Priya Gill caught up with Bella Heesom the actress and playwright of My World Has Exploded A Little Bit, which comes to The Place Theatre on June 30.
Tell me how your world exploded?
At the beginning of 2010 my dad went into hospital because he had these strange visual disturbances sort of seeing these lights and hallucinating – it was all very odd – he was diagnosed with a brain virus, misdiagnosis it turns out put on an anti-seizure medicine which suppressed the symptoms. It was all a bit scary but then we were all confident that everything was going to be ok – he was only 49, he was healthy.
Then he went for a follow up brain scan just to check, what they thought was this virus had grown they then realised it was a tumour – it wasn’t poor medical practice it was just very unusual in that what was a tumour was very spread out which is why it looked like a virus, for that reason it was impossible to operate on – it was just spread out across the brain.
They said we can’t operate, so this is not looking good. My dad being my dad said, this in a conversation at the very beginning of the play, “So are you saying that short of me being killed by a bus tomorrow, this is going to kill me.” And the doctor said ‘Yes’. I happened to call my dad very shortly afterwards when he was still in the hospital and so I just received this news that he was going to die. So I went down to Bristol that day, I was living in London.
Over a couple of months we kept him at home, looked after him there had the support of the district nurse, put the bed in the living room. We were initially intending to have some radiotherapy that would’ve literally bought us a couple of months but he deteriorated so quickly that we decided not to do that because it would’ve just extended him being very sick.
It’s interesting how you snap into survival mode but your heartstrings are being pulled at.
My dad’s was first significant bereavement as well, I hadn’t lost grandparents or people. That line – My World Has Exploded A Little Bit was actually the subject line of an email that I sent to my closest friends when I got the news about the brain tumour because that was what it felt like when I got the news about the brain tumour. It was really like this isn’t real, it was incredibly surreal, I couldn’t get my head around it.
Rationally I accepted it very quickly, some people go into a stage of denial or they try to barter or they want to get as much treatment as they can to survive. Very quickly I was like ok so my dad’s going to die and that’s it. So I wasn’t fighting it logically in terms of being able to understand what that meant it was almost meaningless – well how is that even possible.
I guess that comes after doesn’t it, the understanding?
What ended up happening was that my experience with my mother’s death was incredibly different. This is one of the things that really comes across in the play. With my dad, I gave myself a lot of time, I stayed in Bristol for a month after he died, I grieved and it was very emotional. Also the two months whilst he was dying I took that time off work, it was quite beautiful and melancholy and kind of poetic. He and his partner actually ended up getting married in the living room for practical reasons but it ended up being quite a beautiful thing.
My mum had Multiple Sclerosis which she’d had since I was four, she’d been ill and quite incapacitated and requiring 24 hour care for a number of years and so in that sense it wasn’t as shocking the idea of her dying. We weren’t expecting here to die but still you’ve got that context of somebody being unwell. Because I’d already lost my dad I’d shifted into oh I know how to do this, I’ve got this down now, I’ve faced death once it can’t get me again I know what I’m doing and it’ll all run smoothly. It did but then I realised I hadn’t really given myself the space or the time to really feel it, and to go oh ok maybe in some ways it was better that she died because it was ending her suffering but that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to be sad about.
I’ve always prided myself on being a very rational person I studied philosophy. This might sound very pretentious, Plato had this theory of the soul being split into three parts, reason, emotion and the will. The idea is that the will helps reason helps the will control emotion. So reason should always be in charge, I always related to that picture of things, I was like yeah my reason is in control, I control these irrational, emotional things and then in face of death, oh it’s not so useful, maybe I’m going to have to feel some things and that’s what I played with in the show.
There’s this guide – the hyper-logical side to my personality – this character whose giving this lecture to the audience this Logical, Philosophical Guide To Managing Mortality saying here are the 17 Steps to Conquering Death, it’s all easy you just do this and it’s fine.
The actual writing of the play was me finishing my grieving for my mum, the play finishes with me talking to myself and I ended actually apologising to mum. I wrote that in one big slurry and that was genuinely a moment of release for me.
