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Pearle Harbour’s Agit-Pop! at Calgary’s High Performance Rodeo

By Leonie O’Sullivan, February 1 2024—

Only a few weeks into the semester, and I’m already overwhelmed. If looming midterms and dreary assignments are getting you down, allow drag tragicomedienne, Pearle Harbour, to take the edge off. The Gauntlet had a splendid time getting to know Pearle’s better half, Justin Miller.

Miller is a writer, performer, producer and a self-proclaimed fool with a capital F. He playfully calls Pearle his “worser half” because she embodies all the stuff he dislikes most about himself. Nine years ago, Miller delved into the world of drag after studying clown, before RuPaul’s Drag Race became a household name.

“I had been studying clownery for a little while, and I had been really inspired by a Calgary-based artist, Karen Hines, who is a brilliant bouffon, and I wanted to be like her,” said Miller. “I would have also been happy to be her, but I didn’t think that identity theft was within my capacity at the time.”

Rebecca Ballarin, Miller’s friend and now Agit-Pop! Artistic Director, cast him in a production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Stepping into the role of Hedwig, Miller was introduced to drag artistry.

“When I was in drag and with audiences as Hedwig, so much stuff just clicked and came together that I had been wanting to do and pursue in my clowning world,’ said Miller. “So then I just married them together.” 

Agit-Pop! emerged in an analogous fashion as the Bride of Frankenstein. Pearle performed five to ten-minute acts in comedy clubs, burlesque shows, back alley queer scenes and alternative drag clubs. A vast collection of acts, often pairing storytelling with song, were carefully tailored and tested with these audiences. 

Agit-Pop! came as a function of the fact that almost everything we do in larger scale theatrical works has to be developed with an audience,” said Miller. “After a couple of years, we had this whole basket of orphaned acts that were great but didn’t necessarily make it into something bigger, and we didn’t know quite what to do with them. So we just stuck them all together and called it Agit-Pop!

Agit-Pop! stays current as Miller and the team continuously rearrange it, chop it down, and build it back up with fresh work. 

“It’s always meant to be really urgently talking about the anxieties and the crises that we’re dealing with right now at the moment,” said Miller. 

Attending a show like Agit-Pop! is a collective and communal event. Pearle shares her pain and grievances to bring the audience together. But she certainly won’t go easy on you.

“It’s pretty easy to convince yourself that you’re alone with your fear, hatred and sorrow, but you’re almost never alone. I think what’s pretty special about drag is that you put on the makeup, the wig and the costume, and you get to be this lightning rod,” said Miller. “First, Pearl kind of rips you open and rips you apart, but she does put you back together again by the end.”

In Agit-Pop!, each act is accompanied by one of the greatest pop songs from the past century. From David Bowie to Britney Spears, the songs are used to explore a current issue. 

“It’s a bit like the sugar that makes the medicine go down,” said Miller. “We just take an approach that’s kind of strange and makes it a little wonky, and hopefully makes you listen to these songs in a new way.”

If you’re a fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race, keep in mind that drag is versatile, and you shouldn’t let the show shape your expectations for Agit-Pop! Unfortunately, Canada’s Drag Race is not on the horizon for Pearle, but Miller did hint at some upcoming film and television projects.

“I would be such a bad competitor on Drag Race because I don’t lip sync, I don’t dance, I don’t know how to sew, and I would be so worried about how everybody else is doing that I would inevitably get a villain cut for sure,” said Miller.

Miller had a final message for the readers of the Gauntlet.

“If they want a wild, kooky time with a drag queen they will never see on Canada’s Drag Race, come out and we’ll have a blast together,” said Miller.

Pearle Harbour is set to perform at the High Performance Rodeo, an international festival of live art in downtown Calgary, from Jan. 30 to Feb. 2. Pearle will also be stopping by Canmore before setting off to Montreal. Escape the doom of the semester and indulge in some tragedy with Pearle.

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