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