Rape and the jokes about it are everywhere, but who are the people telling them? This comedy show puts survivors of sexual assault front and center, using humour to challenge rape culture and find catharsis
Sarah Rose // Features Editor
“It’s like an East Vancouver pantomime, he lays down his coat on the wet ground outside the Wise Hall,” host Emma Cooper explained beneath the narrow spotlight of the Cultch theatre. At just over 6’0” they’re willowy, like the early fall trees melting into impressionistic dots of red, orange and yellow on the pavement outside. Their cropped brown haircut and tortoiseshell spectacles peer out at the audience. This is the setup to a joke about their rape.
Cooper is the host and producer behind Rape is Real & Everywhere, a comedy show written by and starring survivors of sexual assault.
Since 2015 Rape is Real & Everywhere, the namesake derived from a graffiti scrawling in the same neighbourhood where Cooper experienced her assault, has been challenging the hegemonic position that certain topics are off-limits for comedy. It’s among the most controversial subjects in the genre, but the taboo arguably stems from a history of comedians telling “roofies are funny” gags. These antiquated quips do little more than play into the silence and shame of sexual assault. The comedy of Rape is Real & Everywhere invites meaningful, enjoyable engagements with issues of power, privilege and difference — and these jokes are funny as fuck.
“I mean, how clueless do you have to be to accidentally molest a child?” Comedian Jessica Pigeau told the audience of her assault as a child at summer camp. Pigeau has selective mutism during moments of intense stress. “I didn’t tell anyone what happened.” Performing in Rape is Real & Everywhere has given Pigeau the catharsis to speak for other survivors when they can’t.
Rape Is Real & Everywhere began as part of Hot Art Wet City in 2015, where they sold out three shows. “The response was so positive. We didn’t know we could talk about it; it was an exorcism of emotion,” Cooper said. “Some people go into the show thinking they’re not a survivor and leave learning that they are, they shift perspective on how they deserve to be treated.”
The intense response spawned a cross-country tour joined by a mosaic of local comedians and survivors. The performers range from women, men, First Nations and the disabled. The co-headliner tonight is Ryan Lachance, a seasoned comedian with quad spastic cerebral palsy. His career in comedy began in Halifax at a hair salon, the same city he would later meet Cooper in. “I was at the salon and the stylist tells me, if you don’t stop making me laugh, you’ll get a fucked-up haircut,” he chuckled. At his first show, they couldn’t get his wheelchair on stage, so he performed from the audience which earned him a standing ovation. Tonight, he’s joking about how when he was 15 he was sexually abused by a care aid who was “way too dedicated to his job.”
The first time Lachance performed in Rape is Real & Everywhere was difficult. “I cried through the whole fuckin’ thing,” he admitted. Sharing his story repeatedly wears on him: “last time I did the show, it took me a month to get over it.”
For Lachance, writing for the show is not much different than in his other comedy work. “What happened to me deeply affected me. I use humour to heal. It’s allowed me to be okay with who I am. I’ll never forgive them, but I can forgive myself when I never thought I’d be able to,” he said.
Survivors of assault so often carry a weight in the form of lacerating guilt and humiliation for a crime where they are blameless, yet where the real criminal frequently faces no consequences. There’s an almost instinctual impulse towards secrecy. Of all the things rape strips away from a person, the most devastating is self-control. It’s these entrenched feelings of self-blame that prevent survivors from speaking their truth.
Cooper, Lachance, Pigeau and every survivors’ work in Rape is Real and Everywhere gently urges on our braver selves. It’s not a sermon about the deeply latticed wounds of sexual assault —it’s a comedy, and it’s recovery. Every story is crafted with deft hands, excavating scar tissue from those wounds and revealing the dignity in sorrow. They’re throwing heartbreak and trauma into the spotlight and basking in its neon glow like photosynthesis. It’s through the catharsis of humour that they’re taking back control. At the heart of the show is a celebration of resilience, putting faces, names and stories to an epidemic fraught with nameless victims. It’s comedy that’s transforming the frames that typically hold survivor’s hostage. Now we’re laughing at rapists, we’re laughing at the ridiculous things that survivors are made to feel about their assaults.
Lachance’s path whispers that we too can be extraordinary after rejecting the strictures that keep us docile. The shackles of powerlessness are stronger than any prison. “Ryan is all heart,” Cooper professed.
“I want people to know this happens in the disability community so often. It remains silent, and people need to be heard,” said Lechance.
Cooper would like to see the next phase of the project perform at more universities. “It’s a good place for the show to live. Six women at UBC were drugged just yesterday,” Cooper said.
The survivor in Lachance, and in every performer, makes an offering to rip into the lie that they can’t speak, that their experiences can’t be shared on their own terms. After surviving their nightmares, they’re burning the ghosts left in the fog with the dawn of their own becoming.
For a moment, Lachance reflects on his journey with the show: “I was four shows in, and I didn’t think I had it in me anymore.” Beneath his wide-brimmed hat, he alternates between emotive and introspective, with his heart seeping out of every story and every joke. “Then I looked at the audience and I said, ‘It’s not about me anymore.’I’m just the catalyst for change, and it changed my life.”