Yvette Nolan’s new play, The Unplugging, focuses on a postapocalyptic world in which two women must learn to live off the land. It’s an imagined future set in a freezing, unwired landscape—and recent news headlines keep reminding the playwright that this isn’t such a far-fetched idea.
The latest came a couple of weeks ago, when much of the Yukon—where she had always imagined the remote cabin in her play to be located—had been knocked entirely off the grid. “Even when the power came back on, there were no telephones, no cellphones, no Internet,” Nolan explains to the Straight over the phone from a downtown hotel, where the Manitoba-raised artist has been staying all month, working at the Arts Club during rehearsals and writing a book about her years running Toronto’s Native Earth Performing Arts. “Firemen had to go knock on doors. It’s that easy for us to be disconnected! And afterwards, my friends in the Yukon were texting me saying, ‘Hey Yvette, it’s the unplugging!’ ”
Although the play is set in the future, it also draws on the past. It was inspired by an Athabascan legend about two women expelled from their communities in a time of need. In The Unplugging, Nolan moves things to the 21st century: after an unnamed apocalypse, the women are sent out on their own and forced to find shelter; they have to draw on the skills they learned from their elders in order to live off the land again. But the arrival of a young man throws their survival into jeopardy.
For her first play in almost a decade, the half-Algonquin, half-Irish Nolan had many ideas about the lessons of elders in the back of her mind. She had lost her mother during her tenure at Native Earth and was bothered by the feeling that she hadn’t learned enough from her.
And then there was her growing sense that human greed was destroying the Earth. “I don’t believe in this world very much—the way we’re consuming and we can’t seem to stop talking about the environment, but we don’t do anything about it,” she explains, and then quickly adds: “I’m as bad as everyone else, though! I fly all over the world; this play has been read in New York and New Zealand.”
To her surprise, the script flew out of her over the course of three months. “It was kind of amazing and creepy and scary. It took me 20 years to learn to write a play,” Nolan, who has penned more than a dozen, says with a laugh. “That doesn’t diminish any of the work I did along the way. It’s also because I’m a different person. When I took over Native Earth, I was 42 years old and by the time I was leaving, I was coming up on 50, which in my culture is an age where we expect people to be eldering up.”
The resulting work also has incredibly spare dialogue, and traverses months and years in episodic scenes.
Although it’s easy to assume Nolan’s roles will be played by Native women, she doesn’t see The Unplugging as necessarily a First Nations tale. In the production at the Arts Club Revue Stage, directed by Lois Anderson, the older woman will be played by well-known local Cree-Saulteaux actor Margo Kane, but the younger one will be portrayed by non-Native Jenn Griffin, with Anton Lipovetsky taking on the role of the visitor.
“When we read it in New Zealand, they had no trouble making the leap to Maori culture; in New York there were no aboriginal people at the reading,” Nolan says. “So it’s become specific to whatever culture or place it’s performed.”
The story may be universal, but it remains bleak. Still, there is at least a glimmer of a chance in The Unplugging as Nolan’s main characters start to remember the skills they had forgotten and learn to survive in the snowy landscape. Nolan might not believe in the world, but does her new play reveal at least some sense of hope?
“On the one hand, I had to destroy the whole world! But on the other there is this process of learning things all over, and that for me is hopeful,” Nolan says. “And if you think about it, theatre is the ultimate act of hope. Telling stories in little rooms in front of 200 or 300 people: that’s as hopeful as it gets.”