In Conversation

Madeline Sayet: The opposite of erasure

Sayet, who directs the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program, discusses opportunities and challenges for Native artists and her vision for the program.
Madeline Sayet
Madeline Sayet (Photo credit: Bret Hartman)

For stage director Madeline Sayet, it’s a particularly meaningful time to be on campus as executive director of the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program (YIPAP), a post she took up in the fall.

Since her arrival, Sayet — director, playwright, actor, and a citizen of the Mohegan Tribe — has seen the production of the Yale Repertory Theatre’s first Native-written play, “Manahatta,” (by her friend and founding YIPAP director Mary Kathryn Nagle); supported a student-organized Yale Indigenous Arts Night celebrating Native visual artists; and enjoyed the current Yale University Art Gallery exhibition “Place, Nations, Generations, Beings: 200 Years of Indigenous North American Art.” During YIPAP’s annual festival of new Native plays in early March, she welcomed two young playwrights to campus — both winners of YIPAP’s fifth annual Young Native Storytellers Contest — for staged readings of their new works. The event also featured a staged reading of the new play “Molly” by Penobscot Nation ambassador and writer Maulian Dana.

There’s a lot of exciting synergy at Yale right now around indigenous arts,” said Sayet, a former TED Fellow and MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellow, who grew up in Connecticut. “It’s really exciting to feel like Native arts are part of the conversation instead of being siloed in a little place of their own.”

YIPAP was created in 2015 “to promote and cultivate indigenous storytelling and performance to further authentic representation at Yale and in Indian Country,” according to its website. YaleNews talked with Sayet about the opportunities and challenges for Native artists and storytellers and her visions for the program. Interview condensed and edited.

What excited you about taking on leadership of YIPAP?

I first came to Yale to direct Mary Kathryn Nagle’s play “Sliver of a Full Moon,” about the Violence Against Women Act, which we performed at Yale Law School in the spring of 2015. That initial event is what sparked the founding of YIPAP. Later, Mary Kathryn invited me, in the first years of the Young Native Storytellers Contest, to direct the staged readings of works by contest winners. So I’ve been familiar with the program since its founding.

Much of my work as a theater director has been in national and international venues, but as a Mohegan, it’s really meaningful to work in Connecticut, my homelands. It’s grounding to know that I am home. And, with all of the great synergy of Native arts happening on campus, and the strong and vibrant Native community here, I was happy to accept the invitation.

Is YIPAP a one-of-a-kind initiative?

This kind of program doesn’t exist at other universities. Even out in the world, there are only a handful of professional spaces dedicated to indigenous performing arts right now. Creating space for Native students to cultivate their own voices — and to center indigenous practices and ways of being within the creative process — while also giving non-Native students opportunities to learn about Native arts has an impact on our entire nation because it creates an incentive for similar initiatives to happen elsewhere.

Why is a program like YIPAP important?

Native people haven’t been given the opportunity to tell their own stories outside of their own communities. It’s only very recently that Native-generated stories have appeared on stage and in film. Because of that, non-Native people have not seen a wide breadth or a very nuanced representation of indigenous cultures. What they might be most familiar with are mascots, symbolizing that Native culture belongs to non-Native people, ideas perpetuated by a history of colonization, oppression, and erasure. Media portrayals of indigenous people are often tropes within more tropes. So, in addition to helping promote Native stories, the program has an important educational mission in the community as well to change the way we are seen by non-Natives.

How important is storytelling in your culture and to you personally?

Storytelling, I think, is part of every culture. For my people, the Mohegans, the ways the stories are passed down is sort of an act of resistance. I grew up knowing the stories were special, because they come from the land we stand on. Both my great-aunt, Gladys Tantaquidgeon, and my mother [Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel] have been medicine women. I was raised with this consciousness of story medicine and the idea that stories aren’t neutral: They can heal people and they can damage people. A lot of my own work is about the transformative capacity of stories. What stories do we need to bring us together; what stories do we need to imagine a way forward and create hope? What are the stories that enable us to create our best possible futures?

Who are this year’s storytelling contest winners?

Our winners this year, who are selected by a committee, are a 25-year-old New Republic journalist named Nick Martin [of the Sappony Tribe] for his play “Sappony, Always” and 17-year-old Isabel Madrigal [a member of the Cahuilla Band of Indians], who is the youngest contest winner we’ve ever had, for her play “Menil and her Heart.” Both are first-time playwrights who wrote powerful stories. Nick’s play is a multi-generational journey that tries to count the intangible costs of being the first Sappony to step into previously restricted spaces, while Isabel’s play follows the disappearance of a Cahuilla girl and her grief-stricken family’s quest to find her, drawing attention to the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women. Both playwrights build on the Native theater movement that came before them, but their work also feels very next-generation in an exciting way.

Each year the YIPAP festival brings professional actors and directors to campus to workshop the new plays. This year, for the first time ever, we also teamed the winning playwrights with professional dramaturgs. In my view, dramaturgs are such an essential part of the creative process. Their goal is to support how the story becomes clear and how it moves forward. For these new playwrights, having that team supporting them really makes a difference.

How did you fall in love with Shakespeare, who has been central to some of your own work?

My mom started taking me to outdoor Shakespeare performances when I was six. I was constantly comparing his characters to other characters, such as those from Mohegan traditional stories that were ingrained in my mind as a kid. I kept seeing the parallels — and not the divide — between these characters. I like that Shakespeare’s texts are stretchy like traditional Mohegan texts; parts of the stories change each time they’re told. That’s really exciting for me when that happens, because that relationship with the audience means the story tells you as much about the world in its present moment as it does about the time in which the story began.

I have directed all-Native productions of “The Winter’s Tale” and “Macbeth,” and am organizing an upcoming conference for those doing innovative work in Shakespeare. At the center of it, we’ll be thinking about indigenization, because historically Shakespeare’s work has been so colonial.

Why are Native stories so crucial to theater?

In order for the American theater to thrive, it needs to embrace Native theater, which is the foundational theater of this land. By supporting this program, Yale acknowledges the importance of the stories and art of the place we are in. These stories and art practices are instrumental to understanding how we all move forward, create, and dream as artists. Without them, we will never know what “American” theater is.

What are your visions for YIPAP moving forward?

I’m thinking about all the ways we can support our students as writers, performers, choreographers, designers, and composers. This program can be so flexible. I’m looking at opportunities for highlighting other modes of storytelling; for example, in many Native traditions, there is not always a clear divide between song, dance, and story.

Madeline Sayet directs a play
(Photo credit: Dan Renzetti)

I will organize some writing workshops for next year, so that students can feel empowered with the tools to write an entire play or other form of performative work. I’d love to see more Native Yale students enter works into the Young Native Storytelling Contest! I’m also thinking about how to create opportunities for non-Native students to be in conversation with Native stories and practices. A lot of these stories unleash histories that non-Natives haven’t heard.

My hope is that I will be able to stay in deep conversation with students and faculty in order to discover the best ways this program can cultivate the kind of storytelling everyone is interested in. No matter what stories we are telling, those we pass down inform our collective, possible future. I feel privileged to be part of something where, foremost, we can center indigeneity, because so often it’s still forced to the margins in this country, when it should be centered.

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