I want to begin this review with a preface: the following article is not intended to discredit the experiences of those interviewed for The Ghomeshi Effect; the experiences of the performers delivering such dark material; or the gumption of creator-director Jessica Ruano, choreographer Amelia Griffin, and the entirety of Perspective Collective Theatre company for making art surrounding a very necessary and timely discourse. Finally, this review is not meant to invalidate or ‘judge’ anyone else’s experience of this show as I recognize that the content is simultaneously triggering and empowering, simply given the act of restoring a voice to those who feel unheard or ignored in these politically divisive times. That being said, this review does intend to look at The Ghomeshi Effect as a piece of live performance, mostly outside of its marketing and its social outreach and community events. Bearing this in mind, the show in its current iteration needs work in order to attain in performance the level of sophistication and polish necessary for a nuanced piece of social commentary.
If you haven’t heard about The Ghomeshi Effect, maybe you’ve been living off the grid for the past year, it’s a verbatim dance theatre piece that’s caused quite a stir online given its controversial title. Contrary to popular belief, the show is not about former CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi. Instead, the play attempts to explore the titular phenomenon, in which the events of Mr. Ghomeshi’s trial inspired an outpouring of first-hand accounts and other discussion surrounding sexual violence and the treatment of victims in the Canadian legal system. Director Ruano has conducted an estimated forty interviews with sexual assault survivors, lawyers, and parole officers (etc) and uses these interviews verbatim as the main text for the show.
These monologues and various bits of text are not intrinsically connected to each other except by nature of their shared theme (i.e. sexual assault) and they do not come together to formulate any sort of traditional narrative or storyline, or even characters. Paired with the text is Amelia Griffin’s choreography used primarily to accentuate the words (i.e. sexual violence or rape being paired with an aggressive beat to the chest and abdomen) and the innate feelings within the words themselves. The performance space is often dominated by six large grey office desks that the performers, dressed in matching office attire, intermittently move across the stage. Almost every light (designed by Benoit Brunet-Poirier) is a shade of purple, representing the preferred colour of many violence against women organizations; and the sound design (by Martin Dewagne) is not so much “music” as it is an often times haunting arrangement of various sounds and audio clips.
Now, there is no doubting the intensity of the interviews and, statistically speaking*; I am certain these words will resonate viscerally with many viewers on a greater scale than I could possibly understand. However, I would question whether interviewing forty people is enough to consider The Ghomeshi Effect truly panoramic. If this piece sees future development (and I hope it does) it would be beneficial to its cause to include even more stories to expand its perspective much further.
And here’s why: as it currently stands there appears to be a predominant focus on the sexual abuse of minors. For example, performer Marc Andre Charette represents the only kind of “through-line” by delivering a set of three or four connected monologues throughout the piece detailing the sustained sexual molestation of a young child over a period of years; there is another prominent segment where Leah Archambault has a monologue describing the rape of a ten year old girl at the hands of her step-father and the powerlessness of her situation. I think that any time the decision is made to include instances or mentions of violence, specifically sexual violence towards children, it has to be done very carefully because just the mere thought of harming or abusing a child is naturally triggering to most people (heck, it’s a common ideology that child abusers can sometimes have the worst time in prison and are often separated from the other inmates). To make these stories particularly prominent, in my mind, is a little disingenuous given that there are no shades of grey in either of them.
We accept these perpetrators as being definitively bad men without question because social etiquette and social conditioning allows us to recognize these men as being sexual predators and therefore a threat; but I ask honestly and respectfully: are the issues in these two scenarios relevant to the same issues and challenges facing systemic rape culture today? I think they are, but drawing the links between them necessitates a lot of nuance and care. Like the adult victims of sexual abuse (viz. the Ghomeshi effect as a phenomenon), both children were not initially believed by their parents, but do these stories present the audience with any new information? It seems to me that they present the idea that child abuse is bad and child abusers should get longer sentences- which I don’t find to be particularly new or socially challenging ideas. Nor does it challenge us to think more critically about the current legal structures oppressing survivors of sexual abuse, that is those that are distinct from survivors of child abuse. Every survivor of child abuse is also a survivor of sexual abuse, but survivors of sexual abuse have not necessarily experienced child abuse. I wonder about the way the inclusion of these stories is handled in the piece, more as emotional bombs than as additional facets of the infinitely complex discussion around sexual abuse.
There is a brief section that discusses age of consent and how, traditionally speaking, men have used it as a way to over-sexualize women from a very early age. From this we can surmise that the two aforementioned stories are a direct result of these twisted ideals and this is certainly a large aspect of rape culture. But, again, scenarios featuring the sexual abuse of very young children does not afford the spectator an opportunity to assess all the possible variables in a given abusive-situation: the dialogue about violent individuals who are “mad, sad, or bad” is spot on here, and I wish this had been expanded on more.
