Self Isolated Artist
Yolanda (She/Her) is a Queer 2 Spirit Ojibwe and South Asian mixed performer, playwright, and poet from Fort William First Nation in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Now based in Tkarón: to, and a graduate of Humber College’s Theatre Performance program, she and Michif (Métis) artist Cole Alvis began manidoons collective: a circle of artists creating Indigenous performance.
In February 2020, Yolanda’s recently four-time Dora nominated solo show bug was remounted at Theatre Passe Muraille which garnered a great deal of controversial interest. She has performed on stages at the Stratford Festival, the NAC, and The Cultch. Yolanda was recently nominated for a Dora award for her performance as Narrator/Bear son in Two Odysseys: Pimooteewin/ Gállábártnit.
We conducted our interview and conversation via email:
It has been the three-month mark since we’ve all been in isolation, and some places are starting to emerge into Stage 2. How have you been faring? How has your immediate family been doing during this time?
My family is doing well. They’re healthy so far. My mother is immunocompromised and she lives with my sister who is a dental assistant and has just been forced back to work. I’m nervous. She’s nervous, but they’re all being as safe as they can be.
As for myself, you know I was doing alright in the beginning. As a person with a lot of social anxiety I didn’t mind having to stay home too much and spending time with myself was seemingly a good thing. I think, as time went on in isolation and lacking human touch, my depression sort of reared its ugly head, so it hasn’t always been easy and the last few weeks have been especially tough. I’m fortunate enough to have a fantastic support network that keeps me safe.
As a performer, what has been the most difficult and challenging for you professionally and personally?
Personally, as a performer, I’d say the structure of colonial theatre has been difficult to work within. It doesn’t give any room for our humanity. The long workdays, the rigidity, the ‘leaving your baggage at the door’, the two show days. It’s not sustainable and cast, creative teams, and production teams end up being worn down and, because it’s the arts, you have to get up and go do it again and again.
And, if you’re working on a play that has difficult or traumatic content, this type of environment doesn’t give space for care. It’s so important that we continue to work towards more sustainable and healthier ways of storytelling.
Were you in preparation, rehearsals, or any planning stages of productions before everything was shut down? What has become of those projects? Will they see the light of day anytime soon?
I had so many projects this summer! I was meant to be a part of Banff’s Playwright’s Lab in April with my play, My Sister’s Rage, which was then meant to have a workshop. I was also supposed to have a two-week workshop of White Girls in Moccasins, which is my play in residency with Buddies in Bad Times. Both of which we ended up doing virtual versions of the workshops, complete with online readings. We have some hopes for getting into a room in the fall, but we’ll see what happens.
My solo show, bug, was also supposed to have a three-day run-in Stratford as part of the Lab series. Most of the projects are all sort of up in the air, as I believe many are - just waiting to see what happens.
What have you been doing to keep yourself busy during this time?
A lot of Netflix, again - I’m sure this is a common answer. I’ve also been doing a lot of beading. Trying to get better at it. It’s really calming, and I can spend hours doing it. I’ve also been trying to do as much activism as I can with this incredible revolution we’re seeing with the push to dismantle systemic racism. The balance of important, revolutionary work and attempting to disconnect and breathe can be difficult, but both keep me busy in different ways.
Any words of wisdom or advice you might /could give to fellow performers and colleagues? What message would you deliver to recent theatre school graduates who have now been set free into this unknown and uncertainty given the fact live theaters and studios might be closed for 1 ½ - 2 years?
I would say read. Read plays by Indigenous and Black playwrights, and other playwrights of colour. I think it’s important for artists, and especially theatre school grads, to look into plays that they most likely weren’t given access to at their schools.
Read books about the history of this land in your spare time. Because how can we create and perform art on this land without fully understanding what we have and how we have it?
Specifically, to BIPOC artists, I would say to never be afraid to use your voice. You have more power than they let you think you do.
Do you see anything positive stemming from COVID 19?
Well, I think it definitely gave everyone a moment to slow down. Living in a capitalist machine, as we all do, there was no breathing room. We’re breathing now. Or trying to. We’ve exposed capitalism as a structure that doesn’t work and that’s important.
I think it’s interesting that with this pandemic happening, it’s led to economic decline, which I think gives access and room for this revolutionary uprising we’re in right now. And as tough as it is - especially for Black and Indigenous folks - we are seeing small positive changes happening when it comes to systemic racism.
Do you think COVID 19 will have some lasting impact on the Canadian/North American performing arts scene?
Yeah, I think it might - I mean how could it not? It’s tough to say whether it’ll be positive or negative. Maybe both. We’ll probably see a drop in the amount of plays being programmed for a while due to the money being lost during the closed seasons.
At the same time, it also gives room for longer development and rehearsal periods. We’re definitely going to see a huge shift in how we make and produce theatre over the next couple of years.
Some artists have turned to YouTube and online streaming to showcase their work. What are your comments and thoughts about streaming? Is this something that the actor/theatre may have to utilize going forward into the unknown?
I’ve done a couple of live streams myself and I think it’s fine. It definitely has its challenges, but something we have to remember is that disabled artists have been doing a lot of this work for a while. Not all theatres are accessible for performers or audience members or, if they are, it’s often a big deal to get to an elevator.
I think this is an opportunity to re-think theatre accessibility.
Maybe all theatre should be live-streamed or have Livestream specific shows or a mix of both. I have a friend who can’t sit in chairs for a long period of time due to her disability. There was this show that would have been amazing for her to see and she couldn’t go see it because we don’t make theatres comfortable for all bodies. This is a chance to change that.
If you can’t rip out your chairs and replace them with better seats (which is what I think should happen), then we need to think about other ways in which our stories can be accessed, and maybe online is the way to do that. Colonizers built this society for only certain types of people and institutions uphold that.
Despite all this fraught tension and confusion, what is it about performing that COVID will never destroy for you?
Our stories are medicine and storytellers are the vessels of that medicine. It doesn’t matter how the story is told, just that it is told. And that can never be taken away.
With a respectful acknowledgment to ‘Inside the Actors’ Studio’ and the late James Lipton here are the ten questions he used to ask his guests:
*You HAVE to know how excited I am about this. As a young person, I loved watching ‘Inside the Actors’ Studio’ and I so badly wanted to be on it, mostly for these questions, so thank you for making a little dream come true*
1. What is your favourite word?
Odebwewin (it means the sound of the heart)
2. What is your least favourite word?
3. What turns you on?
4. What turns you off?
5. What sound or noise do you love?
6. What sound or noise bothers you?
7. What is your favourite curse word?
What is your least favourite curse word?
Anything that tries to replace a curse word (ie; Frick)
8. Other than your own, what other career profession could you see yourself doing?
9. What career choice could you not see yourself doing?
10. If Heaven exists, what do you hope God will say to you as you approach the Pearly Gates?
“You did great work. I’m proud of you. Yes, you can return as a bear.”
You can learn more about Yolanda by visiting www.yolandabonnell.com and www.manidoons.com Twitter: Yolanda_Bonnell