Fertility Fest: Barbican

Jessica Hepburn and Gaby Vautier founders of Fertiity Fest

Jessica Hepburn and Gaby Vautier founders of Fertiity Fest - Credit: Archant

Hampstead author Jessica Hepburn co-founded an arts festival around infertility to create a positive from her own sad experience

Jessica Hepburn and Gaby Vautier founders of Fertiity Fest

Jessica Hepburn and Gaby Vautier founders of Fertiity Fest - Credit: Archant

At a time when Sally Cheshire, the chair of the body which oversees fertility treatment has criticised aspects of the industry, there’s never been a better moment to have a multi-disciplinary festival on the issue.

Fertility Fest (at the Barbican until May 12 barbican.org.uk) is four weeks of events, discussion, art and performance on subjects ranging from IVF to donation, surrogacy and miscarriage.

When it started in 2016 as a one-day event at Finsbury Park’s Park Theatre, it was a hard sell says Hampstead-based co-founder Jessica Hepburn.

“Myself and Gabby Vautier were the two sides of the fertility story. I had been through 11 rounds unsuccessfully, and she had done four rounds and has IVF twins. We were friends who both worked in theatre and had this idea for an arts festival about fertility. Apart from the Ham&High it was hard to get anyone interested, or to get people along. But the feedback was tremendous.”

Jessica Hepburn and Gaby Vautier founders of Fertiity Fest

Jessica Hepburn and Gaby Vautier founders of Fertiity Fest - Credit: Archant

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Two years on, this year’s festival is the biggest yet and includes Maxine Peake starring in Avalanche A Love Story; based on the memoir of Australian novelist Julia Leigh, who had six unsuccessful rounds of IVF

“What was unique was using the arts, and often the artist’s personal emotional experience, to explore this multi-facted subject, and get the story behind the science,” says Hepburn who has written two books on her journey.

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“And it fits my campaign to get the fertility sector; academics clinicians, scientists in dialogue with patients and the public.”

Hepburn, who managed the Lyric Hammersmith for 10 years, describes coming to Fertility Fest as “walking into a big hug”.

The Baby Question by Paula Varjack

The Baby Question by Paula Varjack - Credit: Archant

There are sessions on men and infertility, Queer families, women with IVF children, those who are childfree, infertility in teens, and race religion and reproduction.

“It was started by two middle-aged women who had struggled to concieve in heterosexual relationships - one of the challenges we met at the start was ‘this is a niche story’ - but as it’s evolved and grown, people have realised it isn’t niche. Infertility doesn’t discriminate, and families don’t look like they used to.

“People think IVF is a problem of white educated women who have pursued their career and left it later, but many people go through IVF and miscarriage and don’t talk about it.

“It’s a taboo generally, but within communities of colour there are other stereotypes around black women as being very fertile,or stigmas tied up with religion, or ideas about women’s roles that need it’s own platform to explore.”

Peake has confessed her own struggle to concieve, giving up after several rounds of IVF.

“Julia’s book was very lyrical and I knew it would work well for the stage. Maxine is perfect, she’s such a great actress. I didn’t think she was going to be as open about her own story, but it’s important to tell all these stories because everyone is different. Successful IVF doesn’t mean everything’s amazing, and unsuccessful IVF doesn’t mean disaster.”

Hepburn’s book The Pursuit of Motherhood detailed how she started trying for a baby at the age of 34 and spent nearly £70,000 on treatment which led to several pregnancies and miscarriages.

She calls writing it “my moment of coming out”.

“As with any taboo it’s vital to be open and find a language to tell your story. You start to crack it but it takes a long time to turn around. It’s been like unplugging a floodgate - everyone is dealing with their own challenges, women who had successful IVF talk about not being able to enjoy it. Those years of reproductive trauma and struggle don’t just go away.”

As for what motivates Hepburn she says campaigning around fertility is “my way of helping other people have families in a way I haven’t been able to myself.”

“I am driven by turning my sad experience into something positive for me, but also for the world. If I’m not going to have a child what other legacy can I leave? I continue to live with the pain, but a big part of my philosophy is; everyone has sad stuff, this is my said thing, I have to turn it into something good.”

HFEA chair Cheshire recently criticised private clinics for not being honest with patients about the success statistics for older women, but Hepburn says it’s “more complicated” than private fertility clinics bad, NHS good.

“I spent thousands and took all the add ons I could. I am an intelligent woman complicit in what was happening. I knew what I was doing, but I was desperate.”

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