For 30 years, Red Eagle Soaring (RES) has been a creative and community hub for Native youth aged 10-19 in Seattle, producing plays, teaching a variety of skills, and providing free programming that spans contemporary theatre and traditional Native performing arts.
Earlier this year, for the first time, RES added an artistic director to its staff list—two, actually. Madeline Sayet (she/her) and Tara Moses (she/her), two Native artists with broad bodies of work and connections to the national theatre landscape, are sharing the role as co-artistic directors in residence, a nine-month position designed to lay the groundwork to launch RES into a new post-pandemic growth period.
“Native theatre is American theatre,” said RES executive director Russell Brooks. “It seems now mainstream theatre and arts are starting to notice they need to catch up with what Native communities have been doing since time immemorial, which is telling powerful stories through culture and performance in so many compelling and meaningful ways.”
Sayet, a director, educator, performer, and writer, lives on the traditional Mohegan lands of her people in Connecticut, where she is the executive director of the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program. Moses, a citizen of the Seminole nation of Oklahoma, is a director, playwright, producing artistic director of Tulsa theatre company telatúlsa, and co-founder of Groundwater Arts. Two months into their tenure with RES, I spoke with Moses and Sayet about the power of youth theatre, their uncommon leadership structure, and what decolonizing the American theatre really means.
GEMMA WILSON: Co-artistic directorship is an unusual model, and an artistic director in residence even more so. What is your mandate while you’re working with Red Eagle Soaring?
MADELINE SAYET: We actually suggested to Red Eagle Soaring that we’d prefer a co-leadership model, and for me it was exciting for a couple of reasons. One, I wasn’t actually sure I could do a solo leadership model, just because of the way time operates. And two, I really admire Tara and her work, and I felt like I could learn a lot from co-leading with her. Tara has skills that I don’t have, particularly related to fundraising. So not only do I feel like I’m learning from her, but the way we’re in dialogue together means that we’re all in dialogue, as an organization.
TARA MOSES: RES is going through an unprecedented period of growth, and we love that, especially in pandemic time. With all of this growth came a need for an artistic director position. Often in the theatre, these moments of opportunity happen, and when we push in new artistic leadership it’s in addition to the day-to-day operations, the constant planning for next season’s hiring, directing shows—all of these other things you’re doing at the same time. What I really love is that RES was like, we need a defined amount of time to build this framework, with people who are in the field, who can help move RES to the next phase, and really set up what the next phase of leadership is going to look like.
What can you do together at RES that you couldn’t do alone?
SAYET: You would think that two people would slow things down, but it actually operates as an accelerator. I don’t know that I would have been able to voice ideas as quickly if I had come in alone. Tara is not only very well spoken and clear about her ideas, but the ideas that she has are constantly new and fresh and engaging, and questioning the way that the field operates in a way I find healthy and refreshing.
MOSES: I cannot emphasize enough the power of having multiple people in this position, because of the complementary skills. Maddie has a gift for navigating institutional relationships, and I tend to come in very hot. Working on my own, it can take a little bit longer to get people on board with reframing the future. I’m throwing people off the platform like, “Train’s leaving the station!” And when Maddie is there, everyone has their ticket, they get on board, they get their snacks. I’m over here, like, “Choo, choo! Let’s go!” But because of Maddie, everybody’s in their seat and everyone’s ready.
When you say, “questioning the way that the field operates,” what does that look like?
MOSES: I’ll start by saying I’m still learning. There are lots of people I learn from and I continue to adapt and change. First and foremost, the foundation of theatre is rooted in settler colonialism and white supremacy, and you can’t build upon anything when your foundation is rotten. So, when it comes to reframing what the theatre is going to be—like, we don’t need a Federal Theater Project. Absolutely not. Because that’s just adding more gatekeepers. The whole purpose of that regulation is to “bring more people to the table,” but the table is built upon the remains of my ancestors, built by the ancestors of enslaved people. Like, hello! How about we eliminate the need for a table in the first place? Because if you want to invite people to the table, there has to be someone sending invitations, and people will be forgotten whenever we’re upholding the same settler colonialism structure.
The biggest thing I’ve been preaching recently is returning to the root of theatre. Not the Greeks! Theatre began as a space to tell stories within community. That is what theatre is, and we’ve lost it because people don’t know who their community is, and therefore they can’t be accountable to them. Their community is not just their predominantly upper-middle-class white audiences and wealthy donors. Their community is the Indigenous people whose lands that theatre resides on. Their community are the Black and brown people who’ve been pushed out because of gentrification.
Thinking even bigger, their community includes the physical land, the physical water, the physical air. Whenever you think about your community that way, it becomes really difficult to do fucked-up things. If I’m thinking about my community as the physical land and the water, how can I generate all this additional waste? How can I take money from fossil fuel industries, when these fossil fuel industries make their money killing Indigenous people? If we’re telling stories within community, there aren’t mass inequities across the field because we’re taking care of everyone like a relation, like we should be.
