One to watch: Madeline Sayet is making waves as a theater director
On a recent Saturday morning, as many college kids are just easing into their day, a group of theater and puppetry majors are gathering in a studio at the University of Connecticut to rehearse the comedy “She Kills Monsters” by Qui Nguyen.
On one wall hang an array of drawings of costumes and puppets that will serve as the creatures for the Dungeons & Dragons aspect of this tale of a young woman who learns about her D&D-loving late sibling as she delves into that game-playing world.
Sitting at a table is the production’s director, Madeline Sayet. The 28-year-old might not look much older than the students do, but she has an engaging confidence, obvious knowledge and infectious enthusiasm that they seem to respond to and respect.
As they rehearse scenes, Sayet watches attentively and, at certain humorous points, breaks out into a bubbly laugh. She gives the actors clear, on-point direction (“Highlight a couple of additional moments where you can go epic,” she tells the actress reciting the prologue) and then circles back around, after another run-through of the scene, with feedback (“Great adjustment, that’s perfect”).
This production at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre in Storrs is Sayet’s first time directing in Connecticut — a notable return home for someone who grew up in Norwich and Uncasville.
In between then and now, Sayet has traveled the country and beyond, directing theater and opera productions and racking up an impressive series of accolades and awards.
She was named to the 2018 class of Forbes’ 30 under 30 in Hollywood and Entertainment. The list lauds Sayet, a member of the Mohegan tribe, for her efforts as she “explores indigenous perspectives and reimagines classic plays through her work as a theater director, performer and writer.”
She was honored by the White House as one of the Champions of Change in 2011 as a director, writer, performer, and educator.
The New York Times gave a rave review to her 2015 production of the opera “The Magic Flute,” which Sayet set in the Northeastern woodlands, at the prestigious Glimmerglass Festival.
Sayet started out acting before moving into writing and directing, and she says of directing, “I really like bringing people together to make work. That’s the thing I really enjoy doing. I love being in rehearsal, but I don’t need to be onstage …
“I had lot of different experiences as an actor (where) the rehearsal room wasn’t the fun space I wanted it to be. What’s amazing about directing is I get to bring my joy of creation to the people around me.”
She also sees her role as a director as asking the questions that will help find a common thread; that, in turn, will allow everyone to weave a web connecting every piece of the story in a cohesive way.
Michael Bradford, who is artistic director of the Connecticut Repertory Theatre and head of the UConn department of dramatic arts, notes he has already asked Sayet back for next season, to direct Shakespeare’s “Henry V.”
“She has been wonderful to work with,” says Matthew Pugliese, managing director of the Connecticut Repertory Theatre. “She is very intelligent and very creative and very collaborative — all the right things that a director really needs to be successful.”
The power of stories
Sayet’s mother is Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel, who serves as medicine woman and tribal historian for the Mohegans. Her father, Bart Sayet, a lawyer in Norwich, is Jewish. Consequently, she says, she’s always been very aware of and interested in the spaces in between cultures.
Sayet grew up surrounded by Mohegan stories.
“They have an important power in our communities and the abilities to change lives. But also growing up in Connecticut as a Mohegan means that I had access to stories about the woodlands that other people don't know,” she says. “My beliefs came from the ground I was living on. … My home has always been full of spirits, magic, and history for me. I don’t need to look to a faraway land to find that — I know that my ancestors are still all around me, looking out for me, and their stories carve my path.”
One of the most important things about Mohegan stories is they don’t consist of a simple good-versus-evil paradigm, she says.
“Mohegan stories, like life, are more messy than that,” she says. “I'm attracted to theater with that complexity …”
Another major source of theatrical inspiration from her childhood: working with Flock Theatre. Sayet was involved in a variety of productions with the New London-based group over the years. She starred as Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet” and Kate in “Taming of the Shrew,” and when she was in college, she assistant directed some shows.
Flock Artistic Director Derron Wood recalls, “She had tons of energy, just a vibrant personality, always fun and always looking for the joy in the rehearsal process and the moment and everything along those lines. She was always a blast to work with. You could tell she was really interested and passionate about the subject.”
She attended the Williams School in New London. Sayet says Jane Martineau and the Williams School Arts Department had a huge influence on her; she says of Martineau, Williams' director of theater, "It was really important to have a strong female leader like her around, who taught us all how much hard work goes into good art from the beginning so we are always trained to behave professionally."
