Roller­coaster Ride

Buckle up as Cora Bis­sett talks about her roller­coaster jour­ney from teenage rock star to award-win­ning ac­tor and di­rec­tor

The Scots Magazine - - Contents - By GAYLE AN­DER­SON

Ac­tor and di­rec­tor Cora Bis­sett talks about the highs and lows of her ca­reer on stage

YOU’RE the 17-year-old singer in an un­known Fife in­die band that lands one of the big­gest deals in Scot­tish mu­sic his­tory. One minute you’re hob-nob­bing with the likes of Ra­dio­head and Blur, the next your dreams are smashed to smithereens when you’re dropped by your record la­bel and end up on the sharp end of a £40,000 debt. What on earth do you do next? If you’re the cre­ative force that is Cora Bis­sett, you dust your­self off and go on to be­come an award-win­ning ac­tor, writer and theatre di­rec­tor. Oh, and 25 years later, you turn the whole she­bang into a ma­jor new stage show.

What Girls Are Made Of charts the two-year pe­riod in the early 1990s when Cora hit the big-time with her band Dar­ling­heart. The death of her fa­ther turned out to be the cat­a­lyst for fi­nally shar­ing this re­mark­able story.

“I was help­ing to clear out the fam­ily home af­ter Dad died and I found a box marked Cora’s Clip­pings. He’d kept ev­ery­thing he could find that had been writ­ten about me. From back in the band days, right up to me as an adult. Lat­terly, Dad had suf­fered from de­men­tia. His mem­ory and his abil­ity to recog­nise us was long gone so it was es­pe­cially poignant to dis­cover this se­cret stash. It re­ally af­fected me.”

Spurred on, Cora then turned to her own teenage di­aries for in­spi­ra­tion.

“I’d been keep­ing a daily jour­nal since the age of 11. I’ve no idea what en­cour­aged me to do it.

“Look­ing back now, I think, ‘God, what a weird kid!’ It was re­ally ob­ses­sive! I’ve got boxes and boxes of those big A4 di­aries. Ev­ery de­tail of my day is logged, noted and com­mented on. I was al­ways ag­o­nis­ing over re­la­tion­ships and the in­tri­ca­cies of friend­ships. Why peo­ple be­haved the way they did. Maybe that’s what led me into theatre. Es­sen­tially, you’re al­ways try­ing to work out why peo­ple do what they do.”

Cora’s rock roller­coaster ride be­gan when she an­swered an ad in the Fife Free Press.

“Mak­ing a liv­ing out of the arts seemed like it wasn’t an op­tion”

“I grew up in Glen­rothes. Although I had a place at uni to study English, I wasn’t re­ally in­ter­ested. I was just go­ing along with it be­cause I couldn’t think what on earth I should be do­ing. We didn’t have a drama depart­ment at my school and mak­ing a liv­ing out of the arts wasn’t re­ally an op­tion. Then I saw the ad. A new band, Dar­ling­heart, were look­ing for a lead singer. I sup­pose I’ve al­ways had a bit of a gung-ho at­ti­tude so I just thought, och, why not give this a bash – see what hap­pens?“What soon hap­pened was a five-al­bum deal with Phono­gram. Cora swapped her school bag for a suit­case as Dar­ling­heart set off on tours sup­port­ing some of the decade’s top bands. Did it feel as sur­real as it sounds? “Ab­so­lutely! Hang­ing out with Blur, Ra­dio­head and The Cran­ber­ries be­comes your

new nor­mal. You’re in it. You’re liv­ing it. At the same time, though, you’ve got a bit of an aerial head on your­self. You’re look­ing down at what’s hap­pen­ing and go­ing, ‘I can’t be­lieve my life right now – this is men­tal!’”

When their first al­bum Serendip­ity failed to dent the charts, Dar­ling­heart were un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously dumped by their record com­pany. It must have come as a crush­ing blow. Has it left Cora feel­ing slightly cyn­i­cal about the mu­sic busi­ness?

“Ab­so­lutely not. There’s no bit­ter­ness. Although it was ad­mit­tedly dif­fi­cult at the time, I think I grew up mas­sively be­cause of it. It also set me on the course of ev­ery­thing to come. I’ve never been starry-eyed – it’s not how my brain works. I wasn’t look­ing for the big break, that lottery mo­ment. I’ve never re­ally be­lieved that the world worked like that and this ab­so­lutely re-en­forced it. It made me far more de­ter­mined to be in charge of my feel­ings, in con­trol of my own des­tiny.

“Once the band were dropped the record com­pany gave me the chance to stay on. I talk about this in the play. Be­cause it would give at least one of us the chance to earn some money and maybe pay off our debts, I re­ally had to give it a go. So I did some demos for them.

