Off Limits, On Stage

by Madeline Sayet

in National Conference

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(This post is part of the blog salon curated by Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2015 TCG National Conference: Game ChangeThe following questions will inform the final plenary session, “Artistic Leadership: How We Change the Game.”)

JACQUELINE LAWTON: What was the most game-changing production you’ve seen or created, and why?

Madeline Sayet: When I saw Deborah Warner’s The Testament of Mary, I  remember sitting in the audience thinking ,“Don’t they know we aren’t allowed to do this? They’re going to get in trouble.” And yet, feeling strongly represented on that stage in a way I hadn’t felt before. I had been playing male characters in Shakespeare, waiting for a female character onstage that felt as dynamic. Watching that show, it was suddenly very clear that it all came down to who was allowed to really speak. The reasons why that side of the story had never been told. After all, The Testament of Mary was looking at one of the world’s most well-known tales, we were just listening to the mother for a change, instead of the son. It was the first time I became fully aware of the unspoken rules of the dominant narrative.

From that point on I couldn’t make theatre without an awareness that certain stories are usually off limits, and how that operates as a privilege for some and shackle for others. It cracked open my mind to all the ways we can use narrative shift onstage to make the world around us more inclusive.

JL: Who was the most game-changing theatre leader/artist you’ve met, and what do you carry forward from their example?

MS:  I am privileged to currently be directing The Magic Flute at the Glimmerglass Festival, and while we re-invent this piece, I have been enjoying looking at what it is in the formula of the leaders/organization here that creates a game-changing environment.

There are three major components:

1) Hiring inclusively, instead of limiting it to the “idea” of diversity.

This means that when as a Native director, my production does not include “feathers and fringe,” that is not a bad thing, but an opportunity to tell a story in an unexpected way.

2) Hiring young artists, alongside legends.

This creates an opportunity for a constant cross-pollination of energy and new ideas, with skills, guidance, and wisdom, pumping new life into the art form without sacrificing quality.

3) Integrating the community in conversation around the work.

Currently alongside our new production of The Magic Flute, Glimmerglass and the local churches are having an ecumenical series on spirituality in the piece. How can this story act as bridge between ideologies? One of the most confusing things about the narrative for audiences has always been that it is a world with multiple deities, that do not line up, very much like in our world. How do we make sense out of those cultural divides? And use the work as a conversation starter for real-world dialogue?

All of this to me is game changing, particularly in opera, a form that is generally seen as off-limits to the majority of the population. It changes what opera can be and who it can matter to, and gives us the opportunity to make the work relevant and exciting for a wider range of people, activating it in this current moment.

JL: What is the most significant opportunity—or challenge—facing the theatre field, and how can we address it together?

MS: Narrative shift. If the theatre is for the people, open doors and leave them open. See who walks in. Invite people who might not think its for them. Challenge yourself as an organization to envision a better future, and include voices of all types in the stories you create.

What are the moments when you think you are not allowed to do something? Take the time to investigate why that is.

JL: What is the most significant challenge—or opportunity—facing the world, and what difference can theatre make?

MS: Lack of empathy. I am constantly amazed by people’s inability to operate with an awareness of their own lens and treat others with respect. All of the problems in this world, stem from lack of identification with someone else. Dehumanization. Othering.

Empathy is the most basic rule we learn in kindergarten and it somehow is the first people forget. It is our job as theatre makers to lend voice to the stories and perspectives that increase our ability for understanding and empathy on this planet. Our gift is to enable an audience to connect with strangers. So, it is our job to ensure that we are not only empathetic to the dominant narrative. Give someone unexpected a turn on the stage and we will all understand the world around us a little better.

Madeline Sayet is the artistic director of the theatre program at Amerinda (American Indian Artists) Inc., artistic director of the Mad & Merry Theatre Company, a Van Lier Directing Fellow at Second Stage, 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, and performer. Recent directing: Magic Flute (Glimmerglass), Macbeth (Amerinda), Powwow Highway (HERE), Sliver of a Full Moon (Joe’s Pub/The UN/The Capitol/Yale Law), Daughters of Leda (IRT/Culture Project), Miss Lead (59e59), Uncommon Women and Others (Connelly Theater), The Tempest (Brooklyn Lyceum). Assistant Director: Substance of Fire (Second Stage), Fidelis (The Public Theater). BFA Theater, MA Arts Politics NYU.

conf13_jacqueline_lawtonJacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena.