In the warren-like Underbelly Cowgate this Fringe, you’ll find one of the shows in this year’s Death on the Fringe, My World Has Exploded A Little Bit. Bella Heesom’s inspirational piece stemmed from the loss of her parents in close succession, and in a detailed interview, she told The Wee Review how she made it, why she made it, and how it affected her…
Who are you and what are you doing in Edinburgh?
I’m actor, writer and theatre maker Bella Heesom, and along with the wonderful actor Eva Alexander, I’ll be performing a play that I have written, called My World Has Exploded A Little Bit. It’s a darkly comic exploration of loss and love – part true story and part absurd performance lecture.
First time at the Fringe?
Nope! I was up in 2012 and 2013 with my director, Donnacadh O’Briain. He’s artistic director of Natural Shocks, and he created a brilliant pop-up theatre called PEEP – a big black box, set up like a peep show. Each audience member sat in an individual booth, and watched the play through a one way mirror, listening on headphones. I performed in two short plays in there, SexLife by Kefi Chadwick, and 69 by Leo Butler. They weren’t at all pornographic, they were beautiful plays about the sexual psyche, set in intimate spaces, so that the audience felt like voyeurs. I was also up in 2005, when I was a student at Cambridge, performing in Some Explicit Polaroids by Mark Ravenhill.
So this is my first time doing a play that isn’t about sex at all! It’s the other one of the two big themes this time – DEATH!
Tell us about the events that led to the piece…
Well, my world exploded a little bit. Really. The name of the show is taken from the subject line of an email that I sent to my close friends in August 2010, telling them that I’d just found out that my dad had a brain tumour that was going to kill him. That was a paradigm-shifting experience. I talk about it in the play as an out of context problem – something that radically alters the context in which you are living. I have always been an optimist, and suddenly everything seemed terrible and the foundations of my existence felt unstable. When he died, I struggled to find the joy in things for a while.
After a couple of years, I had adjusted. I now understood in a way that I hadn’t before – in my bones, rather than my mind – that everyone really does die. It is very sad, but also to be expected; everyone you love is going to die. Then (spoiler alert!) I got a call saying my mum might die. And it was a shock, but not so much of a tragedy, because she had been very ill with Multiple Sclerosis for years. I thought, I’ve already faced death, it can’t get me again! I handled everything very well and I didn’t feel hopeless like I had with my dad. The day after the funeral, I went to the theatre, and I bumped into some friends I hadn’t seen for ages, and they asked about my Christmas, and I didn’t mention it. I wanted to avoid the awkwardness and have a nice evening.
I bet I sound horribly heartless, but I have always prided myself on being a very rational person. Plato has a theory of the soul as being made up of three parts: Reason, Feeling and Spirit. Reason is the rational part, Feeling is non-rational, and has base desires for things like food and love. Spirit is your will, the part that exerts self control. Plato believed Reason should be dominant, and Spirit should help it keep Feeling under control. I always related to this picture. I don’t believe in the spirit, but as a metaphor for the way my brain worked, it made sense to me. I valued my Reason and I didn’t have much time for Feeling. But of course in the face of death, reason is of limited use. There is nothing to be figured out or solved. Eventually, all you can do is feel. I had to learn to let myself do that.
How did it feel turning your experiences into a show? What was that process like?
I loved it! People think it must have been really hard, but it wasn’t really – experiencing the loss was hard; making a show is a piece of cake in comparison! The hardest thing was letting go of some precious memories that didn’t fit into the piece – prioritising making it an effective piece of theatre over accurately including every little real life detail.
I was helped massively by Donnacadh O’Briain in that. He also helped me discover the structure of the piece. It was a playful, exploratory process. The script started out as quite a poetic monologue, then we workshopped it and he made outrageous suggestions, like: ‘Why don’t you try saying it in the third person?’ So I switch the whole script. Then he goes, ‘How about the second person?’ So I switched it to ‘you’. It was so bizarre, but it was also undeniably powerful; ‘Your loved-one has a brain tumour.’ Boom!
