Monday, 25 July 2016

Glasgow Dramaturgy: Cora Bissett @ Edfringe 2016


Conceived for the stage and directed by Cora Bissett
Book by David Greig

Presented by Pachamama Productions, National Theatre of Scotland, Theatre Royal Stratford East & Regular Music with support from The Citizens Theatre & Richard Jordan Productions Ltd.

Cora Bissett and David Greig’s life-affirming, song-filled Scottish drama, based on the true story of seven feisty teenagers, whose lives change forever when their school friend and her asylum-seeking family are forcibly taken from their home to be deported. The young women are galvanised to take a stand and fight for the life of their friend and, ultimately, for the rights of all children of asylum-seekers.
Glasgow Girls blew audiences and critics away in 2013 winning the ‘Off West End’ Best new Musical Award when it played Theatre Royal Stratford East in London. 

The music styles are as diverse as the characters within the story, featuring original songs across a host of genres including electronic grime from Patricia Panther, reggae-dub from Scots-Asian Rapper Sumati Bhardwaj (MC Soom T), folk-rock from Cora Bissett and original compositions for the Kielty brothers.

What was the inspiration for this performance?

The real life  events  involving a group of teenage girls in Drumchapel High School in 2005. I was aware of the events at the time, and got involved in various anti-detention demos around that time however it was discovering Lynsey Hill's fantastic documentary coverage which really brought the story into sharp focus for me.

How did you go about gathering the team for it?

At first I began meeting with the 'real' people, and getting to know those girls, and the extended 'Glasgow Girls' ; their teacher Euan Girvan, the headmaster Wilson Blakey, and the   indomitable Noreen and Jean. 

As I got to know them better as people, I began searching for the cast to represent them on stage,. This took 4 different development stages, as my impression of each person was in constant flux. I wanted to find Music collaborators who would bring a diverse range of musical styles to the table, and reflect the myriad and hybrid influences which the girls were formed by; I approached the phenomenal political Scots-Asian rapper MCSoomT to write the big anthemic numbers for the girls as a gang. 

She rose to the occasion, writing 'We are the Glasgow Girls': a reggae-dub rallying cry which we released as a single. Glasgow's Patricia Panther; a Nigerian-Scottish electronica artist whose music I came across and felt it was perfect to evoke the darker moments in the piece. Patricia also performed her own work in the play. John Kielty (and the Kielty brothers) whom I knew from previous work and asked him to create the more obviously 'musical theatre' numbers, in a loving pastiche. 

He created the knowingly titled 'opening montage' as well as Jack Mcconnell's song I have a dream where he is portrayed as a hilarious wannabe saviour who will solve all immigration ills...only to discover he has no power to do so.  I wrote 5 of the ballads for the older characters, the parents of the girls, and I also researched to find beautiful arrangements of Burns poems by the Battlefield Band. 

Their arrangement of To a Mouse appears on various occasions as a
thematic echo throughout the whole piece.

I hadn't found the right writer for the job until I gave a presentation at The Hub as part of an EIF award I'd been given on the back of RoadKill. David Greig was in the audience and was moved to tears. I am old friends with David and would have always loved him to write it but just knew he was overloaded with work. However he came up to me afterwards with tears in his eyes, and said 'you have to let me write this!' so I guess I did.

How did you become interested in making performance?

As a  kid in Glenrothes where I grew up, I was always putting on shows in the back garden, from the age of about 10. I would rope in all the local kids to make sets from cardboard, draw up flyers to put through the doors, lay out the deck chairs and then perform a series of sketches, puppetry, comedy and dance. The programming was y'know diverse and cross-form...

Glenrothes didn't have  hell of a lot of culture going on. It was either that or climbing trees. Which I like a lot too. I did a lot of youth theatre at the Lochgelly centre in Fife, we had no drama at school, so it was never really put to me as any sort of career option.

As an adult I think my process goes back to being in bands; rock bands, signed as an indie band in the nineties, then evolved into an alt-celt-rock outfit in the early 90's.

When my record deal went the way of all 5-album major deals of the early 90's, I decided to try and get into theatre again, and got involved with the bedlam student theatre Festival in Edinburgh. I was 19 and had recently moved there. I loved the creativity of it,  and decided to apply to  the  RSAMD, gaining my place there in 1994. Though still young I had already been through a lot with the whole band experience, and had thrown myself into various intensive theatre trips; at the Centre for Performance research in Wales, where I worked with Roberta Carerri of Odin Teatret, and  attended the International intensive in Malta with Ben Harrison. 

