Some bike stories have an air of serendipity to them. There’s a team in Dufferin Grove Park who use this quality to address social, political and environmental issues. Their name is Cyclops.
Cyclops, or the Cycling Oriented Puppet Squad, falls under the umbrella organization Clay & Paper Theatre.
Seven of us gather around a couple of picnic tables by the door to their ‘office.’ We are surrounded by bicycles, shyly listening to their human counterparts discuss important matters, hoping to hear something juicy. If I could speak bicycle, I would overhear my bicycle–Miss Jackson–assuring them that juicy is a given, in this context.
David Anderson is the founder and artistic director of Clay & Paper Theatre, which produces plays, pageants and parades with the mandate of performing in public spaces to inspire cultural transformations.
“I could never have imagined in my best dreams being able to bring such fabulous people together,” he says, with fatherly pride. “Bikes are part of a vision for a community, an instrument of personal and collective pleasure; the pleasure I derive from riding in Toronto is disproportionate.”
Amira Routledge, the Intern Artistic Producer for Clay & Paper Theatre and who casts and hires all Cyclops staff, calls her bike the Red Racer. David calls his bike Butterfly.
Ellen Hurley has just had an accident on her beloved Technicolour Dream Steed, and we all share a moment of silence. Anna Sapershteyn has recently had her dream bike, Matt Black, stolen. She was so heartbroken that she wrote a plea for its return on a piece of wood, posted at the theft site. On the back of the board was “a full-on curse.” The bikes lean in, optimistic. Two days later, the sign itself was stolen. The bikes nervously keep an eye on an approaching dog and its master.
Rebecca Bruton’s bike bears the name Sylvia and Maria Wodzinska claims to over identify with them, so she never names them.
“I’m not sure I understand,” I say.
Whenever Rebecca discovers something wrong with her bike, she looks to her own circumstance. For example, a couple of weeks ago, the bike felt sluggish and the brakes weren’t responding. Her doctor said she’d overextended herself and advised rest. Everyone’s head nods, knowingly.
Anna grins. “Yes! It’s like the other day when I was performing our love story. As things kept popping off my puppet and flying through the air, I thought, ‘Am I paying enough attention to my body?’”
Amira explains, “The love story is about how our relationship with our bike is like that of two lovers.” It is a short play performed by two puppeteers and a couple of instrumentalists. The play follows a series of stages—attraction, puppy love, marriage, honeymoon, neglect, reconciliation, maintenance, and finally, true love. Obviously Anna has been in the neglect stage.
Ellen really enjoyed the two-day bike decorating workshop the team hosted this summer. She prefers to ride her decorated Cyclops bike with its pink, yellow and light green contrasts.
“You can’t not look at it,” she explains, and that is the point of Cyclops.
“Our role is shaking up the status quo, on bikes with puppets.” The atmosphere becomes charged.
Ellen says, “I found the mobile matinees physically exhausting but very rewarding.” I watched them ride into the venue enclosed in the bike trailer operating a very vocal puppet; the methodology draws in an unwitting audience, park visitors who were intrigued by the puppet on the bike.
“We’re opening minds and eyes.”
On the other hand, these bicycles are divas. In the middle of a dramatic moment, the performers can look up to see their audience taking snapshots of the bikes: they are not watching the play.
“The bikes look zany and that brings a smile.”
Before Cyclops, they all rode road bikes. David explains that they got a discount on the bikes, at Sweet Pete’s.
“How do you feel about riding your work bikes?” I ask them.
Anna speaks up, “I feel like I’ve gone from riding a sports car to a station wagon!” and they all eagerly agree with this.
“I feel like a king on the road!”
“Or on a carriage!”
The day they picked up the bikes, they cycled across town as a group to collect the business license. They describe the notion of riding as a group on donated mountain bikes with front suspension in a tone that suggests it was the most outrageous vision. I hope Miss Jackson is not listening. Yet, their faces suggest that this shared memory is a good one, making a team impact on the city.
“It’s affirming to see people take the instrument of human energy (that is, the bike) and adapt it in ways that are sometimes simple, and sometimes exquisite.”
The bikes and trailers both matter to this team. Anna rode in from Etobicoke twice daily for the entire contract. She has also shared some visceral memories with her bike, like protesting in the G8/G20 events. While she was not arrested, she recalls the hour-long rides home from the events.
“I was processing the shock of both the good and the bad thing that can happen here. On a bike, you witness things.”
Rebecca states, “My bike is my subtle and steadfast rebellion in breaking the status quo.”
Amira says, “Cycling is an amazing way to get to know a city. When I moved here, I was exposed to a huge bike community… so many are passionate about it!” She and David co-wrote the Pedaler’s Wager, which was intended to contrast natural machinery with the Industrial Revolution. They wanted to use bikes and trailers in a mobile show, where there was a strong political take.
“I built in layers of metaphor,” she says offhandedly.
“Oh! I know!” I enthuse. “At the final performance, I loved how the audience is asked to literally pick up the entire seating arrangement three times and move it to face a different direction!” The entire pattern is circular, like a wheel. Amira beams that I have noticed.
“I’m always impressed when a group of total strangers can work together, as a community,” I say.
“Work in public space is… about people doing,” she agrees.
In the mobile version of the Pedaler’s Wager, Amira’s trailer carries Baron Boots, an exceptionally large, exceptionally unattractive puppet, reflective of the character in the play. The enormous head is papier mache, while the body is a softer cloth frame assembled onto a backpack. The puppeteer wears the backpack, becoming the invisible workings beneath the behemoth. When they remove the backpack, Baron Boots loses his legs: he is reduced to a mere ten feet high. This meagre monster is bolted onto a trailer to travel.
“Because of his height and because his head is wider than the trailer, you can’t corner too narrow.”
This summer, the troupe was travelling to an event in a bike puppet parade. Someone volunteered to ride Baron Boots across in Amira’s trailer. As the parade turned a corner on a busy downtown street, Baron Boots’ giant green head hurled itself onto the hood of a cab of tourists. Amira dismounted collected the Baron. The cabbie sped off, but stopped only a block away. When Amira caught up, she noticed that the hood had been dented. She handed the driver her business card.
He looked at the car. Quietly, he explained that this accident could have happened anywhere, then handed her the card back and drove off. Amira shouted her thanks at the vanishing car and then looked over at Baron Boots: not a scratch on the old codger.
“The hazards of riding a giant puppet in downtown Toronto,” she grins.
Members of the team have used bicycles to make statements throughout their lives. At fourteen, Rebecca found an old beater left neglected, which her father dubbed La Fille Bicyclette.
From that pivotal moment many interesting artistic endeavours sprang. Rebecca used this name for her girl’s punk band (all the members of which rode bikes), and it was her graffiti artist name.
“Cyclops is political theatre, and it gives me a feeling of doing something transgressive and subversive.” She likes that her life causes others to do a double-take.
The sun is beginning to cast shadows around us. Anna’s boyfriend has arrived and is standing slightly off to one side, with his bike. David and I are left at the table as the others close up shop.
“The guiding principle of Clay & Paper Theatre is citizenship, and working in a public space. As cities grow, they become more dense and public space becomes more contested. Bicycles allow us to get into the nooks and crannies, and to speak to people of all walks of life. A public space is where true citizenship can happen.”
A small move like getting on your bicycle might change the world.