The Scotsman Sessions #312: Catherine Bisset

Welcome to the Scotsman Sessions. With the performing arts sector still impacted by the pandemic, we are commissioning a series of short video performances from artists all around the country and releasing them on scotsman.com, with introductions from our critics. Here, Catherine Bisset performs a scene from her solo play Placeholder

In the world of theatre, a placeholder is – or was – a servant or attendant, who would arrive at the performance early, before some prominent person, and simply occupy that person’s seat until he or she chose to make an appearance.

It’s difficult to imagine a more tantalising or humiliating role for anyone with a love of theatre; and yet in Catherine Bisset’s one hour solo play Placeholder, this is the job taken on, in later life, by the mixed-race opera singer Minette, a successful stage star in the French Caribbean colony of Saint Domingue, now known as Haiti, during the 1780s. The play is based on the true story of Minette Ferrand, born in St Domingue in 1767, who shot to fame in her teens, but was little heard of after the famous Haitian Revolution of 1791.

In this extract from the play, performed by Bisset herself, Minette – who was a free woman, albeit constrained by Saint Domingue’s strict racial codes – finds herself caught in an imagined confrontation with her long-dead mother, who was born a slave. Her mother cannot understand why Minette has abandoned her successful singing career; Minette tries to explain.

Catherine Bisset

“I think I was immediately drawn to Minette’s sense of having to navigate two worlds,” says Bisset, who is of British and Jamaican heritage. Bisset was born in London in 1971, and came to Scotland when she was seven. Her father Geoff Palmer, the well-known Heriot-Watt professor and campaigner on Scotland’s legacy of slavery, had himself arrived alone in Britain from Jamaica aged 15, in 1955; and although Bisset now has a senior job with the Scottish Government, during the recent lockdowns she felt moved – despite a heavy pandemic workload – to act on her long-standing interest in exploring some of these experiences through theatre.

She began to attend workshops with the Edinburgh Acting School, gaining a diploma, and meeting the Scottish-Brazilian theatre director Flavia D’Avila, who was herself completing a PhD on colonial themes; and when Professor Julia Prest of St Andrews University was searching for a creative team to bring to life some of her research on St Domingue, D’Avila had no hesitation in stepping up to the challenge, and in turning to Bisset as an actor and potential writer with whom she wanted to work.

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“I honestly couldn’t believe it when Flavia said she wanted me to write the piece,” says Bisset. “I had literally never in my life written anything longer than an email. But I felt so drawn to the character of Minette; and once I had the idea of creating a dialogue between her and her mother, the whole piece began to take shape. As I wrote, I felt I could hear my Jamaican grandmother’s voice speaking through the voice of the mother, and my father’s voice too; the sense of how far Minette had travelled from her origins, and yet of their tremendous continuing hold over her.”

Produced by D’Avila’s company Fronteiras Theatre Lab, Placeholder has already been seen at one-off performances in Edinburgh and St Andrews, and both Bisset and D’Avila very much hope to bring it back for further performances if funding can be found.

Meanwhile, Bisset is full of plans for the future. “Now that I’ve had this experience,” she says, “I really would love to write more. I’m a researcher by profession, and I’m becoming more and more aware that every piece of research contains human stories that really need to be brought to a wider audience. Theatre offers a way of giving those people life, and letting their voices be heard at last; and to be involved in that process, as an actor and a writer, is immensely satisfying.”

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