It was focused on the physical methodology of Growtowski, and was gruelling in the extreme. By the time I arrived at the RSAMD, and had been through a  rock n roll fiasco, and various physical theatre bootcamps, I found college surprisingly manageable.

Was your process typical of the way that you make a performance?

In some respects yes, but for each show I make, I think I have to find a process afresh each time. In creating 'RITES' for example, a verbatim piece about the cultural practice of FGM, we had to wade through hours upon hours of interviews and literally map out a journey which connected and contrasted the text we had collected. I something like 'GRIT' which was cross form and an International collaboration, I set certain songs to be created through dance, others through aerial...we discussed ideas on Skype and then met in Glasgow with rough plans which were then worked on and sculpted together.

In Glasgow Girls, the process was to;
get to know the girls and each of their individual stories
research their countries of origin, the whole context from which they've come
identify the main story blocks and start to build a journey of the piece
identify potential song moments and find the appropriate songwriters
pull these into development
try out different cultural music styles/singing styles
invite the 'real' people in at every stage, to feedback and feed into the script.

In some ways, yes I guess that is quite typical of various shows I've done which are based on 'real people's stories. 

The research period is not sitting reading books, the research is getting out, meeting the people, then the 'surrounding' people, then the people who are perhaps in 'opposition' to the protagonists, since of course plays are not biopics, it's about trying to look into the opposing forces which have brought about the context of the main characters stories. 
David and I attended anti-detention demos, 5am in the morning down at the centre in Brand St  where asylum seekers have to report to. We tried to speak to the Home Office representatives there, but had no luck. We immersed ourselves in the struggle of the story.

What do you hope that the audience will experience?

Every show is very different. I want audiences to take different things from different shows, it all depends on the subject matter. In RoadKill, I wanted people to in some sense be IN the world that the main character, Mary, a trafficked girl was in. I did this by taking them on a bus journey, as she would have, they meet her on the bus and this acts as a prologue., and then they are trapped to an extent in the tiny flat where she is trapped for the duration of the play. 

They get to know her a little, her aspirations, her humour, her beautiful, hopeful soul. They connect with this person before she becomes the victim in the story. And so they care. Too often, we watch stories which outline horrendous acts, but we have no intimate connection to the people involved and sadly, the depth to which we connect with those events becomes a cerebral, academic exercise in sympathy. 

I really wanted people to go on a physical, geographical and emotional journey with RoadKill, and i wanted you to realise it was happening on our doorsteps, that we are all responsible for those girls in our midst. 

I wanted audiences to leave feeling that they can do something, which is why handouts were given outlining who you could write to/what you can support.

With Glasgow Girls, I had very different aims. I wanted to reach a wide audience, and not the usual inner circle of like minded people who would already be empathetic to these stories. I wanted to re-imagine the story in a popular form, which is why I chose to do it as  musical. It was all about wider connection, but also it was about finding a form which suited the energy and thrust of the narrative. 

This was about teenagers wanting to take on the injustices of the adult world as they saw it. It's about hope, simple but lofty ambitions, solidarity in a community, upturning people's perceptions of  a city, of  a class of people, of a 'sub-class' of people. It was celebratory, packed with energy, bursting with pro-action, and I wanted the production to feel that way too,. I wanted the audience to leave smiling, singing, and feeling like they had stake in their lives and in the world, and even moreso, believing that everyone else should and can have too.

Do you see your work within any particular tradition?

I think I draw from myriad traditions, both theatrical and music based. If we are talking about Glasgow Girls specifically, then I think it draws from the great political theatre traditions of 7;84, but updated, merged with  Musical theatre, aswell as reggae, dub, grime, folk song, rock,hip hop, balkan, Roma, African, Arabic song styles. 

It adopts the 'direct address' of many Scottish political pieces, but again like so many plays of David Greig's, mixes both direct address, and naturalism fluidly, allowing the actors to talk to us, then BE in the scene, and do so constantly seamlessly. Working on David's Midsummer as an actor for 5 years, touring it around the world, I think I learned these techniques from the 'inside', and so felt comfortable asking the cast to play with all these styles swell as singing, dancing etc. 

I think the style in which the girls sing is drawn form rap artists, dance artists, and electronic music artists. This comes from the fact That SoomT and Patricia Panther perform their own material, mic in hand, playing to large crowds with backing tracks. 

The music is written to be direct to audience, to be confrontational, to be antagonistic at times, rousing and galvanising at others. SoomT sings at political rallies, and this come through in her music. So the very nature of the song is not inward and reflective, they too seek to connect with big crowds.

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