Named Kistahpinanihk by the Cree, Prince Albert, Saskatchewan or the “Gateway to the North” is where Yvette Nolan was born. Raised in Winnipeg by her Algonquin mother and Irish immigrant father, she is today one of Canada’s prominent Indigenous playwrights. Her career has taken her to Whitehorse, Guysborough, Toronto and Saskatoon, and most recently Montreal since her appointment as the 2018 McGill Mordecai Richler Writer-in-Residence.
In a League of Her Own
A pivotal force behind contemporary aboriginal theatre in Canada, Nolan has written and directed over 25 plays. Starting November 21, the English Department’s Drama & Theatre Program will present her latest work, The Birds (Moyse Hall Theatre), a modern take on Aristophanes’ comedy.
Audience members can expect a colorful retelling of the story transformed to reflect pressing contemporary Indigenous questions about truth and reconciliation with many 21st century references. With a multicultural cast made up entirely with McGill students flocking from various programs and backgrounds, Nolan is pleased that the play is so representative of society,
“This is the world we live in, and that is what we are putting up on stage.”
Walking Her Own Path
When 17-yeard old Nolan confided her desire to study acting to her parents, their response was how beneficial a law or teaching degree would be. While theatre may not have been their preferred career path, Nolan always knew that life would lead her towards the arts,
“My parents gave me all the things they wanted as children; ballet and piano lessons, theatre school and books. I wanted to become an actor because I was surrounded by Art. Because my mother had me so young, we grew up together. We grew up learning poetry and Shakespeare together and read a wide range of books together. What appealed to my mother, appealed to me as well.”
By her final year of school, Nolan was the production assistant for the theatre department at the University of Manitoba. She found herself doing everything she possibly could to work in theatre, even deferring her Victorian Literature exam because she had a gig.
“In Indigenous world view, we talk about working in a circle or community and not in a hierarchal shape. Theatre fulfills that for me because it takes everybody. It takes everyone’s participation and investment. Everyone brings their ‘stuff’ to the room and with that material we make theater.”
Growing up as an Indigenous female, she experienced her fair share of discrimination and hate towards her community. With her father’s Irish skin, and her mother’s Algonquin heart, she often walked the line of deciding to ‘out’ herself or not. Regardless of the lengthy and strained relationship amongst First Nations and settlers, she hopes the audience leaves with a sense of understanding on how actions they deem okay, such as racial slurs and false accusations, can be destructive for another kind of people, which in this case is the birds,
“I’m hoping that as we are in a moment of truth and reconciliation and trying to understand how we got [here], that the play helps shape this truth. That it leaves the audience with an understanding that reconciliation needs to happen, and that this is the truth of how we got to this really fraught relationship between First Nations and the people who arrived after.”
That is the power of theatre, according to Nolan. In a time where “being heard” and “listening” are crucial, theatre has become critical once again. It has become a place where people sit in a room together and listen to the other side of the story. A place where they have to learn empathy by seeing and hearing someone else’s journey.
The Power of Dreams
Many of her plays are taught at the university. She finds this honour particularly special considering her dream as a young adult was to attend McGill. When describing Nolan, Trevor Ponech, Department Chair & Associate Professor for the Department of English, says she is a great voice, director and contributor to aboriginal theater and the McGill community,
“Part of the English Department’s continued effort is to make and sustain an effective commitment to Indigenous scholarship, education, and art.” He continues, “Yvette’s participation in the cultural life of McGill will be unique and timely, in relation to the emerging emphasis on Indigenous education and culture initiatives.”
Her dream is to one day tell her late mother’s story; to share with the world how difficult and inspiring of a journey her life was as an Indigenous woman. She went from being taken from her community at seven, to becoming an educator as an adult. She lived through a fire, and was a commissioner at the Human Rights Commission. When she lived in Edmonton, a Circle of Elders came to her and said that it was her time to join them. Feeling unprepared, she told them she was not ready but they disagreed. Nolan explains how the elders were right, since her mother died at such a young age, it was her time to pass on the values and inspire youth. She feels her mother’s soul within her, and knows she is guiding her through this journey.
When asked to define herself in one word, Nolan said “learning”. She explained if you are lucky enough to experience a lifetime of learning, pass it on to others and be open to the possibly of further learning. There is always something new to learn.
For more information on the play, visit https://www.mcgill.ca/english/moyse-hall/upcoming-productions.