“They kept try­ing to turn me into some­thing very sell­able. I just wasn’t in­ter­ested. I didn’t want to be moulded into some lit­tle girlie singer. There was a

Glas­gow is a spe­cial city for me – it’s my sparks!” soul home, where I can make

con­trary fire in­side me that was just be­gin­ning to grow. It’s the same con­trary fire that shapes my theatre work now. En­cour­ages me to seek out highly-charged, po­lit­i­cal sto­ries that shed light on hu­man in­jus­tices. I was never go­ing to keep my gob shut. I was like, ‘OK, if this is how the big boys play, I’m not play­ing with the big boys. I’m start­ing a new game over here!’“

As well as tak­ing a close look at her teenage self in What Girls Are Made Of, Cora also ex­plores her re­la­tion­ship with her own two-year-old daugh­ter Naia. What ad­vice does she plan to pass on to her? Will it be the same sort of ad­vice she re­ceived from her par­ents?

“Well, I’ve got to say, I think my par­ents did a great job. They gave me enough free­dom but didn’t let me go off the rails. I think I can learn from them. But it’s such a dif­fer­ent world. I’m not sure what I’ll tell the teenage Naia. I don’t think the play pro­vides any an­swers but it ad­dresses lots of ques­tions that I think par­ents are ask­ing them­selves. I don’t want to tell her what to do.

“I don’t want to even tell her how to be strong or how to deal with sit­u­a­tions. She’s got to find that out for her­self. But I just hope that I’m wise enough to give her that space to find out who she is and to make mis­takes. That’s where you grow and where you find out who you are. She’s only a tod­dler so I’ve ob­vi­ously got a bit of time, but I’m plan­ning my strat­egy as we speak!”

Home life’s in Glas­gow where Cora is As­so­ciate Di­rec­tor at the Na­tional Theatre of Scotland. What does she love most about work­ing here?

“In Scotland there’s a ‘can do’ at­ti­tude that goes right back to the Fife band scene, right back to this story. The two guys I hooked up with weren’t the coolest kids on the block – they were just two wee guys in Kirk­caldy who were into their mu­sic – but they were dream­ing big and go­ing, ‘Yeah, we’re go­ing be an amaz­ing band and we’re go­ing take this some­where.’ And Glas­gow, well it’s a spe­cial city to me. It’s my soul home. There’s this feel­ing of, ‘You’ve got a spark about you, I’ve got a spark. Let’s get to­gether and make some more sparks!’”

Cora’s never been afraid to tackle se­ri­ous is­sues head on. Her Amnesty award-win­ning mu­si­cal Glas­gow Girls told the story of six teenagers pro­tect­ing their asy­lum-seek­ing class­mates. Adam, the Na­tional Theatre of Scotland pro­duc­tion she di­rected at last year’s Ed­in­burgh Fes­ti­val Fringe, ex­plored and con­fronted the stig­mas of­ten ex­pe­ri­enced by the transgender com­mu­nity. Do sub­jects find her rather than her ac­tively seek­ing them out?

“Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it. I don’t go on a hunt for what needs to be dis­cussed but I think my

an­ten­nae are con­stantly up. I’m watch­ing, I’m ab­sorbed in what’s go­ing on in the world around me. I try not to walk around in a bub­ble. When a story sort of leaps out at me I al­ways get a sim­i­lar tin­gle, and I’m like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go ex­plore this one’.

“It’s weird, all these sto­ries that I’ve brought to light and I’ve never thought of look­ing at my own. I’m sort of slightly cring­ing and think­ing, ‘Is it OK to do this?’ But I’ve re­alised that it’s not just about me. I think ev­ery­one can re­late to see­ing them­selves form at that par­tic­u­lar age and ask­ing them­selves, ‘When do you be­come who you ac­tu­ally are?’ The band’s jour­ney is just the ve­hi­cle to at­tach the story to. The fun go-kart if you will! Come along on this crazy ride with me; it’s in­die rock mad­ness!

“To be hon­est, I’m ut­terly ter­ri­fied about be­ing back on stage, es­pe­cially with a full band!

“The last time I per­formed was over six years ago in New York. Things re­ally started hap­pen­ing for me on the di­rect­ing front and I’m much more pas­sion­ate about de­vel­op­ing my own work, cre­at­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for young ac­tors.

“I’ve never been re­motely tempted back in the spot­light in the in­ter­ven­ing years. How­ever, this show is very spe­cial. I just felt it’s some­thing I’m ready to share now. I’m aware that it could pos­si­bly be my last time on stage, but if it is, what a bril­liant way to bow out!”

“I’m pas­sion­ate about cre­at­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for young ac­tors”

What Girls Are Made Of is at The Tra­verse Theatre, Ed­in­burgh, Au­gust 3-5, 7-12, 14-19, 21-26

Ra­dio­head Blur

The Cran­ber­ries

The mu­si­cal won an Amnesty award

Glas­gow Girls tells a teenage story

Cora loves liv­ing and work­ing in Glas­gow

… and con­fronts them

Adam ex­plores transgender is­sues…

It might be Cora’s last time on stage...

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