Art Talk with Director Madeline Sayet

By Rebecca Sutton
Portrait of woman with brown hair laughing
Madeline Sayet. Photo by Bret Hartman 
In a country where 73 percent of employed actors are non-Hispanic white, and 60 percent are between 16 and 39 years old, the worlds theater and opera director Madeline Sayet creates are unlike those usually seen onstage. Her upcoming production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, for example, features an all-Native, multigenerational cast. “If you have two Native performers—a 13-year-old and a 90-year-old—you’re not just telling a story about how things are passed down; you’re actually doing it,” Sayet said, who is also a playwright and actress. “That completely changes the dynamic.” In fact, she has dedicated her entire career to changing the dynamic of how stories are told. A member of the Mohegan Nation, she has tirelessly championed Native performers, directors, and playwrights, and challenged traditional portrayals of—and expectations for—Native characters. Her advocacy and extraordinary storytelling abilities have earned her widespread recognition: she is a 2016 National Directing Fellow; a TED Fellow; a National Arts Strategies Creative Communities Fellow; and a recipient of The White House Champion of Change Award, among other honors. We recently caught up with Sayet in the midst of rehearsals for The Coronation of Poppea, and talked with her about diversity, identity, and the importance of having space to dream. NEA: When did you first become interested in theater? MADELINE SAYET: It's one of those things that always was. My mom's a medicine woman for the Mohegan tribe, and my great-aunt was a medicine woman before her. My family runs the oldest Indian-owned and operated museum in the country. So I was always around traditional storytelling. But I started going to outdoor Shakespeare locally for free—my mom started taking me when I was about six, and I really liked it. So I pretty quickly in my childhood ended up getting into different modes of performance. But it was primarily a combination of storytelling and Shakespeare. NEA: What about Shakespeare do you find so intriguing? SAYET: The thing I find most amazing about Shakespeare is that he's a master of minimalism. He is really good at getting to the essential connective tissue of an issue. What that means is that both then and now, he was able to get really complex thought past sensors in a way that resonated with everyone. From an acting perspective, because it's really well-written, it's much easier to act than other things. But from a textual and directing perspective, it's the fact that he's paring things down to the things that connect us instead of what divides us. NEA: You’ve spent a lot of your career reinterpreting classics, including Shakespeare, from an indigenous perspective. What kind of impact do you hope that has on an audience? SAYET: There's a two-fold thing to this. When I read something, I can't help but see the people around me and the world in the story. Naturally, my mind doesn't just close off and not include women and people from my community into the storytelling. But what I think is really interesting and important about doing this kind of work is it's basically been proved that it's incredibly difficult—almost potentially impossible—to break bias. But it's not as difficult to create points of connection. So you can create points of identification between two people more easily than you can break an implicit bias that's already in their consciousness. I found it to be an effective way of creating understanding between different types of people as to the human complexity that connects us all. I generally do think that people have more in common than they have differences. But I think that the differences are what's really exciting and what make the world really complex, and what makes us able to keep learning and be creative. But in the case of Shakespeare specifically, it serves as a base framework that's been interpreted differently by millions of people over the course of time depending on any given sociopolitical moment. The way it's constantly used to mean different things says so much to me about humanity. NEA: You mentioned earlier your family’s museum, which you’ve said was founded on the idea that “It’s hard to hate someone you know a lot about.” Let’s talk about theater’s dual role as a form of entertainment and a source of information. How do you balance that in your work? SAYET: When someone went to see a Native play one time, they wrote a review that they were annoyed that we had an all-Native cast and we didn't use it as an opportunity to educate about our culture. That wasn't the point of the play! But it's interesting, because what are forms of education? Sometimes it's education for someone just to be able to see you as a human being. For me personally, I don't really see it as a form of education. For me it's a way of asking questions. I don't try and provide answers in my work necessarily, but I can't direct a show unless I have a really big "why?", unless I have a big question I need to use the show to pick apart. So that's how it works for me, because I want everyone to be thinking. I'm never comfortable handing out a solution, because I know I'm not omniscient and I don't have one. But the goal is to have everyone thinking a little more about these issues. That's the hardest part of the work, societally in a way.