There’s a quote I came across from author John Green in his book, The Fault In Our Stars, ‘Grief does not change you. It reveals you.’
Do you think in the context of your play and what you’ve been through, it’s done the same for you?
I think that’s true actually. It was true of my parents and true of me. With my dad his response was remarkable he was incredibly good humoured and that reflects who he was and how he lived his life, he didn’t have any regrets, so it was sad but he was able to face it. He’s always been very laid back and he played a board game a couple of days after he got his diagnosis.
The thing that really struck me was I suddenly felt how much I loved him, like obviously I knew that I loved him before but it kind of hit me the force of it, it reminded me of him describing to me how he felt when I was born; he had no idea it was possible to love someone that much. That wasn’t new, it was oh, this is what’s here and now that I’ve realised I’m going to lose it, it’s been revealed to me. It felt like the world was revealed to me as well, everything burned more brightly. I though well everything ought to be awful because someone I love is dying, but it’s not it’s not it’s still beautiful and there are still people being very kind. It makes you treasure life more, the real awareness that death actually happens. We all go through life thinking yeah I know, but we don’t really know. When that becomes real it adds value to life because you really appreciate the fragility of it and how precious it its – you get a bit more perspective on it. To be honest as a child I probably had an unusual level of perspective because of my mum being ill.
It sounds like the arts, the theatre, writing My World Has Exploded A Little Bit and having performed it for a while has empowered you.
As an actor you’re sitting waiting for the phone to ring it’s quite dis-empowering. To be able to be creative writing my own work has been incredibly empowering. It’s opened up a new lease of creativity in me. I’ve discovered this voice and I’m now writing another play and I’ve got plans to write more. That’s the one positive things that’s come out of it if you like, it really annoys me when people try and put a positive spin on people dying – just accept that it’s awful. But I do feel that it’s been positive to create something good out of that bad thing. The process of performing work that I’ve written has been quite liberating, previously as an actor I was quite approval seeking like wanting to be told that my performances was good like most actors are whereas as now my approach has shifted in that all I’m interested in is whether the piece is working. So I’m not interested in people stroking my ego, I’m just like did that work, did we get the reaction out of the audience that we wanted.
So it feels more worthwhile in a way, it feels like a thing that’s worth sharing. At first I felt like I was being incredibly arrogant to write this all about my experience. But actually the response from the audiences has really made me think people need this. People don’t talk about death enough. Death is such a lonely place to be, so many people have come up to me and said this has resonated with me. I give hugs at the end of the show. The connect that I feel with people in that moment is remarkable so I also feel empowered because I feel like I’m doing something that is of value. I’ve got this whole thing about cultivating empathy, I heard Kate Tempest say a while ago it really made something click in my mind about the value of art. Especially in these turbulent political times, oh maybe I should go off and do something more important, maybe this is just silly to be entertaining people in a theatre. But actually if you can cultivate empathy, you can make people put themselves in other people’s shoes and feel how they’re feeling that can have huge ramifications on a much larger scale and in political sense and everything. I feel like something has definitely shifted for me.
You’ve got an NHS anthem in the show, that sounds like something considering what’s going on politically at the moment and generally we could all do with singing about.
It’s been exciting as part of the tour we’ve been doing a few dates with the NHS doing learning events…we’ve been working with Macmillan and local clinical commissioning groups to put on events that have the play and then discussion groups – there’s lots of doctors, nurses all different professionals that deal with end of life care. They do workshops also the play gives them the benefit of seeing a family or a carer’s perspective on that process.
We’ve had an amazing response from those, I wasn’t sure that they’d find it useful, they said it’s been incredibly enlightening to see if from that side and help them reflect on how they work. I’ve always felt very passionately about the NHS, we had great experience with both my mum and dad, really great treatment. It’s just incomprehensible how we would’ve survived without it. That’s one of the things that terrifies me about the way this government has been decimating things.
The play on the face of it might not sound uplifting, what makes this show uplifting?
