The Woman In The Moon

The Woman In The Moon

This August 18th & 19th The Dolphin's Back acclaimed production of The Woman In The Moon by John Lyly returns to London, this time at the beautiful candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse for a strictly limited run of 3 shows.

The show is an astrological sex comedy, which inspired Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. I'll be reprising the role of Pandora; earth's first woman according ancient Greek mythology, and the largest female part in early modern theatre. I've played her twice: once at The Glastonbury Festival with the Globe's Read Not Dead project, and again in the original production at The Rose Playhouse on Bankside, when I received these glowing reviews:

'As Pandora, Bella Heesom shows that the part requires tremendous versatility and stamina. She is barely ever off-stage. (Times Literary Supplement)
'Ninety minutes of theatrical bliss. As Pandora, Bella Heesom took us on a dazzling journey through conflicting expressions of womanhood - a bravura performance, which showed amazing adaptability and inventiveness.' (Migrant Press)
'The centrepiece performance is Heesom's chameleonic Pandora. She switches personalities like she's shuffling a deck of cards, one moment an intimidating kicker of asses, the next trapped in a hallucinatory wig-out, the next mumsy and caring. It's scarily good how strong Heesom's grip on this character is.' (LondonCityNights)

As I prepare to take on the role once again, director James Wallace interviewed me for the Globe's blog:

Pandora dominates the play and barely leaves the stage. Is she a challenge or a liberation to act?

Oh, a liberation, absolutely… and a challenge. Both! I’m quite happy dominating, to be honest. And I’m very happy barely leaving the stage. I really enjoy the experience of sharing the complete journey with the audience.

The thing I found most challenging when I first started rehearsing her, was her sudden shifts in mood - the way she switches from happy to sad, from lustful to bloodthirsty, and so on, as the different planets take control of her. The changes are so quick. 

Usually as an actor I try and find the through-line, the motivation. But with Pandora, there is no reason that she’s aware of, she just suddenly feels full of violent rage. And the truth of the character is that she doesn’t have an existential crisis about these unexpected, unexplained feelings, and try and control them like I probably would, she just goes with them. Boom! Let’s fight. That’s incredibly liberating and fun to play.

Read the rest of the interview HERE.

AND ooh, look, a sexy trailer!

Greiving For Atheists: Mindfullness, Memories & Theatre

Greiving For Atheists: Mindfullness, Memories & Theatre

This blog first appeared on the website Bristol 24/7 in advance of the performance of My World Has Exploded A Little Bit at The Wardrobe Theatre in Bristol.

In the summer of 2010, I had a telephone conversation I will never forget. As I walked along a sunny London street, I called my dad, Pete, in Bristol, to check in. As it happened, he had just found out that he had a brain tumour, which was too diffuse to be operated on. I asked him what that meant. ‘Well,’ he replied, ‘I asked the doctor if, short of me getting run over by a bus tomorrow, this was going to kill me, and he said yes.’  My world exploded a little bit.

Maybe a month later, I was in Pete’s house in Bristol, in a haze of surreal sadness, on the phone to my friend, Mike. My dad was in the living room, dying. Mike asked if all of this had tested my atheism. Had I found myself wishing, hoping; whispering a furtive prayer, just in case? I was surprised at the idea. My dad was a good man.


My dad, Pete Ferne

My dad, Pete Ferne

I’m not just saying that because he’s dead. It’s true. Ask around Bristol about Pete, the tech geek with the patterns bleached in his hair, and you’ll find someone who knew him, and they’ll tell you he was a lovely bloke: kind, humble despite his intellect, insatiably curious. Was there a god gradually robbing this man of his life? If so, I wouldn’t be down on my knees begging, I would be filled with rage. I would be hunting down this cruel, capricious, morally indefensible deity, so that I could set it ablaze. No. This was not testing my atheism. If anything, it was strengthening it.

But in rejecting the comfort of a Heavenly Father, how does one confront the loss of an earthly one? The trappings of religion give structure and meaning to the processes of death and grieving. Secular society can leave us blindly fumbling in the dark.

So what to do? Well first, I recommend trying to embrace that lost feeling. No one can give you a map that tells you the way through losing someone you love. Your grief is your own, and you will need to feel your way through it. ‘Feel’ is the operative word. Trust me; I tried to think my way through it, and it didn’t work. I’ve always been a very rational person, and my Reason was my trusty weapon against all that life could throw at me. But death is a different beast. Death has to be felt. It will hurt. A lot. But there’s no avoiding this particular pain. You can try, like I did, but it’ll get you in the end.

