Madeline Sayet

Mohegan Theater Artist
Headshot of a wooman smiling.

Photo by Bret Hartman

That is theater-maker and citizen of the Mohegan Nation, Madeline Sayet. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed

Madeline Sayet is playwright, a performer, and a director of new plays, classical work and opera. Among her honors have been a TED Fellowship, an MIT Media Labs Directors Fellowship, a National Directors Fellowship and a White House Champion for Change Award. Madeline Sayet is first and foremost an advocate for and participant in Native theater, championing  Native playwrights, directors and performers. She builds worlds on the stage—directing powerful stories from a diversity of Native writers, bringing their words to indigenous and non-indigenous audiences.  She interrogates the classic work she directs by foregrounding the voices of the previously unheard, interrupting gender identity and presenting work through an Indigenous lens. Her staging of The Winter’s Tale features an all Native, multi-generational cast, her direction of The Tempest gives Caliban his language back and it’s Mohegan, while Madeline’s production of “The Magic Flute,” according to a reviewer was enchanting—taking its cues lightly Native American tradition eliminating the sexism while preserving the enlightenment themes. Madeline Sayet grew up with traditional Mohegan stories and Shakespeare and it’s this intersection informs her exhilarating and intimate one-woman show “Where We Belong”. Madeline both wrote and performs in the play which is presented by the Wooly Mammoth Theater Company in association with The Folger Shakespeare Library. Where We Belong is Madeline’s journey  --examining her time living in London working on a Ph.D in Shakespeare, and becoming increasingly uncomfortable in a country that doesn’t recognize its colonial past. But when she returns to the United States, to Mohegan tribal land in Connecticut where she lives—she’s finds it difficult to feel grounded again.

Madeline Sayet: For the first time in my life my feet didn't feel like they rooted to the ground correctly. Up until then, whenever I'd come home it was as if like the relationship I had to place was so deep, my feet just sort of like sunk in and rooted like all the way down to my ancestors whenever I came home. And this time I came home, something was different. I felt a little bit more distance. I felt a little bit more up in the air everywhere I went. And the name of my people, Mohegan, means Wolf People. And my name in Mohegan, Tokayis [ph?], means Blackbird, or The Dark One Who Flies Apart. And so, I was thinking about this journey from being a wolf to being a bird, and I was trying to process that. And I was also trying to process if in this moment having just moved back to the States in 2018, away from a Nation that actually, even though, you know, Mohegan has such a complicated history with English as our colonizers, I was leaving this 21st Century England, where they have socialized healthcare and companies can't put poison in your food, and some of these protocols that actually are much more community-minded than in America, and I was grappling with this question of, "As a Mohegan person, does missing England make me a traitor?" And that was the initial impulse from which the story came, alongside gathering together a series of stories around this question of wolf to bird journey, the way that you would in traditional storytelling, just a person sharing stories in space, and seeing what happened if you bring these stories together. Now all of that sounds very complicated but ultimately what it turned into is this piece that both navigates how my journey to the U.K. intersects with those of my ancestors who had to across the ocean in the 1700s, as well as the journey of a wolf becoming a bird. As well as the intersections of language, Shakespeare and colonialism. And so, it's like the nightmare of pieces to describe, because it's not really designed to have a logline. It really is like a very personal exploration of my experience, which when people witness, I feel like the thing that's been really wonderful is like them getting to sort of sit inside of my subconscious and grapple with those things and go on that journey, but when I have to try and explain it, this piece, that was really dealing with the "Where We Belong" was really supposed to be as much a question as anything else. This piece was never designed to give you answers. It was really about, "What does it mean in the 21st Century to be an indigenous person in a globalized context?" You know? And so, many other things that it's one of those pieces where I feel like I will never find exactly the right way to describe it. <laughter>

Jo Reed:  Well, you know, you've said that you liked to-- you don't want to dwell on answers, you're much more interested in exploring questions in all of your work.

Madeline Sayet:  Yes.

Jo Reed:  And in fact, even on Facebook, you said, "I'm not doing any more statements. I'm just throwing questions out."

