There’s a strong fascination with the bicycle in North American culture, due in part to its role in popular culture. Think about Steven Spielberg’s hit 1982 film E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial. The bicycle, thanks to E.T’s powers, offers Elliott and his alien friend an escape from the authorities, and grants them wondrous freedom. The popularity of Gameboys and Nintendos years later would see parents pushing their children to go outside and ride their bikes – experience in full the freedom of childhood.
Toronto theatre artist and songwriter evalyn parry’s fascination with the bicycle is about freedom, too, but a different kind of freedom, one that was fought for by women no longer satisfied with the status quo.
Written and performed by parry, SPIN is some parts history, some parts personal reflection on the bicycle and its ties with first-wave feminism. Bicycle percussionist Brad Hart joins parry in telling the story of Annie Londonderry, the first woman to ride around the world on a bicycle in 1895.
On a wager, 23-year old Annie Londonderry sets off across the world on her bicycle for a 15-month journey that will win her $10,000. No stranger to the world of advertising, Annie gains plenty of corporate sponsors for her trip, including the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company whose name she took on as part of their deal. (Her real name was Annie Cohen Kopchovsky).
Just so the audience realizes the significance of Annie’s trip, parry sets the scene for what’s happening in the ‘gay nineties’. The ‘mobile woman’ is on the rise, much to the chagrin of men who rather they stay in the home. Women have organized themselves to fight for the vote. Reformers are encouraging women to learn how to ride bicycles, while male doctors warn women that the bicycle may be harmful to their reproductive organs. Women’s fashion changes to suit the needs of mobile women everywhere, lending them even more freedom in movement.
The bicycle becomes important not only for transportation, but also social mobility.
While parry’s theatrical ingenuity is certainly praise-worthy, there remain moments where the material struggles to hold our attention, specifically the audience’s crash course on the bicycle as social phenomenon. Yes, the history of the bicycle is interesting (for some, maybe) and important for context, but it’s a bit difficult to form a connection with facts and dates, no matter how dressed up they might be. The presentation picks up once the group dives into the compelling story of Annie’s around-the-world voyage, or at least it’s made compelling by parry’s demonstrated passion for the subject. Until then, the show engages in a total ‘info dump’.
parry’s hypnotic spoken word is accompanied by Hart’s percussions on a suspended vintage bicycle, and a string trio (Cello: Kevin Fox; Viola: Angela Rudden; Violin: Kathleen Kajioka). Hart delivers a rich, satisfying musical experience by mixing and looping his bicycle beats. Who knew someone could play a bicycle as an instrument, and play it so well? The bicycle percussion lends the production a real grassroots, folk feel, appropriate considering parry’s own personal relationship with the bicycle.
From the first-wave to the third-wave, the artist’s personal relationship with the bicycle completes the ride, as parry tells us how she used to travel the streets of Montreal on her bicycle, defacing sexist billboards in the night. In a city where bicycles spark outrage from motorists (see: the cycle tracks downtown), it’s refreshing to hear and see such eloquent love for the bicycle.
Co-presented by One Yellow Rabbit and Theatre Calgary, as part of the 2016 High Performance Rodeo, parry’s SPIN is an original musical experience that breathes the spirit of adventure.
evalyn parry’s SPIN runs Jan 7 – 10 at the Martha Cohen Theatre, as part of the 30th Annual High Performance Rodeo.
For more information about the show and how to purchase to tickets, visit: https://www.hprodeo.ca/2016/evalyn-parrys-spin
For more about evalyn parry, visit her website: http://evalynparry.com/