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Shakespeare & Beyond

Q&A: Madeline Sayet on "Where We Belong," Shakespeare, and Indigenous writers

In Where We Belong (onstage at Folger Theatre through Mar 10) Madeline Sayet travels to England in 2015 to pursue a PhD in Shakespeare, where she finds a country that refuses to acknowledge its ongoing role in colonialism, just as the Brexit vote threatens to further disengage the UK from the wider world. Madeline echoes a journey to England braved by her Native ancestors in the 1700s following treaty betrayals—and forces us to consider what it means to belong in an increasingly globalized world.

Madeline is a Mohegan theater maker who serves as Assistant Professor at Arizona State University with the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (ACMRS) and the Executive Director of the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program (YIPAP). For her work as a playwright and director she has been named a Forbes 30 Under 30 in Hollywood & Entertainment, TED Fellow, Native American 40 Under 40, and recipient of The White House Champion of Change Award from President Obama.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Favorite Shakespeare line?

“Our doubts are traitors / And makes us lose the good we oft might win / By fearing to attempt.”
–Lucio in Measure for Measure (1.4.85-87)

I was performing the role in college and I remember that line just really sticking with me as a concept. It’s not coming from a particularly noble character, you know what I mean? But it’s interesting to me because it’s not coming from a particularly noble character. That’s an interesting framing on doubt and fear and why we do or don’t do something. And it feels particularly relevant in relationship to this tour. Yeah, our doubts are traitors.

Favorite Shakespeare play?

I mean, it’s one of those things where I feel like people always want me to say something deeper. But it’s not. My favorite Shakespeare play is Twelfth Night, because I think it’s the hardest one to ruin! It has the most interesting characters and for me it holds up really well over time. As You Like It also holds up very well over time.

What are you excited for with this production?

I think I’m just really excited for people to have the opportunity to engage with each other and with this story in this space and think about what it means to be a Shakespeare institution in the 21st century.

I just really appreciate the full circle of it, of being back in DC, of it being back in a space that feels very much like the space where it began. And yet also in DC, where obviously a lot of incredibly harmful genocidal policies against Native people have been decided. And also, where policies that give us some of our rights back have been decided – regardless of which our sovereignty is pre-constitutional. So it can’t really decide anything, but those decisions still affect us regardless.

I do think that it’s interesting that this is a place that is not only Piscataway land, but also a place where Native leaders have had to come for generations and generations for momentous decisions that affect our nations. And so to be able to tell these stories here, these stories about important Mohegan leaders and language and the importance of language and why it needs to be cared for and preserved, like it’s just a very unique opportunity and moment. And I’m very grateful for it.

What do you want people to walk away with after watching this show?

For me, it’s always been a combination of a couple of things that I really value about people experiencing this show. One is that I’ve had these strange, wonderful experiences where throughout the tour, I’ve always encouraged audiences not to try and remember everything in the play, right? Just sort of let the questions that exist inside the story resonate however they come up, because it wasn’t designed to be a lecture. It was designed to be a journey grappling with thoughts and a moment in time. And so what’s been really interesting for me over the course of the tour is so many people have written me letters, sharing things that they realized about their own life while watching the show, people from many different cultures. That’s been really meaningful.

I do want people to consider more the legacy of how things get the way they are, that systems aren’t neutral. Things don’t just happen. Everything around us was actually created intentionally at some point in time, right? So in order to break down systemic oppression, you really have to look at how things were constructed. And I really want people to be able to ask questions and think about… Whose land are they occupying? What are the languages of the place that they’re in? How might they let those languages inform their relationship to the place?

Indigenous languages come from the earth in which they’re formed. So they have a very specific relationship to place that the English language doesn’t have here. And I think for so long, people in America have defaulted to the assumption that English is the language of place and that British theater is weirdly like the theater of place, and it’s just not true. And so really being able to sort of open your minds to what if we engage with and examine these other ways of knowing, these other philosophies that are from here… What might that offer all of us as an opportunity to think about the world in different ways instead?

What’s next for you, after Where We Belong?

I have a bunch of different commissions and opportunities. I’ve been devising a new indigenized adaptation of Marlowe’s Faustus that I’m super excited about, because I’ve really missed getting to work as a director. I have this post-apocalyptic Noah’s Ark allegory called The Fish that’s really fun that I’m writing, and I’m writing a new solo show that investigates this present moment in time the way that Where We Belong did for 2018, that I’m using as a way to process a lot of what’s going on now with more humor. I don’t know if it’ll be performed by me or someone else this time though.

I produce the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program’s annual New Native Play Festival in April. I’m excited about that because it’s just always fun to have a week where we’re just developing Native plays and getting to come together as a community. And for every year, there’s a Young Native Playwrights Contest where Native playwrights under 25 get a development opportunity. There’s also a contest for Young Native Actors that we created in memory of Misty Upham.

One of my favorite things each year is this contest, because you get to see what the next generation is thinking and the ways in which they’re building on all of the Native playwrights who have come before. And this year, there’s a record number of submissions, which is great. It’s really great, but it makes it much harder to choose. But it’s really exciting because then you get to see there are so many amazing young Native playwrights coming up.

Who are some of your favorite Indigenous writers?

I love the work of so many, so many Native playwrights: Vera Starbard, Mary Kathryn Nagle, Dillon Chitto, Tara Moses, Ty Defoe, Marisa Carr, Blossom Jonson, Rhiana Yazzie, Frank Katasse, Delanna Studi, Arigon Starr, so many people. Honestly, I think the reason it’s easier to do Where We Belong now than a few years ago is because shows like Rutherford Falls and Reservation Dogs have drastically shifted how much mainstream audiences have already been exposed to Native stories.

I was just thinking about the late William S. Yellow Robe, who obviously was one of the founders of contemporary Native theater. And a lot of the folks of that generation who really created, who really worked incredibly hard, without really ever getting their due, to create spaces for Native artists.

He really was the one who taught me that there is a space for us as a community, that we have our own theater and that we can use our own words for our own theater from our own languages. And that’s how we really build the kind of theater that really is representative of Native community.

Where We Belong

Where We Belong

In 2015, Mohegan theater-maker Madeline Sayet traveled to England to pursue a PhD in Shakespeare, where she found a country that refuses to acknowledge its ongoing role in colonialism.
Thu, Feb 15 – Sun, Mar 10, 2024