Rethinking the Rules

by Madeline Sayet

in National Conference

Post image for Rethinking the Rules

(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Survive| Thrive} blog salon curated by Caridad Svich.)

Kutayun Uyasunaquock. Our Heart, She Leads Us There.

Leadership on planet earth has many structures. In America, organizations tend to favor a particular model.

A white man is barking orders. He stands in front of a group of people. Giving commands. Telling people what is right and what is wrong

It is a structure we have seen throughout time. The group is made of diverse identities, but the white man is “fixing” them. Showing them the correct way by molding them into his own image.

What happens when this vision does not work in the best interest of the collective he is controlling? People get upset, feel uncomfortable. The work loses some the spark that ignited it in the first place.

I keep hearing that theatre directors who do not fit this mold should follow this example. They should never ask actors questions like, “Is that ok?,” “What do you think,” “Are you comfortable with this?,” or qualify anything by saying “I’m sorry.” These questions and comments are taken to be a sign of “weakness.” Directors must “assert their authority.” There is no other way.

But, that simply is not true. There are many alternative traditions across the globe that are just as strong of a model for creative work.

Children gathered in the grass around their grandmothers, aunties, mothers, sharing a time-tested story, drawn closer by the words, “Listen and Never Forget.”

So, why should contemporary theatre, particularly Native theatre, mirror a tired old divisive colonial paradigm? Why should anyone be told to direct like someone else? Does that not limit the create range of all projects? Shouldn’t art connect the community, not divide it? My lifetime of experience, and that of my ancestors, prompts me to check in with my ensemble, to make sure the group is healthy and growing together. Storytelling is a community art.

My Mohegan ancestors knew that female impulses were not weaker than male ones. They were and are equally valued as leadership skills. There is no need to create a false sense of order that mirrors the colonial paradigm.

I became a director because as an actor I had worked on too many plays in which we were ordered to do something we were uncomfortable with. We were essentialized, and thus, offended, neither allowed to dialogue nor contradict. I became a director because I had lost faith in the rules of contemporary theatre. I didn’t want to control people. I wanted to free them from the detrimental structure in which they were trapped. I wanted to break down the walls forming between the community and the rehearsal room.

The first time I tried to turn a Mohegan story into a play, I ended up in tears, fighting with my mother. I was sixteen years old. But I already thought I knew a thing or two about plays. (Actually, I thought I knew more than I did about a lot of things.)

Our argument began over an ending. This particular Mohegan story had no clear heroes and villains. There was no definitive individual to blame for what went wrong. Unlike Eurocentric stories I had read in school, this Mohegan story didn’t demand a clear moral hard line. The ending was ambiguous, because the entire community suffered. While this had never bothered me growing up, now that I was beginning to become what I thought was “educated,” this moral ambiguity nagged at me.  If everyone was punished, then was everyone to blame? Part of the story had to be missing. Why would everyone suffer when only one person committed a crime?

It was not until several years later that I began to appreciate and understand that our stories did have a moral: there is no clear right and wrong in life; human beings are inherently flawed – or rather complex. More importantly, it is not what happens to the individual that matters as much as what happens to the group. Does the group survive and thrive? If so, then all is well.

When people come to America to see theatre, they head straight for Broadway. What was once the Broad Way, a Lenape Indian trail, and yet unlike many other countries the indigenous theatre of this country is not represented there. Instead, Native children rarely see themselves accurately depicted in the media.

But, within Native communities we are always making art, and without that already existing Native Theatre tradition, we would not be able to create Native Theatre in New York today.

We must promote empowered images of indigeneity in New York if we expect others to ever understand why offensive appropriations are problematic, and how can we do that unless we are true to our values in our theatrical structures.

Awareness of Native Theatre is spreading now through increased communication. Contemporary Native Theatre remembers the stories with the longest tradition in this land, stories rising from the very earth we walk on. By offering new perspectives on human issues, Native Theatre can create change for the betterment of everyone. Many of the stories are new, but all of them are generated from this land. Telling these tales on stage is both an act of preservation and innovation.

Some stories are passed down, and other stories spring from those old tales, just as they do everywhere in this world.

If we are not working for the community, then who are we working for? In our Mohegan language, Accomac means “the long view from across the water.” Mohegans live on the eastern seaboard, and we saw many changes come across those waters to our shores. My mother wrote an essay once on how the tribal business should be true to their own cultural beliefs in their business models, instead of negating them. She called this The Accomac Business Model. The same is true for Native Theatre. We can use our traditions to form our own innovations.

She said, “We consider not only where we come from, but where we are going, many generations from now. Like some other tribes, my people describe this non-linear movement using The Tree of Life. We say that our elders form the tree’s roots and our children are its branches. We know that we must care for the roots and the branches, as well as the trunk of the tree, made up by the rest of us, who are somewhere in the middle.”

We cannot forget the trunk of the tree−who we are− because it is who we are and our community that makes our theatre thrive, that will create a better future for everyone. Limiting ideas that suggest female directors should emulate tired faulty forms do not belong in our contemporary creative space.

It does not make anyone weaker to ask the ensemble what they think. Being the director does not automatically make me the smartest person in the room. We are all on a creative journey together. But, what is this word “director”? And is the root of it where our problems lie?

A playwright friend of mine, William S. Yellow Robe Jr, suggested that in creating a future for Native Theatre we needed our own words to articulate our roles. So I asked Mohegan elder Stephanie Fielding what the Mohegan word for director would be. Without hesitation she replied, “Kutayun Uyasunaquock.”

The most accurate English translation is “Our Heart/The Heart, She leads us there.”

As theatre in America becomes more diverse and inclusive, as women take on more leadership roles, and indigenous theatre becomes more prominent, what other words will make up the language of creative communities this century? I hope the words are many and varied, like the many Native and Non-Native nations of this land.

So that like me, everyone can find a job they truly believe in. Kutayun Uyasunaquock.


Madeline Sayet is the Resident Artistic Director of Amerinda Inc., Artistic Director of the Mad & Merry Theatre Company, A Van Lier Directing Fellow at Second Stage Theatre, a National Arts Strategies’ Creative Community Fellow, and a recipient of the White House Champion of Change Award for her work as a director, writer, performer, and educator. Select directing includes: Miss Lead (59e59), Daughters of Leda (Culture Project, Dixon Place), The Tempest (Brooklyn Lyceum, Sylvester Manor). Upcoming: The Powwow Highway (HERE Arts). She is currently founding the Native Shakespeare Ensemble at Amerinda Inc.