By Madeline Sayet, as told to Alison Kinney
As resident director of the arts organization Amerinda, 26-year-old Madeline Sayet is building a better future for Native American performers, helping them land more diverse and complex roles. Her latest endeavor: creating indigenous and feminist retellings of Shakespeare. Here’s how she’s banishing stereotypes while breathing new life into the Bard.
I grew up with parents from different cultures who couldn’t always understand each other. I’m Mohegan and my dad’s family is Jewish. I think that creates children who know how to build bridges—and that’s what I want to do.
Somebody once told me, “You shouldn’t let anybody know you’re Native”—especially in the acting industry, where there are lots of ways not to get hired. But the playwright Bill Yellow Robe told me, “There are enough Indians pretending not to be Indians!” Now I’m the resident director of New York’s Amerinda Inc., which promotes indigenous perspectives in the arts. I’m also earning my doctorate at the Shakespeare Institute in England. We can reimagine Shakespeare, as indigenous people—the ways he uses metaphors, he doesn’t give you everything. You’re filling it in from your own experience. When Amerinda does Shakespeare, women play roles traditionally played by men. That makes sense.
I developed the Amerinda Shakespeare Ensemble to create a safe space for Native actors. I’d witnessed non-Native directors shutting down Native actors, telling them who they were based on archaic stereotypes. When casting directors consider a person who’s Native, they often say, “We have to justify why their characters are Native”—they can’t just be Native. That’s ridiculous!
My goal is to give an ensemble the opportunity to sink their teeth into material, and then make sure those highly skilled actors become known in the acting pool. When an actor’s résumé lists Macbeth—and not just seven versions of Tonto—it helps them audition for a wider range of roles.
If it comes down to respectably representing my people or pleasing a funder who wants feathers and fringe in a production, I’m sorry, no. I don’t care how much money you have. I’m not going to embarrass my tribe.