Martyna Majok won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her original play Cost of Living. Staged at Manhattan Theatre Club (MTC) last summer, after a brief run at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in the Berkshires in Massachusetts, the play opens at the Fountain Theatre on October 20.
Cost of Living tells two parallel, relationship-driven stories. John hires a caretaker, Jess, and the pair chip away at their judgmental personalities, slowly becoming friends; and Eddie looks to reconcile with his wife, Ani, after a prolonged period of separation. John has cerebral palsy (CP), a condition caused by abnormal brain development that is characterized by impairment or loss of motor function. Ani, because of a car accident, is a quadriplegic, meaning that all four of her limbs are paralyzed, although Majok’s script notes that “some of the fingers of one hand are partially functioning.”
Actress Katy Sullivan, who played Ani at MTC to great acclaim, is a bilateral above-the-knee amputee, a disability different from the character Ani’s quadriplegia. Sullivan will return to the role of Ani for the Fountain Theatre West Coast Premiere. Actor Tobias Forrest, a quadriplegic, plays John. Jess and Eddie are able-bodied characters played by Xochitl Romero and Maurice G. Smith.
The following conversation is an excerpt from a January 2018 interview with Majok conducted by Melissa Rodman, a Harvard College senior who wrote her thesis on staging disability in 21st-century American theater. Majok discussed how Cost of Living uses humor and sexuality to paint a picture of four messy, contradictory, funny, and flawed people, destabilizing assumptions about disability.
Melissa Rodman (MR): I was wondering if we could start off talking about Cost of Living and where the inspiration for the play came from, particularly the disabled characters.
Martyna Majok (MM): It started with a monologue. I was struggling economically. I always kind of have. I grew up with very little money, so for me, all the plays are about class. Cost of Living was about class; queens is about class. All these plays are in conversation with class, but America is so focused on identity. That is their lens through which they see just about every play. I don’t know if it’s the same for literature and things like that, but I think particularly for plays where you really have the bodies on stage.
So they said, “Oh, you wrote a play about disabled people or about disability.” I thought, “Well, no, it’s a play about class and loneliness, and it also happens to be told with two disabled bodies.”
So I had that monologue. I didn’t know what to do with it. What am I going to do with this 10-minute play? And, a few months later, I was asked for the 10-minute play festival to write about jobs. And so I thought about my most memorable job, and it was working with a man with CP, while I was in Chicago.
I went to the University of Chicago as an undergrad, and when I graduated, I ended up working for a graduate student at the same university. And so I wrote about that—I mean, I didn’t fall in love with him [laughs]—but I felt like this is a world that most people will not know about. And so, I went with that, and when we presented it, it was a really fascinating experience for me.
My play starts, and it’s just this woman standing onstage, speaking to someone offstage. And as soon as the character John enters in a wheelchair, everybody got so quiet. You felt them feel nervous. And it was so palpable to me. I didn’t know what it was. Were they nervous that I was about to make fun of a disabled character? Were they nervous at just the image of a disabled body?
I have a friend who says that disability is like a walking reminder of mortality, that when somebody looks at a disabled body, they’re thinking about the fallibility of their own body and death. I’m thinking about that, and I didn’t know, and I thought, “Oh god, my play’s gonna tank.”
And as soon as John has the first joke, the audience was like, “Okay, okay. We can laugh.” But it was like they were still kind of feeling it out. But because he had the control in the scene, and he had the jokes, and he was in charge, people felt comfortable.
And they could laugh and kind of grow with the people. So I thought, “This is fascinating. I have to make a play that put two disabled bodies onstage.”
The stories about disabled characters that I had seen tended to be one of two kinds: one was the “Oh he’s gonna run the marathon,” that sort of an inspirational story, where disabled characters just are such saints that they almost aren’t actual people. So there’s a distance already there.
And the other is the dying-with-dignity narrative, which I think is very dangerous. It makes it seem like there’s only two options. You either have to be an inspirational amazing-genius-achievement person, or you must want to kill yourself. I wanted to make sure that I countered that and offered another narrative, and also for them to have humor and sexuality.
MR: I noticed while reading the play that the stage directions and descriptions of the real physical interactions between the characters really come across. I was wondering how your experiences informed your scripting the play?
MM: There are so many things, like how do you shift your weight to be able to accommodate a body being moved from a wheelchair? There are so many specific things, that I would just walk the actors through it. I can’t imagine writing that or trying to figure that out without having experienced it.
The first time I went in, and kind of got trained—I think it was my first day—and the guy, who I was working for with CP was clearly so used to training people how to help him, and so he walked me through it. And so onstage, I walked them through it.
And then for the quadriplegic character, Ani, I had to do more research on my own.
I never wanted to rely on an actor doing my dramaturgy, so I researched as much as I could with that, and talked to people. The two were kind of a combination of past experience and research outside.
MR: That makes sense. I’m thinking more about the playwright’s notes at the beginning, which are very extensive. What was going through your mind when saying Ani and John have to be disabled people playing these characters?
MM: I mean, it’s funny. It became such a big thing. I had just written it thinking, “Well, of course. Like, of course. Did you guys ever think that you had to cast it differently?”
It blew my mind, but then of course I remembered celebrities like Eddie Redmayne and Sam Claflin, the Me Before You actor, played disabled people.
MR: The Jake Gyllenhaals.
MM: Jake Gyllenhaal. People will look at plays and think, ‘Well, at one point he walked, so we have to cast a celebrity and CGI [computer-generated imagery] his legs.
