Cora Bissett: ‘Our society is changing: we need to represent and engage with that’
Amid rave reviews for her show What Girls Are Made Of at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, the award-winning director and actor talks to Thom Dibdin about her journey from pop star to one of Scotland’s leading theatremakers
There is an aura of energy about Cora Bissett. Even in the bar at the Traverse she crackles with stories and ideas, as we meet on the tech day for her new, and very personal, Edinburgh Fringe show What Girls Are Made Of.
That electricity and interest in ideas is something that runs throughout her career in works including Roadkill, Glasgow Girls and Adam, all of which she conceived, developed and directed. The productions have a common theme, all urgent, real-life stories. And in each she worked with playwrights to realise her vision on the stage, or, in the case of Stef Smith’s Roadkill about the trafficking of young women for the sex trade, in the room of a flat.
Now Bissett is telling her own story, in her own words. Her first solo script tells of how that same energy led her from Kirkcaldy in Fife to pop-star status, touring with Blur, and then, when it all fell apart, to the theatre.
Bissett first came to public attention in 1992. She was 17, had just left school, answered an advert for a singer in the Fife Free Press and joined indie band Darlingheart.
Their demo was played on Edinburgh’s Radio Forth and five days later they had a manager. By the end of the month, they played their first gig outside Fife and soon after were signed to Phonogram on a five-album deal.
Sixteen months later, Bissett was the cover star on the List magazine as the band’s first album, Serendipity, was released and they were preparing to go on tour supporting Blur. Already, plenty of material for a show.
“The whole first half is the roller-coaster story that was leaving school and this crazy trip through the rock’n’roll world,” she laughs. “But it broadens out into much more than that. It becomes a story through the next 20 years.”
That wasn’t her intention at the start of writing, but the show “just kept evolving and evolving”. She says: “I was thinking about my daughter and how quickly kids grow up. It was about thinking, ‘What are the lessons I want to give her? What am I going to teach her? I have had loads of crazy adventures in my life, which I have loved. Some have been really hard, some have been really down and struggling at times. What do I pass on?’”
The original inspiration for the play came from rediscovering her old diaries when she and her sisters were clearing out the attic in their parents’ home after their father died. She had kept a diary from the age of nine, and describes herself as a ‘religious’ archivist, not only keeping a diary while on tour, but every single flyer, backstage pass and hotel advert.
“Everything was logged and dated to the day,” she says. “Like: ‘25th of May 1993, we are starting our tour with Blur’. It really was: ‘Damon said: ‘Hello’.’ It’s all there.
“I thought I was very mature, and in some ways I had my feet on the ground, but I was very naive as well. But over the period of two years, I can hear myself growing up between the pages because so much is happening in such a condensed time.”
The end came suddenly. The band were stuffed by the manager, dropped by the record company and left with huge debts to the inland revenue. It was, she says, a cliché. And knowing it was a cliché didn’t make it any easier.
“You are suddenly left at the bottom with all this debt – how do you get out of it? And, of course, your dreams are shattered and it is very hard to go back to uni after that. You’ve been touring with rock bands for the last two years; you don’t want to sit in a lecture room. It was a weird head space to be in.”
What did happen was that Bissett went to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama – now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland – on a BA course in dramatic studies, which gave her a rounded view of the theatre world. It had its flaws – she’s never really had a use for those Wednesday morning jazz dance classes – but it provided a platform for her to leap into acting.
Bissett being Bissett, she didn’t go about getting noticed in the usual ways – she says she didn’t think she was built for the traditional routes of theatre. Instead, she did her own personal showcase, a one-woman show in the Glasgow Arches in the back of a transit van.
That was directed by Ben Harrison, co-artistic director of Grid Iron, which itself was about to break into view with its first full-scale site-specific production, The Bloody Chamber.
It led to her first professional job, as Slag in Jim Cartwright’s I Licked a Slag’s Deodorant, which started at the Arches and went on to the fringe. Then came a couple of seasons when she was ubiquitous at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum, playing roles including Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire and layering innocence over a dangerously dark heart as Luciana in The Comedy of Errors.
Bissett came to real attention in 2002 as Chris Guthrie, the powerful woman at the heart of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, in a production directed by Ben Twist. From there, she continued her acting apprenticeship with more stylised roles for companies including Grid Iron and Boilerhouse.
In 2006, she performed in the National Theatre of Scotland’s inaugural production The Wolves in the Walls, directed by Vicky Featherstone and Julian Crouch. Eight years later, she was at the NTS again, as an associate director, but not before Midsummer (a play with songs), by David Greig and musician Gordon McIntyre.
The show was written and directed by Greig, though it was developed over a three-year period. During this period, Greig and McIntyre would meet up with Bissett and co-star Matthew Pidgeon to tell anecdotes about their love lives. There were years between the meetings, but they fed into the low-fi production that was eventually staged at the Traverse in the autumn of 2008. It captured something of the way people self-mythologise and mixed it with a very adult attitude to romance.
