By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Recognition of self comes early in life. For the creatively inclined, that path to creativity often comes early as well. For theater director Mei Ann Teo, who brings “Where We Belong” to the Seattle Repertory Theatre with Madeline Sayet, the two impulses arrived simultaneously.
Explains Teo, who uses they/she pronouns, “My first memory is seeing my 5-year-old self in the mirror and curiously realizing,‘Oh! This is what these thoughts, this voice, looks like.’ I’ve always been in love with the idea of meta, that which transcends. Thankfully it’s not just about the self-referential. The theater I love trades primarily in metaphor and the metaphysical.”
The director grew up in Singapore, which she recalls as much more restrictive than the United States on many fronts, including freedom of speech and cannabis use, but much safer, due to much stricter gun laws.
“I first studied drama at Victoria Junior College in Singapore, and then continued on a DIY theater education journey cobbled together with internships at Berkeley Rep, short-term training programs with the SITI Company and DAH Theater in Serbia, Theatre of Yugen, where I learned Noh and Kyogen (Japanese theater forms), then finally had formalized long-term pedagogy doing my MFA at Columbia University.
“I’ve had many important teachers, many of them include the students and collaborators I’ve encountered through the years. Anne Bogart is one of the greatest teachers we have in the field, not only because of the ideas she gave me (though there are many), but because of the space she made for me to grow my own ideas, and to nurture the unique artist we each were.”
“Where We Belong,” created and performed by playwright/actor Madeline Sayet, compares and contrasts Sayet’s visit to the United Kingdom (UK) as the Brexit movement gained power, with UK visits by her Native ancestors in the 1700s, to address governmental betrayals.
“I first met Maddy when she was giving a lecture in Western Massachusetts while I was a professor at Hampshire College,” Teo recalled. “A friend connected us, saying that we should meet. When she was invited to premiere [“Where We Belong”] at the Origins Festival in London, that’s when we started to do more development and rehearsal.
“I remember being absolutely terrified of having to direct another director. And Maddy’s a fantastic director. I think ultimately, the approach was a clear and transparent collaboration of needs and flow, and we built the process together.”
The other members of the creative team came on board before the show’s national tour landed it in town. But Teo’s quick to praise them as well.
“Our production designer, Hao Bai, brought an incredible vision to the world of the play in scenic and lighting design, making the natural world present inside the theater to partner with Maddy’s story.
“Our composer Erik Schilke’s stunning music is another character, connecting emotional arcs and supporting the drive of the play. Our costume designer Asa Benally was the first designer on board this work, and has crafted Maddy’s character on stage with such detail, care, and delight.”
Teo’s happy to be back in Seattle, which she praises as having the best Asian food in the world, outside of Asia itself. But her work goes on past the Seattle Rep run.
“This show continues beyond Seattle, so in the future lies the Public [Theatre] in NYC, Portland Center Stage, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where I am the Associate Artistic Director and Director of New Work. I’m thrilled that in my position at OSF, I’m able to create more opportunities to develop and make work that changes the field.”
“Where We Belong” plays through Oct. 9 at Seattle Repertory Theatre. For showtimes, ticket prices, and other information, visit: seattlerep.org/plays/202223-season/where-we-belong.
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.