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What Girls Are Made Of

cora bissett image

Michael Whitham interviews Cora Bissett, writer and star

Cora Bissett’s time in the 90s indie band Darlingheart, who toured with the likes of Blur and Radiohead, was a story she would tell friends over a bottle of wine. As a theatre maker she had long been diving deep into the lives of others to bring their powerful and awe-inspiring tales to life, but it was only when her father passed away that she started to reflect on her own youth and realise her story might have a life beyond the pub. That story – not just about the rollercoaster of being in a band, but of illness and grief, birth and rebirth –  became the inspiring and deeply moving What Girls Are Made Of which won a Fringe First at the Traverse in 2018 and is now being revived at Assembly’s Music Hall for Fringe 2023. I spoke to Bissett about storytelling, self-reflection and strong women.

“When I lost my dad, I was very much hoping to become pregnant at that time. I started to reflect on the fact that my mum and dad were the age that I am now when they let me – a 17 year old girl barely out of school – go off on a tour bus with a bunch of blokes. I started to see it through their eyes and how terrifying it must have been. It made me think okay, if I have a girl, what do I want to teach them about life? Sometimes as a performer you get called things like ‘a strong woman’ and I started to wonder, what does that actually mean? Am I strong? And where did I get strength? So the show is kind of asking, what is a strong woman? How do you become a strong woman? How do you make strong women? As I started to think about those questions, I realised my parents gave me a hell of a lot.”

While going through her parents’ house she was reminded that while in the band she had kept extensive diaries. “I charted everything in infinitesimal detail, which in hindsight is a pretty weird, geeky thing to do. You’re on tour with Radiohead and instead of going to get drunk you’re going up to your hotel room to write it all down! But it’s a treasure trove that captured that moment in my life in incredible detail. So I realised, what a gift to myself it is that I’ve got this and I can now reflect on it as a grown woman who might be a mum sometime soon. I never thought, ‘oh my god. I’ve got this rock and roll story.’ That’s not enough. It was about how the rock and roll story became a launchpad for everything else that happened in my life. And how it is you reflect on what it means to be a woman. And what it means to want to be a certain type of parent to a female child.”

After the wild ride of releasing a debut album in the maelstrom of burgeoning Brit Pop, only to see it flounder critically and commercially before being dropped by the record label, Bissett had to reflect on what to do next as part of the complex dynamic of a group whose fates were suddenly no longer intertwined.

“The boys (bandmates Cameron Campbell and Clark Thomson) were quite a bit older than me and Cathryn (Stirling, the drummer). The boys had known since they were 14 that this is what we want to do with their lives. I had felt like this would be a great opportunity and if it goes somewhere, brilliant. But I guess I hadn’t cut off other opportunities in my mind. I do really feel for the boys because I think the loss was bigger for them, it was a big loss for all of us, but I think for them it was worse and I respect and appreciate that.”

Things were complicated further when Bissett was the only one asked to re-sign to the label as a solo artist. “I was so cheesed off with so many aspects of it, I’d felt kind of squashed and curtailed in many ways. I felt like I was being very much manoeuvred once the band split. I just didn’t have my own autonomy because I didn’t know who I was yet. I’m still very glad that I didn’t go with the people they were trying to pair me up with. I would have been exactly what the reviewers thought I was when I was in the band – some major label construct. They told me they wanted me to do dance music. I know fuck all about dance music! I think that in the immediate aftermath of the solo project after being dropped, I actually felt a bit liberated.”

As time passed, however, Bissett gained a new perspective on the incredible period of her life when she was nearly an indie rock star. “It was after I had been to drama college and was really struggling to get work. I was busking on the streets of London and standing outside We Will Rock You and knowing that we’d played a gig with Blur 100 yards up the road to 2000 people. In moments like that I would realise the disparity and go ‘Oh, my God… what I had. How big an opportunity that was and how few people get that. How close I was to an extraordinary kind of shift that might have happened in my life.’’ Just a few years later I was a struggling actor, like a million others.”

Having trained at RSAMD, Bissett worked as an actor before starting to create her own theatre work. In her late twenties she applied for a small fund at the much missed Arches in Glasgow. “I got, I think, £6000 and you had to do the entire show for that and pay everybody, but it was great. It was a chance to make mistakes and work out what your style was and what your directing voice was. I did a very physical, very musical devised piece that was based on an Isabel Allende short story. I worked with a singer from the Basque Country and a Chilean guitarist. Music was always going to be a big part of whatever theatrical stories I was telling. I feel like that is the one thing that has really come with me from my band’s years. I find it very hard to make theatre work without music being a big, big backbone of it.”

From there Bissett went on to make many award-winning theatre works including Roadkill, The Glasgow Girls and Adam.