It was also a show that spoke to Edinburgh and its attitudes. But far from being parochial, that focus gave it a universal appeal. When it returned to the fringe in 2009, Bissett won The Stage Edinburgh Award for the second time. Her first had been as part of the ensemble in Grid Iron’s Fierce.
Midsummer toured, taking Bissett all over the world, but while she was performing, she had already started work on her breakthrough production as a director, Roadkill. It won numerous awards and, although it had a tiny audience of 15 a show in its immersive setting, made a huge impact.
Roadkill also seems to define Bissett’s attitude to art: “It was an absolute example of art effecting change,” she says. “Which is something we can be quite cynical and a little bit sceptical of, but which I am not.
“I don’t think every show has to do that – that’s okay – but I think we are capable of doing it. I think it is about working in conjunction with all the other bodies and not seeing ourselves as in this separate bubble.”
The “other body” she worked with on Roadkill was the Scottish Refugee Council, which gave her access to people who had researched sex trafficking in Scotland and made sure the show was factually correct.
In return, Bissett gave out the SRC’s information at the end of the show. It was attempting to change the “totally skewed and defective” law at the time, so that sex-trafficked women would stop being treated as illegal immigrants and become regarded as victims of human rights abuse.
“I am pretty sure they got that pushed through, they really lobbied the government for that,” she says, “but all the people writing in letters of support really helped.”
Then, growing directly out of Roadkill, came Glasgow Girls, the “life-affirming, song-and-dance-filled musical drama”. It was based on the true story of seven teenagers whose lives change forever when their friend and her asylum-seeking family are forcibly taken from their home to be deported. After Roadkill, Bissett had returned to the SRC and they gave her a list of further stories. “They said: ‘We want you to do another show – please take on board some of these stories’, and Glasgow Girls was in among that. It was a story I was already aware of but it kind of refocused me,” she says.
“I loved everything about it, the fact that it is young women and young women doing something just so unusual from the stories that are normally portrayed about teenage girls. And it shows a new diverse Scotland that we don’t often see represented on stage, but is the truth. Our society is changing and we need to represent that and show that and engage with that.”
Q&A: Cora Bissett
What was your first non-theatre job?
Selling bike accessories at Halfords in Glenrothes town centre.
What was your first professional theatre job?
I Licked a Slag’s Deodorant – an Arches production. It went on at the Arches and then came to the fringe.
What is your next job?
I am going to be directing Gagarin Way up in Dundee, which is unusual for me – a very male, essentially violent, play. Also, I have never directed a play that is already made and has a well-recognised production. I have always made things from scratch.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
The idea that there is one big opportunity that comes is just wrong, to my mind. I believe you have a responsibility in life to make opportunities happen. This X Factor culture is dangerous. I can’t abide that bullshit that there is this one moment to shoot for that is going to be decided by a God-like table of people.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Patti Smith was a very big impact. There was something going on in her voice. It was the kind of rawness and ugliness of it, and the defiance that it wouldn’t fit into any normal shape of singing.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Preparation is everything. I am not just a director for hire and I am not just looking for hands to hire. I am looking for creative individuals who want to engage with me and this subject matter and let’s create something mind-blowing together. I want to feel that you are genuinely interested, that you are passionate.
If you hadn’t been an actor and director, what would you have been?
I think I would have probably gone down some human rights route. I would have tried to make change happen – it might have been in a more academic or some other way.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I’m not superstitious. Rituals? Just your warm-up, your vocal warm-up, your stretches, I think you just do them in the same order each time.
On winning form
Another boost to her theatremaking was Roadkill winning the Edinburgh International Festival Fringe prize in 2010. Roadkill also won the Amnesty Freedom of Expression Award, given to an “outstanding play carrying a human rights message”, and the Olivier award for best production in an affiliate theatre two years later. It was a celebration of the play and a recognition of Bissett’s own potential. It gave her £5,000 seed money, mentoring from established EIF artists and the invitation to present a work in development as part of the EIF’s Behind the Scenes programme the following year.
By that time, Bissett had decided that Glasgow Girls would be a musical. And that decision was largely political. “I didn’t want to sit and preach to the converted,” she says, “to make a nice little studio piece about asylum-seeker issues and preach to lots of liberal like-minded people that are going: ‘Yes, yes, yes we totally agree with you Cora’.”
Instead, she continues: “I wanted to speak to the guy in the street who is going, ‘Aye those Syrians should be going back to where they came frae’, that’s who I am trying to get to. That is why I used the most popular, accessible form available.”
What she didn’t have was a writer. But Greig was in the audience for the development sharing and was so moved that he went up to her afterwards and said: “You have to let me write this.”
