When Pearle Harbour walked through the flaps of her Chautaqua tent at the 2017 SummerWorks Festival (yes, this is a show that happens in a canvas wartime tent), she looked me straight in the eye and I knew this show was going to be an experience. In Pearle, Justin Miller has created a believable yet unreal, subtle yet bombastic, hilarious yet no nonsense character who provided one of the great unforgettable theatrical experiences of the year, earning him an Outstanding Solo Performance nomination.
Do you remember your first experience with theatre?
It would probably be oral communication competitions when I was in elementary school. Do you remember those?
I remember them and being terrified of them.
Yeah, starting every year at Grade 4, the five-minute speech. My brother and I were both quite good at those. And I think it’s because we eschewed knowledge for entertainment value. For example, one year I did a speech on shopping, from like a Grade 7’s perspective of what the experience is like and the gauntlet of going through the grocery store with your mom, or how miserable clothes shopping would be. It’s quite ironic that I’ve become such a fancy boy after giving that speech. But that was probably my first time in front of a big group of people and making people laugh. We didn’t really have theatre, you know, in my elementary school or that much in high school either.
Where did you come from that had limited theatre?
Guelph, Ontario. And it’s not like there aren’t [theatres]- there was the Guelph Little Theatre and a place called the River Run Centre. But at least in the Catholic School Board, you know, we got all the theatrics we needed from religion. I suppose they didn’t need to put on anything else other than that.
Yeah, I would agree on that one; with a name like Mary-Margaret, I’m raised Catholic too.
Oh yeah, are you a fallen Catholic, too?
Oh, fallen hard.
What’s your theatrical background?
So I came to Toronto to study at the University of Toronto, English and Drama, double specialist. Because drama is just too risky, so you want something really solid like English, just in case it doesn’t work out.
And when I was there – actually it kind of all got started just a couple feet down the street here. I was in an English class with a professor named Nick Mount, who is a super brilliant educator and lecturer. And we were doing a course about the literature of our time. And the second half of the semester was all based on authors born after 1960 and works published after 1990. So the immediate literature of our time.
And I saw Karen Hines do a collection from her Pochsy Plays monologues. And that was the first time I had ever seen clown performance like that. And I didn’t know what it was or what was going on, but I could just feel my heart thumping so hard in my chest. And I was star-struck and starry-eyed. And being like, [exaggerated tone] “What is this? How do I do this? What’s going on?”
So, from there I studied a lot of clown.
Do you classify Pearle Harbour as a clown?
I’d say she straddles genres and genders pretty evenly. It certainly informs my practice and what I’m doing. Particularly a type of clown called bouffon, which sort of attacks our hypocrisies and all the nasty bits that we try to cover and ignore and bury and pretend don’t exist. And the important thing to me about that is that I think it really defines how I approach things, because there’s always a bit of darkness, there’s always a knife edge to the kind of humour that I enjoy and that I try to put forward. But it should serve the audience all the time, I think. The ethos of bouffon is that all aspects of humanity belong to everybody. We’re all capable of the same spectrum of wonderful, caring, heroic actions and things that are, like, monstrous and villainous and outright demonic. We all have access to that. And it’s really easy for us to try to separate ourselves and think, “Well, I’m a good person and I’m not like that.” But it’s just not the case. That kind of really occupies a big space in my head, and I think all the humour kind of comes from that ideal.
It really came across with Pearle, the dark and the light mingling together so well.
She’s like a brash and campy package. And then I can smuggle in some nasty underneath all that makeup.
What inspired you to create Pearle?
A couple years ago, I was in a production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. That was my first time in drag, and I had been studying clown and bouffon a lot before that. When I did it, the first time I was in front of an audience, I was like, “oh wow, this comes really naturally to me, and riffing in character just pops into my head, super quick, super easy!” It’s amazing what drag does to people because it really makes them open their chest and invite you to dive in and swim around and get close. It’s such a neat shortcut to get into very deep and vulnerable spaces in your audience.
After that show, it just seemed to make sense for me that I’ve got to marry what I’ve been wanting to do, with clown and bouffon, with this form that just acts magic on people. So that was the first time in drag. That was about four years ago now. And then a little after that, three years ago in August, is when the Pearle happened for the first time.
And where was that?
That was at the old Unit 102 on Dufferin. It was just a little sort of cabaret sketch. I was offered to do twenty minutes of whatever I want. So I took 35 [minutes], because that’s generally how things go with me. And then from there, I just kept sort of writing these- it would be generous to call them plays, but let’s call them plays- one right after another that we did at Video Fag for about a year, a year and a half. And then from there, did some work with Theatre Pass Muraille. They were really wonderful and brought me and Pearle on and gave me space and audiences in their after hours, and just continuing to work and try new things. I never wanted Pearle to just exist in one play; I wanted to create a character that could be dropped into different situations and calamities. It’s this neat little thing where people just accept her as a figure of, like, toxic nostalgia.
