Yolanda Bonnell in conversation with Ange Loft about the creation of bug

FEBRUARY 8, 2020

An excerpt of a conversation between Ange Loft and  Yolanda Bonnell about her production bug, by manidoons collective co-presented by Theatre Passe Muraille and Native Earth Performing Arts.

Y     …Part of the reason I run the workshops is so that Indigenous youth and women find different outlets or ways to use their voice. I look at things like the suicide crisis that’s happening up north, and I think, if some of these folks have access to other ways, other outlets for their pain, their trauma, or any of their stories, it might be able to help them a little bit more. Certainly for me, I grew up with mental health issues, and was definitely suicidal growing up, and for me, being creative was an incredibly huge outlet. But I had the privilege of access to those things in a lot of ways. 

This photo shows Yolanda Bonnell sitting on a rock (which is part of the set) beside audience members during a performance of bug.

Photo by: Dahlia Katz | Scenography by: Jay Havens | Lighting Design by: Michel Charbonneau

A    I just think a lot about how the suicide crisis is not only there, it’s so prevalent around Toronto Indigenous artists. It’s always on the table. There’s always something happening in our communities of artists in Toronto.. How it’s not only an “up north” thing. It’s a lived experience, on a regular basis.

Y     One hundred percent. And, I mean, the layers of intergenerational trauma that run through us… All of us alive today are born of some sort of violence, whether it be colonial and whatever additional we may have had added to that. How do we encourage our communities to use our voices, or tell our stories so they are not only living inside of our bodies? And then other people can find connection to that. When I did a workshop a few years ago in Thunder Bay, I did one of the sections of bug as an example. I got a phone call afterwards, and she said she didn’t know that there were other ways of expressing what she was feeling inside. She didn’t know that movement can be used to express that, and she had never seen her mental health represented in a way… in that way before. And that was like, super eye opening for me. They need other access points, because not only one way works for everybody. 


A    I want to talk about those ideas of embodied representations of complex narratives. The first gesture in your work that really stood out to me was this piece that feels like… I don’t know how to explain it… Your arms are flipping around each other and it’s almost like you are giving a mirror to yourself and a mirror to somebody else. That’s how I perceived it. 


Y    Was it “everytime I looked at the picture?”


A    I think so, yeah, and you are kind of showing it around the circle and coming up to yourself. Would you be able to give me a little insight into that gesture? 


Y    Yeah, my hand is up, and I’m talking about the picture of the girl and her mother and her auntie. And then at the end of that monologue I bring that hand up and I do the pool around and I go around the circle. For me, if I’m breaking it down to basics, I start with the picture being on my hand, holding the picture, my hand becoming the picture. The thing about all of my gestures is that they tend to be layered, it’s not always just one thing. And that’s what is so compelling and interesting to me about gestures and movement, is there are so many meanings to it. 

So for me, the idea of taking my one hand and sliding it down the other, bringing it back down and bringing it back up again. I’m trying to erase this memory. Or this fear that the reason that her mother is smiling in the picture is not a good one. She’s linking it back to the addiction that got her taken away. And so the sliding of the hand is more like trying to erase the picture or the image from the other hand, but the loop coming back up is that you can’t actually erase that. So she keeps trying to get rid of it and it keeps popping back up. “Everytime I look at that picture, my mother smiles, and everytime I look at that picture”. It didn’t matter, she couldn’t get rid of it, because it was probably, maybe the only picture she had of her mother. But she wanted to erase the connection of memory of it. So that’s where I found that looping sort of gesture from. 


A    For myself, I noticed.. You mention it later, when you are doing things and.. you catch a glimpse of yourself on the side of a building and you realize you have the same lump on the back of your neck as your mother does, these things that um…remind us. But it also reminds me of the tactics we use to remember and then reset yourself in an opposite image. I think about when I see mirrors of myself in other people and actually, how uncomfortable that is. How I tend to laugh when I identify with  somebody who says something a little too close to home. I don’t know what to do but giggle. That happened a few times in your piece. 


I want to talk about your relationship to movement. Where did you pick up your approach to creating? 


Y    Most of that, if not all of it, came from my time at Humber. I attended Humber School of Creative and Performing Arts. It’s a three year, conservatory style program that focuses on devised and physical theatre. I’d never been exposed to physical theatre before and the minute.. The day that we auditioned, part of the audition was that you had to create a movement score to a dream of a memory, and I (burst of laughter) I was like, THIS is exciting. It really excited me. I took dance in high school, I choreographed dances back home in a burlesque troupe that I was in. Movement’s always been sort of in me, or part of me, but never in this sort of capacity, never in an interpretive and physical theatre sort of way. To be able to tell a story with my body in ways that weren’t so choreographed… were just sort of gesture-like.. It really opened up, something just cracked wide open. Oh ok, so where does this memory live in my body? I can create a gesture from that, with my arm, because that’s where that memory lives? Like that, you know? 


The more we explored different types of physical theatre in school, it really just landed and connected with me because I think that our stories do live in our body and we have muscle memory. So many things are inside. And the thing that I find most interesting is, like, you can be saying one thing, but your body is doing another. The juxtaposition of that, being able to tell two stories at one time is just, I think, [in] a really beautiful way. And it opens up access points for people to be able to connect to it. That people can look at it and go, oh like, she’s not actually feeling what she is saying because if you look at her body, it’s moving a different way. And I really connect to that. 


