The Unplugging

Yvette Nolan’s latest play explores community, climate change, and remembering solutions.

by Odette Auger

Illustration for The Unplugging

“The Unplugging” brings audiences on a journey to a time when all the world’s technology has ceased to function. Two women – one Indigenous, one white – are exiled from their village for being too old to bear children.

Playwright Yvette Nolan (Algonquin, Irish) says, “The women are banished from their community because they’re not useful…. They have to remember their traditional knowledge to survive.”

Yvette Nolan portrait

Yvette Nolan

As a playwright, director, and dramaturge, two major themes run through Nolan’s work – climate change and relations between people, especially between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. “Those are things that I’m curious about, and that I would like to affect in some way. And I do that by telling a story [that] makes people wonder what their role is in the story. Whether it’s climate change or their relationships with the people they share the land with.”

“Climate change and race relations are the two major things that everybody has to do – if we’re not all pulling together on climate change, then we’re hopeless,” says Nolan.

How to build community

Director Reneltta Arluk (Inuvialuit, Dene, and Cree) explains connection is what draws her to this play. “What I really love about this play is the sense of relationship and connection between these different women and then bringing in the young Indigenous man, and how do we negotiate knowledge with each other?” Arluk recognized a deeper connection to that theme in casting “Marsha Knight, who is an Indigenous matriarch and Lois Anderson, who’s a non-Indigenous, but also in her own right a matriarch, and then a young Indigenous male, čačumḥi aaron wells– were really bringing those words to life, through those kinds of conversations.”

The Unplugging is based on an Athabascan story about two old women who are abandoned by their tribe during a winter famine. The pre-contact story was passed along for many generations from mothers to daughters in the upper Yukon River Valley in Alaska. Velma Wallace recorded and wrote the story into a book, Two Old Women, (Harper Perennial, 2004).

“I thought about that story a lot, and essentially I dragged it into the twenty-first century.” Nolan created a post-event world, the unplugging, “which is to say the lights went out – and never came back on.” The thing about technology, Nolan says, is although it is in almost every part of our lives, “When are we using it and when are we serving it? When are we addicted to it – not engaging with human beings, just through their devices?”

Along with technological collapse, Nolan wove together themes of reconciliation, aging and the status of women. “It’s about what our values are,” explains Nolan. “We saw in the pandemic, we don’t value our elders, we saw a complete lack of regard. We lost so many older people, and all of that knowledge goes away.”

“It’s also about what community is, what is our responsibility in community, and how to build community,” shares Nolan. “I don’t actually believe in this world, because we’ve been just so terrible at taking care of it. So I had to destroy most of the world in order to rebuild a community that I wanted, which is the community that I start in “The Unplugging.”’

A sense of reparation and connection

Reneltta Arluk portrait

Reneltta Arluk

Arluk’s early childhood was spent on the trap-line, raised by her grandparents. Living on the land, this nomadic environment gave her the skills to become the multi-disciplined artist she is now. What she loves about theatre is that it’s community art-making. “Theater builds community – it asks for people to come together, work together and problem solve together, celebrate and work with one another.” In other visual arts, the inspiration and creative process can sometimes be entirely individual. “Whereas you can’t really do a play with one person doing everything. You always have to bring in some outside eyes in some component, and that makes the work stronger and more compelling,” says Arluk. In this run of The Unplugging, music and poetry are woven in. “This version of the script includes these little moon poems that haven’t been done on stage before. To me it’s a sense of a frequency – of these moon poems and silent transitions and interactions within the script itself.”

Nolan realized she was an artist early, growing up with parents who shared the books and creative tools they didn’t have. Her mother had attended residential school, and married her Irish father, who was a teacher at that residential school. Theatre captured her imagination, and she has spent her life in theatre. When she was 30, she started to realize “how precious it is every time you get to talk to an audience. So, what am I going to talk about? What matters?”

For Nolan, the answer was exploring what it means to be Indigenous, about being connected to land and being connected to the community. “And how is that affected by the capitalist system, commercialism, and what we’ve done to the land. The fact that we use the land for exploitation.”

As Nolan became aware of the power that she had as a playwright, she became aware of her responsibility to her communities – her own home community, but also the larger Indigenous community on this land. From Indigenization to reconciliation, Nolan points out, we have many reports, many recommendations. “How do we start doing those things? For me, one way is through art, by working out these stories on a stage. So that Canadians and First Nation people can look at them and figure out – how we are going to do this.”

Arluk explains, “How do we negotiate relationships? And how do we move forward in this world where we are looking at sovereignty, agency, reconciliation and reparations?”

Arluk hopes the audience walks away with a sense of hope – “that we can all be part of bringing forward a sense of reparation and connection with one another.”

The Unplugging is directed by Reneltta Arluk (Inuvialuit, Dene and Cree), from Northwest Territories. Starring Lois Anderson, Marsha Knight (Ojibway-Métis), and čačumḥi– aaron wells (Ehattesaht/Chinehkint), The Unplugging will be performed at the Belfry Theatre, in Victoria from February 7 to March 5, 2023. Livestreams will broadcast from February 21-26.

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