Martyna Majok’s artistic road led her from Bytom’s industrial landscape to the Pulitzer Prize. She is a playwright of Polish descent with US citizenship. Her works tell of economical and class issues afflicting women, she also does not stray from autobiographical themes.
She was born in Bytom, Poland, in 1985. As a toddler, she emigrated with her mother to the United States. She grew up in New Jersey, where she also graduated from her first schools. The city she grew up in, because of its industrial landscape, reminded her of… Bytom. Majok is a graduate of the University of Chicago and Yale University (Yale School of Drama). She also went to the famous Juilliard School in New York.
Since her early days, she loved to write. However, she was also forced by her family situation to indulge in quieter artistic activities such as drawing or writing stories – little Martyna, together with her mother and sister, were dependent on the moods of her aggressive stepfather. She was persuaded to take part in a competition for a theatre play by her teacher. She won but went to the theatre for the first time only as an adolescent – it was the musical Cabaret in Studio 54, in the building of the legendary club frequented by Andy Warhol, the same place where Giorgio Armani threw birthday parties. The show, directed by Sam Mendes, captivated Majok to such a degree that she decided to go into theatre. As she said:
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It was a fantastic play – sad, funny, sexy, touching – I laughed, cried and was delighted.
At first, she was considering an acting career and joined the school theatre classes. However, she felt that it wasn’t for her and got tired of roles she could not identify with. She was accepted to study dramaturgy at Yale on her first try; a stipend for immigrant children (Merage Foundation Fellowship for The American Dream) helped her with this. Majok graduated in 2012, and already showed an interest in difficult social and economic topics in her first works: Mouse in Jar, staged in New York’s Red Tape Theatre among other places, was a story of a relationship of a mother (suffering from Stockholm syndrome because of an abusive husband) and two daughters living in a basement apartment; the friendship of her thighs, another work on the topic of violence against women, was awarded the Jane Chambers Student Feminist Playwriting Prize (2011); reWilding depicted an excluded, marginalised community, ‘forgotten and alien’. In Queens and the one-act John, who's here from Cambridge, she touched on the topic inspired by her personal life story – the challenges of emigration and attempts to make ends meet. When asked about her greatest inspirations, she always points out her mother – a Polish immigrant whose struggles she observed throughout the years. The second of the aforementioned plays inspired Majok to write Cost of Living – which, in 2018, got her one of the most prestigious awards in literature and arts – the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
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Cost of Living was described by the prize’s jury as ‘sincere and original’. It depicts two complicated relationships – that of an unemployed former bus driver and his paralysed ex-wife and that of a young man afflicted with cerebral palsy and his nurse. The play also won several other awards such as the Lucille Lortel Outstanding New Play Award, the Edgerton New Play Award, and the Women’s Invitational Prize at the New Play Festival in Ashland. It was also featured on a list made by The Kilroys – a group of women who support female playwrights and fight male domination in the arts.
The first Polish adaptation of Majok’s play – which was also her debut in Europe – was Ironbound staged in the National Theatre in Warsaw. The play directed by Grzegorz Chrapkiewicz premiered on March 2019. Again, it is a story of a female immigrant named Daria who works in a factory and fights for a life of dignity and love. The story depicts twenty years of the protagonist’s difficult life in America. Chrapkiewicz stumbled upon Majok’s text by chance – much like how she ended up in theatre by chance. The director found information out about the artist when reading the New York Times and contacted her on Facebook. Majok sent Chrapkiewicz two plays – Ironbound and Cost of Living. He chose the former because of the presence of ‘themes which are very important to Poles’ – the director meant emigration and the struggle for survival in a foreign environment. Ewa Konstancja Bułhak played the main role in the adaptation.
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the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
For Majok, theatre is a place to seek the truth. She considers clarity in drama and the ability to transport observed images to the stage as her successes. Majok does not invent worlds but creates from what was already given to her – she learns from life and often depicts it in its most distressing forms. Her plays have been staged in many American theatres (in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Diego and Dallas among others) and in Melbourne in Australia. In 2018, she started work on a screenplay for a HBO TV series.
Sources: martynamajok.com, gazeta.pl, rp.pl, e-teatr.pl, originally compiled by MO, May 2019, translated into English by PG, July 2019
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