Guest Feature: Why a Theatre Festival About Sexual Abuse & Violence?

Unheard

Why a theatre festival about sexual abuse and violence?

Being the producer of the UNHEARD Festival, which explores themes around sexual abuse and violence through performance, I get asked that question rather a lot. Well the most obvious answer would be that it is because I am a survivor of sexual violence myself. However, that is still not really a reason to put on a theatre festival about it. The thing is what I just told you, I am really not supposed to just tell you. When you are victim/survivor/pick-your-own-preferred-term of sexual abuse, you are not supposed to just tell everyone but instead are expected to deal with it and then keep quiet.

I was told that I was to blame for my own abuse. I was told that no one would believe me; I was a called a liar and an attention-seeker. I was told that even if it was true I should just get over it. I was told to just stop talking about it because it was too dreadful to have to listen to. Beyond the problem of sexual violence itself, there is another major problem here, the issue of not wanting to listen to survivors. Sometimes, I believe, in the attempt of wanting to reject the horror that sexual abuse and violence are, people reject and dismiss the victims instead. I have often heard people say they do not want to listen to stories of sexual abuse because they are too uncomfortable to listen to. But if it is that uncomfortable to even just hear about it, it is certainly a lot worse for those who have actually experienced it.

Even when I did get to speak up, it has still been difficult to be heard. If I fall apart whilst talking about the abuse I cannot really talk about it anymore. If I manage to stay calm and just say it very straightforward I have actually been told that it cannot have been that serious or that maybe I am exaggerating because I do not seem that upset. In general people often find it hard to believe I could have been through something like that in my life, as I seem like a very controlled and calm person. However, that is an attitude I have had to take on and learn over decades to survive somehow. I cannot be falling apart all day long and I cannot be falling apart when I am trying to tell my story and live my life.

The important thing is that there should not be any judgement when someone tells you about their personal experience of being raped or sexually abused. Different people deal with the trauma in very different ways and it is important to listen to people and let them tell their story in the way they can and want to. This is to a great extent what the UNHEARD Festival grew out of. It was the first ever project of a then brand new activist theatre company called Goblin Baby. I contacted various fringe venues in London looking for a slot for the project. The Space (on the Isle of Dogs) was the only one keen to host it and this is where the first UNHEARD Festival took place over two Sunday nights in June 2013, featuring eight short plays and monologues.

Over a year and a half later Goblin Baby has grown and developed a lot as a company and I now co-run The Bread & Roses Theatre, a new pub theatre in Clapham. The plan for the second UNHEARD Festival was initially to have just a couple more events than the first time around, as well as combining it with V-Day performances of The Vagina Monologues. But then we opened submissions and were overwhelmed. In 2013 we got about 50, this time we received over 250 submissions. Lots of them came with personal messages saying how great and unique it was to put on such a festival. The standard, quality and intensity of submissions were also incredibly high and even people from America and Asia were sending us scripts. I wanted to include as many of these as possible, so we added additional performance slots and suddenly we have grown into a four day festival, featuring 12 performances, including rehearsed readings, scratch nights, a poetry event and a one-woman-show joining us all the way from New York.

UNHEARD initially came from a very personal place, however, I quickly realised I was far from being alone. The great thing UNHEARD started doing is, from the very first moment of just announcing the project, asking for submissions and other creatives to get involved, it opened up a much needed appropriate conversation about sexual abuse. People would suddenly feel it is okay to share their stories, other would feel it is okay to listen to them, both creatives involved as well as audience members. The taboo on the issue has been broken around UNHEARD and we need more of that freedom to share these stories in our lives.

Something is happening and changing and there is a bigger conversation about sexual abuse and violence now but there are still a lot of misconceptions. There is still the very present concept of victim blaming not just coming from perpetrators but from all sorts of places in our society, even politicians, judges, let alone all sorts of online platforms. A lot of the current conversation about sexual abuse is others talking about the victims and especially about the perpetrators, they are often the main focus. There is still very little happening to give the actual survivors and people personally affected by it a voice; and to achieve long-term changes in attitudes those are the people who need to be heard. We need to listen to and share these stories to understand how damaging and long-lasting the effects of sexual abuse truly are, not just for individuals but for our society as a whole.

Several people have said to me that UNHEARD was a bad idea for a theatre project because it is not very commercial and only people with a personal connection to the issue would be interested. The thing is, even if that was true – which I do not think it is - so what? Way too many people are affected by sexual abuse and violence, so even if they were the only ones interested, there are unfortunately far too many of us and why should we not be allowed to put on a festival like this for ourselves and each other and anyone else who is interested. This is not a commercial project, there is not a ‘market’ for it, but there is a need for it.

So why am I putting on a theatre festival about sexual abuse and violence?

Because if we can do something to help others speak up, let others know what sexual abuse does to someone, even just help one person, than that is a huge achievement already. Because so many people are eager to join in and let their voices be heard, share their feelings and experiences. Because I am only 27 and the majority of my life has not just been ruled by the aftermath of sexual abuse and violence but by the ban of not being allowed to talk about it. Because I am not at all alone with this but survivors are made to feel they are because we are not supposed to speak up, so often we do not even speak to each other. Because I need to listen to jokes about rape and paedophilia and am still exposed to sexual harassment on a regular basis. Because when I am putting on a theatre project about sexual abuse that people only attend by personal choice, I have again been told on various occasions that I am the one who should shut up. Because, clearly, there are still too many people denying us our voices. And because that is enough now and we need this project and we have a right to it.

(C) Tessa Hart 2015

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UNHEARD Festival - exploring themes around sexual abuse & violence through performance
19th to 22nd of February 2015 - Performances each day at 3pm, 5pm and 7.30pm
The Bread & Roses Theatre, 68 Clapham Manor Street, SW4 6DZ London

Featuring rehearsed readings, scratch nights, a spoken-word-event and one-woman-show Maison des Reves (coming from New York) and presented in combination with V-Day benefit performances of Eve Ensler’s award-winning play The Vagina Monologues.

Tickets from £3 and a 30% discount available when booking online for several events at once
All profits from the festival will be donated to nia (ending violence against women and children)

Full line-up at www.goblinbaby.com/unheard
Tickets at www.breadandrosestheatre.co.uk/unheard

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