LISTEN festival harnesses the arts to break down mental health taboos

PUBLISHED: 12:14 29 September 2020 | UPDATED: 12:14 29 September 2020

Nikki at the making of (Not) In Your Back Garden. Picture: Verona Smith

Nikki at the making of (Not) In Your Back Garden. Picture: Verona Smith


A festival inspired by ideas from the community is proving how powerful an influence the arts has on mental health.

The LISTEN festival kicked off with the screening of a film made with the help of neighbours in Marks Gate at Barking and Dagenham’s One Borough One Love online event on September 20.

The month-long festival from Green Shoes Arts, which is based at The Vibe Youth Centre in Becontree Avenue, aims to get people talking about mental health using art, music, dance, spoken word and drama.

Nikki Watson, artistic director, explained: “This feels even more important following lockdown. Now more than ever people are experiencing some degree of poor mental health.”

She added festival organisers and participants want to help take away the stigma of talking about the challenges and struggles which everyone can face at some point in their lives.

Nikki Watson during the making of (Not) In Your Back Garden. Picture: Verona SmithNikki Watson during the making of (Not) In Your Back Garden. Picture: Verona Smith

“Often we are apologetic when we say we are doing well and keep quiet when we’re not. But it’s not a taboo subject. Most people in their life will experience some change in their mental health,” Nikki said.

And the arts can help break down the barriers which can stop people from opening up about what’s troubling them.

Nikki, whose background is in dance and has experienced depression herself, said: “The arts provide opportunities for expression and in doing that you are allowing people to say what they need to without using words.

“That can be the starting point for conversation. That’s been my own experience. It has always been a way of expressing how I’m feeling without having to say it,” she added.

(Not) In Your Back Garden is just one of the events forming part of Green Shoes Arts LISTEN festival. Picture: Green Shoes Arts(Not) In Your Back Garden is just one of the events forming part of Green Shoes Arts LISTEN festival. Picture: Green Shoes Arts

Green Shoes Arts, which has been based in the borough since 2009, has a history of making a difference in people’s lives.

Nikki explained how those who have been involved in projects have increased in confidence thanks to the organisation.

“We have people who struggled and had to take time off who we have helped get back to work,” Nikki said.

She added that one person went from hiding under a table when they first arrived to becoming an assistant artist.

Artwork by Griffi features in the festival. Picture: Jimmy LeeArtwork by Griffi features in the festival. Picture: Jimmy Lee

A number of festival events are still to come, including The Window Box, an outdoor workshop at St Chad’s Park where people can decorate containers and plant seeds.

You may also want to watch:

The Undercurrent film is also due to be screened online as part of a programme called Rafts It tells the story of activists in the USA and how the climate crisis affects their lives.

While some festival events are online only, there are plans to take some performances to estates so people can watch live.

Pop-up dance, drama and spoken word acts focusing on men’s mental health are due to be staged at three different locations across Dagenham to offer audiences with live performances on October 18.

The artist, Griffi, also plans to create a sculpture outside The Vibe which people can add their own designs to with materials provided.

“People need some in person experiences,” Nikki said. “With theatres being closed, people want to see performances but don’t always want to watch them online. There’s nothing like live performance.”

Green Shoes Arts first hatched its plan to combine mental health with a festival before the coronavirus really took hold in the UK.

The intention was to stage all the events in person, taking over empty shops to provide space for performances.

When the organisers were interviewed as part of their bid for funding, they had worked on the assumption the virus would be under control and the festival could include audiences in person.

“We were in a world where we hoped it would blow over,” Nikki said.

But with the end of the pandemic still not in sight, the organisers have had to change and adapt their plans every step of the way.

“We have probably designed five different festivals since we began. But we have a lot of creative people with brains that can switch and adapt very quickly,” Nikki said.

“We have taken every precaution to be Covid secure. We need to keep people safe physically and mentally,” she added.

The festival is backed by Barking and Dagenham Council, Neighbourhood Community Infrastructure Levy, The Big Lottery Fund, The National Lottery Community Fund and The Vibe Youth Centre.

Rafts is commissioned by The Serpentine Gallery in partnership with New Town Culture.

For details visit

If you value what this story gives you, please consider supporting the Barking and Dagenham Post. Click the link in the orange box above for details.

Become a supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Latest from the Barking and Dagenham Post