Take, for example, the story in which Charette mentions that the reason the mother turned a blind eye to the abuse happening to her child was because she herself was a survivor of sexual assault. We are missing the story that the mother is living, that leads to the reality where, statistically speaking, survivors of sexual abuse are more likely to not see other abuse happening around them. Couldn’t this have been an opportunity, through dance, to give a voice back to another survivor who is truly voiceless and defenseless in this scenario? This would add a layer of nuance to the piece; while clearly the mother is a human suffering trauma, she is also clearly standing by as more violence is done.
Going to a dance show, I expect to see dancers creating something artistically and rhythmically with their bodies. Every movement on stage, regardless of genre, needs a purpose. The movement of the desks does not appear purposeful, it appears as though it is not meant to contribute to the piece of theatre, but just move some desks around. The type of bodily movement used throughout the piece’s directed moments does not align with the casual type of movement when the performers are moving the desks.
Moreover, the decision to use the office motif at all seems odd given that there’s almost no significant mention made of workplace harassment; that the material is much more focused on domestic violence (given the stats, it’s understandable); and also that the one dance number set in the office takes place at the top of the show. This made it almost impossible for me to understand why the six desks need to be there in the first place and why we have to listen to them being dragged across the stage floor?
The noise the desks make as their legs drag loudly across the floor is so jarring I find it hard to believe that this could be an active directorial choice (is it because rape is jarring and you don’t get a choice about it?). Why was there no felt on the bottom of the desks? The seemingly unintentional noisiness of the production, unfortunately, is not limited to the desks. Given that only two members of this ensemble- Gabrielle Lalonde and Leah Archambault- have formal dance training, this piece has (understandably) not yet mastered the light-footedness that appears to come naturally in most dance pieces (realistically this comes from years of dedicated training and some mastery of technique). The scuffling of feet (including the awkwardness of having only one cast member in heels) combined with the constant moving of desks completely undermines not only Dawagne’s unassuming yet lovely sound design, but the words of the survivors’ as well.
Don’t get me wrong, some of Griffin’s choreography is exceptionally powerful. The number featuring Lalonde and Archambault is easily the strongest in the entire piece followed by the moment when the ensemble raises Archambault up above them by her neck as if choking her. It would have been nice, perhaps, to see more of the beginning scene where the dancers are creating a story, characters, and narrative with their movements- situations that the viewer is left to interpret independently. However, most of the movement we do see is only illustrative of the text being spoken at the time. For example, almost every time someone says “I didn’t know” or makes reference to their brain or thoughts it’s accompanied by the same hand to forehead gesture. To be sure, I truly hope Griffin stays with The Ghomeshi Effect because I do believe that her choreography style (as evidenced by the terrific feelers) is a perfect fit for a project like this. Giving her more time to work with and mold these performers, particularly the members who have no dance training, I think, can only benefit the production greatly.
The biggest challenge currently facing this project is that it doesn’t really go ‘above and beyond’ the interviews themselves to make any sort of definitive statement (be it implicit or explicit) about “The Ghomeshi Effect” or rape culture as actual phenomena. There is a way in which this is really powerful, because it presents the voices of those affected without alteration to a wide audience. This is important. But because it focusses exclusively on the verbatim text, and not in a particularly nuanced way, it does not contribute to pushing the discussion around rape culture forward so much as show us where we are now. This is also important. We need to look at where we are to move forward. But what does this show tell us that we don’t already know? The final monologue delivered by the incomparable Annie Lefebvre is incredibly powerful, but other than this instance we are not explicitly encouraged to look inward and ask ourselves, “Despite all that I think I know and the beliefs that I hold, what would I do in this incredibly complicated situation?” I don’t think this show preaches to its choir, but it could certainly afford to explore and/or present a few more shades of grey.
All that being said, I would like to end this review by commending everyone involved with The Ghomeshi Effect whether that’s as an interviewee, a performer, or a member of the production team. It takes great strength to contribute to, create, and/or perform a work dealing with sexual violence. This play is certainly a step in the right direction, though not without its kinks, and I will continue to support any further development (both theoretically and financially) down the road. I hope that more local theatre companies take a page out of Ms. Ruano’s book and start tackling the tough and necessary issues facing contemporary Canadian society. Thank you for showing a continued dedication to addressing these hard issues, and bringing them into the theatre so we can look at, talk, and learn about them. Thank you for successfully integrating this project into a community and discussion that you are working to expand. The creation of a new space that combines live performance with support and outreach events has resulted in a much more open arena for these conversations to continue.
The Ghomeshi Effect
Created and Directed by Jessica Ruano
Choreography by Amelia Griffin
Performers: Leah Archambault, Marc- André Charette, Gabrielle Lalonde, Annie Lefebvre, Emmanuel Simon, and Mekdes Teshome