New faces in theatre (the series continues): meet designer Alison Yanota

They’re young. They shine brightly. And their talents are already lighting up the Edmonton theatre scene. 12thnight talked to six starry and sought-after up-and-comers, artists whose work, on- and backstage, will have a big impact on theatre here when the doors are open again, and we can once more share the live experience.

Meet designer Alison Yanota. And look for the others in this continuing New Faces series. First up was actor Helen Belay; read the story HERE.

The Nine Parts of Desire, The Maggie Tree, design by Alison Yanota. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,


“Quirky. Weird. Offbeat.… I always describe my work that way,” says the cheerful voice on the phone. “Normal,” on the other hand,  is not a descriptive that designer Alison Yanota would seek out.

designer Alison Yanota

Her design portfolio, which includes productions with such experimental indie theatres as Punctuate!, Cardiac, Ghost River, Tiny Bear Jaws, Bustle and Beast, Major Matt Mason, Fu-GEN, the Maggie Tree — as well as larger subscription companies like Shadow, the Citadel, Vertigo — shimmers with startling images, surreal inspirations, mysterious reinventions of space with light. If you saw the Shadow premiere of Neil Grahn’s The Comedy Company, a test of comedy in a World War I setting, you’ll have seen Yanota’s beautiful work: a kind of sepia-drenched trench that slashed the stage diagonally, overhung with gauzy tatters, perhaps bandages, that fluttered like the remnants of an apocalyptic festival.

It’s possible that the cosmos has its own designs on Yanota: the play that’s followed her around since high school, she says, production after production, is  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with its fantasy world of improbable transformations. This is telling: “I guess I live in a more surreal sort of world most of the time,” she says, a shrug in her voice.

It’s probably why the first theatre that appealed to Yanota, growing up in Calgary and gravitating to drawing, making music, dance, wasn’t earnest TYA (theatre for young audiences): “I didn’t like how much they pandered to me as a kid.” What filled her with wonder was the Cirque du Soleil. At 13, she even joined a touring youth circus; “I did contortion, and spun hula hoops on my feet….”

John Ullyatt in Every Brilliant Thing, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

Yanota, who appreciates “a mom who really promoted the arts for me!,” remembers the younger self who was a multi-tracker: “I wanted to sculpt, I wanted to paint, make props, do costumes.… I just didn’t have a point of view yet.” The “technical theatre” program at Mount Royal University, recommended by a high school drama teacher, and then theatre design at the U of A (she has bachelor and a master’s of fine arts degrees) — “seven years in school!” perfectly suited a multi-faceted talent. “I’m so lucky to have gone that route,” says Yanota. “It’s allowed me to achieve a lot on small budgets, in indie theatre. I like knowing how things are made….”

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“I learned so much about technique, how to be in a room and collaborate, when to stick up for yourself and stand behind your work,” Does she have a design specialty? “I like having a hand in all of it,” laughs the exuberant Yanota, now 29. “Especially when the time is short.”

Elena Belyea in Miss Katelyn’s Grade Threes Prepare For The Inevitable. Photo by Laurence Philomene.

She’s especially drawn to immersive theatre experiences, like Elena Belyea’s Miss Katelyn’s Grade Threes Prepare For The Inevitable, a Tiny Bear Jaws production in which the audience gets to be the class in an escalating exploration of apocalyptic anxiety. Or the Citadel production of Every Brilliant Thing (directed by Dave Horak, starring John Ullyatt) that had the audience collaborate with the protagonist on a list of what makes life worth living. Yanota’s design included a floor on which the audience members stuck notes, their individual contributions to “an Edmonton list of brilliant things” that grew every night of the run. It was, she reports, a fascinating cumulation.

Mixie and the Half Breeds, Fu-Gen Theatre. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

“Everyone’s so tied to screens, to 2-D things all the time…. People want to feel part of something; there’s more of a craving for that then ever.” And design that creates “a grand sculpture or a space where people feel they’re in it” delights her. “I’ve always been an escapist at heart,” she laughs. “The abstract is a world I enjoy living in; it’s always interesting to see how people interpret….”

The strangest theatrical challenge in her portfolio? Louise Casemore’s Scent Bar, part of Ghost River’s “senses” project, which plays with the audience’s sense of smell .   

Yanota’s professional debut, though, was lighting a fourth-wall classic, the thriller Wait Until Dark at Vertigo Theatre. “A box set, and the planning to make  a ground plan work … it’s not the way my mind naturally works,” she says. “The (U of A design) professor I learned the most from was Lee Livingstone. So valuable!” 

Premium Content, Major Matt Mason Collective. Photo by Tye Carson

Experimental new work figures prominently in Yanota’s portfolio. This fall, she hopes, we’ll be able to see Premium Content, a hit from Calgary indie Major Matt Mason If things had been different, Tiny Bear Jaws’ The Worst Thing I Could Be Is Happy would be running now at Toronto’s Riser Fest.

Theatre is all about inviting an imaginative response. “Humans are storytellers,” says Yanota. “They take something simple, a box onstage, and build stories from it, puzzle out meanings…. The theatre itself, for that matter: a room painted black, turn on the lights, and you’re in a different time and place.”

The gaping uncertainties of the moment haven’t flummoxed her. “Much as I hate to say it, this time has been very valuable to me…. I’ve been able to dig into sewing and art projects I’ve never had time for…. It’s less trying to look ahead and more ‘what can I mess around with now?’ If it’s seeds for the future, great. If not, great.” 

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