Once I accepted the inevitability of FEELING THINGS, I found practising mindfulness very calming. When a wave of fierce emotion would crash into me, snatching my breath away, and dissolving the ground beneath my feet, I learnt not to brace myself against it and fight, but rather to breathe in, let it pass over me and through me, and breathe out. I found it freeing to notice the emotion, whatever it was – sadness, rage, guilt, a love so forceful it made me feel sick – accept it without judgement, and relinquish myself to it. You do not always have to be strong. Sometimes it is okay to collapse. It is also OK not to collapse. You may feel nothing for a long time. You are not broken. You are not heartless. You are surviving. There is no right or wrong here. Your journey is your own.

Carve your own bespoke path. If, like my family, you are gifted an advance notice of death’s arrival, choose how you want to spend that time. We asked my dad what he wanted to do, in the knowledge that his time was running out; jump out of a plane? Go to Honolulu? He wanted to sit at the kitchen table with us, and drink tea and do crosswords. Oh, and read a particularly challenging maths textbook that he’d always meant to get his teeth into: An Introduction to the Theory of Numbers, by Hardy and Wright. Yes, with his dying days, he wanted to read a maths book. This is one of my favourite things about him, but it may not be your cup of tea. Each to their own.

This personal approach applies to the funeral, too. Discuss it in advance. Do you want to be buried? Where? Do you want a funeral? What should it be like? We had a humanist celebrant for my dad’s funeral. It’s a great alternative to a religious figure. She gathered stories about Pete from his family and friends, so that the service was a celebration of who he was in life.

There are humanist celebrants all around the country now – they do weddings too! Find out more at We also set up a website for people to share their memories of Pete, and they were a real source of comfort for me; I greedily gathered them in like precious jewels – little nuggets of the man I loved, surviving in the minds of his friends.

Memories are magic. They allow us to enjoy people even after they’re gone. Feel free to talk about your loved-one; don’t be silenced by the taboo surrounding mortality. I went a step further, and made a play about my experience of losing my parents. Oops, spoiler! Yes, my mum died too. And in my commitment to busting the taboo, I wrote a show that includes a very silly lecture in which I tell you that everyone you love is going to die (sorry, but it’s true), whilst simultaneously telling the story of my battle with grief. It turns out my internal conflict between Reason and Emotion is ripe for deliciously dark comedy. Who knew? Writing My World Has Exploded A Little Bit was cathartic for me. It helped me process my feelings, and allowed me to make something beautiful out of something awful. I thoroughly recommend moulding your personal agony into art ^_^

Razz Mag Interview: Death, Feminism & The Arts

Razz Mag Interview: Death, Feminism & The Arts

Anna Bonet interviewed Bella for Razz Magazine, ahead of My World Has Exploded A Little Bit playing at The Bike Shed Theatre, Exeter. As well as discussing the inspiration behind the show, Bella talks about her childhood, feminism, and the importance of the arts.

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.

Read More

On sharing our messy, shadowy, vulnerable Insides, or: The power of autobiographical theatre

On sharing our messy, shadowy, vulnerable Insides, or: The power of autobiographical theatre

I would read your diary if you let me. I would love to climb inside your mind. Just crack your skull open, clamber in, and nestle down into the secret, squishy parts of your psyche and see the world through your eyes.

Sorry, does that sound creepy? I’ve always felt this way. It’s a craving for absolute understanding of the other humans I inhabit this planet with. I want to know what it is to be you. To move in your body, speak in your voice, feel your rage and pain and fear and hope and love. I have a hunger for empathy.

I love it when people reveal themselves to me – the private parts of themselves that they usually keep hidden. When somebody sheds their protective layers of defences, and shares something they find embarrassing or shameful or stupid or contradictory, it takes me a step closer to being able to imagine forging my way through life inside their skin.

This can happen in all sorts of ways; a confession from a close friend over a glass of wine; in the form of the written word, like in the beautiful memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion; in the form of a painting, a sculpture, or an installation like Tracy Emin’s My Bed; or in the form of autobiographical theatre.

I hope I don’t need to convince anyone that intimate friendships are valuable. I hope we are agreed that our lives are enriched by companionship, and the ability to share our innermost thoughts and feelings with those we trust. We pity the person with no friends. The arts, on the other hand, are often viewed as a luxury. Especially in such turbulent political times, making art can seem like a superficial, frivolous exercise; unimportant and insignificant in the face of tragedy, prejudice, terror. 

I myself have been tempted to dismiss my desire to create theatre as self-indulgent. But I think this is a mistake. The arts are how we express our common humanity. They can be a form of survival. They shape our culture, by helping us see others and ourselves in new ways.

