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'Dissolve': A Show About Date Rape

An unforgettable forgotten night inspired Meghan Gardiner's enduring play, embraced by schools across Canada.

By Chris Reynolds and Aleksandra Sagan 5 Oct 2011 | TheTyee.ca

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Gardiner: 'When is sexual assault ever going to be irrelevant?'

[Editor's note: This is the second article in a Tyee series about past crimes and unexpected consequences in Vancouver. Find an introduction to the series here.]

Under the glare of a single spotlight, Meghan Gardiner faced a North Vancouver high school audience of hundreds to perform Dissolve, a play about date rape.

She sported black pants and a tank top, her feet bare. A single wooden box stood behind her -- the play's only prop.

The lights dimmed, house music pumped from the speakers and Gardiner plunged into her one-woman show. Pulling her hair into a ponytail, she began her portrayal of a girl who during the show's 24-hour time frame would be drugged, dragged home and raped.

Performing at high schools was second nature by now, and Gardiner knew what to expect from crowds, usually entranced by the show. But these students were obnoxious. Their inattention irked her. By the question-answer period, Gardiner's patience was running out.

As usual, the first student asked why she wrote the play. Angry that the unruly crowd hadn't grasped the performance's message, she publicly blurted the truth for the first time: It happened to her.

A night blurred

In the spring of 2000, a small pill erased 13 hours of Gardiner's memory.

She was busily wrapping up her third year at the University of British Columbia on the lush grounds of its coastal campus. A friend proposed a temporary change of scene. Why not stop by a house party? Hardly in the mood, she eventually agreed.

It seemed like a standard night out. Pop tunes blared and voices escalated, struggling to be heard over the music. The sound of popping beer bottles mingled with the smell of cologne. There were plenty of people she knew at the house -- even the host's parents. She didn't plan to drink much and nursed one rum and Coke the whole time. But she didn't keep her eye on the drink, and the night quickly became a blur.

Her next clear memory is from the morning after, leaving hours unaccounted for.

"I woke up, unfortunately, not by myself -- with somebody that I'd known for years and years and years," she recalled, "which was odd and bizarre." When and how she'd arrived, she hadn't a clue. After the young man left, Gardiner, still dazed, drove alone in her parents' car to a clinic. The doctor wasn't helpful at first. He seemed to think her queasiness stemmed from consuming too much liquor. He finally clued in to her dilated pupils and sent her to the hospital where nurses drew blood. They confirmed she had substances other than alcohol in her system.

"It was oddly comforting in a way, because I could stop blaming myself entirely," Gardiner said.

She told some close friends about the assault and word spread like wildfire.

Yet she avoided confronting her emotions. She acted normal. "One of my natural instincts is to put on a brave face all the time ... so that's what I did," she explained. "But, inside, I hadn't dealt with it at all."

Surprise hit

Stephen Heatley, a professor in the UBC theatre department, taught Meghan Gardiner during the 2000-01 school year. He assigned a major playwriting exercise in which students created original, 12-minute plays. By September's end, Gardiner revealed she would be writing about her experience with date rape.

"You take your weaknesses and turn them into your strengths," Heatley said. "You take your tragedies and turn them into something that you can … express yourself with." Two years later, under Heatley's direction, Gardiner debuted a longer version of Dissolve at the Vancouver Fringe Festival -- a platform for young artists to showcase their work. Gardiner, however, did not have high expectations beyond the event. "I thought, 'Oh, good for me. I'll do these six shows and pat myself on the back,'" she said.

Back then, she didn't share her personal connection to the story on stage. She just wanted to act for a living. To her surprise, Dissolve became a bona fide hit, receiving press coverage, regional fame and relentless demand for bookings.

Now, more than 400 audiences have watched Gardiner tackle sexual assault and consent on stages across the continent. And since spilling the truth in that North Vancouver high school years ago, she has continued to explain it's her story she performs.

Heatley believes Gardiner's talent, perseverance and technique make her successful. "She was determined not only to earn a living," he said, "but also to make sure that people heard these stories, her story."

'Dissolve' expands

Gardiner dreamed of being a performer since childhood, belting out Les Mis tracks from her living room floor. She joined her church choir at age 5. Six years later, she caught her first acting break, starring in a professional production of A Christmas Carol.

"All I've wanted to do since I was a child is be on stage, but I didn't think that it was going to take such a harsh turn in this direction," Gardiner said.

Dissolve, she found, gradually corralled her into an advocacy role as it grew into the focal point of her career.

Gardiner remembered the moment she told that unruly high school audience it was her story. "For the first time you could hear a pin drop," she recalled. "And that's when it hit me that this is going to be heavier than I thought it was going to be. This isn't just me having fun playing funny characters. I've got to sit there now and tell my story 500 times."

She began telling the full truth behind her play during question-answer period following her performance. Students would hang back and chat after their classmates had left. Feeling pressure to continue educating them, Gardiner initially gave some of them her phone number.

"So that was the beginning of me turning … from an actor into more of an advocate, which is something that I've been forced into," she said.

As she realized the play's potential to spread awareness about sexual consent, so did everybody else. Bookings came months in advance. Soon she couldn't keep up with demand.

