Festival Brings Unheard Voices to the Forefront

From February 19th to 22nd, UNHEARD festival will be taking over the Bread and Roses Theatre in Clapham, London—and we are pretty excited about it. The festival is all about discovering new writing that explores sexual abuse and violence through theater and performance.

Needless to say, we think this is an important project as it opens up honest discussions about sexual abuse and violence, lets people tell their stories, and brings attention to a subject that is still rife with taboo.

The festival’s producer Tessa Hart first put the festival on in 2013 as she was finding it difficult to get the work shown elsewhere.

“I’m a survivor of sexual violence myself and have been told to shut up about it far too often,” she says. “My experience is whenever I do speak up nowadays other people also start sharing their experiences and we suddenly realize we’re not at all alone. In a way that’s what UNHEARD does but on a larger scale—it opens up the conversation and says it’s okay to talk about these issues and to listen to them.”

But not everyone is as pleased about this festival as we are. There have been concerns that performances like this are not ‘commercial’ enough, which may explain why it was difficult to get these plays shown elsewhere. Luckily, this isn’t an overarching opinion in London’s theater world, as many theaters are willing to confront important and controversial issues without fearing lack of commercial success.

Others have commented that the performances are too direct and that survivors’ feelings should be taken into account, but ironically the performances being referred to are ones written by survivors themselves. This underlines exactly why festivals like UNHEARD are needed: people try to silence topics that make them feel uncomfortable and these events attempt to break that silence.

However, overall, the response to UNHEARD has been positive. People are eager to be involved and support the project. Actress and writer Talie Melnyk is travelling from New York to perform her one-woman show Maison Des Reves. And the festival is also partnering up with V-Day (the global activist movement to end violence against women and girls, not Valentine’s Day) and will feature several benefit performances of The Vagina Monologues.

I asked Winnie Li, one of UNHEARD’s writers, about how the festival is hoping to encourage positive change.

“Being a victim of sexual violence is a very private kind of suffering, made all the more private because no one wants to talk about it so you can feel very isolated. I think events like this help to reduce that isolation and build a sense of community. And even though it’s awful that there are so many other victims, you can draw a certain kind of strength from knowing that other people have survived these experiences and have learned how to put their lives back together. Certainly, that was the case for me after my own assault. I found the most comfort in hearing from other survivors and reading their memoirs. And that’s why I’m trying to explore the issue in my own writing.”

“For those audience members who haven’t themselves experienced sexual violence or abuse, I hope the festival helps to open up their eyes. Advocacy depends on numbers, and the more supporters of victims there are, and the more people understand the prevalence of this crime and its devastating effects, the better a chance there is to make significant changes to policy and messages in the media,” Li continues.

Another great factor about the festival is that ticket proceeds go to nia, a charity that fights sexual abuse and violence. The festival will consist of several exciting rehearsed readings, a one-woman play, scratch nights, a spoken word event, and benefit performances of The Vagina Monologues. Make sure you get tickets and be part of what we hope will be a shift in views on sexual abuse and violence.

“After all, that’s what theater is there for…to get voices heard and discuss things in a way we don’t do in everyday life, to be thought-provoking, and dare to delve into new territories,” Hart concludes.