Taking the stage

IF YOU KNOW WHO CORA BISSETT is, you might think it strange to see this familiar, much-admired face from Scottish theatre, TV and film described as "up and coming", but she has no problem with the label. "I do feel like I'm starting a new chapter," she says, her words, as always, spilling out in a torrent of positive energy.

Actually, she's starting two - theatre director and solo singer-songwriter. It's early days, but both have rich potential.

If you don't know the story so far, here's a brief introduction to a largely unsung Scottish talent who has been, as she jokes, "kicking around for 100 years". Bissett first made her mark as the distinctive voice (think Kristin Hersh meets Kate Bush) of two Scottish bands, Darlingheart and Swelling Meg. Both, sadly, were short-lived, and she later moved into acting, her profile rising recently with lead roles in the BAFTA-winning STV series High Times and the National Theatre of Scotland's first big hit, The Wolves in the Walls. Last year she narrowly missed out on the starring role in Red Road, to Kate Dickie (Andrea Arnold cast her instead as Dickie's bride-to-be sister-in-law).

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But Bissett seems driven less by ambition than by restlessness, and, increasingly, a desire to take control of her life. "I've never quite been satisfied with just being an actor, waiting for parts to come," she says. "You still feel a bit like the smelly girl sitting at the side of the school hall waiting to be picked for Highland dancing. I'm a bit too proactive, I think. And when you've had your experience of creating your own baby, being in a band in my case, to then become someone else's moveable bond is never quite satisfying enough."

Hence the desire to direct and - for the first time - to make music by herself. The latter is still at an early stage, though the songs at www.myspace.com/corabissett already match KT Tunstall for melody and attitude. Meanwhile, Bissett is about to debut as theatre director with Amada, at this year's Arches Theatre Festival. Devised with three actors, a Basque singer and a Chilean guitarist, it's an adaptation of an Isabel Allende story about a woman whose personality is altered in an accident, and finds a kind of happiness and dignity in prostitution.

Bissett's reasons for choosing Allende's story are complicated. She jokes that, as an actor, she has "cornered the niche market in prostitutes, slightly downtrodden single mums and ex-cons" and is clearly interested in exploring the politics of the sex trade.

"I think it is always going to be a bigger, murkier, more complex beast than anybody can ever pin down," she says. "There are a lot of really powerful women in that industry. I'm very clear that I'm not saying prostitution is a really great career choice. This is just one woman's story, and I think it rings true. She's not really aware of the job she's doing. She just desperately wants to give love to people and she finds out she's very good at it."

Something else that resonated was the peculiar ways in which brain injury can alter people's personalities. Bissett endured a tough time recently when her then boyfriend suffered a head injury in a road accident. He escaped serious brain damage, but it was a close enough call for her to spend anxious time reading up on the subject.

Mostly, though, she says it was Amada's "sheer theatricality" that drew her to it. "I thought, I can have fun creating this story." And fun, after a couple of difficult years in her personal life, seems to be the order of the day. Singing solo for the first time has been "terrifying but exhilarating" but, she adds: "I feel like I'm being the engine behind all these things and I'm loving it. What's the worst that can happen? I get a shite review. I'll live."

Even if Amada isn't well received, Bissett will get more shots at directing theatre, as part of her new job as drama outreach director of Ankur, a Scottish company set up to increase ethnic diversity in the arts in a country whose stages remain dominated by white faces. Bissett will, she says, act as a "go-between". The problem is not racism, she believes, but a "complex and befuddling" lack of communication between ethnic minorities and the white-dominated arts organisations Bissett has worked with for over a decade.

A similar sense of mission informs her music. Her first solo gig, late last year, helped launch a campaign to raise awareness about the treatment of asylum seekers at Dungavel detention centre. Her next one, at the Arches on 30 April, is a benefit gig she has organised herself called Scotland United, to raise money for anti-racism charity Positive Action in Housing. "Britain's position in the world is having a massive effect on the way Muslims and non-Muslims are living together in this country at the moment," she says. "One of the reasons I took the Ankur job is that I wanted to do something to connect with people who are very distant from me. I didn't have any Asian friends, not one, and," she beams, "suddenly I've got about 30 in the space of three months."

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• Amada is at the Arches, Glasgow, 10-14 April, as part of the Arches Theatre Festival. The show transfers to the Traverse, Edinburgh, 18-24 April.

What other people are saying:

'If there is a single persuasive reason to see this show, her name is Cora Bissett. Her voice and natural warmth are constantly beguiling.'

The Herald on Bissett's performance in Sunset Song, 2002

'Bissett is a standout, coming close to stealing the show by adding subtle, emotionally complex touches.'

List review of A Streetcar Named Desire, 2002

'Horses established Cora Bissett, with her strong limbs and scorched velvet voice, as one of Scotland's most watchable and enjoyable performers.'

Metro review of Horses, Horses Coming in All Directions at the Arches, Glasgow, 2000