Theater is Where Madeline Sayet Belongs

WHERE WE BELONG is on stage June 24 – July 24. 

Storyteller Madeline Sayet

Photo by Bret Hartman

Sonia Fernandez: I’d love to hear about your relationship to story-telling. As a multi-hyphenate theater artist you create story through multiple avenues—as a writer, a director, a performer, an educator.

Madeline Sayet: Traditional Mohegan storytelling was a core part of my upbringing. In our traditional storytelling, the story is always told for the community, and we aren’t drawing lines like: “writer,” “director,” “performer.” My mission as a human being is to tell stories that have the capacity to positively transform our society; so over the years my roles have shifted, based on what it is I can do to be useful to that process.

SF: Talk to us a bit about the development of the piece. How has it changed over time and how does it sit differently for you now than when you first wrote it and performed it in London?

MS: Where We Belong did not start as a play; it was more of a confessional. I wrote it to process the fact that, when I moved home from the UK in 2018, I felt untethered from the ground for the first time in my life. I was grappling with the question: does missing England, as a Mohegan person, make me a traitor? That first draft aimed to break down the constructs that surround us, it ended with me as a bird in the sky, never coming back down. One of the most important sections in the original was: “The sky doesn’t tell me I’m a traitor for studying Shakespeare, for leaving. It doesn’t tell me I’m wrong, for leaving home, for leaving England. It doesn’t need me to belong to the earth because it knows we’re all made up of the same stuff getting closer and closer together. The Sky doesn’t pressure me to settle down and grow roots instead it keeps calling me back. It’s a place where I can disappear and be everywhere at the same time.”

I say this because the heart from which this play grew was not one thing over another, but the tension of having to exist between things and how that gets defined. Being able to ask the question: how are we allowed to love two things at the same time?

The initial piece was very specifically navigating my relationship with England. This current draft has been adjusted, slightly, for American accountability and engagement but also knowing people are ready to hear things now that they weren’t in 2018.

SF: Is this the first theater piece of yours that’s autobiographical? What was it like to be writing about your lived experience, as opposed to a fictional invention or adaptation?

MS: I have written autobiographical content in other mediums; but yes, this is my first play that is about me. At the point I wrote this, I was very drawn to the way traditional storytelling operates. What happens when a person simply shares directly in community with other people, the stories they need to hear that day? I believe deeply in Story Medicine, that every story that is told causes either harm or healing, and that that medicine is exchanged between the storyteller and story listeners who make up the story together, each time it’s told. If I had known this would become a “play” in the mainstream theater sense, I don’t know that I would have written it at all. The pressures of sharing something personal are infinitely daunting—because it’s your very self that is exposed, but there is also the fear of exposing others through your perspective.

SF: Something that I often think about relative to work from BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) artists is the weight of representation. It’s a theme you touch on in Where We Belong as well. How do you navigate that?

MS: I never do anything without thinking about how it will affect my people. I am accountable to the Mohegan Nation and not the “American” theater so it creates automatic tensions. I always try to do what’s least expected of me by Non-Natives to open more doors for other Native folks to share their true Story Medicine. It’s difficult because theaters automatically find what’s least expected to be “incorrect.” Think about it like trying to get out of the matrix. There is a system operating around you and you have to dodge and weave fast enough that the stereotypes can’t catch up with you because they will try and impose them on you at every turn; you have to combat them with the weight of knowing each opportunity is a chance to change everything by increasing accurate representation for your people, even just a little bit. But accurate to what? At the end of the day the strength of this show is that everything in it is personal to me. I’m not here to represent all Mohegans or all Native people. I’m just myself, trying to figure out where I belong. So it’s crazy that this piece has anything to do with representation, if you really think about it.

SF: Who are the artists or works that inspire you?

MS: My mother is a writer and I’m grateful she surrounded me with the works of Native writers from a young age. I am greatly inspired by poets, like Cheryl Savageau, and Joy Harjo. I once heard Joy Harjo say something about poetry being a space in which we can hold contradiction, which I find is what the original version of the sky section was really grappling with and why the piece still becomes more poetic at its end. I am of course inspired by our traditional storytellers, and all the amazing Native playwrights I get to work with as a director and performer: Vera Starbard, Tara Moses, Cathay Tagnak Rexford, Mary Kathryn Nagle, Ty Defoe, Frank Katasse, Maulian Dana, William S Yellowrobe Jr., Rhiana Yazzie, Arigon Starr, Larissa Fasthorse, Marisa Carr, Dillon Chitto and so many many more.

SF: What kind of theater do you like to go to, what do you look for in a play?

MS: I love poetic texts with fluid organic worlds and transformational capacity. I like plays with strong muscular language that ask big questions, that move us all a little closer toward understanding ourselves and the world around us better, and enable is to build a better world with that knowledge. My favorite plays are those that can flip between laughter and tears in an instant because I believe that’s how our world works.

Sonia Fernandez is Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s Director of New Work.

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