‘Don’t Read the Comments’ breaks the silence surrounding the complexities of consent and assault

Today’s climate – at McGill and worldwide – has drawn widespread attention to the prevalence of sexual violence and assault. These discussions lead to people questioning what exactly constitutes sexual assault. Produced by the Office for Sexual Violence Response,

Today’s climate – at McGill and worldwide – has drawn widespread attention to the prevalence of sexual violence. These discussions lead to people questioning what exactly constitutes sexual assault. Produced by the Office for Sexual Violence Response, Support and Education (OSVRSE) as part of their Consent Campaign, Don’t Read the Comments delves into these grey areas of consent, forcing its audience to engage with issues of sexual violence.

The play takes place in the format of a television talk show titled Don’t Read the Comments, with playgoers acting as the studio audience. The show’s host Wendy (Dakota Jamal Wellman) introduces her three expert panelists: Grace (Joy Ross-Jones), Trip (Gabe Maharjan), and Cindy Nancy Cindy (Cara Krisman), before pitching the topic of the day: “Are there grey areas of sexual consent?”

The four characters are played in the bouffon style, a French form of clown theatre focusing on mockery and the reflection of a twisted society. Each of the panelists is an exaggerated stereotype: Grace is an ‘angry feminist,’ Trip is a ‘self-proclaimed male feminist,’ and Cindy is a middle-aged ‘prominent citizen.’ The characters are familiar; aspects of each might remind audience members of themselves. As the show progresses, characters work themselves into twisted arguments that stand upon warped logic: They victim-shame, twist each others’ words, and dismiss men who come forward with their own assault stories. Wendy, meanwhile, provokes her guests and turns them against each other, creating drama for her audience.

It’s uncomfortable to watch, but that’s the point. The purpose of bouffon is to make viewers examine their own behaviour, revealing the perversions of society and their own participation in the corrupt status quo. The show’s creator, Sarah Segal-Lazar, used quotations from a variety of news articles in her script, incorporating the real world into her play. Sources ranged from the far right to far left; from highly accredited to less reputable—but, the rhetoric is familiar to the audience, no matter their background.

Eventually, Wendy dismisses her panelists and invites an ‘anonymous guest’ to tell her story. At this point Segal-Lazar herself, and introduced under the pseudonym Pamela, takes to the stage alone. In contrast to the bouffon characters, Pamela is strikingly real: Simple attire, no makeup—and recounting a true story.

For Pamela, it began with a backpacking trip in Ireland, and some drinks in a pub with unfamiliar men. One of them asked to take her home, and she refused repeatedly. After much intimidation and coercion, she reluctantly let him put her in a cab, taking her back to his apartment. She wasn’t beaten or violently restrained, nor did she give willing consent. All she wanted was, she said, to “get it over with” – so she let it happen.

Segal-Lazar doesn’t sugarcoat or bother with clean language. Her story is about the fear of saying ‘no’—one many women can relate to. Her delivery is powerful and raw, and the jarring shift in tone magnifies the intensity of the narrative.

As Pamela finishes, Wendy and the panelists return and it’s up to the audience to decide: Was Pamela assaulted? Given three slips of paper, ‘YES,’ ‘NO,’ and ‘?,’ a ballot box circulates. It’s a real-world simulation of the court of public opinion every time someone comes forth with a story like Pamela’s.

In the end, the questions that the show explores go unanswered, but the silence that surrounds them begins to break. As she told the audience, Segal-Lazar’s aim was never to give a clear answer to these grey areas, but to make people discuss them. It’s up to the viewers to maintain their own accountability.

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