Madeline Sayet:  <laughs> I did! It was a very long phase. <laughs>

Jo Reed:  And I think that's a wonderful way to come at work.

Madeline Sayet:  Yeah, well, I found that-- the funny thing is I actually-- I had this-- what happened was the reason the question thing started on Facebook-- it's funny that you mentioned that-- was actually because we were in this moment where things were feeling very divisive. I think I started doing the questions thing in 2015 or 2016. And what I found was people would just come together in this really interesting way, even though they didn't know each other, they would have these like long debates. I'd say something like-- you know, they'd be really-- sometimes they'd be really open like, "What is time?" or things that couldn't be answered, like usually it was intentionally questions that couldn't be answered, but I was grappling with in some way in my artistic work. And I'd post them, and like all these people from all over the place would come together and grapple around these things and that's really what "Where We Belong" is aiming to do, like a lot of my creative work. It's not supposed to like-- you might learn something from it, but it's definitely not geared toward being educational or a lecture. It's really geared toward like, "What does this bring up for you?" Because some of my most positive experiences of audience members witnessing it have been the ones who then go, "Oh! Now I feel like I can do this with my stories." You know? They make them think about their own stories and their own life a little bit deeper and grapple with the questions of the piece a little bit more. Because I'm just not interested in like what one per-- like what I, as one person, have to say, but I'm interested in like what I, as one person, in the questions that I'm asking in my life, what those questions might bring up for other people.

Jo Reed:  Well, you begin your show with Nansenan [ph?]. Who is she? And tell us why you began there.

Madeline Sayet:  Sure. So, actually, each version of the show is a little bit different. It's structured with a prologue and an epilogue in what's problematically Shakespearean. <laughter> But there's a couple little Shakespearean like nuggets that are still structurally in there. But the reason there's a prologue and an epilogue is because the prologue for every single place in which it's performed is supposed to locate you in place. And the epilogue is the moment in time that we're in. So, in the case of the D.C. version of "Where We Belong," in D.C., we are on the land of the Piscataway, and I thought it was really important for people to not just be hearing my story, a Mohegan story from somewhere else, but to know that there are as many, many-- there are many, many more stories in the place that they live, you know, in that land that they should be listening to.  Nansenan is-- was one of the last traditional Chiefs of the Piscataway in the 1700s. And I start with her, because Piscataway scholar and historian Gabby Tayac told me a story about her. And. You know, think about how many people not only would have never heard the story of Nansenan if Gabby Tayac wasn't doing this new research on it. But then also it would never have occurred to that there were female Chiefs in D.C. prior to the advent of the United States, right? That women actually lost rights when the United States was created. That prior to that, female leadership was normal. You know, so I just feel like there-- or that they don't even know that they're on Piscataway land, right? So, what does awakening these relationships to place do for people and for each place the story's in? Because it's, you know, it's wonderful to be able to tell Mohegan stories, you know, stories that haven't been heard. But if I'm on someone else's land, I should be honoring and paying respect to the people whose land that I'm on. And in the case of Wooly Mammoth Theater Company and the Holder Shakespeare Library, we're on Piscataway land, and so it's the Piscataway Nation and their history that needs to be the beginning point for the story.

Jo Reed:  Well, obviously, the issues that you raise in this about yourself, about Mohegans, about language and erasure and colonialism are very serious and very thought-provoking, but you also use humor a lot.

Madeline Sayet:  <laughs>

Jo Reed:  Especially in the voice of your mother.

