Cora Bissett was 17 when she answered an ad in the local paper looking for a singer. She talks to Felicity Pickering about transforming that time of her life into a piece of theatre.
After an award-winning, sold-out Edinburgh Fringe run, and dates at Soho Theatre in London, Cora Bissett’s What Girls Are Made Of is heading to Melbourne International Arts Festival this October. The show, an “autobiographical piece of gig theatre”, chronicles the incredible life of Bissett.
When Bissett was 17 she was no “normal” teenager. The student from Glenrothes in east-central Scotland joined the band Darlingheart after responding to an ad in the local paper looking for a singer. After only ten or so gigs, the band were signed by Fontana, who offered a five-album deal for £90,000. It was a huge shock to Bissett, who was still very much a small-town teenager – it was a “massive contract, a massive amount of money” to her. Her mother signed the contract as Bissett was too young: “I understand now that she must have been terrified, and not known what she was signing me up to.”
The band went on to tour with Blur and Radiohead. She chronicled this period of time in her diary, which served as the inspiration for What Girls Are Made Of. Now a mother herself, and around the same age as her mother was at the time, Bissett can appreciate the huge decision it was: “I really appreciate how much trust, and blind faith she had to have, because she had to let me go and do my thing. She couldn’t stand in the way. I really appreciate my parents enormously now. I really see what they had to do, to let me go and explore this option, even though it went horribly wrong.”
And it did go horribly wrong – the record company dropped Darlingheart and the band landed in debt. Fame, as it often does, left her high and dry.
Not even 20, Bissett had to pick herself up, redefine herself and reassemble her life. In the following years, Bissett dealt with major life hurdles, such as a miscarriage, and the painful loss of her father to dementia – both of which she represents on stage. The loss of her father, who was always quietly supportive of her, to dementia, led Bissett to “grow up in a whole different way”. There was a point when he couldn’t even recognise her. She explains that it was darkly comic at times: “He mistook me for Dolly Parton.”
To Bissett it was “that complete reversal of being a little girl who’s being protected by your dad, and then you're protecting them". "It’s a pretty profound life experience," she says.
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What Girls Are Made Of is an intense and intimate experience. Bissett has found that many people come up to her after watching, keen to share their own stories of overcoming similar issues – from their own search for meaning to miscarriage or losing someone to dementia. It is these personal but universal battles that she finds audience members connect with.
“The whole play is about stepping back from your life,” Bissett explains. “I’m in my 40s now. I’m able to just step back with a bird’s-eye view, and look at the trajectory of it and go, 'That’s where I started, and here’s where I am. What have I done in between? What has mattered? And what will I pass on to my girl or to the next generation?' I think that’s what people reflect on. I think they think about their lives.”
Rather than being a downer, Bissett emphasises that the show is empowering and strengthening: “People come out feeling geed up and feeling like they want to grab life by the balls.”
The tone, while self-reflective at times, doesn’t take itself too seriously. “It’s all about the highs and lows of shooting for your dreams, and things not panning out how you thought they were going to, and how you turn it around.”
In the show, Bissett narrates through the technique of direct address. Her band, all musical actors, play the various characters in her story – the record company, dodgy managers and her mum and dad. Weaved throughout are high impact songs played by the live band. “It’s full-on rock sound, just as it would be at a gig, but in between that you are telling a story and you're linking all these bits, so each song has a really specific meaning and job to do.”
When asked how the show differs from traditional theatre, she laughs, “I can hear a pin drop in moments in the play, where I know people are completely hooked into the story, and then you suck it to them with a song."
The show ends with an all-female roll call of artists that have inspired her. Bissett credits women as her musical inspiration: “It was women. It was powerful, idiosyncratic, interesting, just creative genius women that were really reaching out to me. It was the Patti Smiths. It was Björk, Tori Amos. It was Kim Deal and the Pixies. It was Dolly Parton. It was people from all these different eras. Janis Joplin. They were the ones who spoke to me.
“Those were the ones who make you think, 'I could do that. I could get up. I could grab a microphone and sing in a rock band.' It wasn’t watching a bloke on a stage that made me think that. It’s homage to all the extraordinary, brilliant, creative, women artists of all time really.”
The show is a celebration of life and the search for meaning. It’s a show about all the experiences that have made Bissett, and all the people that have made her who she is. It’s also, in its own way, a celebration of a courageous, resilient and passionate woman. Would she let her own daughter follow in her footsteps? “I’ve got to let her make her mistakes," Bissett says. "I’ve got to let her go out there and experience life.”