Evalyn Parry puts a new SPIN on cycling

For her theatre work, Evalyn Parry found ample wordplay, as well as links between two-wheeling and the roots of feminism

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      Evalyn Parry covers a lot of ground in SPIN. Part poetic song cycle, part theatrical vehicle, it’s an extended meditation on feminism, marketing, ecological issues, gender politics, and bicycling, all delivered with considerable warmth and wrapped in ever-creative wordplay.

      On the CD version of the multimedia work, which appears in staged form at the Cultch this month, that’s typified by opening track “Two Wheeled Words: To Wield Words”. Parry gets a lot of mileage out of the way that the language of cycling ties in with the terminology of liberation; for her, each revolution of the wheel is a revolution of the heart.

      “You just can’t get away from those pesky metaphors!” she says with a laugh, on the line from her Toronto home—where, unfortunately, her bike has been temporarily grounded by a spring snowstorm. “Pretty early on, as I was conceiving the project and writing some proposals and grants to do the research, I started to realize, ‘Wow, this is really rich with metaphor in terms of the language. There’s tons here, just within the bike itself and its parts, in terms of the double meanings of words.’ It just suggested a really rich palette for exploration.”

      Given that she’s an acclaimed spoken-word artist, Parry’s initial fascination with the possibilities of spoke, hub, frame, and saddle resulted in a gush of not-always-meaningful verbiage. As she cycled along Toronto’s urban bikeways or near her family’s rural getaway cabin, words would come unbidden into her mind, spurred on by the rhythms of the road.

      “It took me a while to get over just how much fun it was to spin all these…” she starts, then checks herself with another laugh. “See, I can’t even talk about it without using those words, right? Like, I’d just get caught up in the language, and there are several pieces that I could trace to that. Elements of them wound up in the show, but I had to turf some of them in the end because they didn’t mean anything.”

      SPIN didn’t really come into focus until Parry made the connection between the cycling mania of the late 1800s and the early days of feminism, a movement that began, not entirely coincidentally, around the same time.

      “The whole thing was basically a revelation to me,” she says. “I’d heard a quote from Susan B. Anthony, a famous 19th-century suffragette, that said, ‘I believe the bicycle has done more to emancipate women than anything else in history.’ And I thought to myself, ‘I wonder what that’s all about? Why is she saying that?’ So I just sort of opened up the history books—or punched ‘women and suffragettes and bicycles’ into Google, actually—and it was like a gold mine of information and connections that I didn’t know.”

      Anthony’s quote led Parry to another early feminist (and temperance advocate), Frances Willard, whose 1895 memoir A Wheel Within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle was the first guide to cycling for women. That, in turn, led to Annie Londonderry, whose story is in many ways SPIN’s narrative hub.

      Not only was the former Annie Cohen Kopchovsky the first woman to cycle around the world, she was also a marketing pioneer, plastering her bike and bloomers with as many advertising logos as you’d find on a NASCAR racer. Parry’s somewhat obsessed with how advertising shapes our world, and has written at length on the evils of privatized water; when she discovered that Londonderry had changed her name to that of her primary sponsor, a bottled-water company, the hook was set.

      “When I began researching this, I wanted to research women in the 19th century and bikes,” Parry explains. “And I also thought, because it really did begin with this kind of wordplay thing, it would be good to talk about advertising as well—to look at ‘spin’ as it pertains to how things get sold. So then, when I found Annie Londonderry’s story, it was so amazing, because it was about both things at once.”

      You could say that she just rolled with it from there—and things kept rolling. Londonderry’s granddaughter, for instance, was given a copy of the SPIN CD, and the correspondence that resulted led Parry to rewrite the show’s second half to look at the things women have had to sacrifice in order to fight for their independence. The musical side of the production has also deepened as Parry and her percussionist collaborator, Brad Hart, have found new ways to wring stunningly evocative sounds from the wired-up vintage bike that is SPIN’s physical centrepiece.

      “Part of the initial concept, for me, was to bring together my theatre world, and my music and spoken-word-performance worlds,” says Parry, an adept acoustic and electric guitarist whose brother, Richard Reed Parry, performs with Arcade Fire. “Before, it had always felt like they occupied separate spaces.”

      With SPIN, she might have found an ideal fusion of these different media—and a suitable vehicle for her own freewheeling personality.

      “A big piece of my own activism involves creating work that speaks out about various things—about bottled water, for example, or gay and lesbian rights,” she says. “Whether I set out to do it or not, it often feels like my role is to bring an outspoken voice into settings where that voice isn’t always loud enough. It’s about opening up spaces, creating a little more space and visibility and conversation around lots of different things.”

      Evalyn Parry presents SPIN at the Cultch from Tuesday (April 9) to April 20.