Interview: Bella Heesom on death, feminism and the arts

Bella Heesom is an actor and playwright who has worked with Oliver Award-winning director Donnacadh O’Briain for many years. Heesom’s play, My World Has Exploded A Little Bit, deals with the loss of both of her parents. It was highly acclaimed at the Edinburgh Fringe and is coming to The Bike Shed Theatre this month.

bella heesom

– Interview by Anna Bonet

Losing my father was, in some ways, quite beautiful 

My dad got a brain tumour at 49, and died within a couple of months of the diagnosis. Those months were kind of dream-like. Seeped in sadness of course, but also quite beautiful, because he was incredibly calm and we all got to say goodbye, and the house was filled with love. It was the first significant loss I’d experienced, and it really shook the foundations of my world. The title of the show – My World Has Exploded A Little Bit – was the subject line of the email I sent my close friends when I found out about the tumour.

I thought dealing with death would be easier the second time around

My mum died a couple of years later. She was also young, but she had been ill for many years with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) so it was less of a shock, and less tragic in a way, because her quality of life had been deteriorating for a long time. But I didn’t really give myself the space to grieve properly. This time I tried to accelerate the process. The play reflects those contrasting experiences in a darkly comic way.

Writing is cathartic

I had always considered myself an actor, not a playwright. But I wrote My World Has Exploded A Little Bit because I had all of this stuff swirling around inside of me, and I needed to get it out. It was also healing to take something awful and painful and sad, and use it to make something beautiful.

The arts must not and will not die

My husband’s main criterion for choosing a job was that he wanted to help people. I always thought my desire to act was selfish; that I just wanted to do it because it was fun. But over time I realised that a drive that strong doesn’t come from the enjoyment of something frivolous. The arts are how we express our common humanity. They are not superficial, they are not a luxury. They can be a form of survival.

I don’t take any shit from anyone

I have a very strong sense of myself and my worth. Growing up, I knew with unwavering certainty that my parents respected me and would support me in whatever I chose to do, and be. So while so many people have insecurities that were planted in childhood, I believe in my gut that I deserve respect and love.

Feminism is still as vital as ever

A man who is on tape admitting to sexually assaulting women was elected president of the US. Rape victims are still asked what they were wearing, or if they’d been drinking. Women are still being paid less than men for the same work.

I only recently found out about the internal clitoris

Women orgasm less often than men during heterosexual sex even though they’re the ones with an organ designed purely for pleasure. We are not taught accurate female anatomy in school. Why is that?

You shouldn’t wait for someone else to bestow success upon you

Make shit. Don’t wait for someone to hand you an opportunity. Figure out what you care about, what makes you burn up inside, and then do it.

Donnacadh and I are on the same wavelength

He doesn’t have a big ego like some directors. He has a talent for drawing things out of people. 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’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 the process until it’s cooked.

The future is looking brighter each day

As a result of making and performing My World Has Exploded A Little Bit, I’ve been fortunate enough to feel a profound, human connection with hundreds of people who’ve seen it. I feel it in the theatre during the show, and then afterwards, I offer hugs to everyone, and the warmth and the openness I’m greeted with is humbling. When I’m having a stressful day, and it all feels overwhelming, the memories of those moments keep me going.

‘My World Has Exploded A Little Bit’ will be at The Bike Shed Theatre between 13th and 17th June. Bella will also be hosting a Death Café Saturday 17th June at 4.30pm.

Book tickets to the play here:

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