One thing is there’s me and the other Actor in it, Ava Alexander is an amazing clown, when I’m playing this serious lecturer character whose telling the audience how to cope with someone they love dying, she’s playing my assistant and she just gets everything wrong. She’s trying to be jolly and cheerful and tell everyone that everything is ok. She’s an embodiment of that childlike voice in your head going, “No, LA, LA, LA.” It’s not real but she does it out loud it’s really funny. She gives the audience an outlet, you switch quite quickly between these modes, these serious beautiful scenes and then these lecture bits. People are literally going from laughing to crying, laughing to crying. You’re never allowed to sit in misery for very long, you’re pulled back out of it. In a way that’s actually kind of brutal, sometimes people are like I want to be able to sit and cry for a bit now, but it’s a reflection for me of what it’s like, the world carries spinning, the world doesn’t stop for you.
What ends up happening is the comedy and the tragedy complement each-other. The laughter opens you up and allows more emotion in. She can sing a song about a brain tumour, we can mess about with a portable urinal. She can pretend that a water bottle is her willy. You’ve got this farcical nature which is balancing it all out. Even the sadder bits, there’s this gorgeous piano score underscoring the more tender scenes the feel of the story is uplifting because there’s a focus on how much love there is there, actually it’s only really sad because there was so much love. It feels like quite a warm piece, there’s no cynicism there’s no bitterness. Even though there’s sadness it’s a very warm loving space to be in. Everybody feels quite looked after in the room. It feels like a shared journey because we’re very much in the space with the audience. There’s a sense that we’re in the room with you, I shake everybody’s hand as they arrive, I offer them a hug as they leave. It’s very much a shared experience that we go on together.
Tell me about your next show and your discovery of the internal clitoris
The angle that I’m interested in is the way that women internalise the male gaze. We bought up in this culture and it’s impossible to avoid, in our own minds we judge ourselves and define ourselves in ways that this straight white male perspective of the world. Even most of those men don’t naturally see the world that way, but it’s the thing that’s been sold to us, packaged and advertised. The idea that that can create inner conflict and doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a joyful sex life.
Part of that is ignorance around the female body and I only found out that there this was this whole internal part of the clitoris a few years ago, I’ve been speaking to people and a lot of people still don’t know. It’s absurd that something like that was not considered important to be taught in biology at school.
The idea that female pleasure is still a bit taboo, there’s this cultural idea that men want sex and men enjoy sex and women are either doing it for the man and it’s a gift for him.
A lot of women are vilified for owning their sexuality these days
What’s really damaging is that it gets deep into your psyche. I’m pretty lucky, my mum was bi, for a while she defined as gay but that was partly to be part of a community, certainly she wasn’t straight. She was very feminist, she talked about cunnilingus. I was bought up in a very liberal household, and yet I still find these remnants of shame around feeling lust, that seeming a bit dirty. I just started going what’s this about, where is it coming from.
The concern that I have with that show is not to patronise the audience but to find a refreshing way of looking at it. I’ve had fun with doing these dialogues with the brain and the clitoris, you’ve got this tension between the rational side and the emotional side, you’ve got the brain going this is logically how you should behave – then you’ve got the clitoris going I’m just going to feel this way, this is what I respond to, this is what I like. Logic is lost on me, the freedom in that and the lack of shame in that character she’s just pursuing pleasure unabashedly. That’s fun. I want to gather more women’s voices. I want to get a diversity of voices.
If you want talk about your sexual experiences anonymously, feel free to fill in Bella’s form online here.
What’ on your cultural radar?
I’m reading a lot of books about female sexuality at the moment, preparing for my next show. I’m a huge fan of Kate Tempest, I saw here last show. She’s someones who inspired me, that sense of looking at the human condition and finding the beauty and imperfection in it.
The TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, which is hauntingly brilliant, captures the essence of the book very well, and is terrifyingly relevant, politically.
My World Just Exploded A Little Bit, comes to the Place Theatre on June 30th.
Tickets available here.