Madeline Sayet:  Yeah. <laughs> Yeah, it's funny, a lot of those <laughs>-- a lot of those-- it's funny you mention my like spending too much time on Facebook with my art. Because it's like a lot of those conversations honestly when I started incorporating my mom into the play, it was like, I had been doing like conversations with my mom 101 each time a conversation like that happened. And I had been putting them on Facebook, and so I just went back and I was like <laughs>, "What are some of these conversations <laughter> that I could use?" They were all like so well documented. But yeah, no, the piece is supposed to be-- I mean, that's actually the hardest thing about doing it online is that when we did it live, there was like so much laughter in the first half of the play! And I was like, "Oh, my god, is this going to be like really sad with no people?" Because I'm just standing up there talking to myself. You know? Yeah, there's a lot of humor, because I'm just-- I'm not interested in-- I think that-- I mean, one, I think that humor is necessary when talking about certain things, but I just am not someone who takes myself very seriously. You know, and humor is a big part of how I interact in the world in general. Like if some of the humor isn't very obvious, I didn't realize until I had someone else read the script out loud. And I was like, "Ohhh, these jokes aren't like that obvious that they're jokes." <laughs> You know? Like when I say them, it's obvious, because I guess I'm a little bit quirkier than I realized <laughs> in my sense of humor. But it's sort of that like ability to flip something on its head, you know? Because some of the things that are jokes, like maybe to someone else could be serious. But it's a matter of like the framing, you know, that the beginning of the play probably to the middle of the play, you know, it starts pretty warm, and it stays in that kind of-- I feel like I have a-- I sometimes have like a little bit of an absurd view on the world, in that like things can tilt-- in my directing work that's also true. Like I like things that flip from comedy to serious very quickly. And I think that that also helps us listen better. You know, I think that if we're warm and we're open and we're laughing, then we're in a space where we're more capable of receiving certain things. And I think the reasons people really like the mom section, so the humor is because like mom-- I'm not going to say like moms are all the same. <laughs> But like there are things I think that my mom does, you know, that while they're very specific to her being my mom and being Mohegan, there is a "version of" for other people.

Jo Reed:  It resonates.

Madeline Sayet:  Yeah, exactly, that resonates. <laughs>

Jo Reed:  Well, you mentioned this, but that's exactly what my next question is going to be. This current production is streaming. You've performed this live. And I'm curious about the challenges of performing this without an audience for a camera.

Madeline Sayet:  Oh, yeah, it was very challenge-- <laughs>. It was, okay, so it was <laughs>, it turned out to be really-- I'm really, really appreciative of how well the film turned out, but at the beginning, I was like, "This is insane!" Because in addition to the fact that there's no audience, the lighting for film has to be quite a bit darker. And so, for most of the time I was standing alone in the dark, you know, talking to myself. And I was like, "This is the opposite of what I envisioned when I initially created this." Because when I initially created this it's so much about the exchange with the audience and the people and that story medicine of like, "I am sharing words with you and we're--," there's a cycling that's going through, you know, in terms of like what the audience is bringing to the show. But what was really amazing was we-- I kept saying like, "Oh, there needs to be an audience, but at that moment of the pandemic, having an audience really wasn't possible. And so, we kept brainstorming different ways of dealing with this throughout. Honestly, it was pretty funny like the spectrum of ideas that came up. Like at one point, we were going to try and have like a Zoom audience on a teleprompter that I could talk to. Like there was so many different things. And honestly, what ended up happening at the end was it was really hard, because it's not like a film where there's a scene partner, you know? And it's not even a film where I talk to the camera. It's a multi-cam shoot of me doing a show in a theater to no reaction. Which is very strange and very isolating. And so, and also because it was being filmed, there couldn't be any verbal reactions either. So, it had to be silent. And what I ended up doing was I ended up, I was like, "Yeah, this isn't-- this is really hard. Can you just--," I asked Maria Goyanes, and Aman Tio [ph?], the director, if they could just like-- this is going to sound really ridiculous, but I think it's a good lesson for collaborators-- I was like, "Can you like just interpretive dance some response to me during the piece, so I just know I'm not alone?" And so, they came up with like gestures for like laughing, and like being with you, so just so that I had something that was there in the space with me, because I felt so crazy talking to myself for 80 minutes. And it made such a difference just to have someone out there responding. But then also in the epilogue, the section that takes place during the pandemic acknowledging the now of what was April, 2021, there's a really beautiful shot where the camera actually turns around with me and you see the empty audience, and I actually find that really moving. I find it really moving, especially that we move forward and away from that moment, you know? But thinking about what it was like in that space and that moment where we're all trying to tell stories and telling them separately. It's strange, you know? It's a very weird thing. And I do realistically with this show, really long to be back around people, again, but I also think about the accessibility that is afforded to this production.