It’s a radical shift from how we think about the theatre now, and that feels daunting, to which I always say, “Surprise!” There are Black and Indigenous people who’ve been doing this for a long time who can lead the way. RES has never charged for a ticket to see their productions, and they’ve still grown, because it’s prioritizing the community.
SAYET: I really appreciate that the board at RES is not only majority Native, which is hugely important, but they’re also deeply invested in the organization. Many of the RES board members have children who are involved within RES programming. It’s not a situation in which you can feel how the board directly ties to rich white people with money.
Also, a co-leadership model is a decolonized process. If you create this position of artistic director, and the first person who comes in is some outsider who says, “This is what we’re gonna do, I’m gonna solve all your problems,” what have you just done? Ultimately you’ve created a colonial system for your organization. By creating a situation in which there isn’t a hierarchical structure, there’s more potential for actually implementing Indigenous policies within how the organization operates.
What’s the footprint you’re hoping to leave at the end of your time with RES?
MOSES: We’re positioning RES to be a springboard for Native youth into the theatre, which requires deepening the relationships RES has locally and also nationally, especially to other organizations that serve Native youth: American Indian Community House, Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program, Native Voices at the Autry. I imagine deep, long-standing relationships with multiple points of collaboration. I’m also envisioning regular and detailed scheduled programming. And then, what else can we provide that the students are passionate about?
As an example, there are students interested in stop-motion animation, and there have been multiple, successful workshops around it. How can we make this a formalized, regular thing that kids can look forward to? Also, cultivating Native teaching artists, which has been a big goal for RES for 30 years. I’m excited about cultivating a very clear pathway from RES acting students into the YTT program (Yesterday/Today/Tomorrow Urban Native Performing Artists), which is graduates from the RES Student Program, and then into becoming teaching artists that have the cultural competency and experience to bolster Native youth.
SAYET: I’m a little bit obsessed with communication, and how we create an environment in which the needs of everyone—staff, board, students—are all heard and addressed, as opposed to operating with any assumptions that might have been carried over from the past. This moment of accessibility is amazing, because Native youth who aren’t in Seattle can participate. I hope that some component of accessible programming continues, because realistically, nine months isn’t much time to gather people from across Turtle Island. Bu over time, if some programming is online, lots of Native youth from lots of different areas can participate—or, maybe by connecting RES to all these other organizations, we could end up with more Native youth theatres, which is really exciting. I constantly think about, what if when I was growing up, instead of going to Shakespeare rehearsal I was going to Red Eagle Soaring? It would have been a completely different experience in terms of how I came into myself as an artist.
You’ve both mentioned not knowing Native theatre existed when you were young, and now you’re working with a Native youth theatre, which is pretty remarkable.
MOSES: I started doing theatre when I was 8 years old, as the only Native child, and when I got to university it was the same situation. My junior year, I was in the basement of our campus library—which tells you something right there—and it was dark and dingy and scary, and there was a bright yellow book on the shelf that said “Yellow Robe” on the spine. And I was like, “Hmm, that sounds Native.” [Laughs] And it was an anthology of five William S. Yellow Robe Jr. plays, which was published in the ’70s. And I was like, what the heck? How come none of my professors at this private liberal arts university knew of anyone? There’s a huge history and body of work of Native theatre. I’d been doing theatre for over a decade at that point, and no one knew and no one told me.
SAYET: I just want to highlight that this is not an abnormal experience. I also did not know Native theatre existed until my final year of undergrad, when NYU at the time had one Native professor who taught one Native theatre course. That’s not an accident, it’s an active act of erasure. It’s not an accident that when you go to a bookstore, there’s like 500 million copies of Shakespeare’s plays and there aren’t any Native playwrights, because it’s about what our society places value on and what is required in the education system. Because of that, RES is an act of reclamation.
When considering how to connect RES to organizations around the country, do you want to connect with bigger institutions that are entrenched in older creative models? Who do you want to partner with, ideally?
MOSES: I’m interested in rural Indigenous communities and connecting RES with nearby reservations so RES kids can create a community with other Native kids who get to experience this magical Native storytelling. In terms of organizations, I’m interested in partners who understand that the way RES creates stories and nurtures Native children is culturally specific, decolonial, and very different from what the white colonial theatre has deemed “good,” because that definition is very narrow and doesn’t fit everybody on purpose. It just takes one really bad colonized experience to ruin theatre for them forever.
SAYET: When Native theatre operates within institutions that are part of the system, the stories get warped through a white lens, almost exclusively. The large mainstream productions of Native plays are not directed by Native directors. The system is a system for a reason. They don’t let us all into the building at the same time for a reason, because they don’t believe that the way we see the world will be accessible to their audiences. A culture that needs to control everything makes those spaces unhealthy, not just for Native youth, but for all Native artists. I would love to do the kinds of plays that RES is doing, with superheroes and zombies and Native people living their lives authentically, in a normal mainstream institution and have that not be a crazy thing.
Gemma Wilson (she/her) is a contributing editor to American Theatre.
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