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Consent to see Dissolve

About five years into performing her hit play Dissolve, playwright and actor Meghan Gardiner recalls a young man approaching her after the show to ask her questions about consent. It was an atypical moment.

About five years into performing her hit play Dissolve, playwright and actor Meghan Gardiner recalls a young man approaching her after the show to ask her questions about consent. It was an atypical moment. It's usually emotionally distraught teenage girls and young women realizing that what had happened to Gardiner had happened to them and finally understanding that being in a drugged state in no way translates into consent.

"He hadn't realized that what he did might have been wrong," Gardiner told me. "He asked me what consent was."

For Gardiner, it was just as traumatic and emotional a moment as when girls would cry in front of her after a show. "It was a powerful moment.... It was also a little overwhelming."

The man wanted to know that if he had sex with a girl who was too drunk to remember what had transpired, would that be considered assault. Gardiner thought long and hard before answering and decided to hold him accountable.

"Yes," she told him, "I think you did [assault her]." "I didn't think less of him, but more of him for asking the question. This can be a very grey area and there are men and boys walking around not realizing they are rapists."

Gardiner wrote the play, which started as an assignment for her UBC theatre class, for her and other women. But the exchange with the young man made her realize Dissolve is also required viewing for men. That was at least five years ago.

Gardiner has been touring Dissolve, which critics have called alternately hilarious and heartbreaking, to theatres and schools across the country to great acclaim. She last performed it when she was eight months pregnant. Dissolve will go on with a new actress (Emmelia Gordon, who performs the play and all of its 14 characters May 20 to 24 at CBC Studio 700), which is a thrill for Gardiner, who is ready to move onto other projects. The play's success is bittersweet for Gardiner. While it has provided her with a good income, its continuing success means the crime of drug-facilitated sexual assault continues. The stats bear that out. Vancouver Rape Relief states that 25 per cent of the women who contact them for help were drugged by their attacker. About 40 per cent of women who contact SMART, the Surrey Mobile Assault Response Team, have been drugged. The majority of sexual assaults reported to police are by individuals between the ages 15-24, according to the Canadian Centre for Justice (CCJ).

The date rape drugs - Rohypnol, GHB, Ketamine - are usually tasteless and odourless and one of them can be made at home. Their effects leave victims with confusion, delerium and memory loss, which is what happened to Gardiner after having one drink at a house party 13 years ago this week. She lost 13 hours and woke up next to someone she had known for years. (In a 2007 study by the CCJ, 82 per cent of cases reported to the police showed that the victim and the offender knew one another.) Because she didn't know what had happened to her, Gardiner drove to a clinic, complaining of queasiness and had her blood tested, which confirmed that there was something other than alcohol in her system. When she confronted her perpetrator, he said, "I didn't know you were drugged. I just thought you were drunk."

One lesson she'd like to impart to teenagers and young adults when they're planning a night out is to have a game plan and stick with it. If you see a friend who's acting out of character after only one drink, step in. Being a passive bystander can no longer cut it.

Gardiner's play has attracted the attention of the law. Wendy van Tongeren, a Crown prosecutor who specializes in the prosecution of crimes against vulnerable persons and sex crimes, bought 40 tickets to Dissolve to give to professionals who provide services to the public related to sex crimes. She wants them to "review the play as a possible training tool on the complexities integral to the crimes (related to eye witnesses and parties to the crimes)," she said in an email.

"I anticipate the play will help caregivers, investigators and prosecutions understand the different perspectives.. In the case of at least two agencies attending the play, we have agreed to follow up with training sessions to discuss the law and practical forensic matters highlighted in the performance's content."

In our digital world, photographic evidence is a double-edged sword as we have seen in the Rehtaeh Parsons' case. Nobody knows that more than van Tongeren.

"Ironically, the photos can be helpful to the police as images of the crime scene (a feature uncharacteristic of most crimes) but often they merely release unbearable harassment from SNS (Social Networking Site) enthusiasts, are misinterpreted, and raise false hope for victims and investigators alike," van Tongeren said. "To investigate and prosecute the crimes committed within these scenarios is complicated."

If you have a child at home, go see Dissolve and if they're a teenager, take them with you. Go to www.brownpapertickets.com/event/345808 for tickets. fhughes@vancourier.com twitter.com/HughesFiona