<overlapping conversation>

Jo Reed:  Exactly, that was my next question. You know, it's certainly this new opportunity, too.

Madeline Sayet:  Yeah, definitely. And for Native theater it's  been huge, because so, so much of our communities are in different locations, you know? That actually, with this whole pandemic time period for Native theater has been so interesting. You know, sometimes we have a reading online that in New York would have had 20 people come, and 2,000 come instead. You know? Just because that accessibility is there in a way that it wasn't before. And it means that like I can have a workshop for Native youth, where they come from all over, and that's true for this as well, and so I'm really grateful, because I feel like a lot more Native people will definitely see it because of the fact that it's online. Yeah, so I'm curious to see what that ends up meaning. You know, that's not really in D.C., the way that it would have been before.

Jo Reed:  It's a lovely collaboration between Wooly Mammoth Theater and The Folger Shakespeare Theater, which is so unusual, but also great!

Madeline Sayet:  Yeah, I mean, I think it's also, you know, it's funny, because it's like those are two institutions, too, that I think someone on point said like, "They're not the two institutions you think about as collaborating, because Wooly's known for like kind of like risky, innovative new plays, and Folger's obviously known for Shakespeare." But I think all institutions right now are really in this position where they have to grapple with this past year of social and political reckoning, and what it means to be making art going forward, and what it means to be telling stories. And The Folger's, I can tell now, is also really thinking about, "What does it mean to educate and how do we pair different ways of thinking within even our Shakespeare curriculum, and what is our responsibility to that?" And so, this pairing is really interesting and exciting to me because so much of my work has been around these intersections and seeing these like really important institutions come together and ask these questions in this moment just feels like such a step forward in so many ways.

Jo Reed:  Mm hm. You're a member of the Mohegan Nation, as you said. Your mom is a medicine woman. And you've said storytelling was just so important to your family and your community as well.

Madeline Sayet:  Yeah, yeah, so growing up I was really raised with this understanding of story medicine. You know, stories aren't neutral. They're-- I mean, they're often used as a part of healing practices, not just in my culture, but around the world. And what that always made me think of is the fact that like stories have power. You know, you can't just tell a story and expect it not to do anything. If you're actually wielding a story, it can create great healing, or it can create great harm. And so, our accountability to our communities and how we tell stories, how a story is told for the community, not for ourselves, is very important in thinking about what we're doing and how we do it and why. And so, all of my work with Shakespeare has really been grappling with that as well as a director, if we're going to do this play, you know, this play that is more than 400 years old. Like why are we doing it? And how are we doing it? And what is our accountability to our community in this moment. And I think that there are some things in Shakespeare that really serve that. You know, some of his greatest speeches are question-based, right? They are that staring out into an audience and asking a question, like, "To be or not to be," "Wherefore art thou, Romeo?" And like not answering it, but like grappling with it in front of the audience in a way that brings people together. But there are other moments where some of the language and ideas no longer serve us. And so, how do we interrogate that in the actual production of the work is really important to me, because I am deeply concerned with, you know, if the stories we pass down-- I mean, I believe that the stories we pass down shape our collective possible futures, and so we have a responsibility to care for how things move forward. What we carry forward and what we leave behind. And to be very intentional about that. Because of my deep belief that these stories are going to impact the world around us, and we can't just like be kind of lazy in our relationship to that. Yeah, and also growing up, yeah, traditional stories were a big part of my upbringing because of the fact that my family had founded a Tantaquidgeon Indian Museum in the 1920s, which is the oldest Indian owned and operated museum in the country. And so, I was also used to not only us sharing stories amongst ourselves, but also what it means to share stories of our people with outsiders

Jo Reed:  When did you first become interested in theater?

