When Cora Bissett’s piece of autobiographical gig theatre, What Girls Are Made Of, opens its international tour at Tramway in Glasgow tonight, it follows a Herald Angel winning smash hit success as part of the Traverse Theatre’s 2018 Edinburgh Festival Fringe programme. Bissett’s inspirational tale of how she went from being a small town girl from Fife to signing to a major record label with her band, Darlingheart, is a joyous rites of passage that travels across Scotland before visiting Northern Ireland, Brazil and the USA.
Co-produced by the Traverse and directed by the new writing theatre’s then artistic director Orla O’Loughlin, What Girls Are Made Of is somewhat fittingly presented in association with Scotland’s premiere gig promoters, Regular Music. Once Bissett had the initial idea for the show, however, she turned to Gillian Garrity and Margaret-Anne O’Donnell, who she had worked with on her production of Glasgow Girls, and who had now formalised their working relationship as Raw Material.
“Cora came to us with this idea, and said she’d been rooting in her mum’s attic, and showed us this beautifully written scrapbook that she’d done when she was in the band,” says Garrity. “We did a bit of development, and as soon as we got it in the room it was electric. After that we took it to the Traverse, and Orla was great in developing it even more. The response from the audience was incredible, and it’s such a joy to work on, because it’s so empowering.”
As O’Donnell points out, “On the surface it looks like a rock and roll story, but it’s about family and parents. It was great as well to be able to persuade Cora to get back onstage rather than directing. It’s our job to let artists totally show off so that they can tell that story the best they possibly can.”
While the company officially known as Raw Material Arts Ltd is a relatively new operation, Garrity and O’Donnell have been involved in some of the most significant pieces of home-grown theatre at a local, national and international level.
Between them, Garrity and O’Donnell have worked with the Tron Theatre, The Arches, the National Theatre of Scotland, Vanishing Point, Theatre Babel and more, with one or the other having a hand in global hits such as Black Watch, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart and Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour. While O’Donnell ran the much missed G12 Gilmorehill venue in Glasgow before going on to produce the NTS’ Scotland-wide inaugural event, Home, Garrity co-founded Take Me Somewhere, the Glasgow-wide festival of new performance that grew from the ashes of the Arches.
With such a track record, it was inevitable the pair would branch out on their own in some way. Since starting Raw Material, Garrity and O’Donnell have overseen two revivals of Glasgow Girls, the Bissett-driven musical based on the real life story of seven teenage girls who took on the establishment. This was after their asylum-seeker friend and her family were detained following a dawn raid that aimed to see them deported. Originally presented by the National Theatre of Scotland, the 2016 Edinburgh Festival Fringe run of Glasgow Girls won the show the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award.
While What Girls Are Made Of was running at the Traverse, Raw Material was also producing two other shows. After The Cuts was Gary McNair’s dark comedy which imagines a future without an NHS, while Off-Kilter was a piece of non-verbal theatre created and performed by Ramesh Meyyappan. They also produced Beats Per Minute, an immersive audio-visual vent created by Bissett and Leonie Rae Gasson inside a geodesic dome in George Square. Added together, over the last year, Raw Material shows have played to thirty-one and a half thousand people. This isn’t a bad start to a company run by just two people.
“It’s crazy to go freelance at this time,” O’Donnell says, “but our ambition for getting work out there is huge, and it also feels like the right time, because there’s so much good work out there being made. It’s a total leap of faith.”
The roots of Raw Material date back to when Garrity and O’Donnell met while both were working at the Tron Theatre, then under the tenure of Michael Boyd before he departed to become artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. The first production the pair were exposed to at the Tron was Boyd’s production of Macbeth, with a cast that included Iain Glen in the title role, Alison Peebles as Lady M and Peter Mullan.
“Everybody did a bit of everything at that time at the Tron,” Garrity remembers. “You’d be tearing tickets or at box office or in the bar, and we lived our lives there. Mine and Margaret-Anne’s paths kept crossing, and we’d been talking for years about doing something, and in the end we just decided to go for it.”
Both women being so rooted in Glasgow’s theatre scene over the last three decades brings with it a vast bank of working knowledge and experience. There is also a first-hand recognition of some of the difficulties of juggling theatre work with personal commitments, both for themselves and the artists they work alongside.
“I think, for me,” says O’Donnell, “working at the Tron and the Citizens, where people asked your opinions, and you saw things at every level, you learnt how to look after companies. Cora’s got a little one, which is partly where What Girls Are Made Of came from in the first place, and it’s up to us to try and help people to work within that framework.”
In a world where grassroots producing organisations such as Fuel and Feral are coming increasingly to the fore, Raw Material’s work sounds very much like a labour of love, both in terms of the work they put on and the people making it. This is the case with What Girls Are Made Of as much as the work they have in the pipeline right up to 2023. This includes a work in progress overseen by After The Cuts director Beth Morton at Dundee Rep’s forthcoming Rep Stripped season.
“In terms of an ethos,” says Garrity, “that’s more about the company than the work. Both me and Mary-Anne have families, and working in the theatre sector can be hard trying to juggle time. One conversation that’s come out of that is that we work hard, but we don’t want to do that in conventional office hours. We can go and pick up the kids and work at night. We can set the rules and make it work for ourselves and support each other. In terms of the work we produce, it’s about supporting work that you believe in and which you can feel proud of being a part of, trying to enable work and take it around the world. In everything we do, more than anything that’s about having a moral compass.”
What Girls Are Made Of, Tramway, Glasgow tonight-Saturday; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, April 16-20; The Mac, Belfast, May 1-5; Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy, May 7-8, Dundee Rep, May 14-15; Macrobert Arts Centre, Stirling, May 17-18; Cultura Inglesa Festival, Sao Paulo, Brazil, May 24-26; Spoleto Festival, Charleston, South Carolina, USA, June 4-8.
The Herald, April 9th 2019