Neurodiverse Violette invites new friends to use VR to hear her story

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      When Montreal-based theatre director Catherine Bourgeois decided several years ago to embark on the stage production of Violette, everyday women were only beginning to speak publicly about their experiences of sexual abuse.

      The Jian Ghomeshi scandal at CBC Radio was the catalyst back then. The Me Too movement and the accompanying stories of abuse by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein hadn’t yet emerged.

      Bourgeois, artistic director of Joe Jack et John, was keen to explore an area that spoke to her company’s mandate. Since its founding in 2003, Joe Jack et John has been a leader in promoting inclusivity on and off the stage. So it felt right for Bourgeois to try to shed light on sexual abuse within the neurodiverse community. But how could she do that with neurodiverse cast members in a way that did not turn off audiences because of the sheer horror of what the community has experienced?

      “For women, it’s between 70 to 90 percent of them that will go through sexual abuse of some sort during their lifetime,” Bourgeois tells the Straight by phone from Montreal. “And for men, it’s about 50 percent. These are the stats from Quebec; I think they are meaningful. I guess they are seen as easy prey.”

      She adds that with this subject matter, she didn’t feel that it would be appropriate to have someone jump on a stage and project loudly about what they had experienced. Rather, she felt that it deserved a different form.

      “In the past, we’ve been doing site-specific work,” Bourgeois says. “In the beginning, it was going to be like a show in an apartment—a show in a small place—where people are kind of invited by a character and come for a tea.”

      Only after attending a conference in Europe did it dawn upon her that Violette could be offered to individual audience members with the help of virtual reality. At this year’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, it’s being presented this way at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre.

      Anne Tremblay plays Violette in the French-language version of the play.
      Charles Lafrance

      A neurodiverse actor (Stephanie Boghen in English and Anne Tremblay in French) plays Violette and will invite individuals into a set at the Roundhouse that looks like a bedroom. Violette makes a connection with her guest by asking a couple of questions before the guest sits on the bed and puts on the VR headset.

      That’s when the filmed version reveals Violette sharing her story without the guest witnessing any disturbing imagery. The VR segment also features a shapeshifting trickster character played by Tamara Brown in both the French and English versions.

      Ultimately, Bourgeois says, it’s a story of Violette’s resilience.

      “Because her trauma made her feel less inclined to go out in the street, that’s why she’s inviting what she calls a ‘brand new friend’ to come and listen to her story so she can go past the trauma and be free again,” Bourgeois explains. “So there’s this sharing of this story, but, as well, the main goal is that Violette gets better because she talks about it.”

      With support from Théâtre la Seizième, Reel Wheels Theatre, and the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre, the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival is presenting Joe Jack et John’s Violette in French and English at the Roundhouse from January 26 to January 30. For more information, visit the PuSh festival website.