Cora Bissett never planned to put her own story onstage. Why would she? Over the last decade, the Fife-born actress turned director and theatre-maker has carved out an impressive niche for herself creating politically-driven work. Bissett’s passion for human rights has been brought to bear directing shows such as Roadkill, which looked at sex trafficking on our doorstep. Glasgow Girls was a musical based on the true story of the young refugee women who helped stop dawn raids on asylum seekers. Adam was another true story about a trans asylum-seeker’s journey to acceptance in Glasgow.
Many won’t be aware of Bissett’s own past when, still a teenager, she and Darlingheart, the indie-rock band she fronted, were signed to a major record label. Darlingheart toured with Radiohead and Blur, while Bissett appeared on the cover of glossy magazines before things crashed in a spiral of mis-management, debt and disappointment.
A quarter of a century on, Bissett has returned to her roots with What Girls Are Made Of, a new autobiographical play in which she plays herself in a dramatic look at how she got from there to here.
“I’d never once thought my own story was remotely interesting or extraordinary in any way,” says Bissett, “but a little conflation of things came together in my head last year, and started to make it feel bigger than the sum of its parts. Part of that came from watching Adam, which was such an amazing story, and made me reflect on my own journey, realising that those teenage years were actually quite profoundly formative.
“I’d gone from just being at school to getting into a band, as many people do, but then, within a tiny window of time, we did our demo, it got played on the radio, we got a management deal and a record deal within four or five months. It was nuts. Suddenly you’re catapulted into this crazy world. If that hadn’t happened, I’d probably have gone to Glasgow Uni and done English Lit and done whatever. But because it crashed as horrifically as it did, probably in a weird way that had the biggest impact on forming who I am now.”
Bissett stumbled on her old diaries, including one from the Darlingheart years where every detail had been obsessively logged.
“Reading it was like watching myself grow up,” she says. “I could hear my tone change and my perspective shifting. I can hear myself working stuff out over this two or three-year period.”
Much of the drive for What Girls Are Made Of came from Bissett’s own daughter.
“Although it’s a rock and roll rollercoaster ride, it’s very much about getting to her as well, and that started me thinking about my relationship with my own parents. They had to sign this rock and roll contract for me in this pub in Kirkcaldy because I was too young. That was deeply embarrassing for me, but how must that have felt for them, signing me off to this future that no-one had any knowledge of? Being a mum now as well, I’ve started thinking about how you let go and when you let go. My daughter’s only two and a half, so all that’s a lot way off, but what have I got to give her or tell her about my own journey?”
Things have moved on since Bissett’s brush with the music business, both for her personally, and on a wider level, where a new generation of female-driven bands are doing things for themselves at a grassroots DIY level.
“Young women now are light years ahead of where I was,” Bissett says, “and they should just enjoy making a noise and hold on to the power they’ve got. I want this show to be a celebration. I don’t want it to be self-indulgent, but I think it’s a tribute to my parents, and I think there’s a lot of love in the piece, because it’s about where I came from.”
What Girls Are Made Of, Traverse Theatre until August 26, various times.
The Herald, August 7th 2018