I truly believe empathy is the key to a better world. Empathy for refugees fleeing war-torn homes, empathy for people with different religious beliefs to your own, empathy for people with different coloured skin, empathy for people of a different gender, or sexuality, empathy for people with disabilities you have never endured. The list goes on. If a white policeman patrolling a neighbourhood were able to empathise with a young unarmed black man walking through it, wouldn’t he be less likely to shoot him dead? If an able-bodied politician were able to empathise with a mother unable to provide for her family due to sickness, wouldn’t she be less likely to cut her benefits? I think so. I think the more we are able to remind ourselves that all of the other people walking around this world have inner lives as complex and fragile and beautiful as our own, the more we will treat each other with kindness.

This is why I believe the arts are not mere frivolous luxuries, but are vital. Because they have the power to cultivate empathy. All forms of art have this potential, but my personal favourite is theatre. Theatre tells stories, and humans like stories. Throughout history we have handed down lessons through stories, because we respond to them on a deep level. They can worm their way into our consciousness in a way that arguments, logic and facts simply can’t. They help shape our attitudes, because they connect on an emotional level, and humans are emotional beings. 

There are many forms of storytelling, but theatre’s immediacy lends it potency you don’t get from other forms. It’s live, baby! You sit in a room with other breathing, thinking, feeling bodies, and you experience something shared, in real time.  Autobiographical theatre is especially good at cultivating empathy, because a true story can’t be dismissed in the way fiction can. And when it is performed by the creator, and you are faced with a person sharing their lived experience with you – that is intense. It allows for a really profound connection between audience and performer.

When another person shares their messy, shadowy, vulnerable insides with you, you realise that you are not alone in the world, and it is a great comfort. When that person makes those insides into art, when those messy bits become beautiful, or they articulate something so that a shadow's edges become defined and clarity emerges; that can be life changing.

I am grateful when other artists share themselves in this way, so it felt natural for me to do the same. I wrote a play, My World Has Exploded A Little Bit, about my battle with grief following the deaths of my parents. It is very personal. I am unflinchingly honest about my experiences. I was worried that because it was so specific to me, it wouldn’t be relevant to anyone else. But the opposite turned out to be true. I’ve had so may people thank me for articulating something they had felt, and been unable to put into words. Almost every time I perform it, someone from the audience will pick out a small detail that resonated with them. It could be the presence of beauty in the midst of tragedy, or a turn of phrase, or the pressure to be happy when everything seems terrible, or the inappropriate juxtaposition of laughter and tears. They are surprised to see that someone else felt this thing that they felt, and they tell me, and we both feel understood. That is a rare gift.

I offer hugs to the audience as they leave at the end of my play, and it is one of the most remarkable experiences of my life. Most people hug me, and that is lovely, but even more affecting is the eye contact just before, or just after, the hug. During the show, I have opened myself up, and in response, people drop their guard, their humanity glows out of them, and they meet me there in that moment. I have never had that quality of eye contact, that connection with strangers before. It feels like magic.

Those moments of shared empathy have banished the nasty insecure voices that asked if it wasn’t a little bit arrogant to make a play about myself, and convinced me of the power of autobiographical theatre. I recommend it to everyone! 


This post first appeared on ArtsCulture.

Reviews Roundup

Reviews Roundup

The tour of My World Has Exploded A Little Bit has started really well. Audiences have been responding incredibly warmly, and so have reviewers...

★★★★★  'Pros: A refreshingly original production, perfectly balanced and completely absorbing. Cons: You’re probably going to cry.' - EverythingTheatre

★★★★1/2  'A touching, moving and yet surprisingly uplifting debut play from Heesom.' - ReviewsHub

★★★★ 'Don’t worry guys, it’s not all doom and gloom!... Heesom and Alexander deftly walk the tightrope between humour and sadness in a show that will pluck firmly at the heartstrings.' - TheLondonEconomic 

★★★★ 'through savvy layering and sharp storytelling the rational versus the emotional response to death is played out, as Heesom gently takes us by the hand and leads us along this incredibly intimate and personal journey.' - PocketSizeTheatre

★★★★ 'This part true story, part satirical, ridiculous lecture works better than anyone could ever explain it in theory.' - UpperCircle

'a powerful, necessary, quietly devastating conversation between Heesom and herself. The fact that Heesom has invited us in to witness that conversation is an opportunity that should most certainly be embraced.' - ViewFromTheCheapseat

'Heesom has something of Emma Thompson about her in this character – so direct and blunt as to be gleefully shocking. Alexander by contrast is whimsical and peppy, child-like in her portrayal. Another of O’Briain’s juxtapositions that makes the pair a classically comedic double act. - CultureByNight