In an ordinary house on a quiet street, young women are selling sex. It’s a world apart from the seedy, red-lit image of brothels of TV dramas that rely on style more than substance, but it’s there alright. The only real giveaway is a discrete but constant stream of men at the door who come and go back to their nice cars and fragrant wives in even nicer parts of town.
These men probably found out about this place on a website, where the women and girls they go with are graded alongside parking facilities and customer care. As lifestyle choices and online communities go, it’s as neat and efficient as any other. No-one wants to run the risk of grubbier institutions in rougher areas, after all. This way it’s safer.
Except, the working girls who occupy this house and many others like them aren’t the self-determined libertines in little black numbers of Belle de Jour and other arch confessionals. These girls have been kidnapped from their homes in Africa or eastern Europe. Many of the girls are barely into their teens, and the sex they’re forced to have with strangers is rape by any other name. Where eastern European gangs use force and guns, the African set-up is all about psychological manipulation. These girls aren't locked up, but have been brainwashed to fear the people outside by voodoo pacts.
Scenarios such as those outlined above are commonplace, and could be happening dangerously close to your own doorstep. When director and actress Cora Bissett came into contact with someone who’d been through far worse, the sheer inhumanity she discovered riled her into action. As a human rights activist, all she could offer was shelter and a protective ear. As an artist, however, she could do so much more. The result of Bissett’s discoveries is Roadkill, a site-specific based piece co-produced by multi-racial company Ankur and Bissett’s newly constituted Pachamamma outfit in association with the Tron Theatre in Glasgow.
“It’s been in my head for years,” Bissett explains on as break from rehearsals. “Things take your interest and attention, not just as an artist, but as a human being. I’d noticed there was various articles about sex trafficking, and about an operation where all the police forces hooked up together and tried to crack down on a big trafficking ring that was operating across the country. In the end, no-one could be prosecuted, because one of the main problems is that the girls are too terrified to testify. They’ve been indoctrinated, and told that they’ll be killed or their families and children will be killed. So to try and get these girls into court is nigh on impossible.
“All the films I’d seen that looked at sex trafficking were centred mainly around London or America, and I wanted to do something to show that this was going on a bit closer to home. Then when I met someone who’d been trafficked, although I knew a lot about it hypothetically, once you’re presented with someone quite literally on your own doorstep who’s been through that experience, it becomes something much more real. One of the things that struck me was that it was an older woman who’d trafficked her.
“We’re used to hearing stories about men pretending to be the girls’ boyfriends then bring them to another country and exploit them there. That seems to be common across Eastern Europe, but getting an older woman to get the girls’ trust is a really common scenario, particular to African countries. It’s one which I think many of us, perhaps especially women, find impossible to conceive of; that it's women exploiting other women. These women call themselves aunties, and that blueprint for how it works made it more urgent for me.”
Angered and inspired, Bissett developed her research into a script with writer Stef Smith. On the day we meet prior to a week of previews as part of the Tron’s contribution to Refugee Week Scotland, Roadkill is still being honed in the rehearsal room. Smith is present, and actors Mercy Ojelade, Adura Onashile and John Kazek chip in with ideas to make things clearer in what is a very human tragedy.
“We didn’t want it to be tub-thumping or preachy,” Bissett explains. “We don’t want to make it an issue play in that way. You have to learn about the character of the girl and realise she’s not just a victim, but is someone who had a rich family life before any of these awful things happened. We’re also looking at the complexity of the older woman, and finding out how she ended up doing what she does. In all likelihood she was probably trafficked herself, so where the drama lies is in this abusive but psychologically complex relationship between the older woman and the young girl. It’s grim at times, but it’s not using shock tactics to make a point.”
Bissett is careful to point out that Roadkill is in no way a dramatisation of the experience of the young girl she met, but is an amalgamation of many stories similar to hers based on extensive research.
“I had to be very aware that I was dealing with a real life here and now,” Bissett says, “and that there is still real danger for her. I knew I would have to be very careful not to reveal anything which could identify this young woman, and we have to be careful we’re not exploiting anyone’s story. We’ve been working closely with the Scottish Refugee Council, who’ve been incredibly supportive in helping us improve our bank of knowledge. We’ve also been speaking to a child protection lawyer and Amnesty International. Sex trafficking is so commonplace now that there are hundreds of young girls who’ve lived through similar things. We wanted to make a play that captured that, but we have to do it as a piece of drama first.”
Bissett’s interest in politics and drama isn’t a recent thing. She recently directed and acted in work at the Tron’s recent Mayfesto season, and her association with Ankur taps into a sensibility that dates back to a choice she made many years ago over whether to take up drama or Third World Studies.
Drama won out, and Bissett has managed to flit between mainstream work and her own personal passions. Roadkill isn’t the first time Bissett has taken audiences out of the theatre to somewhere that makes the theatrical experience a more intimate one. Citizone was a soap opera of sorts that moved the action between several flats. If this sounds like a logistical nightmare, Roadkill’s sole location should make for a forensic fly on the wall approach that is quite deliberate.
“I think the impact for me,” reflects Bissett, “was that being in such close proximity with a girl who’d been through this experience, it moved things away from it being something academic that you read about, to something you realise you’re right in the midst of it. It’s happening right now, in your city. It’s not an issue. It’s a person. That’s what I want to do with the audience. I want to disorientate them, so they go on the same journey with the character. She doesn’t know where she’s being taken to, and neither do the audience.”
Preview performances of Roadkill will take place in a secret location in Glasgow as part of the Tron Theatre’s programme, June 15-19. Roadkill will be seen in Edinburgh as part of the Traverse Theatre’s programme in August.
The Herald, June 15th 2010