My World Has Exploded A Little Bit is an acclaimed new play telling a deeply personal story of love and loss by Ovalhouse’s Associate Artist Bella Heesom and Olivier Award-winning director Donnacadh O’Briain. We caught up with Bella to find out about the show.
Your play My World Has Exploded A Little Bit is coming to Ovalhouse as part of a national tour, what can you tell us about the show?
It will probably make you laugh and cry. Maybe at the same time. It tells a true story of loss, which is very sad, but in an inventive way, which gets quite silly.
I play a character that is the hyper-rational side of my personality; she delivers this lecture on ‘Managing Mortality’ that’s so logical it’s absurd. And she has this assistant who is basically a clown. When she thinks it’s all getting a bit depressing, she cheers the audience up by singing a song about a brain tumour or something. Eva Alexander, who plays the assistant, is so funny that I’m actually at risk of corpsing in a play about my parents dying, which I think we can all agree would be incredibly inappropriate.
But it’s pretty intense emotionally too. I don’t hold back. A lot of people properly weep. So bring tissues. One woman who forgot hers told me she ended up taking her sock off and using it as a hankie!
Oh also, there’s a gorgeous live piano score (played by Eva and composed by Anna O’Grady) and these lovely delicate projections – my designer, Elizabeth Harper, is an incredible artist, and she drew a series of original sketches for the show.
How difficult did you find it being so honest about such a personal story?
Honesty is very important to me. It’s about cultivating empathy. If I were afraid to be honest I wouldn’t have made an autobiographical piece of theatre, because what’s the point, if you’re not going to actually open yourself up? I love it when people reveal themselves – their real, inner, shadowy, vulnerable, messy selves. Whether it’s in theatre, other art forms, or over a glass of wine, it makes me feel less alone in the world. So I wanted to give that to other people.
I did force myself to include thoughts and feelings that I was maybe a bit ashamed of, or didn’t cast me in the best light, because otherwise it wouldn’t be real. But generally
I actually really enjoy being honest. It feels natural to me. In life, socially, I don’t tend to self-edit much. I basically just say what I’m thinking most of the time. It feels quite liberating not to hide; to just put it all out there.
This is the first play you’ve written, where did you find the inspiration?
Well, my parents died! Sorry, I’m not being sarcastic, or morbid, but honestly 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.
I was also of course inspired by other theatre makers; Tristan Sturrock’s autobiographical solo show Mayday Mayday! showed me how captivating one person telling a story with flair could be; Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree inspired me to be bold with direct address and audience interaction, Caroline Williams’ Puffball lit my imagination with its rawness and live piano, Kate Tempest’s Brand New Ancients fired me up about the spectacular potency of poetry on stage.
My World Has Exploded A Little Bit has played at both Edinburgh Fringe and The Vault Festival, have you made any changes before this tour?
Not really, no. 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.
How did director Donnacadh O’Briain get involved?
Donnacadh and I met on a play called Mathematics of the Heart in 2011, and we hit it off right away. We’re on the same wavelength. He’s directed me in, I think, 6 different projects over the years, and we’ve become good friends. I think he’s brilliant – he’s the best director I’ve worked with, and I’m so glad he’s getting the recognition he deserves with the Olivier win for Rotterdam, it’s wonderful to see.
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.
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.
Do you think you’ll keep writing and what would you like to write about next?
Yes, definitely. When I started out I had terrible imposter syndrome; I would say ‘I’m not a writer, but I have written this play…’. Now I’ve got the bug and I’m embracing it. I’m relishing this new active role, where instead of waiting for the phone to ring with an audition, I’m always busy making, creating. I find it so much more fulfilling, and I feel like I’m discovering a distinct creative voice; I feel increasingly confident that I have something of value to offer the theatre scene in this country.
I’m currently developing my next show with Donnacadh, 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.