Bella Heesom began her creative career as an actor, after studying philosophy at the University of Cambridge, and training at LAMDA. Her career has spanned theatre, film and TV projects ranging from Elizabethan drama to action to comedy to new writing.
Her debut play, My World Has Exploded A Little was an autobiographical piece exploring how we deal with grief, which received acclaim at the Edinburgh Fringe 2016, and was Highly Commended by the awards committee at VAULT Festival 2017.
In her latest play, So Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva The Young Woman Applauded Herself, Bella stars along side Sara Alexander. The production runs at Ovalhouse 9th – 25th May 2019.
Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva The Young Woman Applauded Herself is a hell of a title, where does it come from?
SARA: Bella loves unapologetically long titles…! As – I’ve come to find out – do I. It’s a quote from a story about Inanna, the goddess of sex and fertility…
BELLA: Yes, she was an ancient Sumerian sex goddess. I read about her during my research, and I fell in love with that line, ‘rejoicing at her wondrous vulva the young woman, Inanna, applauded herself’ because it seemed so radical in its outrageous lack of modesty, let alone shame. Rejoicing AND wondrous AND applauded herself?! Woah! I wanted to channel that energy. The title was almost a challenge to myself to write a show that lived up to it and gave the audience that sense of possibility that I felt when I read it.
And what is the show about?
SARA: It’s a joyous, slightly bonkers and moving story about a young woman exploring her sexuality told with humour and brutal honesty.
BELLA: Yes, that’s the short answer. The long answer is that it’s a celebration of female desire, and at the same time it explores why female desire – a woman wanting things, especially sexual pleasure, is a bit of a taboo. In my experience, a lot of women have some secret shame around those feelings, and in writing the show, I wanted to delve into where that comes from. I think we receive a lot of unhelpful messages when we’re young, and even if we reject them as adults, they can still impact us. We use the metaphor of a garden of sexuality – what seeds were planted in your garden by the people around you? For example, some of the plants that were planted in my garden are ‘Only Boys Masturbate’ and ‘Female Genitals Are Gross’. I know they’re not true, but they still have the power to make me feel shitty about myself. With the show, we hope to plant some more positive plants in the minds of the audience, like ‘My Vulva Is Wondrous’!
You both worked together before, what was that project?
SARA: It was Bella’s first show called My World Has Exploded a Little Bit, a really moving piece about loss and grief. The process was entirely different for me from our current show because it was already a play that had been written and performed; I was replacing another actor who could not reprise the role. This time I’ve been involved from the start, those early days where Bella and I would perform a few minutes of material at a time, to the full production several years later, which is a fantastic process to be part of.
BELLA: Yes, we had already made that show when Sara came on board, but she also totally made that part her own and added a lot to it. Even for the audition we asked her to compose a funny song about death! She made me laugh so much on that show, I was almost corpsing on stage whilst telling the true story of my parents dying, which would’ve been fairly inappropriate! But she also had this wonderful emotional openness, which is very rare, and we discovered we had great chemistry, so I knew from the start that I wanted her to be part of Wondrous Vulva, and there was no one better suited to playing a Clitoris!
Bella, you choose to write about subjects very personal to yourself, why does that appeal to you?
BELLA: I guess it started out as a way of processing something difficult. I’ve always prided myself on being very logical, and being able to work through difficult things in a logical manner to arrive at a solution. Then my parents died, and logic was suddenly useless, because there was no solution. In writing a play about it, I think I sort of subconsciously gave myself a justification for spending some time with my emotions. The sadness, anger, guilt, all of that almost felt like an obstacle to be overcome, but when I started trying to put the feelings on paper, I saw the beauty and the value in them. And when we performed it, I was really moved by how many people related to what I had felt. It’s bit counter-intuitive, but I’ve found that being really specific about really personal, private feelings has allowed me to tap into something more universal. That’s what makes it exciting and worthwhile for me – that amazing thing that happens when you share something and you’re terrified because you think you’re the only weirdo feeling that way, and then people say ‘me too!’ and you all feel less alone.
That’s the magic of theatre, I think – the potential to create empathy, and draw us closer to each other. That’s why I wanted to make Wondrous Vulva, because there’s so much that goes unsaid around female sexuality, and such a feeling of liberation when someone dares to say some of it. The response to the work-in-progress shows we did last tear was almost euphoric.
How are you organising your production process to accommodate the needs of the numerous working parents on the team?
SARA: It’s great to see Bella and Donnacadh involve their children in the room and their creative process. It demands flexibility from the entire team which we are all willing to give, and I realised soon after having my own children, that they have a knack of helping parents get a lot done in snatched spaces of time. I was very anxious about even telling them I had children before they cast me in the first show back in 2016. My past experiences as a new-ish mum in the decade or so leading up to that job, helped me subscribe to the belief that parenting, most especially mothering, would be seen as a liability by the people who hired me in theindustry. A few years down the line, witnessing Donnacadh and Bella’s approach, I’m glad to see that the stifling attitudes of a decade ago are changing.Also, working shorter days is great for me because it means I get to be home for dinner and bedtimes with my family which on usual hours is much more difficult.
This show is already being adapted for TV with the producers of Killing Eve, even though it hasn’t had a full run yet, how did that come to happen?
BELLA: It was completely accidental! I was invited to give a TEDx talk at Newnham, my old Cambridge college, called Why it’s Rational to be Emotional, in which I talked about my experience of losing my parents and making my first show. A senior commissioning editor at the BBC saw the promo materials for the event and looked me up. After watching some of the micro films on my website, she got in touch and asked to read the script for My World Has Exploded A Little Bit. She liked it, so we met for coffee, and I rambled excitedly about this new piece I was working on about female sexuality. She sent someone to see one of the work-in-progress performances of Wondrous Vulva that we did last year, and another member of her team read the script. They all liked it, and thought it would work well on TV, so they put me in touch with Sally Woodward-Gentle, who’s the amazing producer who founded Sid Gentle films. She’s done amazing work, so I was thrilled when she fell in love with the script and offered to help me develop if for the screen.
What do you hope audiences will take away from this show?
SARA: Joy. Freedom to ask questions of themselves and the messages they have internalized. Courage to celebrate who they are.
BELLA: Yes. What she said. Hope. I hope we can give you hope. And the delicate, energising, unfurling feeling of possibility that it creates.
What’s next for both of you?
SARA: My third novel The Last Concerto is about a passionate Sardinian pianist in the 1970s and will be published by Harper Collins this august, so I will be preparing for that. Beyond, the familiar excitement of not knowing what jobs will swim my way…! Admittedly, playing a clitoris is pretty niche casting at the moment, but it’s one that fills me with great pleasure. Almost no pun intended.
BELLA: I’ll be working on the Wondrous Vulva TV script. I also host a podcast, Rejoicing With Bella, and I have lots more juicy episodes of that planned. I want to get Sara on for a chat, so if you haven’t had enough of us after the play, take a peek at my website for more of us over sharing on the topic of sex!