Conversation with Madeline Sayet & Mei Ann Teo

Conversation with Madeline Sayet & Mei Ann Teo

by Tatiana Godfrey

As WAM’s new company dramaturg, I recently had the opportunity to briefly chat with Madeline Sayet, the writer and performer of Where We Belong, and Mei Ann Teo, the play’s director. Joined by my colleague and WAM Associate Artistic Director, Talya Kingston, we learned a lot about how this production, presented as A Special Benefit for WAM Theatre Streaming Digitally June 24-27, 2021, was conceived and made. Here are some edited excerpts from our chat. 

Tatiana Godfrey: Can you tell us a story about the creation of the play and then give our audience a sense of what it is they are going to be seeing?

Madeline Sayet: I can try. I repeatedly joke that this is the hardest play to describe shortly. I’ve yet to come up with an efficient log line. So, basically, what the play chronicles is both my journey across the ocean to pursue a PhD in Shakespeare and what happens with that. But, also, how it mirrors the journeys of my ancestors, who also had to cross the ocean in the 1700s on diplomatic missions in service of our people. And, over the course of it, it also chronicles the journey of what it means to be a wolf that then becomes a bird. So, there are these multi-tiered points intersecting, and then, of course, all of that intersects with Shakespeare, language, and colonialism.

TG: Madeline, we spend time at the same school, the Atlantic Acting School, which was founded by David Mamet. And they love to teach things like Chekhov, Pinter, Beckett, the white male staples of playwrights. How did this specific acting training, in what’s considered theatre classics, influence the way this came about?

MS: At that moment in education it was very much the “white people on couches” plays was all of the scene work. And I was really confused because I was like, “This isn’t what I thought theatre was.” But then I got there and I was like, “Wait, what does this mean?” But I will say there was one semester where Anya Saffir did this semester on post-war British drama. And it was suddenly a whole bunch of plays that mean something. That mean something to the moment in time or are investigating something. And the precise political nature and poetry of those plays started to open up my mind again to what was possible. And then when I finished I volunteered for a reading of a William Yellowrobe play and it was my first time working on a native play. And suddenly, I was like, “Oh, this sits so much deeper.” No wonder I felt so out of place trying to do all these Pinter plays. It was never written for me; it wasn’t supposed to be what I do. So now I feel like a lot of my work is trying to decolonize some of the structures of education in these institutions. So it’s not one brand that x, y, and z says is right.

Madeline Sayet in WHERE WE BELONG, directed by Mei Ann Teo. Photo: Jon Burklund (Zanni Productions)

Talya Kingston: If I could open up to you as well, Mei Ann, about directing itself being a colonial practice. There’s something about moving people around and shaping it for a particular audience, and I’m wondering if you could speak to your awareness of that as somebody from Singapore and also in directing Where We Belong.

Mei Ann Teo: Yeah. And it’s not like I never stumbled. Right? It’s definitely a learning process. I remember thinking at some point in the process and in other processes, “Oh, God, I’m not the right person for this.” I work so often outside my milieu that I’m constantly grappling with “Why am I here and should I be here?” Within that, it is a constant, continual learning process to not harm. Because there’s so much we don’t know about each other and about systems and the ways in which we’re embedded. I come from a colonized country, so I am colonized. We are in a racist country, we are racist. I had to deal with a lot of my own internalized racism. I had to understand what it was to have the white gaze and how I grew up as a “model minority.” So I think it’s a continual process of trying not to harm and also realizing so many things are embedded and how do we stop it the minute it’s called. Try to be aware, to not get defensive, to not try and protect our own sense of identity of wanting to be a “good director.” And that I think is the journey. To try.

WHERE WE BELONG is will be available for digital streaming June 24-27. Order your ticket by clicking this link.