I developed that idea to create this Guide character, who is based on my Reason, and thinks she has all the answers. She presents the lecture: ‘A Logical, Philosophical Guide to Managing Mortality’. She is a clown-like character, who doesn’t see how absurd it is to ignore your emotions.
The Guide has an Assistant (Eva Alexander) who is also a clown, and who is terrified of death, and tries very hard to keep the show cheerful, often by singing songs she’s made up that are actually hysterically inappropriate. That character emerged naturally as we were workshopping. I had asked a friend, Anna O’Grady, to compose a piano score, and I wanted it to be played live, to embrace the live nature of theatre. This meant that there would be a person onstage with me, playing the piano. It felt natural to include that person in the show, so the Assistant character grew out of the pianist.
The whole thing has happened pretty organically. Donnachadh and I have always enjoyed playing with a flexible fourth wall, and really welcoming the audience into the world of a play, and this piece reflects that. We ended up with three distinct modes: the lecture is one, then there are scenes from my life, where I play myself in the past, and then there are moments where I “step out” of the play and talk to the audience as myself – an actor onstage in the present moment.
Our designer, Elizabeth Harper, created a gorgeous multimedia element to support the different modes – we use a lot of projection, with slides for the lecture, and delicate sketches for the scenes. It’s turned into something I’m really proud of.
So, given that subtitle, “A Logical, Philosophical Guide To Managing Mortality”, what would be your first piece of logical, philosophical advice to someone dealing with bereavement?
Now that would be telling! You have to come to the show and you’ll get all 17 Steps to Conquering Death. There are all sorts of handy tips, on everything from the correct hugging grip to helping your loved-one use a portable urinal!
Seriously though, although I do genuinely hope some people will find some of my advice useful, one of the main points I’m trying to make is that there is no correct way to grieve. It is an incredibly personal thing, and in fact, you will have very little control over it. You will feel how you feel, and neither you nor I can do much to change it. Your response will be different depending on the person you’ve lost. It might be simple, pure agony, it might be messy, guilty, angry… Allow the feelings to wash over you and through you, like a wave. Breathe. Try not to judge yourself.
Possibly more usefully, I do have advice for anyone who has a friend who is recently bereaved: send a card. An old fashioned paper card, in the post. Don’t try to look for a silver lining, just tell them that you are sorry for their loss. If practical, cook for them. And give them a hug.
What would you like audiences to take from your show?
We have made the show in such a way that as well as telling my story, we encourage the audience to engage imaginatively with the possibility that they could be in my shoes. There is no actor playing my dad, or my mum, in the scenes. Their words are projected as text, rather than spoken. This leaves room for audience members to project their own loved-ones into the space, and the silence. So I hope it will be a cathartic experience for people.
In our preview run, our London audiences cried a lot and laughed a lot. If our Edinburgh audiences do the same, I will be happy.
I hope that perhaps if people have been bereaved, they may feel less alone. And if they still have their loved ones, they may be reminded to treasure them.
And maybe they will teach their mates the NHS anthem 😉
How has it helped you?
Writing the play was cathartic. It was satisfying to use my creativity to make something positive out of something negative.
It has also given me the writing bug. I didn’t know I could write until I tried, but it turned out well, and now the way I define myself has expanded to include writer and theatre maker. I’m excited about the future in a new way. I think my next project will be about female sexuality. It strikes me as an area ripe for theatrical exploration. My working title is Do You Want The Sex You Think You Want? I want to do a load of research, talk to women about their relationships with sex… Watch this space.
What are you looking forward to most about August?
I’m really looking forward to seeing other shows – there’s always something amazing at the Fringe that you would never see anywhere else. Usually many things. And the whole atmosphere is fantastic – the whole city just buzzes with creativity for a month.
And of course I can’t wait to share My World Has Exploded A Little Bit!