Stellar Quine of the Month: Cora Bissett

Cora Bissett

How would you describe your current job and what do you like best about it?
I am a theatre director/maker and actor. I love so many things about directing, it’s hard to know where to start. I love letting my mind scour the world I’m in, be drawn to things which arouse my curiosity, my empathy, my passion and then when I hit upon something I want to investigate, I start to allow myself to think about how I could bring that to life for an audience; by what theatrical means, what elements, what other artists, what collaborations could serve this story or point in the most potent, affecting way. Then I start talking to those people and that’s when the real fun starts.

What do you consider your best work and why?
Again very hard, I love all of the shows I have directed. Amada was my first real foray into directing so is like my first little baby.

RoadKill now has become something of a phenomenon. It seemed to affect people on such a level even I was not ready for. I am very proud of it for a number of reasons. On an artistic level I felt that all the elements combined served to take us into the world and mind of a little girl whose abuse we could easily turn away from were it just a story we read in the paper.

I think it succeeded in bringing huge attention to bear on a topic which people did not really know about and actually prompted people to take action. I was informed by friends at the Refugee Council that many people wrote to them asking how they could help. It gave people working on legal change there incredible leverage when appealing to Parliament. They could say, “look, there is real public outcry here.” I am proud of the synthesis of all the creative heads on board. I think we created a beautiful piece of storytelling, but I am also proud that we created something which is continuing to help affect change.

I am equally proud of Glasgow Girls. We worked so closely with the real people upon whom the story was based, inviting them to all developments and sharing the script with them at every stage. To see them all crying and laughing on opening nights in Glasgow and London, and getting on stage to rapturous applause, was a really incredible moment for us all. I feel we served their story truthfully and respectfully, but also turned it into a really entertaining show which had broad appeal. That is exactly what I aimed to do and I think we succeeded in that.

What was your first ever job?
Working in Halford’s car and bike shop in Glenrothes town centre on Saturdays at age 15. I wore a grey zip up a-line pinafore and ate macaroni pies for lunch. At that time that was all there was! And was utterly useless as I didn’t know a thing about bikes or cars.

What was the contact/opportunity/job offer that you feel has made the most difference to your career?
There have been many along the way. It’s a little like that film RED, if one hadn’t happened ten years ago then the next ten could not have fallen into place. When I was 17 I landed a huge record deal with a mighty record label and was signed up for albums with this little rock band I was in. The whole thing went disastrously in the end, but nonetheless it set me on a path. Before that I had been set to go study English Lit at Glasgow. This thrust me into the world of performance and I think made me far more fearless. Even though, in fact maybe because, it all went so horrifically wrong, I felt I had nothing to lose by setting out to do things in a totally gut instinct kind of way.

More recently I would say it was Lalitha Rajan and Ankur Productions. In 2008 I left acting for a while and applied for a job at Ankur Productions as Community Outreach Director. I was feeling restless in my career. I was working a lot, touring, regularly employed, but I was dissatisfied. Acting wasn’t enough for me anymore. I needed to create my own ‘babies’. But simultaneously I was also feeling that I really needed to engage more politically with the world around me. I had a driving passion to connect with women’s rights issues and also to learn more about the minority communities in Scotland. I felt acutely aware that as an artistic community we were not engaging with those stories.

I was volunteering at various women’s crisis centres and helping out asylum seeking destitute women. I took the job at Ankur because it seemed an ideal way for me to connect with the minority ethnic communities in Scotland, as well as learning to direct. Looking back, I was teaching myself how to direct, how to manage large groups of people (sometimes the community casts would be 25 plus musicians, and I would never have the whole group in the room at any one time. It was challenging!) Lalitha actually said to me at one point, after my last community production there, ”Cora, you have a real skill in directing and I think you should be stretching yourself more. I will keep offering you community work because you do a lovely job, but I want you to refuse me next time and go and create a show which really challenges you.’