An older man dipping a smiling older woman
A scene from Macbeth performed at Tompkins Square Park in New York City. Directed by Madeline Sayet, Macbeth was a production of American Indian Artists, Inc. (AMERINDA, Inc.) where Sayet was resident director from 2013-2016. Photo by Isaiah Tannenbaum  
NEA: Something that’s increasingly discussed is the concept of “casual diversity,” where characters or actors come from diverse backgrounds as a way to accurately reflect our world. I’d like to talk about the importance of both forms: casual diversity and Diversity with a capital “d,” where identity or culture is a central part of a storyline. SAYET: I think they're both immensely important. A friend and I were talking recently about why we think we're so obsessed with sci-fi. It’s because when things are set in impossible futures, you tend to see more of what you described as casual diversity—it's a more inclusive world. Which is actually quite liberating, to see and to know that your people have survived into the future and [different backgrounds] are no longer an issue. I find that to be really positive and really liberating, because it's quite exhausting to have to make everything about political issues. But on the other side of that, for me, identity is really important in the work. In the case of indigenous representation, there's so little of it onstage. The Native roles that you see onstage are primarily not played by Native performers because they're still primarily propaganda roles. I made a list the other day, and it included Tiger Lily, Pocahontas, and Injun Joe from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. They're—for the most part—old stereotypes. There are only a couple that are more modern. Those are the Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Johnna in August: Osage County. They're not complex identities meant to exist in a full, all-encompassing way as a human being. So it's really important to me then, whenever you have a complex identity that's not usually seen onstage, to give it full, contemporary life. That's why I think casting Native actors in those roles is really important. You sometimes don't have a Native playwright working on the show and that's the only the opportunity in the development process the director has to fully understand that character. They might not want to make the character superficial, but they might not know what questions to ask. So making sure there's someone in the room who's thinking fully in that way really enables them to deepen that character. It’s all about perspective. The reason why I'm so strongly, strongly anti-redface isn't because I don't think there should ever be a world in which [non-Native] people play Native characters. It's because it's so much more prevalent than any other form of Native representation. And that's terrifying to me. It’s potentially still genocide propaganda—that's what it was designed for. It continues to perpetuate perspective that enabled Native women in this country to be raped at something like the highest rate in the world. Any sort of dehumanization tactic is incredibly problematic. I was in a playwriting workshop one time, and there happened to be a Native character in one of the pieces we were adapting. Not a single person in the room gave her a name other than me. Every single person wrote a character for her and referred to her as “Indian Woman,” and she became an abstraction. That is the core of the problem: that that is still how Native people are seen. They're seen as a device; they're not seen as complex beings. That's part of American culture unfortunately. Through Thanksgiving and Columbus Day, we were trained in school to make construction paper headdresses and not really think about the fact that there are people around who are still living who have really complex, meaningful cultures that can offer a lot to people. America likes to look to Europe for legends and history. They forget that those things all exist around them here in this country. NEA: What are you excited about in terms of indigenous or minority cultures and theater? SAYET: My mom is Native, my dad is Jewish, I have black step-siblings, my sister has one arm. That is the family that I have. That is the way that I've always seen the world. But it wasn't until this past fall that I realized up until that point I had never seen an actress with one arm onstage. That was incredibly jarring for me. As the director, I realized the fact that I hadn't noticed was a huge deal. The thing that's really scary to me is when diversity [means] checking boxes instead of letting the world tell its stories. More interesting stories get told that way, and that's how we create points of identification for everyone to understand each other. If only one story's being told, then that's the story that's being heard. That's a very scary sort of world. For me, every good story makes you think differently about the world. The thing that's happening that's really exciting is the more voices that are included in theater, the more types of stories you get, and the more interesting stories you get that ask you big questions and that more people can relate to in a complex set of ways.  NEA: What steps would you like the theater community to take in order to make the field more inclusive and diverse? What progress can still be made? SAYET: At the end of the day, it’s a question about what shows are being produced and who's on those teams. In Native theater for example, the number of readings is just insane. But the odds of a Native play actually getting produced are very slim. There's no funding for Native theater, and nothing actually ever gets produced. When I'm directing a Native play, it's because I've chosen to sleep on someone's couch for a month. Then people say "there are no Native actors." They hire someone who isn't Native, who can get away with looking Native, because they have more experience. But the reason they have more experience is because Native actors aren't getting hired! So it's these systemic problems that need to be addressed. Realistically, the biggest tricky thing with theater is funding. This idea that a product has to sell is a really stressful way to be making anything let alone art. Because there just isn't very much funding, there's this terrifying system in which theater has gotten trapped as opposed to being this place where it's safe to experiment.