Madeline Sayet:  <laughs> It's a really good question. I don't-- you know, it's hard to say, because when I was really-- when I was like six or seven, I was already going to see outdoor Shakespeare, and had already read the complete works, and I was already used to like being a part of our traditional stories and all of that. So, it's hard to say when I first became interested, and see-- because we also, you know, like many a very lucky child had like a puppet show under the stairs situation as well. But I don't know that it was-- theater, what's interesting to me is that when I was a kid, I didn't know that there was Native theater. I knew we had our traditional stories, and I knew there was theater, but I didn't know there was a place where they intersect. And I think about that a lot, because right now, I'm one of the Co-Artistic   directors of Red Eagle Soaring Native Youth Theater in Seattle, as well as the Executive Director of the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program, which are both programs dedicated to serving Native youth in theater. And I think like, "Whoa! If I had gone to a Native youth theater instead, like how would that have transformed the way that I actually make art? You know, if I didn't think that I had to do it through Shakespeare." Because I mean, I knew I wanted to do the-- I mean, I was constantly obsessed with different forms of storytelling. You know, whether it was painting, or writing songs, or writing stories. That was my entire, entire childhood. But honestly, it was really being good at Shakespeare that gave me accessibility to theater and how I started getting big parts was actually like the fact that I was good at speaking Shakespeare. And so, I'm very aware of sort of some of the privileging around like that language and the ability to use it, but I'm also aware that it wasn't until my final year of college that I found out there were Native plays. And at that point, I had been almost ready to quit theater, because I was getting so frustrated with like some of the dissonances of the American theater at that time. You know, and the sort of patriarchal, white people sitting on couches plays that were kind of operating, and how it wasn't actually the thing that I wanted to do at all. And then, I was lucky that there happened to be this course in Native American Theater at NYU being taught by Carmen Mara Eli [ph?], who was a Native Professor there at the time. And it changed my whole world to know that we had our own canon, and that we could be in the center-- our culture could be centered in the conversation. And then that also it led to me volunteering to go up and do a reading of a Bill Yellow Robe play that summer. And when I did that play, it was like everything in it changed. It was like suddenly everything went so much deeper. And I realized, you know, that like-- well, I ended up rolling into doing a master's actually looking at addressing issues of indigenous representation onstage, because I was so mortified that this wasn't something that was being talked about. You know? That the fact that the indigenous theater of this country was silenced in this way, was not being talked about. And now, obviously, so much has changed in the last ten years. And I'm so excited to see the prevalence of Native theater happening everywhere. But yeah, it was interesting, because when I was a kid and I got into theater, it was very much about having to be someone else. You know? It was like, "Okay, well, I'll be someone else. I'll go on these adventures." And then it's so funny to me that, you know, the first time I ended up performing at Shakespeare's Globe doing "Where We Belong," right? So, instead of like going off and doing Shakespeare, I was actually doing “Where We Belong.” Which was the complete opposite of anything I would have imagined then, and yet there's something to be said for speaking these stories that hasn't been heard that still need to be.

Jo Reed:  Well, you know, in your career, you've both reinterpreted classics from an indigenous perspective and given voice to Native American stories onstage. And I'd like you talk about both of these impulses and how they align and how-- and where there's perhaps some challenges between them.