“There is definitely no fixed method I have for making work. For me, it’s about finding a story, often a real life story. Then I think for ages about what form it might take. That’s been everything from a very intense, small, site-specific piece to a big, multi-genre, political musical, to a piece that involves 10 different writers and 10 different bands on four different stages. I have no fixed form but if there is one thing that is recurring, it’s perhaps my process of working with a real person to tell their story. So with The Glasgow Girls, who were a real life group of teenage girls that fought for asylum seekers, it was about starting a very long process with them of getting to know them as individuals. We had lots of development where we brought them in and just really welcomed their input. I want to know that I’m not falling into tropes and clichés and my perceived ideas of these people’s stories”.

One of the challenges of creating What Girls Are Made Of was turning her theatrical lens on herself. “I’ve never made autobiographical work before. So I didn’t direct myself, I worked with Orla O’Loughlin, who’s also a fabulous dramaturg. There were many moments in the original rehearsals – for which many, many more scenes had been written –  about which she’d be able to say, in a very kind way, ‘I know this was a very interesting moment for you but it doesn’t serve the drama of the play.’ So it’s not ‘An Evening with Cora Bissett’ – that sounds absolutely bloody awful! You have to apply the same dramaturgical bootcamp to your own story. That can be hard, but I trusted Orla and I want to tell a good story. At the end of the day, my biggest fear was that this could be a self indulgent piece. I wanted to take the audience on a real journey. Yes, we’re going to go to some really poignant places but I don’t want you to sit and just luxuriate in pathos with me. I want to take you on the ride with me. We’re gonna have some fun and you’re going to have some tears along with me as well.”

Indeed there are several extremely moving moments in the show, not least of all watching Bissett (who plays herself) having to say goodbye to her dad, who has been ill with dementia. “There is something very enjoyable about having a place to pay homage to a parent that you really love and respect. This was a way I could paint a delicate picture of him. But I probably find those scenes the hardest to play every night because Simon plays my dad so beautifully. The tears on stage are very real. Each night I am sitting thinking about my dad in the care home and how surreal and hilarious and utterly heartbreaking it was all at once, to stare into your dad’s eyes as a 40 year old woman and he doesn’t know who you are. I almost feel like I bring my dad to life, just for a moment every night, by the power of imagination. Simon almost looks like him and I do feel like I am holding on to Dad, for 30 seconds every night.”

Another driving emotional tide of the play is Bissett’s deep desire to become a parent and the challenges she encounters while trying to make that happen. It is powerfully drawn and something that, had she not in the end become a mother, she feels perhaps she may never have been able to write about. “Had I not had the great gift of having my daughter I don’t know if I would have ever been able to make work about that. Obviously, many people don’t feel that intense need for children. But for me there was a good ten years where it was growing and growing in intensity, to a primal level. To the point that I was once having a conversation with someone in a bar who had been with her partner for a long time. And she said ‘oh, I’m not too fussed. We probably could give it a go. But I don’t know.’ She was just very blasé about it and I had to leave the bar because I felt like I was going to explode at her, at that privilege to even have a choice, because I couldn’t find a partner who wanted to do it with me. I wanted to touch on that in the play to show how really, almost insane-driving it is when you’re feeling that. I almost want to make another show for people who haven’t had the same outcome as me. I don’t think I’m the person to make that show but I would love to help someone else make that show, but I don’t think it can be my voice.”

As a place to bring and see new theatre about challenging topics, Bissett is passionate about the Fringe and the incredible opportunities it has given her in her career, but she shares the concerns we all have about the costs of taking part.

“I feel very, very fortunate to be where I am in my career and to know that people will be more open to whatever show I bring, but I think if you were starting out trying to make a show right now, it’s extortionate. And the ticket prices are through the roof. I think for everyone to keep work vibrant and have the chance of those wildcards coming through and being a surprise hit, people have got to be able to take risks. And people have got to be able to afford to see it. I don’t know the economic model of the venues but right now, it ain’t a healthy one because it’s not allowing bravery and unrest to take place. And a lot of people are either massively in debt at the end of the fringe or they’ve got people that can back them and that’s not where the most exciting work comes from. It’s also very hard for Scottish artists to get funding for a Fringe show.”

And like many of us, Bissett thinks the government needs to step in. “Couldn’t the government pump a couple of million into creating little pods that people could sleep in while they’re doing the show!? Accommodation is a barrier in a very real way and I do think there needs to be a government backed initiative. That supports the performers that are bringing this incredible work and making the city come alive”.

What Girls Are Made Of will be helping the city come alive August 4-8, 10-13, 15-20 and 22-27 at 1pm (Assembly Rooms Music Hall). Cora also shared two top-tips for other shows to see at Fringe 2023:

“Don’t miss Member at gilded balloon (https://tickets.gildedballoon.co.uk/event/14:4593/14:79158/) or Mark Hannah, a young lad who was in a show of mine as a teenager then went off to train in London. He is coming home to Edinburgh to perform his one man show Athens of the North in a pub on Leith Walk (https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/athens-of-the-north-mark-hannah-tickets-636796344007?aff=ebdssbdestsearch&from=3b64c2f82a6211eeb58c62a20c648a15).”


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