She went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in theater from New York University and her masters in arts politics and post-colonial theory at NYU. Sayet, who is single, is getting her PhD from the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute in London.
“I feel I was very, very fortunate, looking back,” she says. “Once I got to NYU, I remember being really surprised that — I had had Flock Theatre growing up, and other people hadn’t. … I think I had performed in more than half the Shakespeare canon by the time I got to college, which is, like, silly. It’s one of those things where I just took it for granted because it was here and because it was something I was able to be a part of."
“But it meant my knowledge of Shakespeare, by the time I got to university, was far beyond that of my peers, and that was the thing they’d turn to me to ask me questions about.”
She says the best way to describe her directing career is that everything about it has been unexpected.
Her first directing job came with her master’s thesis, which involved incorporating Mohegan language and culture into Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” in a 2012 production.
“I got very lucky in that a lot of people came to see that show, and it led to a lot of other opportunities,” she says. “Every opportunity I’ve had has led to other opportunities. One of the hardest things now has become, I’m getting so many opportunities, but they don’t all line up magically in the Google calendar the way that they used to. I know every ‘Yes’ leads to more opportunities, and every ‘No’ can cut them off, so it’s sad sometimes.”
Indigeneity and gender
When Sayet first started directing, she was particularly concerned with indigeneity and gender, and they found their way into a lot of her work.
She co-founded an all-female company, the Mad & Merry Theatre Company, whose mission was to “to empower underrepresented voices through fresh perspectives on traditional stories.”
She later worked with Amerinda, whose mission is to support Native artists.
Over the course of her career, she has had to deal with people wanting her to be the “token” legitimizing Native for their project, she says.
"The number of people who email me asking me to do Native versions of things that I would never do is obscene ... People email me asking me to do crazy, offensive things, as if I would somehow legitimize them," she says.
A lot of people, for instance, have wanted her to fix "Peter Pan," which she says "is not really fixable." She has been asked to work on shows where non-Native actors would play Native characters.
Sayet says that, when she started directing, the only representations of Native people she had seen onstage were redface — white people dressed up as caricatures of Native people.
“Audiences laughing at the Trail of Tears in ‘Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson’ was mainstream, and that terrified me,” she says. “The mainstream was used to dehumanizing images of Native peoples as the norm and being able to laugh at our genocide. They didn’t realize that simultaneously Native women were facing the highest rates of sexual assault. I was also being trained in a world where the female characters were still pretty two-dimensional, and looks were a priority.”
As a director, she has the power to create the world she wants to live in.
“I believe in story medicine — the idea that stories have a tangible effect on our lives, and if we are consuming stories, they effect how we see the world,” she says.
She thinks that telling complex, contemporary stories about Native people can make real change. And, indeed, things are starting to shift. She notes there are a record number of Native plays being produced at major regional theaters this year (Sayet will be directing one by Cathy Tagnak Rexford at the Perseverance Theatre in Alaska), and more focus is being put on female leadership, thanks in part to the #MeToo movement.
And Sayet’s career continues to percolate.
One thing that is striking about Sayet — and it’s something that must play a part in her success — is her attitude toward work and the world. When discussing how she started directing opera, Sayet says the most stressful part of her career has come from the fact that she has “this weird habit, which is that if someone says, ‘Do you want to do this thing?’ and I’m curious, I usually say yes, not knowing what I’ve gotten myself into until I’m there.”
She says, “By following my curiosity, I’ve ended up so many interesting places.”
Becoming one of the 30 under 30
Forbes chose its 30 under 30 in Hollywood and entertainment by first eliciting nominations from the public and from people in the industry. Madeline Sayet was among those then shortlisted and submitted to a panel of four judges, who chose her for the final 30. Those judges were: Kathleen Kennedy, president of Lucasfilm; "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" writer/co-creator/star Rachel Bloom, producer Gale Anne Hurd (currently executive producer on "The Walking Dead"); and director/producer/writer Mira Nair ("Monsoon Wedding").
What: "She Kills Monsters"
Where: Connecticut Repertory Theatre, 802 Bolton Road, Storrs
When: March 22-31; 7:30 p.m. Wed. and Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri. and Sat., 2 p.m. Sun.
Contact: (860) 486-2113