Bissett’s political decision to make a feel-good musical paid off. The original 2012 co-production with the NTS played the Glasgow Citizens and Theatre Royal Stratford East, was revived in 2014, and had a long tour from 2016 to 2017. It will return to Glasgow and Edinburgh next year.
In 2014, Bissett became an associate director with the NTS. It means she gets to direct one NTS production a year and is recognised as part of the organisation but can still do her own work outside it.
Her NTS production for 2017 was Adam, the true story of a young Egyptian trans man having to leave his homeland, because of who he was, and journey to Scotland. Scripted by Frances Poet, it won several awards at the fringe, and is being revived this autumn at Battersea Arts Centre.
But the NTS role she relishes as much as any is her work with Anna Hodgart’s Engine Room programme, providing mentorship to emerging artists and helping them develop.
“Anna draws on me wherever she can for workshops and masterclasses and all sorts of other things. I am there to use when it feels right. She is really connecting with all those artists at a more emerging level – trying to do the job that the Arches was doing. She is good, doing really fantastic stuff, Starter for Ten and all those opportunities,” Bissett says.
“I am also in the mix of those big discussions for artistic strategy, for programme planning. There is a kind of inner group there that gets a lot of the new ideas that are coming through and we thrash them out and discuss them together.”
It’s a role that has allowed her to observe NTS director Jackie Wylie in operation. She was previously director at the Arches and took over from Laurie Sansom halfway through Bissett’s four years as an associate.
“I think it really took balls for her to step up and I think she is doing really well,” says Bissett. “And having witnessed her in those production meetings in-house, I see a really generous spirit. She is very sharp, she is very clear on the vision of the company, but she also won’t be blinkered by her own ideas.”
Cora Bissett on…
… directing for the NTS
You can’t just throw a huge big NTS production on the main stage in the middle of the festival at someone who has never had a full play on. That is not fair on anybody, least of all the artist. It is just too exposed and too much pressure. Blessings and curses come with having that wonderful might behind you. Of course you can experiment and be bold and brave, but you are aware of how much finance has gone into your production, you are aware of how much is resting on it. You are aware that there is an entire huge organisation backing this thing, you are aware of it. That can be frightening in its own way, and you don’t need that when you are just starting out.
… the Edinburgh festivals
Living in Scotland and having the festival on my doorstep has been an enormous gift as a theatremaker. How could it not be? I would frequently see shows that I could never see at other times of the year. I would go and see a lot of Polish work, eastern European work, that kind of very muscular, physical, hugely visual theatre – often with a very powerful political heart.
… creating new work
When I get a story, I guess I work a little bit different from directors who find a play or have a play commissioned to a writer. I have an idea for a story and I need to work out who I need to help me make this – what kind of collaborator? What’s my team here? And if it’s a writer, what kind of writer is that?
Addressing the big issues
Over the past year, the NTS has not shied away from the big issues in the theatre industry, including responding to the #MeToo movement and looking to challenge issues of bullying. It has put new policies in place to safeguard rights of gender equality, diversity and equality in all forms.
Bissett speaks positively of a door to equality being opened too far for it to be shut – “I think we mustn’t lose the momentum on that,” she says, “that is the most important thing now.”
She sees the next step as working with parents in the industry. “It is tied in with the gender balance in a more subtle way,” she says. “People have opted out, given up their careers because they had to be the primary childminder. And people were too frightened to say: ‘Is there any way we could slightly rejig this so I can get away to pick up the kids from school?’ People were too fearful and I feel now there is a dialogue open, it is not shameful to say what your needs are.”
In Bissett, who is presenting her own story partly for her own daughter, parents in the industry have a champion. And she will undoubtedly bring the same energy and passion to the cause that she brings to everything else she does.
CV: Cora Bissett
Born: 1974, Glenrothes
Training: Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, BA in dramatic studies
• Sunset Song (actor, 2001)
• Wolves in the Walls (actor, 2006)
• Midsummer (actor, 2008)
• Roadkill (director, 2010)
• Glasgow Girls (director, 2012)
• Adam (director, 2017)
Awards as an actor:
• The Stage Edinburgh Award for best ensemble, Fierce (2004)
• The Stage Edinburgh Award for best actor, Midsummer (2009)
Awards as a director:
• Roadkill – Amnesty Award for Freedom of Expression, Critics’ Award for Theatre in Scotland, Fringe First, Herald Angel, Holden St Theatre Award (Australia), Total Theatre Award for Innovation (2010); Olivier award for best production in an affiliate theatre (2012)
• Grit: The Martyn Bennett Story – named event of the year at the Scots Trad Music Awards (2014)
• Janis Joplin: Full Tilt – Herald Angel; best new play, Scottish Arts Award (2016)
• Adam – Herald Angel; Fringe First; best new play, Scottish Arts Award (2017)
Agent (director): Casarotto Ramsay
Agent (actor): Amanda Howard Associates
What Girls Are Made Of is at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until August 26. Visit: corabissett.co.uk