With fresh snow on the ground and most Torontonians huddled in their caves avoiding the bone-chilling cold, the thought of bicycles whipping through the streets probably seems like a summer dream. And yet the bicycle is so much more than a tool to get you from one place to the next! It can even be political! (But only for Pinkos.)
The lovely and uber-talented evalyn parry sat down with me to talk about her upcoming remount of SPIN, a play that digs deep into the politics of bike riding and gender. It rolls into Buddies tomorrow and running until the 23rd.
What was your initial inspiration for SPIN?
There were a few inspirations that came together to create this show. First, of course: my love for my bicycle! I wanted to create a new work for the stage that would combine my performance practices as a theatre maker, songwriter and spoken word artist – I had never tried to put them all together before. I thought my bicycle obsession might be a good jumping-off point, and I had heard there was a connection between cycling and the early women’s emancipation movement of the 19th century – that seemed like something interesting to research. I was also interested in the multiple meanings of “spin” – how that word also relates to advertising, and consumer culture, the way things are bought and sold through “spin”.
As soon as I started to research the historical angle, about women and bikes in the late 19th century, I felt like I hit the jackpot: the stories I discovered were gold! So many inspiring and amazing women for whom the bicycle became a literal symbol for the freedom they were fighting and equality they were fighting for. And, amazingly, the story of Annie Londonderry (the first woman to ride around the world on a bike in 1895) also hit on the advertising “spin” angle, since in order to pay for her trip, she sold advertising space on her bike and her clothing as she rode.
You use a number of different methods to convey your story. How were these elements (the music, the bicycle, the projections) introduced and integrated into the piece?
The show evolved over a series of workshops. I brought the songs and stories I had written to an awesome group of collaborators (Brad Hart, who plays the bike, musician Anna Friz, and director Ruth Madoc-Jones) and together we started to experiment with all the ways the bike could be used as an instrument to accompany the songs, and how to style and stage the material. Eventually, we brought in production / video designer Beth Kates, who created the visuals based on the evolving material and many conversations about style and form.
For the upcoming production at Buddies, we have introduced yet another new element: composer Michael Holt has created brand new musical arrangements for a string trio to accompany the whole show. I can’t even tell you how excited i am for everyone to see / hear these new arrangements, they are so beautiful and playful and dramatic and they serve to further heighten and integrate the themes and ideas that the show explores. And it gives the show a whole new sound.
Using the bicycle as both a prop and an instrument is really fascinating. What work had to be done to the physical bike to allow it to suit the needs of the show?
Surprisingly, not much at all. The sound we get from the bike is achieved from attaching two contact microphones to it, one on the front fender and one of the seat, and the mics amplify the natural sounds the bike makes when you tap it or move parts of it. The seat is an important part of the sound – it’s an old-style seat with a vinyl cover and springs, which creates natural spring reverb, and amazingly when amplified has the sound of a bass drum. The only thing we have to occasionally adjust are three spokes in the front wheel which are tuned to specific musical pitches – and sometimes they get out of tune.
Throughout history, limitations have been placed on women in relation to mobility, whether physical or social. Your play explores a key historical example of this, but how do you feel that this subject resonates with contemporary audiences and factors into conversations about women’s rights?
Well for starters…the bike itself is still a very politicized object – i guess a pretty obvious statement here in Toronto – and actually still has a lot of gender issues attached to it. For example: in North America today, only a quarter of trips taken by bicycle are taken by women. That’s a pretty significant gender gap – so what’s up with that? It would suggest that statistically, there is still something pretty relevant and important about talking about women and bicycles. Here’s a link to an awesome article by Portland-based bike activist Elly Blue; she covers a lot of ground on this topic very succinctly.
But also, I think there is something about the piece of history that SPIN delves into – the women’s emancipation movement of the late 19th century and it’s connection to the bicycle – that is so resonant for a contemporary audiences because of the simple fact that we didn’t learned that history in school. So it’s literally a revelation to find out about these amazing heroines and feminist leaders of 100 years ago, who not only were doing amazing things at a time when they didn’t even have the right to vote, but who were also loving bicycles for pretty much all the same reasons we do today. i think there is something just delightful and inspiring about that.
This piece was originally mounted in 2011. Have there been any significant alterations to the text since then?
There have actually been some pretty significant changes to the text that have happened over the course of touring for the last three years. I wrote two brand new songs which have replaced a couple of the original songs, and at this point the whole second half of the show is different from the original production in 2011. I feel like this new ending has made the show stronger and more cohesive. The new material evolved from a letter that I received from a relative of Annie Londonderry’s; she heard my song about Annie and wrote to tell me how it had impacted her. It became a bit of a pivot point – a new spin on a story that I had thought I had understood; it kind of brought the whole show full circle.
In performing the piece for a variety of audiences, what feedback have you received on it? Has it been positive? Have you received any negative feedback?
We’ve had such amazing, positive feedback everywhere we’ve gone, even in some surprising places – like our tour of the Northwest territories last fall – the last place you might expect to find an audience of cycling enthusiasts. One thing I really discovered on that tour is a) cycling enthusiasts are to be found in the most unlikely places, and b) the themes of the show do in fact ultimately transcend bikes and cycling – the bike is the metaphor, but the show speaks to themes of liberation, and resistance and courage to live out your convictions.
What’s next for you after SPIN?
I am creating a new show right now at Buddies (through the residency program) with my company Independent Aunties, about 20th century queer icons Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. I play Gertrude Stein. We’ll have a workshop production this December.
I’m also working on a new show and film project about the Arctic, global warming and colonial history, called “To Live in the Age of Melting”. Film will be forthcoming in the new year – and the stage show will be going into another phase of development, following my workshop production at SummerWorks this past August.
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evalyn parry’s SPIN is on stage for a limited 6-show run at Buddies from November 19-23, 2014. Click here for tickets and info.