“It’s real. It happened to me.”
A group of six actors reiterated these words as they recounted real-life stories of anonymous sexual assault survivors on the Paul Davenport Theatre stage last Monday.
Through a powerful combination of words and movements, a documentary dance-theatre performance called The Ghomeshi Effect highlights issues of sexual violence in Canada, particularly within the legal system. The script tells the stories of survivors, word for word, from over 40 interviews conducted by director Jessica Ruano.
Mostly conducted in the Ottawa-Gatineau area, the interviews include personal experiences of abuse and dealings with the justice system, as well as input from lawyers, support workers, parole officers and other individuals who work in the legal system.
“There were a lot of materials to choose from, and I think in the end, I was trying to have as many diverse perspectives as possible to represent the vast community that we have … in Canada,” said Ruano.
Ruano started planning the show and conducting interviews in the aftermath of the Jian Ghomeshi trial. Ghomeshi was a popular host of a CBC radio show who was accused of sexual assault and acts of violence by multiple women in 2014. He was acquitted of all charges after an eight-day trial in 2016.
Ghomeshi’s case instigated an upheaval on social media as hashtags such as #BeenRapedNeverReported started emerging along with countless individuals sharing unreported incidents of sexual assault. This movement was dubbed “the Ghomeshi effect” by several media outlets.
For Ruano, it further inspired the name and content of the theatre piece, which premiered in Ottawa in January 2017.
“The response to that trial, I felt, was unprecedented. The number of articles that came out, the discussions on social media,… it truly drew awareness to the way that our legal system handles sexual assault cases and how difficult survivors find it to come forward,” said Ruano.
“The play is not about Jian Ghomeshi or that trial; it's about the response that has occurred since then and people coming out and telling their stories and questioning things and addressing maybe some gaps in the way the system currently works,” she added.
Ruano explained the dance movements incorporated into the theatre piece were also based on input from the actors and people in the community. During a number of workshops, the team would go out on the street and ask people what physical movement best expressed certain words such as “protect” or “judge.”
“The same way the text was taken from real people, so was the movement in a sense,” said Ruano.
Western University was the first stop along The Ghomeshi Effect’s tour of Ontario and Alberta, which runs from Oct. 29 to Nov. 16. During the show, support services were available in a nearby room for individuals who may have been triggered by the intense performance.The performance was also followed by a question period with Ruano and community resource experts.
“What’s important to me is what everyone does after [the show]: the chats that you have with your family members, your partners and your children,” said Ruano. “That’s where change begins.”