Madeline Sayet:  Yeah. Yeah, so a lot of my early writ-- so "Where We Belong" is the first thing I wrote that was like deeply personal in a kind of mortifying way, where I feel like I'm very exposed. But <laughs> prior to that, a lot of my work I think was working with and reimagining and adapting classics. Because they were stories that I knew, but I thought, "Oh, what if this character was just a little bit more visible? Or what if we saw it through this other perspective? Or what if we dismantled the hierarchy in this piece? What would that do?" You know? Where I was interested in sort of intervening into the systems at play, to see how we could change-- I've always been really interested in world-building. A big part of the reason I became a director and moved away from acting was because the difference between the limitations of a world other people decide to get to exist in and knowing that you could actually imagine forward the kind of worlds you want to build. So, thinking about some of these ideas is how I help sort of re-shift and reimagine the classics in conversation with the original, sometimes very, very close to the original, just moving around certain ideas in a kind of accountability to decolonizing systems. But then with Native plays, it's just-- I can't even-- I read this play today. I have to tell you. It's the best play I've ever read. I swear. It was this new play called "Snag" by Tara Moses. And it's part of a cycle she's working on. It's also-- I'm directing her play "Arbeka" for a new play festival right now. And she wrote this prequel to it called "Snag." And honestly, it's a Native romcom, but it's so good! And you know, part of the reason I think it's so mind-blowingly exciting to like laugh and cry and read it, is because those don't get-- it hasn't been produced. Do you know what I mean? Like it hasn't been encouraged. When Native theater does get to happen, it's like about our history or about our trauma, because there was so much silence around that for so long that that needed to be sort of the first thing, you know, that opened up and got spoken to. Whenever I'm working on Native theater, I feel like I'm just so amazed and empowered, because the thing is I'm usually kind of working in this like exchange between Native Nations, which is like an act of diplomacy in and of itself, where you non-Natives don't realize sometimes that because of all of our cultural differentiations, it means that there's like so much specificity and nuance and language in so many of these plays where you're really learning about an entirely new way of seeing the world with each one. And things that haven't been staged. At a time when, you know, like there was a period I feel like where American theater was starting to feel like too much the same. And then now it's like cracked open. And there's just like so much possibility, and it's so, so exciting, because each one of these plays is an act of sovereignty. An act of creative sovereignty, or reminding people that like each Nation, each indigenous nation is its own sovereign state. And so, everything within the works of that Nation is like, you know, an expression of culture in an incredibly unique way. And this play "Snag" is so funny and heartwarming and all of these things! And ten years ago, it would have been completely absurd, because there wasn't even Native theater being produced. There was just redface being produced. Unless it was like, you know, obviously, it was being created in Native circles and avant-garde circles, but not in a mainstream way. And now the idea like coming up on also, right, like "Rutherford Falls" being produced this season. There was so much joy in witnessing that. And witnessing Native humor without it having to explain itself, that now I feel like so much has been cracked open, and honestly, I don't know that I would have needed to write "Where We Belong" if I was in this moment when I started writing it. Because now we can go forward from here. You know, like this started, this story started in 2018, because that was-- those were the questions I felt we needed to explore then. But now I'm so excited about like the more joyous worlds we can build because we've broken through some things in terms of representation.

Jo Reed:  You mentioned that you're the Executive Director of the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program. Can you just briefly describe what the mission is here, but also how you guided that program through the pandemic?

Madeline Sayet:  Yeah, sure! So, yeah, so the mission of the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program is to promote indigenous arts and perspectives both at Yale and throughout Indian Country. And what's really great about that program is it serves Native students and it serves the Native theater field. So, it's not really beholden to Yale Drama or to non-Native theater. It's actually really a space where we can think about what are the needs of the youth and what are the needs of the field, and how do we create programming that serves that? And during the pandemic, it was incredibly-- it was really transformational, because instead of the programs being sort of elitely confined to who can show up on campus at Yale, every program became available to Native people whoever, whoever could come online. And it created a real space that way for youths to gather together, but also not just youth, right? Because we created programs that weren't just for youth, that were for all ages. Really opening everything up. How can we create workshops and opportunities that are open to all Native artists who want to like learn a new skillset, who want to gather, who want to make something?  And so it's just been really exciting actually this year to really think about what can be done virtually to bring people together in ways that being in person couldn't. And how to actually build on that for the future, because we actually like dynamically increased our programming during the pandemic, instead of the other way around.

Jo Reed:  Yes… if theaters went back to the roots of indigenous theater and storytelling, what would that look like?

