Pulling Apart the Scaffolding: Evalyn Parry on ‘Paradise Lost’

Photo of Evalyn Parry. She stands in front of a graffiti covered wall and wears a denim shirt and green coat.
Evalyn Parry. Photo by Suzanne Robertson.

You know how the story goes: boy meets girl, girl meets Satan, Satan tempts girl, girl eats fruit, boy eats fruit, humankind becomes doomed, and for some reason it’s all girl’s fault. Or something like that.

Adam and Eve’s fall from innocence has been told and retold across millennia. Perhaps the best-known English-language version (and certainly the one most often assigned to university students) is John Milton’s 1667 epic poem, “Paradise Lost”. By 2018, it seemed like time for an update, so Canadian playwright Erin Shields was commissioned by the Stratford Festival to write a new, feminist adaptation of Milton’s work for the stage. 

This winter, Shields’ Paradise Lost is snaking its way into Kingston’s theatre world, where the DAN School of Drama and Music will stage a student production directed by award-winning theatre creator Evalyn Parry. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Parry between rehearsals at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts, where the show opens this week in the Studio Theatre. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Last winter’s Drama Major was Branden Jacob-Jenkins’ Everybody, a 21st-century adaptation of the late medieval morality play Everyman. With Paradise Lost on the horizon, I’m beginning to wonder if we’re having some kind of a postmodern medieval/Renaissance moment. When I point this out, Parry chuckles. “I mean, the DAN School seems to be. I chose this play not realizing they were doing Everybody, and when I found out, I thought it was hilarious. One conjecture about that is that they’re stories with big casts, these biblical stories. That’s always the interesting thing about school productions—finding contemporary plays with a significant size of cast.”

Besides the biblical ensemble size, what’s compelling about Shields’ Paradise Lost? “Part of what drew me to this particular play is that it feels like it’s pulling apart the scaffolding. So much of our Western structures of thought, laws, and patriarchal construct is based on this set of myths. The play has a very humorous approach to how it takes that apart, and seemed really accessible and interesting and meaty. There was a lot there for us to work with. It’s this foundational story—even if it’s not the frame of everybody’s religion, and even if you weren’t raised religiously, we all just know these stories so well. And so it makes for rich material to look at how we got to where we are.”

Parry had several criteria in mind during the play selection process. “I was looking for something with lots of roles for women and non-binary people, or flexibility in how it can be cast effectively. I wanted something, ideally, that was fun—it didn’t have to be a full-on comedy, but after the pandemic, I personally wanted to work on something fun. I wanted it to have a clear feminist approach, and I wanted students not to have to play outside their age range, if possible. When I found this text, it checked all the boxes pretty well. 

“The strikes against it were that it’s long, a full two acts, and it is big. It’s ambitious, from a production point of view, so there’s a lot to work on for the students. And it’s stretching people. You don’t often get a chance to work on these big shows outside of a school setting, because you don’t have the resources in any kind of independent or non-Stratford setting. So it’s a pretty great opportunity, both as a director and for the students.”

Shields’ playful, irreverent writing offers some exciting design opportunities. “It’s quite an anachronistic play, which is part of what I like about Shields’ adaptation of the Milton [poem]. Her stage directions say this takes place in 17th-century Miltonian time, and also in biblical time, and also in the present. And we’ve sort of added a layer to that where my inspiration for design was like a 1990s underground punk rave party.”

The students are approaching Paradise Lost from multiple directions, including academic research by a student dramaturge. “[They] did tons of research and brought out lots of the original to compare and contrast with [Shields’ text] and was able to offer a lot of extra context as actors were figuring out their characters. They’re playing these iconic and mythological characters—the Father, the Son, Adam, and Eve. So, the challenge is to figure out how to play them as real people… We’re taking an approach that I would sort of call epic theatre in the Brechtian sense. We know the audience is there, we’re in dialogue with them. Right off the top, Satan, the main character, is talking straight to the audience.”

Speaking of Satan, this version of Paradise Lost makes a notable departure from its source material: in Shields’ play, Satan is a woman. “That complicates the story. What happens if this ultimate bad guy is a woman? Besides Satan’s fall from Heaven and revenge on God, the story being told here is the way that Satan takes revenge on God in the biblical story by tempting Adam and Eve. So you have the archetype that undergirds and gives justification for patriarchy, and then you have a woman as the character who does the tempting of Eve. And then you have Eve, who’s a little more self-aware in Shields’ version… The dynamic offers an amazing shift of perspective and makes you look at the double blame—this idea of women as responsible for the world’s evil is really doubled down in this version. It gets us to recognize the reality of those dynamics in the present, and suddenly, we see the link through millennia and go, wow, we’re still here.”

Parry is fascinated by the way relationships play out in Paradise Lost. “Leading to the fall, [Satan is] jealous at the introduction of the son, the Christ figure, who’s now God’s chosen one where she was before the chosen right-hand angel. Suddenly, she’s being bumped off for a man, a firstborn son. And then she pays God back. It kind of becomes the abused becoming the abuser in the way that she then punishes Eve. The play does a really interesting job of setting up all these pairs. You’re seeing power relationships—parental/child relationships, male/female relationships, and older/younger power dynamics.

“There are mirrors for all of these pairings that are wrestling with some of the same questions of the injustice and unfairness built into hierarchies, and who has more power. A central theme is around the tension between free will or obedience to a higher power. There’s lots to chew on inside of it. And I love the fact that the Satan character being cast as female complicates the story some more. It doesn’t really solve it in a new way. It doesn’t really offer us a way out. But it gives it a different resonance that feels very contemporary.”

 Evalyn Parry is an award-winning Canadian performance-maker and theatrical innovator whose work as a creator/performer, musician, and director is inspired by intersections of history, social and ecological justice, and personal narratives. 

‘Paradise Lost’ plays at the Isabel Bader Centre’s Studio Theatre from March 6th to 17th, 2024. Tickets and more information can be found here.