Smile Politely

Navigating a new road to Neverland with director Madeline Sayet

When I first learned that The Neverland was coming to Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, I was, to put it mildly, surprised. The J.M. Barrie children’s classic, rife with red face, is widely considered to be problematic. But then I read about guest director Madeline Sayet, who just so happens to be the executive director of the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program, A TED Fellow, a recipient of the White House Champion of Change Award, and a member of the Mohegan Tribe in Connecticut. Sayet’s residency at Illinois Theatre is funded by the University of Illinois System Presidential Initiative: Expanding the Impact of the Arts and the Humanities with the revolutionary mission of creating a “new take on a classic story that strives to increase knowledge and understanding around Indigenous performance.” I was impressed, intrigued, and full of questions for Sayet, who I was lucky enough to meet during her busy preproduction days. 

Editor’s Note: Sayet’s The Neverland will be presented in workshop format, as a work still in process. This opportunity to watch the emergence of a production by a significant director is a rare one. What you see on the night of your chosen performance will differ from those before it and those that will follow. So, when you come, and yes you should, bring an open mind and an open heart as you join the creative and technical staff in their continued journey to a new Neverland

Madeline Sayet radiates warmth and emotional intelligence. The daughter of a Mohegan storyteller and medicine woman, as well as an avid student of Shakespeare, the writer, actor, and director emerged from a complex cultural intersection which has shaped her path. I began by asking how she found herself doing the work that she’s doing. 

Sayet shared that she was “was raised on a combination of traditional Mohegan storytelling and Shakespeare,” her mother being “the medicine woman of the Mohegan tribe and [her] great aunt was the medicine woman before her. ” Her family also founded, owned, and operated the oldest Indian museum in the country, where Sayet spent a great deal of time. The museum was founded on the idea that it’s hard to hate someone you know a lot about. Sayet recalls that “not only did I understand from our traditional storytelling, that stories are medicine, but I also understood in a very tangible way that sharing our stories is a great way to build bridges in community.”

At the same time, Sayet notes, “I grew up going to see Western plays.” After being gifted the complete works of William Shakespeare by her grandfather at age seven, she saw a lot of Shakespeare. Even then she started ” looking at the bridges between like and not like…. Intellectually, cerebrally looking at it… and trying to make sense of it by finding the commonalities instead of the differences.” 

After receiving her BFA in acting from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Sayet continued on, but with a new direction. Earning her master’s from NYU’s more flexible Gallatin School, Sayet studied arts, politics and post colonial theory with a specific focus on indigenous representation on stage. It was during this period that she found herself becoming a director. 

Sayet shares that she started [directing] “just to be able to kind of create a space where we can come together and we can talk openly and we can dream in the ways that I was hopeful were possible….And, for me, directing was suddenly very liberating because as a performer, I was always in a situation where they were [asking], do you fit into this thing that we need you to fit into? Or do you fit into that thing that we need you to fit into? And usually I didn’t fit into anything that they needed me to fit to. So suddently it’s like the difference between ‘these are the only ways you’re allowed to exist.. and actually being able [to ask] what kind of a world do we want to build? And asking those I’m collaborating with ‘who do you want to be rather than who you are confined to being.”

Sayet’s desire to reimagine The Neverland began with her love of old stories. “There’s something really interesting about how they’re received and reimagined in different time periods. For me, adapatation [is] thinking about “what do we carry forward? And what do we leave behind? What about this story is still relevant, and what is no longer relevant.” Sayet has long held a deep passion for works of literature and theatre, while simulataneously “undertanding that [she] wasn’t allowed to exist in some of them.”

In an earlier discussion with Krannert Center, Sayet was asked which ten things she most wanted to direct, Sayet wondered if she could do something with Peter Pan that would allow her to direct it. “Part of that was coming from me, as a director, being deeply sad that I don’t get to direct the play with flying children. You know [it’s fun] but  as a native person, Peter Pan is so problematic. [It’s] one of the greatest purveyors of red face in American theatre. And it’s still done all the time, still done in schools, still done with red face.” 

Sayet knew “there were things in that I still cared about, but there were other things in it that I thought were deeply harmful.” And as she considered an adaptation, she saw that “there’s a great spirit of creativity here, at the University.” There is power in claiming space in canonical text, in writing one’s self and one’s culture into history. 

“The issue with Peter Pan is that it’s basically a colonial framework…. And so it became a question of ‘how do we create a new story that holds, [one] that has pieces of it that feel relevant.” Thought it took Sayet a while to get to that place, she feels excited by what they have now.  One of the biggest turning points was the ability to bring native performers into the cast, in particular Kenny Ramos, who plays Pan. As Sayet says, “the fake Native characters are not in the play anymore.”

Sayet often found herself wondering “how does this play actually be come about, being able to sort of embrace and acknowledge like many cultures and many spirits. And that, that is actually the important thing that we’re trying to get out of whatever this journey is.” She and the cast spent time examining “what does, and doesn’t get to exist in history…And so we start the play in this very strict extremist religious, assimilationist school [which stems] from the history of residential schools and what that did to Native people. Sayet also draws from the existence of conversion schools and the “don’t say gay” bill in Florida and “the fact that these are actual things that students have to deal with… the idea that they’re told that their identities can’t exist.”

Sepia toned moody photo with an image appearing both as a head and a spirit.

Photo from the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts website.

In Sayet’s reimagined The Neverland, Pan shows up, not as a little boy, but as a spirit being, and he’s there to gather the nevers, the spirits of anything told they can’t exist anymore. “Nothing can be destroyed there,” says Sayet, “so it’s a kind of a refuge.” At the beginning of the play, Wendy’s teacher can’t pronounce her Mohegan name so he gives her a new name. In Neverland her true name is returned to her. The children of this Neverland are teenagers rather than young children, and here they “find the parts of them that were being told they couldn’t exist. Whether they’re queer kids or trans kids, whatever their identity is, they are able to express themselves again.” 

When they return from Sayet’s Neverland, the children are not left with the memory of an escape. They come home to realize that “these things were possible in our world the whole time, you just have to work to build that world.”

And in many ways it is for young people like those in Neverland that Sayet has taken on this work. Older generations and traditionalists may not appreciate this reimagining, but that’s okay. Sayet is making this for young people like Wendy, for “people who actually want to go on an adventure that lends itself to everyone being valued. We’re not making this story for the past. We’re making a story for the future.” 

I’ll leave you with this final thought from the director.

“There’s something liberating about structuring The Neverland as this liberation journey, because it’s something you carry with you instead of something that you have to leave behind.”

So get your tickets and become part of The Neverland’s emerging story of visibility.  A story with the power to heal. 

The Neverland
April 7th-16th
Krannert Center for Performing Arts
Colwell Playhouse
500 S Goodwin
Get ticket information here.
Contains mild violence. Recommended for all ages.

Arts Editor

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