A    I started my education at Concordia, doing more western theatre, but then I had to throw myself into CIT because I really wanted to train with Muriel, from Spiderwoman. I really wanted to imagine how these ladies who look like me, who are larger women with wild costumes on, were willing to throw themselves on the floor and scream and cry and sit in the shit and talk. And then the exercises we got thrown into, as I was training with her… I really realized the merritt in partners. The merit of finding movement partners and things to distance it a bit from the exact, the exact narratives. What is the epic partner that can really go with this story? I wanted to ask you about that. How did you land on bug as a partner for the piece? 


Y    In school, every year we had to create a solo piece. In first year it was 5 minutes, in second year it was 15 minutes with a partner and third year it was 15 minutes solo. The first two years, you would source material only and the third you could write your own. And you had to base it off of a word. The first year I had already chosen my word, but then it was during the first year when I saw..  I saw a bug walking across the sidewalk, and I stopped and had this like, epiphany moment. And I often wonder who or what that bug was, what ancestor was like “Girl, you need to tell this story, this is your journey”. You know? Cause I watched it for a little bit and I was like, I almost stepped on it. And that was that moment when I was like, “does it know?” Is it aware of it’s space in the world? How does it view itself in comparison to these giant creatures that are walking around it? And then the correlation between that and the treatment of Indigenous women was not lost on me. I waited until third year and then I just started writing it. I knew that I wanted to do a physical theatre and movement version of the story because it felt like that was how this story needed to be told. I wanted there to be poetic text involved because metaphor is one of the easiest ways for people of all kinds to be able to connect to the work. I wanted to use a variety of different mediums to be able to tell this story. Once it was out in the world, the more I grew as an artist, the more it grew as a piece, so we just sort of combined it together and it sort of took off. 


A     The last thing I want to ask you is about the voiceover in the beginning of the piece. Would you be able to speak a bit about how that voiceover is related to the rest of the piece, including the voice of Sadie Buck. 


Y    We had trouble… I had trouble finding the beginning of this piece. Every single iteration of it the beginning changed, the opening kept changing, and I had to go back and go, “What is it exactly that I’m trying to say here?” And I came to the conclusion that we need to talk about the effects of colonialism. I need people to understand why these things are happening to us. We’re more than the stereotype they have created for us. They need to understand their complicitness in it. Once I said that to myself, I sat down and I wrote that opening. Cause I was like, well then why don’t I just say it? (laughs) Then why don’t I just say it. So then I wrote it and I didn’t quite know what to do with it. I didn’t know if I wanted to say it in the show. And don’t remember if it was I or maybe Cole who said, why don’t we get somebody else to say it, to read it? And Ashley Bomberry , who was working with us was with Sadie and she was the one who recorded Sadie reading it. We brought the recording back, and when I heard it, I just started crying, and I knew that that was the opening. I knew that I needed to do the simplest movement, so that we are listening to what she is saying rather than what I am doing. But the movement needed to be connected to what she is saying which is why the branches start cycling. And the thing that I learned afterwards is that it’s kind of like a little secret, but I think that that character, that person who is reading that piece is actually the daughter of the girl, in the future. She’s a future ancestor and a future elder and that she, after everything that her mother and grandmother went through, that she was able to find her healing. Once I realised that, I truly believe that the girl really did fight off her addiction to get her daughter back, and did all the good work that she needed to do to heal herself. 


A    I think so too. I have written letters of support for artists who are trying to get their children back. Who have grown children now, you know those battles take so long. I think of all of the acts these women do to try to prove themselves back to child protection agencies and services, that they are whole now. And it’s such a futile mission and such a painful thing to have to prove to anybody, that you are whole enough to be a caretaker and that you are perceived as someone who can give help and security. 


I’m really encouraged by the work that you are doing. It’s good for a lot of people and for people who I know who have been part of that mysterious 90’s scoop. 


Y    Yeah


A    How many artists who are part of our community are part of the 80’s to 2000’s scoop? Many migrated to Toronto because of needing to find themselves and find their voice and needing to talk about being Indigenous outside of their communities. 


Y    And not knowing where they come from and not knowing their ancestors, yeah. And that was the thing, I grew up with foster sisters and it was such a problematic thing, because my stepdad, who is a white man, he was incredibly violent and had an assault record and they still gave us kids. It was so… I was like… I don’t understand. This is not a safe house, we’re not safe here. How is this safe for other children? So we had all these native kids with us, and it seemed so… I just didn’t understand it. Because DILICO, which is the system in Thunder Bay, is just incredibly problematic. And everybody knows it’s problematic. So growing up with all of these things. The experiences that I have, the experiences that my sisters and the women in my family and around me. I was like, we feel so unheard or invisible or unseen, so the women who are on the streets, the way that they get treated, it’s just vile. And I really, more than anything want those women to know that I see them and I hear them and they are valid. 


When we were at the talk back, when I was on the west coast, a guy that was sitting next to “Mumma”, he’s like, “Oh yeah, I loved her, she’s someone I would go get a drink with or go play pool with” or whatever. And I had to let it sink in for a bit, and I don’t think I said this to him, but I was like, “I don’t think that’s actually true”. It’s easy to say that, just because I’m sitting next to you, you know that I’m an actor, you know that I’m whatever, I’m accessible to you. But I don’t know how many of you would actually sit down next to a woman on the street and tell me some stories, or say let’s have a talk, or here’s a coffee. 

A     …Without being weird about it. Without being like, let me take this whole thing from you now and not tell you what I’m going to create with the story. 

Y    Yeah man. Exactly, exactly.