I came up with the idea of RoadKill and originally it was just going to be a little work-in-progress piece which I did on a shoestring budget from the Arts Council. As Lalitha saw me develop the ideas, and saw the determination I had to tell the story, she called me late one night and said that she wanted to divert a big chunk of the Ankur budget towards it to realise it in its fullness. This was a defining moment. Looking back I didn’t realise it then. I was just delighted I could then get the collaborators on board that I wanted. But looking back it was Lalitha’s faith in me and her ability to see the potential of the piece. She knew it deserved more support and that legacy is still resonating as we take it to New York and Chicago this summer on the back of an Olivier award and an Amnesty International award amongst many others.

What’s the biggest opportunity that you missed or wished you had taken up but didn’t?
I can honestly say I have no regrets on that front. I kinda live by a basic fundamental of being open to every interesting opportunity which comes my way. At each crossroads I always ask myself, “could this door help me grow?” Even if it leads nowhere directly, does it take me forward or back? If it takes me to a new place I will always risk it, even if I have no idea what I’m doing. In fact, especially if I have no idea what I’m doing.

What’s your favourite play or piece of theatre?
Carmen Funebre. It was a huge outdoor site specific piece in the Quads in Edinburgh by the Polish company Teatro Buiro Podrozy. I saw it about 13 years ago and it has stayed with me since.

What do you like best about working in theatre?
I love the freedom we have to explore stories. I am constantly, acutely aware of what a privilege we have in our country compared to other countries in the world. None of us will be shot for saying what we say on stage. Fact. So you better say something worthwhile and you better say it well.

To work with other people who fire us up. That feeling of being in a room with everyone working toward a shared goal and ideas are flying around, and things don’t go anywhere for a while. But then those moments where the right combination of timing, tone, words, movement all click and we all feel it when it happens. I adore that. I feel so hugely alive and nourished and sort of in love. I love that now as a director and artistic director of my own company I can decide where and when I am working. I have just submitted three different applications for various shows for the next year and following year and I have another four in my head. I hope they will all come to fruition, but even if they don’t the endeavour, the problem solving it takes to try and get them off the ground is stimulating and enlivening.

You can create extraordinary journeys for yourself. I have just returned from Australia where I was meeting with an Aboriginal artist whose work I saw last year there in an exhibition whilst I was on tour. I tracked her down and we have been emailing since. I made the trip to her home place and we sat chatting non stop for four hours. I am now working on developing a piece with this extraordinary woman on the other side of the world.

I love connecting with audiences. I have never been one of these artists who say “I make the work for myself and if other people like it that’s a bonus.” Making theatre is a two-way sport. I absolutely have at the core of my being the desire to connect, connect, connect. That doesn’t ever mean dumbing down. I LOVE the feeling of seeing an audience react in a really visceral, instinctive way to the work. When I saw the crowds at Stratford instantly simultaneously rise to their feet as the last chord of the last Glasgow Girls song was punched, I felt my heart soar. Conversely, when I saw the small groups emerge from RoadKill shattered, traumatised, crying or sometimes in a deep personal silence, I knew my job was done there also.

I love the people. Maybe that sounds a little clichéd but I do. Theatre folk are funny. Despite the oscillating egos, fragile sense of selves, crippling self analysis, they are the funniest, warmest, most engaging and open species I know.

What advice would you give emerging female practitioners in theatre today?
Don’t be defined by your sex. You can and must do anything your creative heart desires. Don’t be afraid to be a leader. There are many loud voices which can seem far more qualified than you. Listen carefully, often they are saying countless eloquent nothings. Don’t be afraid of technology. There are many technological geniuses who are hungry to help you realise your ideas. Don’t be a victim. Don’t say “No one gave me the chance”. You make your own. Don’t be just angry, use anger to offer change.

Who would your Stellar Quine of the Month be and why?
Patricia Panther would be mine. She was one of the songwriters for Glasgow Girls. Patricia creates electronic ‘grime’ music. She does all her own programming and engineering. She created some outstanding songs for Glasgow Girls. She had never written for theatre before. When I saw her perform them I thought “I have to have her in the show” and so created a role for her! She had never acted before. She left her job in editing at the BBC, gave it all up for this chance and SOARED. She played multiple roles and received rapturous applause for her songs in particular. She is a huge star in the making.

SQ of the Month