to stick around and talk and they didn’t give us a space to do that. That was a mistake and I’m definitely going to do a talk-back. I mean, I think talk-backs in general can be kind of ‘ehh, whatever’, but I think for this kind of show, this kind of material it’s fucking essential.
BM: Ok, last question! What would you say to people who want to write or produce plays about incredibly tough or controversial subject matter in fearing the kind of backlash that you received? Because, I mean, not everybody could deal with that and continue on, some people would be like “I’m done”.
JR: Be prepared right? I would say make sure you have a good support system around you. I have people that I can speak to when I get home and I’m feeling frustrated. I started going to see a therapist, sort of mid-way through this process because I thought that was important to just make sure anything that I needed to deal with I was dealing with it outside of the rehearsal room. You don’t want to be, like, a wreck of a director…especially because of all of these interviews: I know all of these people, some I’m closer to than others, but sometimes it’s hard for me because I’m going to hear something where I’m like, “I know this person and this is so upsetting to me” and I can think about my memories; and I can’t let that disrupt what’s happening in rehearsal because it has to be separate. So, I made sure that I was able to have other ways of dealing with that that didn’t interfere with the theatrical process. Theatre is not therapy. Theatre can be therapy, but it is not…therapy. You know what I mean? [laughs]
BM: Exactly. There’s a different place for it I think. Where the focus is on heightened emotion to the point of hysteria where it becomes more about catharsis and releasing and how that feels. And don’t get me wrong, people need that experience, but when you come to a Theatre, as in the institution, I just think it’s more powerful to be able to feel and reflect critically at the same time.
JR: Yeah, it needs to be critical. I actually quote Donald Trump in my last Director’s Notes, I thought that was quite funny. You know, “safe” to a point- again, I’m not intending to trigger anybody but I’m also not going to shy away from the tough stuff.
The Ghomeshi Effect
Created by Jessica Ruano and Perspective Collective Theatre
Playing January 19-28th at The Gladstone
Ticket information can be found here.
Outreach & Support event, known as TGE Dialogues, info can be found here.