After nearly giving up playwriting altogether, Martyna Majok went on to win a Pulitzer for Cost of Living. She tells Nicole Serratore how she wants to move audiences with plays about characters who are marginalised by society
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Martyna Majok’s introduction to theatre came via the pool halls of New Jersey. One night after hustling $45, aged 17, she decided to buy her first ticket to a Broadway show.
That show was Sam Mendes’ production of Cabaret, starring John Stamos, at Studio 54 and it had a huge effect on her. “With Cabaret, I really felt I was welcomed – in many languages, I was welcomed,” she laughs. “But I value that. I want to be invited into a piece of theatre and I appreciate generosity. I value being moved. I want to move people with these stories but only if it’s genuine, without being manipulative.”
As an example, she points to the musical Fun Home, which “wrecked me”. She was teaching at the State University of New York at Purchase at the time. “I took 10 of my playwriting students to see it and at the end everybody was, like, snotty and fucking crying. It was fucking beautiful. That’s what I strive to make. I guess I want fluid to leak from your face. That’s what I want theatre to do to me.”
What was your first job?
I used to work at a bunch of Italian restaurants and did face-painting at kids’ parties because I used to love to paint and draw. I worked for an adult literacy programme in high school to teach immigrant parents and their preschool-age children English together.
What is your next job?
I’m doing some TV and film. I have an order to do a film adaptation of a book. I’m developing an original series out of my play, Queens, for HBO.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
This business will never love you as much as you need it to. And to make sure that you hold dear the people who love you, whether you’re doing well or not, and to make sure you’re still cultivating those relationships and caring for those people. One person’s opinion doesn’t validate the worth of the story that you want to tell.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
What’s your best advice for auditions?
We sometimes don’t know what we’re looking for. Come in as your full self. Let me see you. I want to know who you are. There’s something that everybody has that only is theirs and that’s what I want to see.
If you hadn’t been a playwright, what would you have been?
Maybe an immigration lawyer. I don’t know. I didn’t have a back-up plan, so I had to make it work. Or I’d have run a cat cafe.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I think about my family in Poland on opening night because they never see the shows, my grandfather in particular. Opening nights are like weddings where you think of all the people who can’t be here, the people who helped you along the way, and so it’s a lot of taking stock of the people who “loved you into being”, to quote [US children’s television star] Mr Rogers.
Majok is a spitfire. She is full of stories, ideas, enthusiasm and opinions. She writes plays about survivors and characters who are marginalised or ignored. While her subject matter can be tough, her characters – like her – are brimming with life and messy complications.
Her play Ironbound focused on a hard-working, barely-getting-by Polish immigrant in New Jersey. In Queens, she looked at documented and undocumented women from Poland, Honduras, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Syria and Belarus living in a subdivided basement in New York City while their lives were in flux. With Cost of Living, which won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, she looked at financially precarious characters, disabled characters and the delicate emotional balance of need and care.
Born in Poland and raised in northern New Jersey, Majok did not grow up around the theatre. However, she did have a vivid imagination and creative impulses. While in high school, she worked in a literacy programme teaching English to immigrant parents and children.
She would write skits for the programme and her ideas started to get quite dramatic. While the scenes were meant to teach real-life communication skills, she was having her students act out murders and heists. Later, she recognised this as her first foray into drama.
‘I write basically to be in the rehearsal room’
She discovered theatre more formally at university. “I encountered a book of Sarah Kane’s plays in the library. I was so moved by them. The next time they were doing auditions was for Crave by Sarah Kane. So, I was like: ‘Fuck it. I’m going to go, I’m going to audition.’”
While acting was not her passion, she found herself in thrall to the community she found there. “I liked being in that little family that occurs when you do a show. There’s a sense of belonging that I just loved so much,” she says.
Even now, Majok is not a fan of the solitude of writing but lives for the togetherness of a production, saying: “I write basically to be in the rehearsal room.” Currently in rehearsals for her new play Sanctuary City at New York Theatre Workshop, she says: “I’m so happy right now. It’s tech. We had a great rehearsal period. I don’t want it to end.”
Sanctuary City was due to open this month, with Rebecca Frecknall, associate director at London’s Almeida, making her New York directing debut. Acclaimed UK designer and director Tom Scutt is designing. However, programming at New York Theatre Workshop is currently suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The play is set in northern New Jersey during the early 2000s when the Dream Act – the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act – was proposed and young immigrants hoped it might be a resolution to their uncertain status in the US. But the legislation never passed.