Madeline Sayet:  Yeah, it's a great question! Because I mean, so I when I think about Native theater, I always think about telling a story through your community in that moment that they need in the way that best serves them. And so, it's a really great question the way that you just posed that, because it's like that is sort of what we were doing in the pandemic. You know, you wouldn't think about this being the same thing, because you think about like a fire, and you think about us all gathered around a fire. And I remember there were actually conversations I had for like ever with the MIT media lab, way long before the pandemic thinking about this idea of scaling storytelling and the intimacy of storytelling. Like and what technology would be involved with that? But of course, the pandemic came and it was like, "We're all on Zoom! You know, <laughs> that's just where we are!" But just thinking about the simplicity of the necessity of gathering, and how there was that moment when we all thought like, "Oh, it's all over," last Spring, and then it was within a few months it was like suddenly people started gathering again, but in new ways. And I feel like that's really the thing, right? It's not about what we did before, or doing something right, or doing something in a way that is like posh, or it's about how do we gather together around story in a way where we can serve people by exchanging those stories, in a way that we can bring people what they need? And I think when you really focus on that and those questions, there's just so many more possibilities, because it's not about being in a space in a theater that has nice seats. It's not about there being a separation between the audience and the speaker. It's not about any of that. It's about just figuring out the best way to share stories in a way that can heal community together. And that has infinite possibilities that are specific to each community. And also, the question, too, right, it's interesting with what you said, of like what does community mean? Because like in a lot of those situations, it was like dynamic and physical. It was like who you're local to. But now I feel like community can mean so many other things. Because there are these digital communities, there are these like national communities, there are these international communities. And thinking about what those different spaces are is also really interesting.

Jo Reed:  Yeah, and I wonder if that's one of the models to use when we think about theater and how to make the field more inclusive, more diverse. How to address issues of equity. How to do that moving forward, and what we learned from this time when we were on pause, well, you certainly weren’t on pause, but still it was a time of rethinking and reflection and what we might have learned that enable us to do that better?

Madeline Sayet:  Yeah, and it's so strange to me, because you know, some people-- at this time when we were on pause, I don't think I have ever been busier than during this time when we were on pause. And I think a lot of it is because, you know, people weren't willing to invest like large funds and resources into Native theater, but they're more willing to with small pockets of resources. And so, so much-- and then also Native theater was like self-generating so much within this time. Because they weren't-- I'm always surprised when I find out about like directors and things who weren't making art during this time because like Native theater was making so much in this last year. Like I don't even think like people who are outside the community can realize like how much was going on, that I could have like never have considered this actually a pause. Because the number of plays that were like developed or there were digital production of or there were like, yes, we weren't together necessarily in a physical theater space. But there were audio plays, you know, there were so many different projects that were created. I mean, gosh, Native Voices at The Autry's audio play production of Arigon Starr, The Adventures of Super Indian. I mean, there are just so many cool things that were made during this time! That I think we gave ourselves permission to make because we knew we were new and messy at this medium, you know? Like before the pandemic, I was terrified of like film and like au-- anything that wasn't on a stage. Because I was like, "I understand it when it's on a stage and there is an audience, and like that is the relationship. That is what I understand." And I think that's a real boundary that we created for ourselves, because we were scared of failing. I think that's also why we say, "Oh, the pause is over and we're going back to in-person," right? Because we didn't fully understand these other things, because we only had a year with them. But honestly, for me it feels like a real moment of liberation to think about how we collaborate in new ways and how we actually get past that fear and those boundaries to learn how to create differently, instead of just only doing what we're already comfortable with.

Jo Reed:  I agree, I agree! There was a way in which, I mean, as you mentioned earlier the outreach was so much greater. I mean, I know just for me in my job interviewing people. People couldn't go into a studio so we use a program like this one, Zencastr. And you click on your computer and boom! You're there! You don't have to schlep anywhere. <laughs> It's not as time-consuming and people are much more apt to say, "Yes." And you're also much more apt to take chances because it's a fairly new-ish technology, and everybody's making mistakes. And if you do, guess what? We live with them! <laughter>

Madeline Sayet:  Yes! <laughter> Definitely, definitely!

Jo Reed:  So, tell me, what is next for you now?