Two women sitting and hugging on floor, visibly upset
A scene from Miss Lead by Mary Kathryn Nagle. Directed by Madeline Sayet, this 2014 production was performed at 59E59 Theaters in New York, and produced by AMERINDA (American Indian Artists) Inc. Photo by Steve Bartel
NEA: Over 80 percent of theater audiences—whether it’s a musical or non-musical—are white. What can we be doing to bring more diverse audience members into our theaters? SAYET: I was thinking about this a lot recently. I think it's a community question: what community are you serving and where are you located? There's no Band-Aid solution because otherwise there will be inauthentic partnerships between a theater and a community. There has to be a situation where a theater has decided that they want to be invested in the people around them—and that means all the people around them. If you're not reflecting the people in the community around you, that's something you need to question and think about how to do, and from the earliest stages. NEA: Let's talk about your directorial approach. SAYET: A lot of it came from this really frustrating period where I was trying to figure out what was aggravating me about the role of the director. I went and talked with one of the elders from my tribe. She gave me a different word for it in Mohegan: Kutayun Uyasunaquock. The word translates to "our heart she leads us there." Just having that different word made such a huge difference. Suddenly it was no longer my role to march people around. My role was to bring everybody together. That framework took the onus off of me and put it back onto the work. That's how I operate. I don't like to see the director's hand in the work. The tricky thing to break down is that so much of this comes down to who else is in the room with me. I don't want to negate anyone in the room's voice, so I make a solid effort to make sure the entire time is spent weaving. Active listening is what gets skipped often in most partnerships. People are so rushed, they don't have time, everything gets too quid pro quo. It doesn't become about listening. That's where I found the best work happens—when you have the space to be in a room and listen to what's happening and figure out what [the work] can be.  NEA: What excites you about a show or opera that makes you want to work on it? SAYET: If something piques my curiosity, it steals me. The opera that I have opening this week in Illinois, The Coronation of Poppea, was written in the 1600s. The prologue starts with a bet being placed between Virtue, Cupid, and Fortune about who's the most powerful. Basically Virtue is out of favor. For the 1600s, it was incredibly amoral, yet it was relevant then and it's relevant now. In a super instant gratification-driven culture, what does it mean for the state of the world and the government? So those questions were so relevant and timeless. There has to be a big question that I don't know the answer to. In terms of what I like to see, I tend to generally be attracted to poetic text and family stories with a sense of the importance of what is passed down and a sociopolitical edge. I love reimagining the classics. There's something about any story that's been passed down over time that has a core that's transcended many generations of humans. That to me is amazing in an un-pinpointable way. Whether it's a Native story or a Western story, if it's been passed down that many times, what is left is an interesting essence of humanity. NEA: Why do the arts matter? SAYET: The arts provide a dream space. It's a space where the non-literal is allowed to exist, and people can be other than what they have to be on a day to day. I think people desperately need that, especially the more divided our country and our society has become. Even the phrase "work-life balance" implies that your work and your life are not connected. So if everything is that divided and that broken down, you really do need a dream space in which you can imagine things beyond your day to day. You can be greater than you are, and you can have the permission to create. Read more about the opportunities and gaps that Madeline Sayet and other female theater artists see in their field