A Conversation with Martyna Majok
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Written by Corey Ruzicano
Photography by Emma Pratte
June 7, 2017
Every time the name Martyna Majok comes up in a conversation, it is always followed by the same knee-jerk reaction: a look of awe, a hand on the heart, a great big beaming smile. In ink and in action, Martyna is an exceptional human. She speaks and writes with fierce compassion; she listens without agenda; she crafts stories with unflinching integrity and wholehearted grace. I am reminded joyfully and often how lucky I am to be one of Martyna’s many admirers and wish everyone that luck in the theater, at the bar, and beyond.
Corey Ruzicano: Just as a jumping off point, let’s talk a little bit about what you’re working on, what you’re excited about coming up.
Martyna Majok: I’m working on a play about two generations of immigrant women from various places whose lives at some point intersect in the same apartment in Queens. It’s set in the year 2001 and 2017.
MM: Yeah. The second act is just one long scene with all the women in December 2001. I was living right over the water in North Jersey when 9/11 happened – we watched the towers fall from our school windows – and the sense of national mourning and worry in certain communities feels eerily similar. Playwrights are now having to specify whether their plays are pre- or post-Trump. Similarly with 9/11. I began writing queens in April 2016. I chose to write about the present in relation to 2001 and where we’ve arrived at since through the lens of various female immigrant experiences. And then November happened. I didn’t really need to change much about the play, besides just stating the dates. A lot of it’s set in a basement apartment where these women had lived while they were in transition. I have two of the three acts written. It feels epic and exciting and daunting. It’s a challenge. The past two plays were 90 minutes and had four people in them. This one has seven women and is probably gonna run three hours.
CR: It’s so exciting.
MM: And scary.
CR: It’s big! And the other thing is Cost of Living, which you already know I love.
MM: Yeah. We did it at Williamstown and now we’re doing it at Manhattan Theatre Club.
CR: I can’t wait. It’s funny, I was going to say – a lot of the shock right now in this new political climate is a reaction to a lot of things that aren’t really that new, and yet it does feel like a really different world than the last time you and I were sitting down to have a conversation. I have the words “pre- and post- Trump” written in my notes even, and I’m sure there are different answers now. I wonder how you’re making active decisions in your work to address the climate right now.
MM: Yeah. He’s definitely in queens. Not as a character and his name is never spoken – because we don’t need to see or hear any more of him – but he’s there. Unless I can get Alec Baldwin. If I can get Alec Baldwin, maybe I’ll toss in a monologue.
CR: Might be worth it to break the all-women rule you’ve set, if Alec wants to play.
MM: Totally. I wonder if it would have been different if I had started writing it now – if today had been my starting point. But nothing about the events of the play has really changed. It was always set in the present. I just made the months and year specific. I recently saw a play that a playwright had written in 2014 or 2015 but who then decided to move it to present day, post-election. And sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. In certain plays, the political can feel like it’s added on. It’s gonna feel like an afterthought if it wasn’t something you were concerned with before you first started writing. That concern is often woven into the DNA of a play whether you say it’s post-election or not. It’s tricky. I’m writing queens as we go. We see June in the play, so we’ll see if what I fear happens.
CR: The Prophet Martyna.
MM: Scary. Actually speaking of prophets, I was re-reading “Homebody/Kabul” by Tony Kushner, who was writing this giant play about Afghanistan, and it started rehearsals in September of 2001.
CR: He does seem to be able to uncover us before we uncover ourselves.
MM: Exactly. Genius. There’s a foreword or an afterword where he said that after 9/11 happened, the Times pretty immediately asked him to write something in response. He writes about how he didn’t feel quite comfortable doing that. And he talked about the Jewish period of mourning, the ritual, I’m not sure what it’s called—
MM: Yes, and it’s a week, right? You mourn the person for a week.
CR: And there are sort of rules you have to follow.
MM: Exactly. He said it was too early to write something. That there was a process of mourning he had to go through – that the country had to go through – in order to process that day and so he decided not to write anything. There’s something similar about plays about this present moment. It would be good to sit with this for a little bit. I would like to sit with this too. I was bursting into tears at random moments for the first three or four days after the election. I would walk out of my apartment and crumble. I think that in making art about this moment, there are parallels to be made with the past. We could start with yesterday in trying to understand today. Of course some things are unprecedented. But I think a lot of the answers are in history – in the psychology surrounding power. I’m primarily focused on the lives of these women in queens. And the laws governing immigration are a factor in their lives. And many of these laws have been in place a while. The destruction some of these rules – and their recent, higher stringency – have waged on the lives of certain people is now coming into sharper focus. People are talking about it.
CR: I’m sure, and I wonder, if we shift back a little, if you could talk a little bit about your journey – how you got to where you are now and if the practice of telling your story has informed how you tell the stories of others.
MM: You mean like when I’m talking to other people?
CR: Yeah, just in how you’ve developed your biography, even solely for yourself.
MM: Whenever I have tried to write a version myself, it always comes out terrible. I hold back too much in my writing. So instead I write about things that I have gone through, or that I am going through, for characters that are different from me but who have a certain experience in common with me. Externally we may seem different, but internally we’re incredibly similar. They’re often composites of people I know too – so the characters themselves don’t feel like total strangers. You have to write what you know, but if you know too much there’s no reason to go through the writing. I need that distance to be able to get close to the truth. You have to write what you know to understand what you don’t about the world. I can only understand myself or talk about myself when I’m wearing a mask. I’m not even sure I answered your question.