You could CGI the legs onto someone with a disability, if you would like to, to be able to actually give these people opportunities to represent themselves onstage in their own stories. But I think a lot of people will cop out in that way, because it’s economic, like you’re saying.
It’s a risk to cast an unknown actor, disabled or able-bodied. And I understand that, but also if you continue to not let disabled actors play disabled characters—or any character, to be honest—then they’re not going to get the exposure and the experience to then become the Jake Gyllenhaal. R. J. Mitte from Breaking Bad, he’s now an offer-only actor. He’s somebody who was cast in Breaking Bad, who has CP, and now he’s a name. Now more opportunities are open to him, and people consider him for larger roles.
Because it’s not my identity, because I’m not a disabled person, I felt like it would not have been right if I had also taken—not just the identity I wasn’t—but to have it told with people for whom that it’s not their identity.
I think people have been using the excuse, “We just don’t know any disabled actors.” We did a lot of casting. I knew Gregg, who played John at MTC, from like six years before I wrote the play. I didn’t write it for him, but after I had written it, I thought, “Oh, I know somebody who can do this.”
For Ani, it was not difficult to find a disabled actor, it just was difficult to find the right actor, in the way that it is for any role. The most difficult thing was finding somebody who could be brash and have humor and be believably working class, and that was harder than it was to find a disabled actor.
MR: And when you had this team, what did you think about, in terms of actually staging the disability with these four bodies that were assembled? Did things change from script to stage? And then, of course, there are the two iterations, at Williamstown and at MTC.
MM: It’s interesting, ’cause when you see Katy in a wheelchair, you see that she doesn’t have legs and doesn’t have knees. Sullivan was born without knees and legs. So people kept calling the character she played, Ani, a double amputee.
There’s all these things on the Internet, “The play’s about a double-amputee.” I’ve tried so painstakingly to specify the character Ani is a quadriplegic, not a double-amputee. But they’re gonna see what they’re gonna see. From the Williamstown production to the MTC production, the rewrites that I made in between were clarifying exactly what the disability is.
I can say, ‘cerebral palsy,’ and people who don’t know anybody with cerebral palsy might not know exactly what that means. Some people think it’s like an accident versus neurological birth disability. And so, I decided, “Okay, I’m meeting the audience where we’re at.”
I want everyone to come in with a common knowledge. I want them all to feel safely taken care of, and that they’re all on the same knowledge plane. So I think I assumed more people would know more than they did about CP and would listen to more of the language versus see Katy and assume she’s in a wheelchair because she’s a double amputee.
Most of the rewrites were actually about the Jess character. The rewrites tended to be me having to explain how somebody who went to Princeton could end up sleeping in their car. ’Cause this was unbelievable to an audience. [laughs] And so I had to put in clues about how things broke in her life along the way, that she would end up being there.
At one point when I was working on the one for Williamstown, I asked Gregg to describe to me what his body felt like to him, and then asked his permission if I could use some of that language. And so that’s the part [in the play] where he’s talking about his body.
He walked me through what it would feel like to kind of walk, for him specifically, because he went through a lot of dance—physical dance—training, and things like that that enabled more mobility than for somebody who didn’t go through that kind of training. And so he walked me through what the body feels, and I thought that was interesting and important, ’cause I also didn’t know what it feels, literally what it feels like, and we’re talking about bodies. And so, in that sense, that was a really great collaboration.
And, I mean, the stages were different. Williamstown has a raised proscenium, so at one point they just realized, because the actors are in motorized wheelchairs, if they go out of control, they’re going to end up in the audience. [laughs]
You do have to kind of change things a little bit, but it’s fine. There’s ways, you know, it’s just part of it.
MR: You mentioned different kinds of audience perceptions of all of the characters. Can you talk a bit more about the audience response and how that factored into some of the staging choices?
MM: I think most of them had to do with responses to class, I guess.
There was an interesting experience Gregg had after a show.
Katy comes out, and she has her prosthetic legs on, and she doesn’t enter in the [prop] wheelchair. And Gregg enters walking, also without his prop wheelchair.
There was somebody who came up to him after the show, and said, “I’m so glad that you’re not actually disabled. Oh my God! Thank God!” And he told them he actually is disabled, that he does have CP. But this response of “Thank God! Thank God it was just pretend!” That was really interesting.
I was at some of the talkbacks, and I think people were surprised at the humor. They were expecting a certain kind of story.
With the last three plays I’ve done, which all have serious capital letters—they’re about poverty and immigration and disability—people are assuming that that’s gonna be a sad story [laughs], or it’s just gonna be a super serious story. I’ve learned to train audiences early on that they can and should laugh.
So I front-load a lot of jokes that I usually give to the person that is the “other,” that’s gonna be perceived as the “other,” so that they’re the ones who are in control of the humor and driving it, and the audiences connect with that person.
MR: Are there any other things that you wanted audiences to take away from the characters?
MM: I think the one about suicide or the idea of giving up never came into the conversation. Sexuality was a big one. I wanted to have sexy scenes and have a person taking agency with their own sexuality and pleasure. Hopefully, it’s like a widened lens that somebody has about another person’s life. It’s a wider empathy that they have.
I have a lot of friends who are disabled. I have a huge group of playwriting friends, but part of that group is people with disability. And so they will tell me about people assuming pity for them, and that gaze, that was something I did not want at all present in it.
People will say, “Oh, you poor thing,” or “That must be so hard,” and they’re assuming that they’re suffering daily and every minute and are thinking about their disability all the time. And I wanted to add more in the lives of these characters than just that.
This post originally appeared in Public Books.