Yvette Nolan is an Algonquin playwright, director, and dramaturg from Saskatchewan. Since her first play “BLADE” she has written dozens of plays, long and short, including “Annie Mae’s Movement”, “The Unplugging” and, as a co-writer, "Gabriel Dumont’s Wild West Show”. From 2003 to 2011, she served as Artistic Director of Native Earth Performing Arts, Canada’s oldest professional Indigenous theatre.

It is for her contribution to Canadian theatre that Yvette Nolan receives the Gascon-Thomas 2021 Lifetime Achievement Award. Her compelling and profound works contribute to highlight the claims and issues of Indigenous communities in Canada and to denounce the social injustices they are still experiencing.

Gascon-Thomas 2021 - Gil Desautels, Gideon Arthurs, Yvette Nolan, Mellissa Larivière
Yvette Nolan, Mellissa Larivière, Gil Desautels and Gideon Arthurs at the Gascon-Thomas 

Here is Yvette Nolan’s speech at the Gascon-Thomas Awards Ceremony on March 19th, 2021

It is humbling to receive an award for Lifetime Achievement. Has it been a lifetime already? 

I suppose it is only natural on the occasion of being honoured with such an award to look back and see what it is you have done, what are the choices and actions that have brought you to this moment in time.  

There are these moments that stick in your memory, moments that become touchstones, reminders of who you are, reminders of how you are seen in the world. When I was fourteen or fifteen, my new high school friend Margie Langer looked over her coffee cup at me and said “you just say things, eh?”  In my first year of university, my English prof Keith Fulton gave me back a paper on Riddley Walker with a note that said “you have what Yeats called ‘the fascination of what’s difficult.’”  In my twenties, a man I adored looked over his coffee cup at me and  said “why are you so mad all the time?”  I have thought of those observations about me so often, they might as well be tattoos. They have all served me in this life in the theatre.   

It took me a long time to figure out how to use this form that I love – the theatre – to tell the stories that really matter to me. I knew that telling stories on the stage was powerful, transformative, empowering, but I was in my mid-twenties before I ever saw a play written by an Indigenous writer, performed by Indigenous actors. Living in Winnipeg, which has a huge Indigenous population, created a kind of cognitive dissonance in me – Indigenous people being both visible and invisible. I myself – daughter of a residential school survivor and an Irish immigrant father – lived in both worlds, visible and invisible. I learned to love Shakespeare and Arthur Miller and Tom Stoppard and Sam Shepard.

And then my alma mater – the Manitoba Theatre Centre – brought the Native Earth production of The Rez Sisters to town. And that changed everything. Here were seven Indigenous women onstage, here was the rez, here was a trickster character that transformed and transformed and was the agent of transformation for others. It was like spiritual chiropracty; all the things I knew suddenly aligned.  

Unnatural and Accidental Women Directed by Yvette Nolan
Unnatural and Accidental Women, written by Marie Clements and directed by Yvette Nolan. Photo by Nir Bareket

I wrote my first play, BLADE
, shortly thereafter. A young woman in our community had been killed, and the media turned her into a prostitute. And I wanted to challenge that, I wanted to challenge that assumption, I wanted to challenge the power of the media, I wanted Winnipeggers to examine their own mindless consumption of stereotypes. I wanted to speak truth to power. Well, I didn’t want to, I just couldn’t help myself. “You just say things, eh?”  

Theatre is about voice, about visibility. After my Rez Sisters epiphany, I saw how theatre could be used to tell a whole world of stories that were not yet being heard and seen. Striving for that took me all over this land, took me to Toronto, to Native Earth, where I found a community of artists all reaching for the same thing. And Native Earth was both frustrating and exhilarating, because we still were not being heard, nor seen, and what we had to say was still not being received for what it was – Indigenous theatre – but for what it wasn’t – white, Western theatre. “The fascination of what’s difficult”.   

"Everything matters. What you do, what you say, how you are in the world"

No matter. I still believed. Believed in theatre, in its power to transform. I continued to travel, to work with artists everywhere who were passionate about telling stories that mattered to them, from the Yukon to Saskatchewan, from Orono, Maine, to Aotearoa.  I kept fighting for space and for voice.  Like the Whos in Whoville hollering at Horton – “we are here! we are here! we are here! we are here!” 

And then this year happened. This annus horribilus. This year of pandemics.   

And suddenly the world has changed. Suddenly, those who have felt silenced and disappeared are being heard and being seen. The powers that be are reckoning with the shift and suddenly all the hollering I have done over the years – “why are you so mad all the time?” – seems to have been worth it. I am hopeful. I am hopeful that this time, the change is going to take, and the world is ready to see and hear us all.  

Bearing, dance-opera co-directed by Yvette Nolan and Michael Greyeyes. Photo by Dahlia Katz
Bearing, dance-opera co-directed by Yvette Nolan and Michael Greyeyes. Photo by Dahlia Katz

Are there things that I can tell you from this end of a career to those of you at that end? Things I have learned?

Everything matters. What you do, what you say, how you are in the world – it may feel at times that you are spitting into the wind, tilting at windmills, whatever other metaphor for futility you like – but there may come a day when you turn around and look back and see how everything brought you to this moment.  

Be kind and generous and humble. It is a long life, a long career, and you will continue to meet the same people over and over, all at different points in their journeys, just as you are. Sometimes you will be able to offer a hand, sometimes someone will offer you a hand. Theatre is all about relationships. 

Don’t be afraid to fail. You will fail, and if you are open to it, you will fail again and – as Beckett says – fail better. That is how we learn. There is a sign over my desk in 
Anishinaabemowin that says Niminwendam gikinoo’amaagoyaan” and it means “I am happy when I am learning.” And in spite of this Lifetime Achievement Award, or maybe because of it, I am still learning.   

This award – the Gascon-Thomas Award - could not have come at a more opportune time. To be recognized for the work I have done in this lifetime before you who are stepping into the world to tell your own stories and to hold space for others to tell their stories fills me with joy and humility and hope.  

Meegwetch, meegwetch, meegwetch, meegwetch.