Going global: Madeline Sayet of Mystic premieres her one-woman show in London

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Madeline Sayet— director, writer, actor — is performing at Shakespeare’s Globe in London on June 17, which would be a thrill for any theater pro who grew up acting in Shakespeare’s work. But the kicker is this: Sayet, who grew up in Norwich and Uncasville, is not doing a play by the Bard. She’s doing her own solo piece.

“If I was 17 and I was picturing my future, I would have been, like, ‘When I am old, I will be doing Shakespeare in the Globe.’ Instead, I’m speaking my own words in the Globe and telling stories about some of my ancestors,” says the 29-year-old Sayet, who is a member of the Mohegan tribe. “It’s not what I would have expected at all.”

The Shakespeare’s Globe complex features a reconstruction of the Globe Theatre where many of Shakespeare’s works were first performed. (The original Globe succumbed to fire in 1613, and a reconstructed building was torn down in 1644. This version, based on the original, opened in 1997.)

Sayet’s solo show, titled “Where We Belong,” was sparked by her decision to leave her PhD studies at the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute in London. When she got back to the U.S., though, she found herself missing England. She was, she recalls, “grappling with what it meant that I missed England, and what it meant as a Mohegan person to miss England also.”

She was writing just to process things, but then people who read the piece liked it, and it developed a life of its own.

The show explores Sayet’s relationship both with Shakespeare and with ocean crossings.

“It’s set up as a story of transformation, of how a wolf becomes a bird, but the underlying themes are very much about my Mohegan ancestors that had to cross ocean in the 1700s for diplomatic reasons, and then also my relationship with Shakespeare,” she says.

She explains that in more detail: “The story layers the idea of being a wolf who becomes a bird, with being someone who changes from being afraid of flying and leaving home to someone who is struggling with their identity and staying grounded the further and more frequently they travel to faraway places and learn. It also particularly traces parallels between my time in England to my ancestors Mahomet Weyonomon and Samson Occom who had to go to England in the 1700s for diplomatic reasons.” 

Sayet will do “Where We Belong” at Rich Mix, an arts center in London, before the Shakespeare’s Globe engagement. This marks the first time she will perform the piece and also the first time she has performed something she has written, in or outside the U.S.

“When I first became an actor, it was because I wanted to be somebody else. I wanted to crawl out of my skin and be somebody else because I didn’t like myself very much. Then I hit a point where I was like, ‘Oh, actually I can go on adventures (of my own). I don’t have to be somebody else,’” Sayet says. “I feel like the solo show is interesting because it’s very much a recap of adventures that I actually went on. … I get to embody what I’ve become — in an abstract way, so it’s more poetic than that; it’s not so literal. But it’s interesting because you never know how life is going to go.”

A Shakespeare bonanza

“Where We Belong” is not the only Shakespeare-related work Sayet has going on. Her production of “Henry IV” is wrapping its run at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre in Storrs. Not only did Sayet direct, but she also took the two parts of “Henry IV,” which are usually performed as two separate plays, and then cut and combined them into one for the production, per a theater official’s suggestion.

She later heads to South Dakota to direct “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which will be performed June 6-9 at the South Dakota Shakespeare Festival.

This confluence of Shakespearean events is happenstance, but Sayet’s rich history in performing in, directing and studying plays by the Bard certainly would put her high on the list of any theater looking to stage one of his works.

She was just 14 when she began on Shakespeare plays with the New London-based Flock Theatre. Over the course of her years there, she acted in some productions, interned, served on the board, and eventually assistant directed.

Sayet graduated in 2007 from Williams School in New London and went on to NYU, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in theater and her master’s in arts politics and post-colonial theater; her masters thesis was on Shakespeare.

Even though she withdrew from her PhD program in London, Sayet still ended up with a master’s degree in Shakespeare.

Starting so young with Flock Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Arboretum productions gave Sayet an early understanding of Shakespeare’s work.

“It’s one of those things where I feel bad because sometimes I take too many things for granted. I forget that, as very young director, I’ve already in some capacity worked on most of the (Shakespeare) canon. Working with students has been really interesting because I’m suddenly aware of the level of nerd I am,” she says, laughing.

“As far as theater goes, Shakespeare is obviously very prolific. We encounter Shakespeare very, very often throughout our lives. I just happened to encounter him so young because of Flock. I really treasured the specificity of his language from when I was really young and how it gave me access to be able to process things I couldn’t (otherwise) process at that time. I didn’t have the language to articulate things, but I felt like he did.”

Experiencing ‘Midsummer’ in South Dakota

As for her production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in South Dakota, Sayet notes that South Dakota Shakespeare has been interested in connecting more with Native artists and has an apprenticeship program where high school students from Flandreau Indian School work on shows.

“I have always been very pro the necessity for everyone to see themselves onstage, and I was able to cast six out of the 12 professional roles with Native actors, and two out of five of the members of the young company — all of whose work I love,” Sayet says.

The core question Sayet is leading the production with is this: How do we let ourselves see beyond what we expect?

“What’s important, though, is we aren’t being prescriptive with a ‘concept.’ We are going to still let ‘Midsummer’ be ‘Midsummer’ and discover what this adventure is that we are all going on together,” she says.

Women playing male roles in ‘Henry IV’

Working on “Henry IV,” Sayet contemplated a variety of subjects, including: what is honor, why do people go to war, and what do people inherit from the generation before then?

She also thought about some of the ways that gender operates in the play. She cast women in the roles of Henry IV, Falstaff and Hotspur.

One of the reasons she did that, she says, is because the actresses are “all really good.” But Sayet also notes that she’s never directed a Shakespeare play with a cast that’s fewer than 50 percent women. The first theater company she ran in college was an all-female Shakespeare company.

“That was always a big part of how, as a director, I saw things: What is the role of gender in the plays? I mean, Shakespeare’s plays were always performed by an all-male company originally. So gender is a very fluid within the plays to begin with.”

Sayet has had to “come to terms” with Shakespeare over the years. The plays are, after all, 400-some years old, and there are sexist and racist elements to them. The question becomes, she says, “How are you going to address those components? How are you going to disrupt that and bring forward the parts of stories that are worth bringing forward but also leave behind certain things? So that’s been really interesting for me.”

Making a ‘Great Leap’ at Long Wharf

While this spring is packed with Shakespeare-related projects for Sayet, that’s hardly the only type of thing she does. Sayet, who now lives in Mystic, will be directing another show in Connecticut. She’ll helm “The Great Leap” at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven a year from now. The play by Lauren Yee is described as an “underdog story of basketball and foreign relations in the 1980s.”

“I’m really excited,” she says. “It was really cute — a bunch of other Williams School alums in theater emailed me. ‘Oh, my gosh, you’re working at Long Wharf!’ ... When you get to direct at one of the places you went on school trips, it’s just a big deal, to all of us.

“I was really happy, because it means a lot to me to have one show a year in Connecticut. … It’s such a good play. I’m really excited for Connecticut audiences to get to see it.”

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