The play is about two young people very much in this limbo and, like Cost of Living, it looks at the tensions and limits to care and assistance. Majok says: “It’s a play about caring for people and helping, particularly when you come from limited means. The challenges of that, the stakes and the sacrifices. I feel like the quest for survival is in all of my plays. And what we risk and trade and lose, sometimes, for that survival.”
The partnership with Frecknall comes out of Majok’s work at the Almeida. She has a commission from the north London theatre to adapt her play Queens – first produced at LCT3 in New York – in a new form. She was paired with Frecknall to workshop the piece and loved that experience so much that she offered Frecknall the job of working on Sanctuary City without actually having seen any of the director’s shows.
In a moment of panic, after the fact, she worried she should actually see more of Frecknall’s work. She watched Summer and Smoke on tape and was blown away. “It was one of the best theatre experiences I’ve ever had. I get so emotional thinking about how much care she put into that play and that production and it just felt like a beautiful fucking gift to this writer.”
After Sanctuary City, Majok has a number of other theatrical projects in the pipeline, including two musicals. “One’s a book adaptation and the other is an original story about evacuees at Chernobyl that I will be writing lyrics for.” She’s also working on a TV series for HBO based on her play Queens.
But she almost gave up on playwriting altogether. She says: “It had always been a difficult road, even while I was in school. I had a lot of medical problems, but that really became most extreme when I graduated college and lost my health insurance.”
Majok was knocked back a few too many times, which resulted in her wondering if drama was worth pursuing. After graduating from the Yale School of Drama, she asked herself: “ ‘If I quit now, what would I regret not having said?’ It had to do with my mother’s story.” It’s a tale that she had tried to write before, including a “really bad three-and-a-half-hour super-emo play”. But in the end, she found her way through and it became Ironbound. “I wrote it in five days, at fever pitch.”
When she put Ironbound before an audience, her confidence returned. “I had a cold table-reading at the Lark and when we read it people laughed. They responded in an emotional way. That gave me hope in the story, in my choice to be a playwright, and that maybe there’s something there. That was the play that got me my first New York City production and got other things going.”
‘Certain doors that I’ve been pushing on for a long time have become slightly more ajar. I still can’t fit my arm in fully’
While winning a Pulitzer Prize is one of the most prestigious awards a playwright can receive, for Majok it has not changed her life as much as one might suspect.
“In a nice, surprising way, nothing has changed. Certain doors that I’ve been pushing on for a long time have become slightly more ajar. I still can’t fit my arm in fully,” she laughs. “My work continues.”
While she’s humble about the achievement, Cost of Living has been produced around the world including in New York, Los Angeles, London, Toronto, Israel, Cyprus and Poland. It has also helped disabled actors get more work on stage.
Majok has a dark sense of humour that comes out in her plays, and it’s that humour – and its power – that sets her work apart. “When I write, it’s not a conscious effort to make the humour come out. It’s in the characters. It is the characters,” she says.
“I’ve noticed that in most of the scenes that I write it’s the most societally marginalised person who tends to have the most control of the humour. They’re the ones who are calling bullshit and often that’s where the laughs are coming from. Rarely are we laughing at that person, but that person is the one who sees most clearly and is able to call shit out and that’s the joke.”
Born: 1985, Bytom, Poland
Training: University of Chicago; Yale School of Drama; Juilliard School
• Ironbound, Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, New York (2016); Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles (2018); National Theatre of Warsaw (2019)
• Cost of Living, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Massachusetts (2016); Manhattan Theatre Club (2017); Fountain Theatre, Los Angeles (2019); Teatr Slaski, Katowice, Poland (2019)
• Queens, LCT3, New York (2018); La Jolla Playhouse, San Diego (2018)
• Sanctuary City, New York Theatre Workshop (2020)
• Helen Merrill Emerging Playwright Award (2016)
• Lucille Lortel award for outstanding play for Cost of Living (2018)
• LA Ovation awards for Ironbound (2018) and Cost of Living (2019)
• Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Cost of Living (2018)
Agent: Olivier Sultan, CAA
Sanctuary City was due to run at New York Theatre Workshop, where programming has been suspended due to the coronavirus outbreak