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uncharted waters

art should help us change our way of thinking

uncharted waters
paul forsyth

Evalyn Parry’s blend of wit, creativity and social conscience make her unique in Canada’s performing arts scene. 

She says art should help us to better understand complex, real-world issues and change our way of thinking.

Herding cats would be easier than pigeonholing Evalyn Parry.

The Toronto native is a songwriter, spoken word artist, director, theatrical creator, teacher, writer and social commentator whose wide-ranging work has covered everything from the Northwest Passage and the environmental blight of bottled water to feminine protection and the role of the bicycle in the women’s emancipation movement.

She tackles topics that can be difficult or sensitive, but somehow manages to do so with an irreverent wit. 

Awhile back, Parry wrote a song about Always maxi pads — from the perspective of the pad itself. She even dressed up as a pad when she performed it. That led to CBC News calling her “equally funny and dangerous.”

Parry admits she doesn’t easily fit into pre-imagined templates.

“As an artist, I’m drawn to telling stories and perspectives that I haven’t heard before, and in trying to express things in new ways — exploring ‘uncharted waters,’ as it were,” she said.

Nowhere is that more true than in Spin, the multimedia tour de force Parry created in 2011. The production was inspired by the true story of Annie ‘Londonderry’ Kopchovsky, the first woman to ride around the world on a bicycle after setting out on her epic adventure from Boston in 1894.

In the show, Parry’s long-time musical collaborator Brad Hart literally plays a vintage bicycle as a musical instrument as an accompaniment to Parry’s songs and stories. Spin premiered at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, where Parry has done wide-ranging work, and she continues to tour in the show in performances across North America.

Kopchovsky’s trip came at a time when the bicycle was transforming women’s lives: besides providing women with a respectable form of independent transportation, bikes led to changes in women’s dress, with bloomers replacing tortuous corsets and full skirts in an era when it was scandalous for women to show more than an ankle.

Parry said Spin is a metaphor of sorts for women’s freedom.

“It’s literally recounting some little-known stories about the bicycle’s connection to the women’s emancipation movement of the late 19th century,” she said. “The bike became a symbol of liberation at that time, and the show explores how that connection still metaphorically and literally resonates today.

“Even after more than three years of touring the work, I still get excited for every show to share the stories with new audiences.”

Parry, who has released four critically-acclaimed CDs, also feels comfortable in the director’s chair: she garnered a Dora Award nomination in 2013 for outstanding direction of a play for her direction of the Buddies’ production of Tawiah M’carthy’s Obaaberima, delving into the Ghanaian-Canadian queer experience.

At Buddies, she’s also spent years overseeing the Young Creators Unit, mentoring young theatre talent.

“I’ve made it my mission with the Young Creators Unit to champion stories and perspectives that I haven’t seen on stage before, to give room to voices exploring the intersections of queer identity with multiple other identities of culture and race and class,” she said.

“I’m proud that the (Young Creators) has become a place for so many new perspectives on queer identity to be expressed and shared on stage.”

Parry, who has been married to writer/photographer Suzanne Robertson since 2004, said she takes praise for her work — the Globe and Mail called her “a breath of fresh air” — graciously.

But she tries not to get too wrapped up in critiques, noting negative reviews are also part of putting yourself out into the public eye.

“I try not to get too attached to any of it,” she said of reviews. “At the end of the day, I am always trying to listen to my own instincts, to my own inner guides. (That’s) not easy if you fill your head with too many reviews and too many of other people’s opinions.”

Parry is pumped for new work that will be coming out in the next year. One is a new play about queer icons Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, which she is writing (with theatre collaborators Anna Chatterton and Karin Randoja). That play will premiere in 2016 at Buddies, and Parry will play the part of Stein.

The other project is a new music/storytelling performance and film project called ‘To Live in the Age of Melting,’ created with project artist Elysha Poirier. The project, which re-examines the historic Franklin Expedition to Canada’s north in today’s era of climate change, was inspired by a trip that Parry took to the arctic two summers ago.

She’s just released a recording of the first part, and the film will be released in the new year.

Parry credits a nurturing, creative homestead while growing up with influencing her career path. Her dad, the late singer and theatrical director David Parry, and mom, author and performer Caroline Balderston Parry, were big influences on Parry and her brother Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire fame, she said.

“From a young age I was exposed to a lot of pretty esoteric and interesting performance, music, theatre and literature, and my parents’ creative (and) artistic communities were the milieu my brother and I grew up in,” said Parry.

Parry, whose touring schedule can be grueling with shows from North Carolina and New Brunswick to Whitehorse, said she feels privileged to perform before others.

“Occasionally it’s tiring to be on the road, but the payoff is pretty amazing,” she said. “I get a lot of energy and creative juice.”

Parry’s work has been supported by the Ontario Arts Council, the Canada Council for the Arts and the Toronto Arts Council — something she said she’s eternally grateful for, and which have allowed her to bring her shows to far-flung corners of the country that don’t always have access to innovative work.

In her recent talking song ‘Bottle This,’ Parry takes a stab at the billion-dollar bottled water industry.

“Water should not belong to anyone,” she said in her song. “Water belongs to everyone. Water is a human right, not a luxury. It’s the blood of the Earth.”

Parry said people can expect a social conscience to remain in the forefront of her work.

“I’m driven and inspired by social issues,” she said. “In the face of all the injustice and struggle of so many people in the world, I feel it’s imperative for art to give expression to the voices that don’t get heard.”

Theatre and music and art and writing can give people new and different ways to engage with and understand the complexities of real-world issues, said Parry.

“We need art to wake us up, to challenge our thinking,” she said.

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Authorpaul forsyth

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