Friday, 26 August 2011

Cora Bissett - From Roadkill To The Glasgow Girls - What Cora Did Next

Cora Bissett is all over the place this week. As the actress and
director remounts Roadkill, the heartbreaking site-specific smash hit
of the 2010 Edinburgh Festival Fringe that looked at the human cost of
sex trafficking in an Edinburgh town house, she is also preparing for
Glasgow Girls. With Roadkill forming part of the Made in Scotland and
British Council showcases having scooped pretty much every award going,
including a Bank of Scotland Herald Angel and the Amnesty International
Freedom of Expression Award, Glasgow Girls is the result of Bissett and
Roadkill being co-winners of last year's Edinburgh International
Festival Fringe Prize.

With the victors of this award given a small amount of money to develop
new work, The Hub has already played host to the divine avant-cabaret
of Meow Meow. Glasgow Girls too looks set to have a musical bent,
albeit in an unlikely if audaciously ambitious context, which, as with
Roadkill, draws from a real life incident for inspiration..

“About five years ago there was this incredible story that appeared
about seven teenagers at Drumchapel high School,” says Bissett. “They
were asylum seekers who'd come to Glasgow from Somalia, Kosovo and
other places. They'd arrived here when they were ten, and five years on
had become totally integrated with the local community, even though
they were still waiting for their asylum claims to be processed. Then
suddenly out of the blue these dawn raids began, when these immigration
officials would turn up in the middle of the night, handcuff these
girls parents, treat them like criminals and take them off to Yarlswood
Detention Centre, where they would have their phones taken off them and
weren't allowed any sort of contact with anyone. It was like Nazi
Germany, being ripped out of your community in the middle of the night
and being treated totally inhumanely.

“There was one Kosovan girl who didn't appear at school one day, and
all her friends started getting worried. There was this amazing
bi-lingual teacher who set up a phone network among the girls, who
started a campaign to get the Kosovan girl released, and suddenly the
entire community are involved, and there are two women in their
seventies setting their alarm clocks sat four in the morning on dawn
raid alert. If they saw the immigration people they would alert them by
text message, so you'd have asylum seekers running down the back stairs
and hiding in the community centre as the immigration people were going
up in the lift. It's the most amazing story of community action ever.
It's about seven teenage girls who took on the system and won.”

It would have been easy for Bissett to repeat herself and make
something stylistically similar to Roadkill. As it is, she's opted
instead to turn the Glasgow girls story into a musical.

“The story has as completely different flavour and energy and texture,”
says Bissett. “You look at it and it's joyous and celebratory. It's
about young girls finding their voice and becoming empowered by this
extraordinary process that galvanised an entire community to help their
neighbours, who put their lives on the line. To me it's a love song to
Glasgow. I'm sick of seeing these really bleak, negative films about
Glasgow, when to me there's a brilliant Glasgow I know, that’s a
vibrant, loving, pulsing place to be. I want to celebrate that, and
that's not being couthy. The new Glasgow is hugely multi-cultural
place, and that story needs to be told in song.”

Despite her own musical past in indie bands darlingheart and Swelling
Meg, as well as appearing in David Greig and Gordon MacIntyre’s hit
DIY musical rom-com, Midsummer, more or less constantly since it opened
in 2008, with Bissett only last week appearing in a radio production of
the play, musical theatre isn't her natural terrain. Bissett duly
gorged on west end froth to see what made herself so cynical about such
commercial fare, surprising herself by actually loving a lot of what
she saw.

This is all a long way from Roadkill, which in the last year has played
for a week in Paris, with a four-week season in London as a
co-production with the Barbican and Theatre Royal Stratford East
pending. Coincidentally, the theatre's neighbourhood recently became
the backdrop to a landmark court case in which a man was jailed for
trafficking two Nigerian girls. Given that this is the first time in
the UK that such a case has resulted in conviction, the urgency of
Roadkill is far from diminished.

“One of the things we were worried about doing it again was that maybe
after a year, and after all the attention it got, it might not be that
current anymore,” Bissett explains. “But when that court case happened,
I think it proves that the play's more relevant than ever. We learnt a
lot as well by doing it in Paris as our first international date,
because we got a French actor to play the policeman, and that changed
things a lot, because whereas in Scotland there was a certain degree of
sympathy, the French actor said you just wouldn't get that there. That
made us think, and we've decided now that wherever we tour
internationally, we'll always make the policeman from whatever country
we're in, because sex trafficking's not just a Scottish or a British
problem. It happens worldwide.”

The ongoing success of Roadkill, originally co-produced by Ankur Arts
and Bissett's own Pachamamma company, is something Bissett could never
have predicted. As with Glasgow Girls, however, working on the show is
clearly a labour of love.

“Whenever you make a piece of work you want it to impact on people,”
Bissett says, “but the way it knocked people out, I didn't anticipate
that, and I could never have anticipated the continued impact it seems
to be having. There's no end to Roadkill. I get up at seven in the
morning and send emails and do admin for four hours, then go off and
put on a daft frock.”

Bissett is referring to the relative light relief of playing the title
role in David MacLennan and Dave Anderson's unlikely but politically
charged summer pantomime, Goldilocks and the Glasgow Fair, at Oran Mor.
As if Roadkill, Glasgow Girls, Midsummer and goldilocks wasn't enough,
Bissett has also been deputising for broadcaster Janice Forsyth on her
Saturday morning radio show, and is developing an even newer project
with assorted singers and songwriters.

In a year that has seen her public profile raised considerably, one
thing that stands out with Bissett as she talks is her passion for all
her projects, and her genuine concern at the injustices that fuel
Roadkill and Glasgow Girls.

“I have to do ten jobs at once to pay the bills,” Bissett only
half-jokes, “but even if I was loaded I think I'd still be running
round like a crazy dervish, But honestly, this has just been the most
natural urge in me from the age of five. I wasn't a wee girl in front
of the telly getting all starry-eyed and wanting to be a pop star. I
was the girl in wellies in the back garden putting on shows.

“See when a show's going really really well, and all those bits you've
been putting together so lovingly, when it happens and when it's
working and when people are responding to it, there's this burny
feeling. The emotional flavour of that, it's very close to how you feel
when you're in love.”

Glasgow Girls, The Hub, August 25-26, 2.30pm, August 26, 1pm. Roadkill,
Traverse Theatre offsite, August 20-28.
www.traverse.co.uk
www.eif.co.uk

The Herald, August 23rd 2011

ends

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