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Yolanda Bonnell: Telling Stories

Performer, director, writer, theatre company founder, workshop facilitator -- Yolanda Bonnell juggles many roles, often simultaneously. But woven through each is her deep commitment to storytelling, and to empowering others to share stories of their own. We spoke to the 2015 Theatre Arts – Performance graduate to hear more about her work, her approach to theatre, and her source of inspiration.

How did the manidoons collective come about?

manidoons collective was formed by Cole Alvis and I just after the performance of bug at Summerworks. In planning the next steps for the show, we recognized the growing interest in it as well as the potential for touring. It became bigger than the two of us, and we saw that we were going to need some help. We formed the collective, applied for some funding to tour and brought on producers like Olivia Shortt and Lisa Alves (also a Humber alumni), as well as Ashley Bomberry who is our cultural keeper, which is a shared leadership role that we’re developing.

Why does the manidoons collective offer storytelling workshops in addition to performances? How do the workshops speak to the collective’s mission?

It is important to me that we engage with youth in the communities on the land that we are visiting and performing on. Indigenous youth are fierce warriors and this country is constantly reminding them how unimportant it thinks they are. I want to empower them and somehow help them find ways to use their voices with whatever skills I have. A part of our mission is telling Indigenous stories, raising up Indigenous voices – particularly our women. We are searching for our way of decolonizing theatre and beginning to integrate artistic ceremony – Indigenous theatre. I believe Indigenous storytelling begins with community. In engaging with the community and the youth, I feel like we are beginning that process of decolonizing by weaving these different threads together – community, youth, storytelling, healing, voice. Decolonizing isn’t always about undoing something; it can be building or braiding something to help make us stronger.

Reflecting on your experiences developing bug, Scanner, and White Girls in Moccasins, what role has collaboration and mentorship played in your own professional life?

It’s played a huge role. I began by developing these pieces on my own initially, but then was fortunate enough to be paired with dramaturgs, directors – artistic leaders whom I admire and have been very excited and lucky to work with. Collaboration is really helpful for development – to have someone to bounce ideas off of and tell you if something isn’t working or reading on the outside.

What does a typical work day look like for you?

It depends on what type of work I’m doing, really. In balancing being an actor and a playwright/writer, it can get kind of bananas sometimes.

I just finished doing some acting work for Native Earth Performing Arts’ Weesageechak Begins to Dance Festival, and I’m currently working with Natasha Greenblatt and Common Boots Theatre on a piece called The Election, and then of course my own work. There was a week where I would begin my day with a reading rehearsal on a piece in the festival at 10 am until about 2 pm, then I was scheduled to work with Natasha from 3 until 7 pm. Afterwards it was either seeing pieces at the festival, performing pieces or working on grants to develop my work. It wasn’t and isn’t always like this, but it can get pretty hectic when working at more than one craft. It can be really difficult to ensure that I’m taking care of myself in terms of eating properly, getting enough rest, taking time to breathe, taking care of my mental health. I think we, as artists, really need to focus in on how we can make sure we’re doing these things because burnout is very real and can take a devastating toll on our minds, bodies, spirits and emotions.

How did your time at Humber prepare you for what you’re doing now?

Humber had a strong focus on physical and devised theatre and storytelling. We were encouraged to use our voices, our experiences and cultural reality to tell our stories as well as other stories. I pride myself on being a “full body” actor in terms of using every part of myself in my work. The pieces that I create will often involve using physicality to communicate. The training at Humber was rigorous and has definitely helped in terms of using my technique to sustain my body in the work.

Who or what is inspiring you right now?

I’m finding so many things inspiring. Our land and water protectors – these young, Indigenous folks putting themselves out there, in activism and protest. They are our front-line warriors, and their bravery and spirit are incredibly inspiring.

I also just saw Bea Pizano’s solo piece Dividing Lines (Aluna Theatre), and I found it incredibly inspiring – a masterclass in storytelling. Just beautiful.

And of course Indigenous women. Indigenous women are fighting more than anyone actually realizes. I see us fighting silently, loud, emotionally, with industrial strength to keep moving forward, trying to be seen. From our elders to our youth – Indigenous women inspire me every day.

What advice would you give to somebody wanting to follow in your footsteps?

Don’t be afraid of trying. Experiment with theatre. Theatre isn’t just one thing – it is many things – as is storytelling. There are so many different ways of telling stories. Find what works for you. Vomit out writing if you’re a writer. Just write. Write. Write. Write. Sort the rest out later. Just get out what you need to get out. Move your body. Expand your mind and take care of yourself.

To learn more about Yolanda’s work, please visit or follow her on Twitter @Yolanda_Bonnell

Yolanda Bonnell

Photo Credit: Ty J. Sloane

Yolanda Bonnell in Bug

Yolanda Bonnell in Bug. Photo by Gilad Cohen.

Yolanda Bonnell and Elizabeth Staples

Yolanda Bonnell and Elizabeth Staples in White Girls in Moccasins. Photo by Dahlia Katz.