Canada's premier drag 'tragicomedienne' Pearle Harbour wants to take over the world in 2020
Her new show Agit-Pop! kicks off a year of touring this week at Toronto's Next Stage Theatre Festival
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens. It won the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada.
There's a Canadian drag performer who is about to serve something on stages across the country that you'll likely be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. Pearle Harbour — the drag persona of Justin Miller — is about to have her biggest year yet with Pearl Harbour's Agit-Pop!, a "jukebox spectacular of song, storytelling and sociopolitical tirades" developed over a half-decade of live performance.
A two-time Dora Award nominee and the self-proclaimed "nation's premier (read: only) drag tragicomedienne," Pearle's latest show will debut at Toronto's Next Stage Theatre Festival before heading west to the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival in Vancouver, the Yukon Arts Centre in Whitehorse and the OUTstages Queer Theatre Festival in Victoria. Accompanied by musical director Steven Conway, Agit-Pop! will find Pearle offering audiences (among other things) new arrangements of old classics and little-known gems by David Bowie, Judy Garland, Tom Waits and more.
"We've built a bunch of short acts that are usually based around that same kind of like, really acidic, sociopolitical tirade tied with some kind of a cover or new arrangement of like an old pop song," Miller says of Pearle. "And Agit-Pop! is sort of this ever changing and growing collection of those short acts. So it feels really wonderfully indulgent for myself and [our musical director] Stephen Conway because we just have such a blast doing the show every time. And it is blissfully dramaturgy free. It's just us at the mic singing, screaming, crying. It's wonderful."
Miller has been performing as Pearle for five years now — something he finds "horrifying" to say out loud.
"It feels like so much distance has been travelled," he says. "But it also feels like such a compact little blip, just how fast everything moves."
The character came out of Miller wanting to "bind together the kind of ethos of 'bouffon performance'," which he described as "a type of nasty clown that makes such an existence out of pointing out our hypocrisies and the evil and the monstrous that we all share."
"Sacha Baron Cohen's characters are all bouffons. He trained with the same French nasty asshole that I also trained with, Philippe Gaulier. And then the year before Pearle came along, I performed as Hedwig, which was my very first time in drag. And I was like, 'Oh, drag is a really useful tool to get to the very deepest sticky centre of people really really quickly.' So I wanted to bring this kind of really high wire satirical performance style and sort of smuggle it in this nice drag package. And that's how Pearle was born."
What's special about her is as a gathering point for community and performance, and how she can first get her audience to focus on her and then reflect that back out onto themselves.- Pearle Harbour
Intitially, Miller felt like Pearle was something "very explicitly national" because it was Rob Ford's Toronto and Stephen Harper's Canada at the time.
"We had yet to rebrand with Trudeau," Miller recalls. "So it was a very nationalistic critique along those lines. But as I've gone on and she's gone on, Pearle's sort of more truthfully become what she's meant for, which is both this creature of toxic nostalgia and also a community facilitator. She's a bad person, for sure. But what she's really built for and what's special about her is as a gathering point for community and performance, and how she can first get her audience to focus on her and then reflect that back out onto themselves and start looking at each other and start actually engaging and playing with each other. And that's kind of becoming the M.O. of all the performances and all the plays that I've been doing since."
That will culminate in a very big 2020 for Pearle.
"This is gonna be the busiest year that Pearle's ever had, which feels really wonderful," Miller says.
Besides the aforementioned festivals in Toronto, Vancouver, Whitehorse and Victoria, Pearle is in talks for some international touring and is officially bringing her previous show Chautauqua back to Ontario, including a spot at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in October.
"That feels wonderful as a little queer from Guelph, Ontario who only knew about Stratford growing up," Miller says. "When it came to how your path to the theatre might look like, that was the goal. That was the most coveted, prestigious thing and I've done it through the weirdest, queerest way possible."
Find out where you can see Pearl Harbour's Agit-Pop! (and learn more about Pearle herself) here.