Storytelling for Social Change: Inside the #HealMeToo Festival

Hope Singsen had done very little producing before she began putting together The #HealMeToo Festival, which just wrapped in New York City.

Hope Singsen.

She started with a plan to find a space to produce Skin, her solo show about the road and obstacles to healing and reclaiming intimacy after childhood sexual trauma, and to share that space with other women with similar stories to tell. From there, the ideas and connections just kept coming—and a successful crowdfunding effort gave way to the #HealMeToo Festival. The three-week event features theater, dance, storytelling, panel discussions, and workshops centered around celebrating healing and inspiring social change.

Singsen is a researcher as well as an artist and activist, and she is particularly interested in the healing power of storytelling. Research shows that telling a story to a sympathetic listener while making eye contact and receiving cues of support can be calming to the nervous system, and listeners of such stories automatically engage what’s called mirror neurons in empathizing with the speaker—imagining themselves in the speaker’s place.

In watching someone experience healing through storytelling, in other words, the watcher and performer both can experience healing. For a group of listeners having this mirror experience together, as one might in the theater, the healing can be even more profound. 

Attendees interested in activating more than their mirror neurons had the chance to participate in a number of workshops at Singsen’s event. One two-week-long storytelling workshop led by Micaela Blei and Onnesha Roychaudhuri of Speech/Act, a social-justice oriented storytelling collective, had participants locate, develop and tell a personal story from their lives about healing from gender-based violence or oppression. The dance performance and social justice group Gibney offered a Move to Move Beyond workshop on the power of movement to build self-esteem and healing after intimate partner- and gender based-violence. Claire Warden of Intimacy Directors International taught a workshop on creating and performing intimate scenes.

After a performance of four of The Pussy Grabber Plays, inspired by interviews with the women who came forward to accuse President Trump of sexual assault, activist Jennifer Flynn Walker offered a training in how to turn personal stories into effective organizing tools—including how to birddog (asking a public official or aspiring candidate to do something you care about in-person in-public, as two survivors did in September with Jeff Flake in an elevator). Organizers also presented Emma Sulkowicz with the #HealMeToo Award for her mattress performance, Carry That Weight, at Columbia University.

Emma Sulkowicz and Jennifer Flynn Walker.

The #HealMeToo hashtag pre-dated the festival’s inception, and Singsen acknowledges, too, that she was following the lead of Tarana Burke and others in the #MeToo movement in structuring the event. Singsen selected stories that focused more on healing than on trauma, avoiding the “traumalog” that can often traumatize the audience and retraumatize the teller; the few shows clearly labeled as containing any graphic descriptions of violence were staffed by professionals ready to help audience members who get triggered; the e-program contained a list of suggested resources for survivors and advocates.

Intersectionality was also at the core of the festival’s mission, and that’s demonstrated in the diverse line-up of programs and performers. Truth and Reconciliation of Womyn, a collection of narratives curated by Tony Award-winner Tonya Pinkins, looked at all forms of cultural trauma from slavery to colonialism to the abduction of indigenous children; even though not all of the pieces in this show were about sexual violence, together they revealed the ways in which sexual health is inseparable from other issues facing women of color.

Singsen will also make podcasts of many of the panels and live events to make the event more accessible. Survivors, advocates and allies around the world and across the country will be able to tune in to a discussion with Tonya Pinkins, Lindsay Lederman of The Art Therapy Project and a neuroscientist around what happens in our minds and bodies when we engage through the arts; a panel of survivor advocates covering consent education, bystander training and restorative justice; and even a #TheaterToo panel convened by the advocacy group Let Us Work discussing how to take the “whisper” out of the network.

In more than 30 events over 19 days, including multiple events on weekends and extra podcast tapings during the lunch hour, the #HealMeToo Festival celebrated and supported survivors and healing. But those who witnessed it in real-time may have walked away with more than just a good night at the theater under their belts. Instead, they may have gone home healthier people.


Holly L. Derr is the Head of Graduate Directing at the University of Memphis and a feminist media critic who uses the analytical tools of theater to reflect upon broader issues of culture, race and gender. Follow her @hld6oddblend.