So, in one play if she’s talking about revelations of abuse and Bing Crosby in a Christmas special, it’s fine that all her memories come from the ‘50s and ‘60s. But in another play, if she’s talking about Chautauqua and a revival tradition from the early 1900s, people just say “yeah, I get it, let’s just go with it”.
There was a large audience participation element in your SummerWorks show. Did you have any challenges with that? Did anything go awry?
It’s really hard for things to go awry in that situation because as long as I’m listening to what’s being said and what’s happening, it’s all good, it’s all beautiful, it’s all cannon fodder. And that’s the really special thing. Night after night – we did it first for the RISER Project at the Theatre Centre, where it was developed with the support of Why Not Theatre, and then took it to SummerWorks- no matter who’s in the tent, or no matter what happens, if I forgot to pre-load a prop or [something else goes wrong], as long as I own whatever happens, including the failure, then it’s something to be celebrated. It’s something that we’ve shared, just us together in this space. And it always dazzles me how much an audience is willing to give of themselves and share of themselves to Pearle and to the tent. So it’s far and away my favourite thing that I’ve ever done as Pearle. And I just love it; every time it’s always so exciting because I don’t know how people are going to surprise me.
What is your long-term plan for Pearle?
Global domination mainly.
Excellent. That sounds reasonable.
Yeah, you know, shoot for the moon, you’ll land up among the stars. By the way, that doesn’t make any sense if you know anything about space. You’ll just be floating in a vacuum and then shortly run out of air. Better to stay here, I suppose.
So upcoming in February, Pearle Harbour’s Battle Cry premieres at the Rhubarb Festival. Then beyond that, we’re planning a Chautauqua tour and taking the tent around the country and converting more souls in these troubled times, you betcha. And then, beyond that, there are a couple things in the works that are a little bigger and more long-term, but they mostly exist in my dream journal. So I don’t want to jinx it when I can’t confirm details yet, but she’s got legs. She’s gonna be sticking around, I think.
Tell me more about Rhubarb.
Battle Cry is Pearle’s next show. It’s a concert experience. Drag performance art concert extravaganza that takes and rearranges and reimagines some of the most popular pro-war songs from the last century, across different nations and conflicts, and kind of looks at each one and thinks about what it takes for people to endure war, how these songs have been used to bring us together and also tear people apart, how we invent the ideas of the enemy and our allies in our head. And if we can learn from these [choruses] before we’re doomed to repeat them. Because it certainly feels like we’re on the brink of something big. And Pearle’s taken this moment to try to give us a little lesson in history, I suppose. And I’m working with some really fabulous people. My returning musical director accompanist, Steven Conway.
He was fantastic in SummerWorks.
Yeah. I’ve been working with him since a show called Sunday School, which was kind of where the seed of Chautauqua started. And I’m also collaborating with two of my oldest friends on this- Emma and Sarah Bortolon-Vettor- who are from the band Bonnie Trash. They’re these brilliant musical twins. So I’m really excited to have more people on stage, more things to do with the audience, and really putting them through the trenches, you know?
Are there any other projects you’re involved with outside of Pearle?
Not right now. She’s kind of taken a big bite of my life. I say, whenever I’m dragging up (or especially de-dragging), because my eyebrows are so thick and bushy I have to use a very special kind of adhesive to glue them down that requires a special solvent to take them off. And every time it’s happening I just say to my fiancé, I’m like, “Oh god, I should have based my career on an easier gimmick.”
But it’s working out for me so far. And I do love doing it. The glue is probably one of the most unpleasant parts about it. But yeah, it’s such a joy to become Pearle and to push people and challenge them to do things that they maybe didn’t think was possible, you know? And challenge them to empathize with a 6’5’ nostalgic drag queen. That’s my version of a death drop. I won’t be lip-syncing or running across a stage or doing any spins or hick kicks; but hopefully, by the end of the show, Pearle will reveal herself to be far more human and flawed and like you than you would have ever thought.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Hmmm. Accepting any and all applications for patronage, sugar daddies, even Sweet’n Low daddies. Every little bit helps the cause. No, beyond that, come out to Rhubarb. There are so many amazing queer performers that are coming in for the city, and I’m really excited to put on this show for you guys. I suppose that’s it for the moment. [As Pearle] You can find Pearle online at www.pearleharbour.com, or on Instagram @PearleHarbour. That’s an ‘e’ at the end of Pearle, a ‘u’ in harbour, because I want to believe there’s a little bit of you in me.