Art meets activism in Vancouver rock musical Love Bomb

How do you tackle an issue like sex trafficking in Canada — in a musical, no less? Meghan Gardiner, the playwright behind the long-running one-woman show Dissolve, talks to CBC Arts about her new play, Love Bomb.

How do you tackle an issue like sex trafficking in Canada — in a musical, no less?

Sara Vickruck stars in Love Bomb, an original musical running through October 10 at Vancouver's Firehall Arts Centre. (Supplied)

As an actress, Vancouver's Meghan Gardiner has done My Fair Lady and Urinetown and Oliver. And for years, her goal was clear: "I just wanted to do musical theatre my whole life."

As a playwright, she's sung a very different tune — figuratively speaking that is — and a generation of Canadian students has heard it.  Since first performing Dissolve, her 2003 one-woman show about drink spiking and sexual assault drawn from her own experience as a survivor, the play has toured high-school and university campuses nearly non-stop. Gardiner relates countless examples of gratitude from over the years. One girl, she says, was empowered to report her assault the day after seeing it. "A police officer contacted me about that and said, 'I just want you to know what your show is doing.'"

So when a local theatre company pitched Gardiner on writing a show about sex trafficking, a crime that forces underage girls into prostitution, she accepted the task, and another heavy responsibility.

"I can't not write about issues I think need to be addressed through the power of theatre," Gardiner says. "I will be doing it for the rest of my life and I love it."

Vancouver actress and playwright Meghan Gardiner. (Brandon Hart)

Gardiner's latest project is called Love Bomb, a two-woman rock musical playing Vancouver's Firehall Arts Centre through Oct. 10. Like Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the action plays out like a rock show, one starring a buzz-building artist named Justine (Sara Vickruck). She's "a combination of Pink and a bit of Feist and maybe even a little Bon Jovi," Gardiner explains. Lillian (Deb Pickman), a mom from Fort St. John, has seen Justine on YouTube. Lillian's daughter is missing; the distraught mother turns up at the club where Justine is performing, convinced the woman she heard online can lead her to her daughter. And as the concert plays out, a mystery unfolds, one revealing a dark story about the realities of human trafficking — right here in Canada.

Since 2013, Vancouver theatre company Shameless Hussy Productions has produced a North American tour of Dissolve, and two years ago they approached Gardiner to write the show that would become Love Bomb. (The music is composed by another local artist, Steve Charles.)

Their pitch? Write a musical for women that addresses the issue of sex trafficking. The company had witnessed it first-hand — a student they met while running a high-school theatre program became a victim. "They had noticed she had been showered with gifts and money," Gardiner says. "She had essentially been groomed by this man, and then disappeared. And it just haunted them.… I think they'd wanted to write this piece for about 16 years."

Gardiner's own knowledge of the topic was much different. "I didn't know a ton about sex trafficking," she says. Sex trafficking is forced prostitution. Underage girls are especially at risk, and the average Canadian victim is lured at 13 years old, recruited through dubious promises: drugs or gifts, a false job offer — or affection.

Sara Vickruck stars as Justine in Love Bomb. She's a mix of Pink and Feist and a little bit of Bon Jovi. (Supplied)

That's where the show's title comes from. It's a law-enforcement term that describes just that. Traffickers, "primarily pimps and drug dealers," trap victims by "love bombing" them with attention. Manipulated into believing their abusers care for them, they'll do things they wouldn't normally do.

The size of the issue can be tricky to quantify. Cases are rarely brought to the authorities. A Public Safety Canada report counted 125 charges between 2005 and 2012, where human trafficking was the most serious offense; just 35 of those cases resulted in a conviction. Yet a year-long survey, conducted by the Canadian Women's Foundation in 2013, reported that community service workers around the country had helped nearly 3,000 women and girls who identified as victims. Of the cases in front of the courts, more than 90 per cent involve Canadian victims, according to 2012 data cited by Public Safety Canada.

For research, Gardiner tracked news stories about trafficking cases in B.C. and was able to meet with some of the people involved. "I'm not allowed to speak about them, but we did get some insight that really helped us to frame the story," she says.

"I was affected by [learning about] this issue, and horrified, as I think the general public is," Gardiner says. "It could happen to anyone."

Unlike the issue tackled in Dissolve, however, Gardiner doesn't consider herself an expert in sex trafficking. The world alluded to in Love Bomb is not part of her experience. So how do you attempt presenting such a serious topic — and as a musical, no less?

Meghan Gardiner performs her one-woman show, Dissolve. Since debuting it at the Vancouver Fringe in 2003, the production has continuously toured campuses all over North America. (Supplied)

"With this it's quite different," she says. Just as she doesn't present herself as an authority on the subject of trafficking, the play doesn't either. "My angle has to be something I can relate to," she explains. The character of Justine is an artist, Lillian is a mother. Gardiner is both of those things, and Love Bomb focuses on the emotional dynamic between the two women.

"This is a story," she continues. "This is 'Did you even know this was happening?' Because guess what, it is. And it's happening right in downtown Vancouver.

"I'm not saying [Dissolve] is the most brilliant thing in the world, but what I saw and what I have experienced is the power of theatre in getting a message across. We can't have people sit and watch a safety demonstration. That might make them think. But art and theatre can really make them feel," she says.

"Once I saw the power of that — I don't think I can write something that didn't make me angry on the inside, and make me want to do something about it. Even if I tried I think I would end up taking a big dark turn somewhere because I've seen what theatre can do."

Love Bomb. Featuring Deb Pickman, Sara Vickruck. Written by Meghan Gardiner. Directed by Renee Iaci. Presented by Shameless Hussy Productions. To October 10. Firehall Arts Centre, Vancouver.


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