"When is sexual assault ever going to be irrelevant?" she said. "I have to embrace it and just make sure the incident gets acknowledged in schools, even if I can't always be there."

Gardiner worked to create several avenues that spread a message parallel to Dissolve's but didn't always require her to be there. In 2008, Green Thumb Theatre, a Vancouver production company, commissioned Gardiner to write a second play on date rape, Blind Spot. It toured without her for two years.

Last year she released Dissolve: A Documentary On Drug-Facilitated Sexual Assault as a companion piece to help answer some of the main questions surrounding the issue. The film features survivor stories -- including Gardiner's -- and a dramatization of a doctor-victim interaction. "It was just another way of getting the message out," Gardiner said, "and I guess deep down, yes, I do really want people to learn more about consent."

Gardiner's efforts earned her a YWCA Vancouver Women of Distinction award nomination this year. The prestigious annual title honours women who contribute to the community's well-being and future. Now, Gardiner has a new play on the school circuit, Role Call.

"It deals with trying to abolish gender stereotyping in really young kids," she said of the Green Thumb production she penned this year. "Compared with Dissolve, it's just as fun and equally rewarding."

The scope of the problem surrounding drug-facilitated sexual assault underscores Gardiner's continued urgency. In 2009, roughly 2,700 sexual assaults were reported in B.C. out of more than 20,000 across the country, according to Statistics Canada.

But according to the agency's survey on victimization, only about one of every 10 assaults is reported. The true numbers could be much, much higher.

Required viewing

Teenaged students filled the windowless auditorium of the all-girls' Crofton House School on a fall morning in Vancouver. With a few words, a teacher silenced the crowd's chattering and Gardiner walked into the spotlight.

She led her young audience through a college girl's night out, moving back and forth from bedroom to bar scenes, morphing between a flurry of characters. She puffed her chest and squared her shoulders as a bouncer. Her high-pitched laugh echoed in the auditorium as she became a club-goer mocking the drugged guest. Eventually, she awoke as a confused date-rape victim the next morning and began trying to piece the night back together, slowly realizing what had happened.

This past year, every student from Grades 8 through 12 at Crofton was required to watch a live performance of Dissolve. The girls represent an important audience: Canadians are most likely to be victims of sexual assault between the age of 15 and 24 years old, according to Statistics Canada.

The school's drama teacher, Cheryl Causley, usually books the play before graduation, hoping to spark student dialogue. This year she wanted to start that conversation sooner, in the wake of an alleged drugging and gang rape of a 16-year-old girl at a rave in Pitt Meadows, B.C., in the fall of 2010.

"It just felt like we needed to bring [Gardiner] in immediately," Causley said.

Her dark-humoured approach to the sensitive topic is unique. In one scene, she shifts between two girls laughing at the soon-to-be victim's drug-induced behaviour in the club. She trills a falsetto laugh before scooting over and becoming the second girl, giggling in a lower tone.

The Crofton high school students didn't expect to laugh aloud during the performance. But they appreciated it, saying the comedic aspect made it more accessible.

"I think that by using humour and presenting it in a more creative way, she's also taking the taboo away from the subject, and now it is something that we can talk about," graduating student Alisha Adam said.

"What this has done is -- even if we don't see a change today or tomorrow -- it's sort of opened the door for more discussion and thought about these types of issues."

Gardiner finds that young audiences often react emotionally to her performance. Some teens don't consider how intoxication can render consent meaningless until they see the play.

"It's very hard," she said, "to watch somebody realize that they've actually been raped."

On with the show

Gardiner burst through her front door in her winter coat on a chilly February evening. She had just returned from performing in a new musical, the esoterically named [Title of Show].

"I adore theatre," she said. "Let's put it this way, I could do theatre for the rest of my life."

Gardiner's love of theatre and acting -- pushing her to add more diverse roles to her resume -- makes the prospect of leaving Dissolve loom larger every year, despite its continued success. She tries to balance other acting roles with her advocacy art by auditioning as often as five times a week. Her perseverance has landed her non-recurring parts on Smallville, The L Word and Cold Squad.

Her role in Evil Dead: The Musical, a Canadian comedy based on the cult classic film series, let Gardiner adopt a very different onstage persona through 2009. She leapt and ducked across the stage, fending off demonic onslaughts and frolicking to the music. "We're all shooting each other with blood and guts," she said. "It was so far from what I normally do that I had a blast."

Gardiner's recent freelancing led her to parts in three B.C. musicals. Over the next six months, she'll be playing characters as diverse as the plays' titles: Blood Brothers, Gunmetal Blues and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Her enjoyment playing and rehearsing these roles helped her realize a permanent break from Dissolve may be near.

After contemplating selling her script, she is now thinking of ways to keep its message alive while performing the show less frequently. Eventually, she might part ways completely with the play she built so many years ago.

"I'm sure that day, I would sit there and weep," Gardiner said, "maybe tears of joy, I don't know. If that happened it would just mean that the show is living on and the message is living on, and that's really all I could ask for."

[See other Tyee stories that tackle similar themes in our Rights + Justice and Gender + Sexuality categories.]  [Tyee]

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