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Photo by: David Hawe

Evalyn Parry

Queer pioneer does double duty at fest, nurturing new talent and critiquing two Canadian male icons on their idea of North

By: Glenn Sumi


It's the height of summer, but these days Evalyn Parry is feeling the cold. For her latest SummerWorks project, she's immersed herself in some northern exposure. And she wants you to feel the chill as well, by sharing your stories about the north. Parkas are optional.

The genesis of her two-part installation/performance piece, To Live In The Age Of Melting: The Idea Of North 2.0, goes back a couple of years. Commissioned to write a new work for a poetry festival, Parry decided to deconstruct Stan Rogers's famous folk song Northwest Passage, interweaving issues of Arctic sovereignty, climate change, the Harper government and the role of women into the piece.

Then, after returning from a two-week stint as artist-in-residence on a student research boat from Baffin Island's Iqaluit to Greenland, she came up with the idea of remaking Glenn Gould's classic CBC Radio documentary The Idea Of North.

Taking on two of Canada's most cherished male artists in one show?

Yup, that sounds like Parry, the queer singer/songwriter, spoken word artist, director, playwright and actor who, in the spirit of John Franklin and other explorers, has been forging her own path - a feminist one in her case - for over a decade and a half.

Since both of her parents were folk musicians, she and her brother, Richard Reed Parry (of Arcade Fire and Belle Orchestre), grew up immersed in the folk canon, the CBC constantly on and summer weekends spent at music festivals. So revisiting certain passages in Rogers's haunting song about the doomed Northwest Passage was eye-opening.

"In the chorus there's this line, 'through a land so wide and savage,'" says Parry in the parkette outside Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. "A bunch of white people standing around singing that. How can we say that without thinking about it? Maybe it's time to reconsider that."

Parry also dug up information about Franklin's wife, Lady Jane.

"She's a fascinating and super-complex character," she says. "She put that story on the map, the story that captured the public imagination. She is, in a way, its author. After he disappeared, she kept the search for him alive for 20 years through her power, influence and money."

As for Gould's radio documentary about the Great White North, it was indeed pretty white.

"I knew about the Gould doc but suddenly I engaged with it in a whole different way," she says. "I realized that one of the things missing in his piece are any aboriginal or indigenous northern voices."

For her part, Parry has collaborated with Inuit artist Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, whom she met on that two-week boat trip. Williamson Bathory is collecting stories by people in the North about their ideas of the (Canadian) South. And in the first few days of SummerWorks, Parry and installation artist Elysha Poirier will interview people about their ideas of the North. (This part is free, and you're encouraged to bring something - a physical object, an image, song or story.)

A final weekend of performances will include audio and video from both sets of interviews, as well as the Northwest Passage piece.

"I can't predict what will happen, because so much depends on what people contribute," says Parry, who with Poirier is also releasing a film about the North in the fall. "But that's what makes this exciting."

Her northern project fits in nicely with Parry's ongoing attempt to insert women's stories into fields dominated by men. Her song-filled show SPIN, which returns to Buddies this fall after a national tour, looks at the history of women and cycling and includes a story about Annie Londonderry, the first woman to bicycle around the world.

(That piece has changed since the last Toronto version in 2011, after Londonderry's granddaughter contacted Parry. An account of that interaction is now part of the show.)

Before SPIN, with Independent Aunties's Anna Chatteron and Karin Randoja, Parry helped create everything from an Edward Gorey-like cautionary tale about girls, Clean Irene And Dirty Maxine, to Breakfast, a disturbing spin on Alfred Hitchcock's movie Marnie.

The first time I saw Parry and Chatterton was in a piece they collaborated on fresh out of Concordia University, The Former Republic Of Poetry, a vivid, imaginative take on poems by Margaret Atwood and Bronwyn Wallace.

The two are currently developing another work inspired by literary women, this one about early 20th century queer icons Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.

"What's been more inspiring even than reading Stein's work is getting to understand her as a character in history," she says, clearly excited. "They were these female renegade experimental outsiders. They were these queer, out artists in the 1920s, which seems mind-boggling. So their example has been a guiding inspiration for us."

Parry herself has clearly become an inspiration to a whole new generation of queer artists. As the director of Buddies' Young Creators Unit, she's worked with artists as diverse as Mark Shyzer, Waawaate Fobister and Tawiah M'carthy, directing the latter two to Dora Awards when their plays Agokwe and Obaaberima were picked up and mounted by Buddies.

I knew about the Gould doc [The Idea Of North], but suddenly I engaged with it in a different way. What's missing in his piece are any aboriginal or indigenous northern voices.

One of her latest proteges, Shaista Latif, is at SummerWorks with Graceful Rebellions, which Parry helped develop and is directing. It's a solo show about three queer Afghan women - perspectives, like those of the aboriginal Fobister and the Ghana-born M'carthy, that aren't regularly seen on any stage.

"Those are the stories and perspectives that interest me, and they've been key in terms of the projects I've chosen," says Parry, who grew up near Kensington Market and admits that coming out to her own liberal, socially conscious parents "was a pretty soft landing... but there was an adjustment and a learning curve and a new culture to be introduced."

Latif, says Parry, is a first-generation Canadian who grew up trying to sort out her Afghan-Canadian identity as a kid, and then recognized her queer identity.

"It was a pretty challenging, difficult bunch of identities to navigate in her family of origin," she says. One of the characters is an Afghan woman who passes and lives as a man fighting in Afghanistan.

Working with young artists, especially ones from diverse backgrounds, obviously requires patience and trust - on both sides.

"One of my big jobs as director is listening, on multiple levels," she says. "I have to think about what the story is, how best to push and challenge a writer and make them go to places they don't necessarily want to go at first. [Shaista] and I have had some emotional meetings that took a while to get there.

"Her background is more as a writer and director than as a performer," says Parry. "The acting part is nerve-racking for her even though she's totally commanding. It took her a while to step into that role. So she's excited but nervous about SummerWorks.

"It's fun for me. She's a great writer. Her stories live on the page. And it's great to see someone come into their own."

Interview Clips

Parry on why she likes SummerWorks:

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More on her trip North:

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On the power of the North and PM Harper's recent spin on the Franklin expedition:

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On being involved in the music, spoken word and theatre communities and whether that's a help or a hindrance:

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glenns@nowtoronto.com | @glennsumi

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