Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Bella Heesom: My World Has Exploded A Little Bit

By | Published on Thursday 18 May 2017

We first discovered ‘My World Has Exploded A Little Bit’ at last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where our reviewer loved it, so it was no surprise to us that it went on to garner further critical acclaim and support. Following a run at the Vault Festival earlier in the year, the show is now heading out on tour, starting at London’s Ovalhouse.
To find out more about the show, and the inspiration behind it, I spoke to creator Bella Heesom.

CM: Can you start by telling us what the show is about? What’s the basic storyline?
BH: Well, it’s about the battle that took place between the rational part of my brain and the emotional part of my brain when my parents died within a couple of years of each other. My reason has always been in control, but I had to learn to let my emotion dominate in order to grieve.

CM: What themes does the play tackle?
BH: Death, love, loss, philosophical debate regarding the existence of a god and the problem of evil and suffering, and how NOT to use a portable urinal!

CM: How would you describe the format? It sounds like lots of elements and genres are at play here.
BH: Yes, that’s right. There are two main storytelling modes. One is an absurdly logical lecture on ‘Managing Mortality’, in which I play a bespectacled academic who tells the audience ‘everyone you love is going to die’ and teach them how to handle that when it happens. In these bits my co-performer Eva Alexander plays my assistant, who is a clown-like character who sings inappropriate songs about brain tumours.

Intercut with that, there are these quiet, tender little scenes, showing moments between me and my parents as they’re dying. In these bits, Eva becomes a narrator, and plays an enchanting piano score composed by Anna O’Grady.

There’s a gorgeous multimedia design by Elizabeth Harper that supports the two states – we use projections, and in the lecture they show slides with bullet points, and in the scenes they become these delicately haunting sketches.

It’s quite an emotional rollercoaster – audiences often still have tears rolling down their cheeks as they start laughing!

CM: How much of the show is based on truth?
BH: It’s entirely based in truth. There’s only one scene that didn’t really happen, because it depicts something I felt, but didn’t say out loud, and I tell the audience straight away that I didn’t really say it!

CM: What made you want to create a show based on your own experiences? Has doing so been cathartic, or painful…?
BH: I had always considered myself an actor, not a playwright, and I wrote this because I had all of this stuff swirling around inside me, and I needed to get it out. The writing process was very cathartic. It wasn’t until halfway through writing the play that I realised I had unresolved feelings around my mum’s death, and writing the piece was helping me to resolve them.

It was also healing to take something awful and painful and sad, and use it to make something beautiful. It was important to me that the play was beautiful, because one of the things that happened for me, was that when death became a reality (I don’t think any of us really believes it happens until it gets close) I saw the beauty and the magic and the fragility of life more clearly. My dad told me before I was born, he hadn’t realised it was possible to love someone that much, and when I found out he had a brain tumour, I felt the same way; I felt so much love for him, it was like I was expanding. When I left him for a day it felt like I’d left a chunk of myself behind. The certainty that I would lose him intensified my love for him. The world burned more brightly. I wanted to try and capture that in the writing.

CM: How does the fact that you are the creator of the show affect your relationship with your director, Donnacadh O’Briain?
BH: Well it means that when he gives me a note, we have to decide whether it’s an acting issue or a writing issue! I have two possible ways of making something work better – as an actor you don’t usually have the option of changing a line if it’s not working! It also feels like more an equal partnership.

I’ve known Donnacadh since 2011, he’s directed me in, I think, 6 different projects over the years, and we’ve become good friends. We’re on the same wavelength. I asked him to help me develop the piece – he came on board early in the process, and worked as dramaturg as well as director. We’ve found a really fun, dynamic way of working, where I write, then we get in a room, put it on its feet, play around, experiment, change things, improvise, then I re-write, and repeat until it’s cooked! The script changed radically more than once, and it was so exciting to be working with someone that I trusted so much that I could make big, bold leaps into the unknown and find new and unexpected things.

CM: Who else is involved creatively in the show?
BH: Well of course, the inimitable Eva Alexander, who makes me laugh every time we do the show with her energy and spark. Anna O’Grady, who wrote the piano score, which is magical. The designer, Elizabeth Harper, is a very talented artist, and has drawn a series of original sketches that really help create atmosphere in the piece. I’m so lucky to have such a lovely team!

CM: It sounds as though the musical element is very important – can you tell us a bit about the live music, and how it complements the piece?
BH: Yes – I love live music – my good friend Anna composed the piano score for me, and she is a very sensitive soul, so it is utterly enchanting, and really helps to support the shifts in mood and tone, and make the scenes feel almost filmic. Eva is a very talented musician and brings her own heart and depth to it in the performance, and is able to respond to me and the audience in the moment, which is why it’s so important that it’s live. She also plays some rather silly songs during the lecture at times, which are great for comic relief!

CM: Our reviewer loved the show when he saw it in Edinburgh last summer. Has the show changed or developed in any way since then?
BH: Oh that’s nice – thank you! It hasn’t really changed since Edinburgh. I hope it is always growing and maturing and improving, and the play is always alive, we talk to the audience, and Eva and I are very comfortable playing together, so on any given night one of us will probably improvise a line or two, reacting to the mood in the room, or bouncing off each other, but fundamentally the show is the same.

The reactions we’ve had, both in Edinburgh and at The Vaults, have been incredible. I wasn’t sure, when we first made it, if people would be willing to go there with me – it’s tough – but they do. They absolutely do. I offer hugs to everyone after every show, and the intensity of the connection I feel with complete strangers is staggering. I just want to share that feeling of kinship with as many people as possible, hence the tour.

CM: What’s next for the show?
BH: The run at Ovalhouse is the beginning of a national tour, you can see all the dates here.

CM: And what else do you have in the pipeline?
BH: As a team, Donnacadh and I are associate artists at Ovalhouse, we are ALL ABOUT YOU – a creative collaboration that makes work with the audience experience as its primary focus, and tackles big ideas with emotional openness, intellectual rigour, and humour. We’re currently developing our next show, ‘Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva The Young Woman Applauded Herself’. It’s a piece celebrating female sexuality, and exploring the impact that the internalised male gaze has on a woman’s relationship with her own body, her pleasure, and her sexual identity. We’ve done a few scratch performances, in which Eva has played my clitoris (complete with silly hat) and it is a glorious thing to behold.

This is a very exciting time for me, as I’ve just been awarded Arts Council funding for the development of that show, and the tour of ‘My World Has Exploded A Little Bit’. The support of the Arts Council means a lot to me, as it allows me to be more ambitious with my plans. ALL ABOUT YOU will also begin developing our third show, a piece about the life of my mum (which was truly remarkable) later in the year. I’ve never been so busy, and I love it.

‘My World Has Exploded A Little Bit’ is on at Ovalhouse from 23-27 May, see this page here for all the details, and click here for UK tour dates to tell your non-London-based friends about.

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