Madeline Sayet:  Oh, gosh. What is next for me right now? So, I'm currently in a workshop of "Arbeka" by Tara Moses for Native Voices at The Autry. And I-- because I just finished a workshop of this new Tlingit Opera Project that is a collaboration between Sealaska Heritage Institute and Perseverance Theater. I am about to start a new position this Fall as a Clinical Assistant Professor in the English Department with the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at ASU, which I'm really excited about, but also "Where We Belong" it seems like is going to have potential future life separate from the streaming, and so a lot of it's navigating that. The pandemic's been interesting for me, because I switched a lot from director mode to writer mode during this time. And so, there's a lot of writing projects I'm currently working on. I've been working on this piece with Border Crossings in London on specifically this period of time Pocahontas Matoaka was in London leading up to her murder and how some of those interactions with The Virginia Company actually serve as the foundations of capitalism as we know it. I've been working on this piece for The Vineyard, this mini-commission called "The Fish," which is like an allegorical reinterpretation of the Noah's Ark story. And I'm creating this new decolonized adaptation of Peter Pan called "The Neverland" that looks at this concept breaks down the original colonial structures and puts it through an indigenous futurism lens for the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne. So, those are all things that I have to write in the next few months. <laughs> But I'm also directing alongside it, and still teaching and all of that. So, it's really, really been really exciting. And I'm just so grateful for all of the collaboration opportunities. The one thing that's so sad about "Where We Belong" is it's-- you don't have like a whole big group of people to work with, the way that you normally do in Native theater. But Maria Goyanes was so understanding when I said, "Hey, we need to do a workshop with other people. It can't just be me all the time." And so, she created a space in which I could bring in Tara Moses, Madeleine Hutchins, Kenny Ramos, Erin Tripp, Emily Price and DeLanna Studi, and have other people read the work and talk about other Native theater artists and that was just so transformational because just, you know, theater, I don't know. It's not really meant to be done in isolation, you know? It's meant to be done in community. And then to have the extra layer of not having an audience there, all the ways we could create community online over the course of this process were just so important. And I'm really excited to see now that it's out there, you know, what that means now. You know, are there ways that it's shared, and the sharing of it creates community. It's so hard for me to imagine, because again, we're so new to everything about the way this moment has changed the way we think about theater.

Jo Reed:  Yep, I agree. Well, Madeline, I thought Where We Belong was a wonderful piece of theater. It was thought-provoking and it had a lot of charm as well, which is a rare combination! And it was beautifully staged.

Madeline Sayet:  Thank you, thank you. Yeah, it was-- everyone put a lot of thought into it, and there's also a lot of respect of understanding that this was a culture that I was coming from. It was very specifically Mohegan culture and so, you know, I knew what the symbols and protocols were, but other folks didn't. And there was a lot of thought and care around that and a respect for that. And I think it's just-- I'm really excited to see what people think, and hopefully to get it back onstage soon. <laughs>

Jo Reed:  Yep, me, too. Thank you so much for giving me your time. I really appreciate it.

Madeline Sayet:  Of course, thank you.

Jo Reed:  That was Mohegan Theater-maker Madeline Sayet, we were talking about her one woman show Where We Belong presented by the Wooly Mammoth Theater Company in association with The Folger Shakespeare Library. Its streaming until July 11 at Woolly You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. Stay safe and thanks for listening.


Mohegan theater artist Madeline Sayet believes that stories have power; they can do harm or they can heal. And her aim is to use story medicine: to serve people by sharing stories in ways that heal communities. Sayet is an award-winning director whose many honors include a TED Fellowship, an MIT Media Labs Directors Fellowship, and a White House Champion for Change Award. She is a playwright, a performer, and a director of new plays, classic work, and opera. First and foremost. Sayet is an advocate for and participant in Native theater, championing Native playwrights, directors, and performers. She grew up with traditional Mohegan stories and Shakespeare, and it’s this intersection that informs her current exhilarating and intimate one-woman show Where We Belong. Sayet both wrote and performs in the play, which is presented by the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in association with the Folger Shakespeare Library and is streaming through July 11. Where We Belong is Sayet's journey examining her time living in London while working on a PhD in Shakespeare and becoming increasingly uncomfortable in a country that doesn’t recognize its colonial past. Yet, when she returns to the United States, to Mohegan in Connecticut where she lives, she’s finds it difficult to feel grounded again. In this podcast, Sayet talks about the impulse behind Where We Belong, the challenges of performing a one-woman show during the pandemic, the enormous growth in Native theater and the possibilities it offers, and the centrality and potency of story to her life.