Yvette Nolan’s Opera ‘Shanawdithit’ Tells The Story Of The Last Known Member Of Beothuk Nation

Yvette Nolan ​is a playwright, dramaturg, and director. Her plays include Annie Mae’s Movement, The Unplugging, Gabriel Dumont’s Wild West Show (co-writer), and the libretto Hilda Blake. As the Artistic Director of Native Earth Performing Arts, she has received numerous honours, including the City of Toronto’s Aboriginal Affairs Award and the Mallory Gilbert Leadership Award.

Most recently, Nolan was the librettist of the Canadian-Indigenous opera Shanawdithit (running May 16-24), which tells the real life story of Shanawdithit (1801-1829) who was believed at the time of her death to be the last known member of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Beothuk Nation. Nolan has joined forces with composer Dean Burry and Indigenous artists from nations across the country to interpret her drawings and tell this vital story.

We chatted with her this week.

Describe your dream getaway scenario:  

I love to camp. My partner and I begin each camping season by going to Grasslands National Park and camping with the buffalo. They roam freely, and there is only a split rail fence between their territory and the campground, and so often you wake up in the morning and can hear them snorting and feel the earth moving from their hooves and their weight.

What is commanding a lot of attention in your life lately?

Denial is a huge thing for me these days. It feels like so many people are refusing to deal with so many things: climate change, misogyny, guns.

What have you learned about yourself in the past year?  

That my aging knees require care, including warming up before hiking.

One fun little-known fact about you?

My first professional role onstage was as a corpse in Joe Orton’s Loot.

What book/film/show have you really connected with recently, and what about it appeals to you?

I am reading Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God, which is a little bit apocalyptic and also completely current. It is a little bit Handmaid’s Tale and also a little bit hopeful. I just saw Lilies, lemonTree’s revival of Michel Marc Bouchard’s beautiful play, at Buddies and was moved and inspired. And I recently saw Ain’t No Mo by Jordan E. Cooper at The Public in New York, and it kind of blew my mind.

What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve been given?

“Put on some brown makeup and go back in there and audition again” (this was for a role of a halfbreed, which I am, for which I was not “Indian enough”). Needless to say, I did not put on some brown makeup and go back in there. I got out of acting instead.

What is your motto at the moment?

Enjoy every sandwich (with thanks to Warren Zevon).

Any goals for summer?

I would like to do a massive housecleaning, declutter, and send a bunch of stuff to the thrift store. Also, get some major work done on my thesis.

Rewind five years. What advice would you give yourself?

Be patient. This painful part will pass and you will discover the collateral benefit.

What is the most courageous thing you’ve ever done?

I left a relationship not because I didn’t love the other person (I did) but because I could not become the person I needed to be inside the relationship.

What childhood memory makes you laugh out loud?

How my little brother, Michael, would sneak things in to our rooms in the night, so you would wake up and there would be, like, a shopping cart in your room.  

What unnecessary object would you love to own?

There is a painting by the Ojibwe artist Terry McCue called Big Bear Dreams. I saw it in person in Banff at the Canada Gallery about eight years ago. It is six feet long and four feet high and the most beautiful thing. I wanted it so bad, but it was $8,000 and I am an artist. It is my wallpaper on my laptop, so I see it every day, but the real thing is six times bigger.  

What issue do you wish people took more seriously?

Climate change. For so long, the scientists were being silenced, or dismissed, or undermined. Finally, the world is starting to recognize that yes, Virginia, there really is climate change, but we are so far behind where we could have been if we had just listened.

What outfit do you wear more than any other (your uniform, basically)?

My current uniform is jeans, a T-shirt that is or advertises some kind of art, and my Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy bunny hug (which is Saskatchewanian for hooded sweatshirt). Not only does it keep me warm in this cool, damp Toronto spring, but I am inordinately proud of it and I am currently pursuing a Masters in Public Policy there.

Who/what has surprised you lately, and how?

Well, there are two raccoons on my patio every morning, wrestling. That is pretty surprising.

When you look back on your life, are you at where you thought you’d be by now? Why or why not?

I did not ever envision this life, but if I had wished for a life, I would have wished for this one.

What was the biggest challenge in developing Shanawdithit? What about it did you particularly enjoy working on?

I loved working in collaboration with the artists and the way the creation was always in dialogue with each other. Dean did not write music for parts of the opera until we saw what the collaborators were offering. And Dean and I were always back and forth on email, adding words in English or Beothuk, moving things around. It was a very organic process.

What do you hope audiences take away from Shanawdithit?

I would hope that people leave Shanwawdithit questioning what they think they know about the history of this land we live on, what they were taught in school, what the textbooks say, and who wrote those texts.  

Shanwawdithit runs May 16-24 at Imperial Oil Opera Theatre (227 Front St E). Grab tickets here.

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