Theatre festival HerStory has its fifth outing at The Bunker. Daniel Perks reports on this showcase of intersectional, feminist theatre makers:

It was number five in the HerStory Festival story this week, The Bunker as the venue of choice to receive new writing in a myriad of disciplines. The festival is curated with one aim – to challenge the misrepresentation of women in theatre by staging bold, intersectional and unapologetic work that places multidimensional women centre stage.

Curated by intersectional, feminist theatre maker Nastazja Somers, this evening pushes the envelope beyond straight theatre, incorporating spoken word and performance art into an evening that highlights why it is so important to continue discussing gender casting, gender blindness and quality in all aspects within this industry. In a previous interview with Miro Magazine, Nastazja explained her reasoning for bringing the festival to life in the first place:

“My frustration was born out of reading so many scripts that presented one-dimensional, underdeveloped women, or no women at all. I don’t like to read between the lines with feminist theatre – we don’t have time anymore.

I’ve had the chance to meet amazing, powerful women who are not afraid of showing their voice.”

As the fifth in the series and the first HerStory Festival not to be held at Theatre N16 – a decision Nastazja took to ensure that the festival caters for disabled guests – the bar is set high for an evening of thought-provoking and emotionally stimulating performances. But does it deliver?

The short answer is yes.

As a new writing festival, it isn’t appropriate to review pieces of work that are being tried and tested, scenes from larger plays still in development or snippets from performances that are currently taking shape. But there is variety in this carefully crafted showcase, enough to whet the appetite and dangle the promise of inspirational work in the future.

Spoken Word

It’s always exciting to listen to well-crafted spoken word performances, verbal tapestries rich in colour and texture. HerStory is book-ended with contrasting work that paints equally valid pictures of women in society today.

Kayla Feldman’s Hear Me Out perfectly summarises the dichotomy as the slut-virgin binary – if a woman enjoys sex and exploring her sexuality, she is branded a slut; if she doesn’t choose to engage in sexual promiscuity, instead seeking romance and tenderness, she is a frigid virgin. Where is the middle ground? Feldman tackles controversial topics head-on and without shame, from rape to her breasts to where she comes from. She stands defiantly and proclaims, why are these subjects so taboo? Why shouldn’t we be able to engage in open conversation about them? It’s powerful and forceful, opening the showcase fearlessly.

Likewise, Alissa Cooper closes the festival with Love Songs, a series of awkward moments that make up first times – first kisses, first sexual encounters, first loves. It’s refreshing to end with hope, from a millennial who isn’t afraid to stand and proclaim being proud of her innocence. The contrast in these pieces highlights the breadth of work that HerStory Festival welcomes in for programming.

Sexual Assault

Nearly seven times as many women as men are raped in England & Wales each year, according to current statistics summarised on the Rape Crisis website. Despite changes to the law, marketing campaigns and a much greater awareness & education of sexual health than ever before, it is still a prominent, common and abhorrent problem in our society. I myself have spoken about my own experiences of rape when failing to effectively review performance artist Louise Orwin’s latest show Oh Yes Oh No. So, it comes of no surprise that the topic is covered in multiple productions as part of the HerStory Festival. Each of these is approached sensitively, honestly and bravely – I applaud every single one of these actors, creatives and individuals who put their stories out there for an audience to bear witness to.

After opening with Feldman’s beautifully constructed spoken word in Hear Me Out, we are treated to a series of productions that artfully mention rape in combination with many other factors. Jessica Butcher’s Boots notes how it can tarnish a place that you previously thought safe and comforting – Tanya Loretta Dee beautifully conveys the peace she finds in the woods at night time, despite it seeming sinister and terrifying to many others. With Illona Linthwaite, the two actors throw a delicate perspective onto youth and ageing, a preconception that retirement is the same as being tired of life, when it fact it feels like the younger of the two is closer to giving up:

I can’t make life so I find it in other things

Bj McNeill’s Cornflake Girl puts the rape of a pre-teenage girl as the genesis for mental health problems further down the line, an experience that results in Ivy Corbin being sectioned to a psychiatric hospital. McNeill beautifully juxtaposes the location with light-hearted personalities inherent in Kudzanayi Chiwawa and Alex Reynolds, as well as the enforced openness with counsellor Rebecca Crankshaw. McNeill artfully focusses on the dialogue, moments of silence between characters when no one knows what to say in a space that claims to be safe and open.

It stands complementary to Between CreativesSeeds, a series of stereotypes that hang in the air with intended menace and intentional pain. Here words can hurt just as much as any physical abuse – being bullied for your weight, or the colour of your skin, is as mentally damaging as physical rape. Here, instead of awkward silences, we have dangerous ones, pauses that fill the room with an anticipated threat before it is realised.

“If you want the best for us, how can you not be a feminist”?

This quote rings in our ears halfway through HerStory Festival, one of many gems found in Cindy Marcolina’s exquisitely crafted The Quiet Riot. Michelle Barwood narrates the necessity for women across the world to stand up for change in a way that doesn’t cause further destruction or violence.

The intelligence and variety in the programme offers further support for championing the best of feminist theatre – performance art from Sedona Rose and Elise van Lil intermingles with Simran Hunjun’s touching dance piece Nervosa and Emma Harris’ ingenious multimedia duologue I’m Nervous You’re Nervous I’m Nervous…

The inevitable questions that come out of HerStory Festival are: when will the next one be? and can it be longer? A week-long programme that brings back some of these pieces in a more fully-fledged form, alongside snippets and trials of new work, will be a welcome and much-needed addition to the fringe theatre scene. Fingers crossed for a regular curated festival in the near future.

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