An Interview with Martyna Majok
default, An Interview with Playwright
Martyna Majok, Martyna Majok, photo: courtesy of the artist, Martyna Majok, fot. archiwum artystki
Awarded the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play ‘Cost of Living’, the Polish American playwright Martyna Majok was born in Bytom, in southwestern Poland. Here, she talks with Szymon Wróblewski about her work, the roots of her fascination with theatre, her experience as an immigrant, and her relationship with Poland.
The interview below was conducted soon after Majok learned about her Pulitzer win. Since then, the British premiere of Cost of Living took place at the Hampstead Theatre in London on 24th January 2019. Meanwhile, the Polish premiere of Majok’s play Ironbound, in a translation by Wróblewski, took place at the National Theatre in Warsaw on 30th March 2019.
A Foreigner’s Guide to Polish Theatre
Szymon Wróblewski: What is your favourite Polish word?
Martyna Majok: Parapet (‘parapet’). Or maybe parasol (‘umbrella’). That’s the first thing that came to my mind. Some words make more sense to me in Polish than in English. For example, I think wpływ is better than the American English ‘influence’. With wpływ, I think of something pouring over someone – that’s what I imagine when I think of ‘influence’. I also like chcemy wystawić Pani sztukę (‘we’d like to put on your show’) and są pieniążki dla Pani (‘there’s money for you’).
SW: What about in English?
MM [laughing]: Also ‘parapet’. The rhythm is the same in English.
SW: When did you move to the States?
MM: For the first few years of my life, I lived in Poland. My mom went to the US by herself. When she returned for me in Poland, she was pregnant, and had decided we’d now live with my soon-to-be-sister’s father in America.
SW: So, you went to school in the States?
MM: Yes, I spent some summers in Poland, as often as we could afford (which was not often), but I went to school in New Jersey. It wasn’t that different from Bytom in the sense that it was working class – factories, warehouses, etc. I grew up in a multicultural neighbourhood in New Jersey, a few minutes away from Manhattan, where a lot of my friends and their families were also immigrants. I learned Spanish partly at school and partly at friends’ houses. This is the area where Ironbound is set.
SW: How did you first become interested in theatre?
MM: In the US, I went to public school. I liked school; I liked to read. But maybe it was partly because of the situation at home. When I came home from school, I’d lock myself in my room because it felt safer. I had to be quiet, otherwise my stepfather would become aggressive. So, I would draw, I read; I read a lot, and I wrote. I wrote so much. If I got a homework assignment for two pages, I’d sometimes turn in 25 pages. My public-school teachers joked that they didn’t get paid enough to read assignments this long. And some of them, very generously, sought out other writing outlets for me.
SW: Were these your first plays?
MM: No, they were essays, stories. One of my teachers found a playwriting contest for students from New Jersey. I didn’t really even know what a play was then. But I figured a play was like a movie you couldn’t afford to make – so you do it live. I was the only person from a public, not private school, to be amongst the winners that year.
A Short History of Immigrants and the Polish Music Scene
SW: You studied acting in college – is that right?
MM: I took a few classes, but I didn’t focus on it. I studied English literature. I was in a few shows, but often got the parts of girls who commit suicide or get raped. Tragedies. Often without a sense of humour. When we started rehearsals for Gombrowicz’s Iwona, Princess of Burgundia, I wanted to play Iwona – the ‘strange girl’. But I got the part of Isabel – the girl Prince Philip should be with, but isn’t. My favourite role was Inez in No Exit, because I got to be active and wild, to play someone who was less concerned with being a ‘good girl’.
SW: Then, you went to Yale School of Drama – the best theatre school in the US. A university at the top of world rankings, with a very strong study programme. How did this come about?
MM: I knew I needed to find a job that would allow me to support myself. Pay the bills, help my mom. Typical immigrant thinking. As early as my first year of college, I had to decide what I was going to do. I learnt about a scholarship for immigrant students called the Merage Foundation for the American Dream Fellowship. It was a two-year programme, which offered $20,000 to achieve your goals. I was the first person to receive the scholarship who wanted to pursue something in the arts. Most of the other winners wanted to be lawyers, engineers, doctors. This was the first time I earned money as a playwright. I thought, as long as I was earning money from it, it was a real job. Same thing with Yale. Yale was a fully-funded, tuition-free programme that provided a stipend. So, I also considered this being paid to be a playwright. One year of classes at most universities in America can cost $30,000-$40,000, plus room and board. But I didn’t have to pay at Yale. I had health insurance; I had a scholarship.
SW: And if you hadn’t gone to Yale, then…?
MM: I don’t know. Maybe I would’ve gone to law school and become a lawyer. But probably not. Who knows?
SW: Where do you get the energy to write?
MM: I don’t know what else I could do. Perhaps it’s my background – immigrant and working class. I just had to make it work. I know of certain parents who correct or go over their children’s homework – even when they get to college. I didn’t have that experience. My family didn’t know English well enough to help with my homework. They did what they could to help raise me but their help wasn’t in the form of academic assistance or offering financial security. I knew no one was going to show up with a suitcase full of cash to save me. So, if I want to be a writer, I know I have to do the work.
Polish Theatre on Stages Across the World in 2015/16
SW: How much does the Pulitzer weigh? What does it look like?
MM: Ha, ha, ha – I don’t know yet. The awards ceremony is on 30th May. But I can say that for me, it will weigh tonnes. The prize is in the form of a diploma. I thought it would be a medal, but it turns out that only the journalists get medals – and not all of them. If it were a medal, I would carry it around in my purse with me all the time.
SW: The award came as a surprise. On Facebook, you asked if someone could help you reach your mother, because she wasn’t picking up the phone in Poland. What’s changed for you since then?
MM: It was a huge surprise. When my agent called me, I thought it was a joke. I didn’t believe him for 10 whole minutes. My mom was in Poland, and when we could finally talk, we couldn’t contain our joy. It’s too bad we weren’t together. My husband was with me when I answered the phone – we had just sat down to do our taxes. When we heard about the award, we left all of it and rushed out to celebrate with friends. It was one of the best days in my life. I received lots of emails, texts, and messages – I even got calls from people I’d fallen out of touch with over the years. It was a wonderful opportunity to reconnect. I received requests from newspapers and TV channels. Which made me realise how much I actually value my privacy. I’ve also gotten some offers for more work – including TV and film. I’ve dreamed about this award since I first learned playwrights could win it. But what I write, and what I write about, hasn’t changed.
SW: What are you working on now?
MM: A few projects. Two are musicals – one about Chernobyl, which I’m writing for the Public Theater in New York. I’m also working on a new version of my play Queens, which premiered at Lincoln Center in February of last year. I’ll be working on that with The Almeida Theatre in London. I’m developing a TV series for HBO. In January 2020, rehearsals start for my new play Sanctuary City, which’ll be presented at the New York Theatre Workshop, which I developed this past summer at The Sundance Institute Theatre Lab. In March 2019, my play Ironbound will premiere at the National Theatre in Warsaw. I’d love to go to the premiere. It’ll be my first Polish production.
polish american dance and theatre collaboration
Interview conducted in English by Szymon Wróblewski, March 2018.