CR: No that was even better than the question that I asked. I’m always interested, and this is maybe a hot button issue right now, but I’m always interested in this ownership of story and how you navigate the politics of that?
MM: Yeah, it’s tricky. No one’s saying you can’t write a certain story. A writer can write what a writer wants. That’s the beauty of what we’re afforded here. But I think that there’s a responsibility for knowing what the stereotypes and tropes are of the people that you’re writing about because you are always in cultural conversations with those things. People are human – flaws aplenty. But in the limited space of a 90 or so minute story, you need to make sure you are not reinforcing something damaging or dishonest about any one identity or experience. That’s also just a recipe for making a good character: no one is entirely noble or villainous. Everyone is complicated. But I get the authenticity question. With queens, I feel comfortable to write about Eastern European women. I was born in Poland. I am an Eastern European female immigrant. And I witnessed enough varieties on that experience growing up – being an immigrant in America – through people in my life who come from a mix of countries to feel like I can connect. There’s not one version of an immigrant story. Other writer’s versions of the experience will be different from my own, my family’s, and those families I’ve known.
I will say this though: people coming in to see a play that is representing something about them and their culture are gonna smell a rat instantly if it isn’t truthful. That’s how I feel about certain plays about the low-income experience. I’m particularly sensitive to those stories because there’s a psychology to that experience. There’s a way of moving through the world, and what kind of humor you have, and the specificity of certain circumstances and experiences you have gone through. They become shorthand for those who have experienced them. So yes, you can write whatever you want. You can tell whatever story you want to tell. but the folks who have gone through it will know.
CR: Yeah, absolutely, that representation of shorthand is such a tricky thing. In your writing and in your speaking, you employ language in such a beautiful way and I was wondering if you would tell me a little bit about the development of your voice. You started writing in high school?
MM: Pretty late. I didn’t see a play until I was eighteen. My first encounter with playwriting though…I used to work for this adult literacy program that would help immigrant parents and their preschool aged children learn English together. I would write these skits of what they might need to say if they, say, needed to go to the bank or grocery shopping, things like that. They weren’t really plays. They were little scenes. Circumstances. The point was to give the students “ready language” – like muscle memory. Practical English. Then my skits started to get a little too elaborate. There was a murder heist in one. An affair at the grocery store. But I didn’t know that that was playwriting. For a long time I thought a play was a movie you couldn’t afford to make. And about language: I grew up in an immigrant neighborhood where a lot of adults were learning English at the same time as they were teaching their own children to walk and talk. Or the parents would come over with their kids and their kids would learn English at school and the parents were learning from them or from doing whatever job they were doing. I became sensitive to language. It communicates so much about a person – the rhythm of how they speak, their sentence structures, whether they interrupt themselves. I get really nervous whenever I do interviews where I’m recorded because it’s this really vulnerable thing. It reveals so much and I can’t edit. In my own playwriting, more so than writing a character biography, listening to someone talk tells me so much about them.
CR: Absolutely, and as someone who has known people from these many places and who has gotten to travel to different parts of this country and a little bit outside, I wonder how that perspective has affected your work. Have their been lessons from your travels that have influenced your writing or are there lessons that you think New York could learn from other parts of the world about how to make or take in work?
MM: I’ve been to two places that I’ve seen theater outside of this country – I think just two? I’ve been to Poland and to Russia. I went to Russia with a program in grad school that was similar to one of the Lark programs where they translate your play into Russian and they stage it. I speak Polish; I don’t speak Russian, but I know enough cognates to have an idea of what’s going on. It’s funny – they flew me out to Moscow, translated my play and then when I got there they were like, What are you doing here? Get out! Playwrights, we don’t want you here! The director that was trying to get me out of the room said he didn’t speak English very well so I’d have to go but it turned out the two main actresses were from Poland. They said they’d translate for me but the director was not having it. For that particular experience though, I was totally fine to be out of the room. I mean, Isherwood wasn’t about to show up to Moscow to like, make or break this production. I was happy to go out and grab a drink and walk around Moscow and, you know, See you at opening!
CR: Wow, so it’s a really director-centric culture there?
MM: Oh yeah, it seems like they’re the auteurs there. I was on a panel with some Russian playwrights who became really emotional talking about how they felt like their words were disrespected. In their experiences, the directors would cut or insert or do whatever they want with their text. It seems if you want to have the more authorial voice in Russia, you become a director. But that was just my one experience. It seems similar in Poland. In this Russian production of my play, I was more watching someone’s response to my work versus my work. It was interesting to me as an experiment. And in Poland, from what I understand, it’s similarly director-driven, where often groups work for a long time devising a piece of theater that’s written together. Or they work from a text that they choose from freely. And it’s very politically engaged. I went out this past December for the Festiwal Boska Komedia in Kraków – my first time seeing Polish theater in Poland – and these shows were not shy about attacking the direction of the current government. I’d love to be able to work on a text for a really long time. Or to devise with a group – like Joint Stock, where people meet around an idea, talk and explore, and then the writer goes off with those thoughts and creates something for an ensemble. I’ve only gotten to do that once and I loved it.
CR: When you get stuck, do you have a trick or a system for how to keep going?
MM: Good question. Someone puts a gun to my head, essentially. My agent or an artistic director will be like, Where are the pages? and then I’ll have a nervous breakdown and write them. There’s certain plays that I’ve written in a week, but most take a much longer time. I get stuck whenever I feel like I’m not heading in an honest direction. I stop being able to write. And then I have to take a break. I think when you get stuck, it’s because you forget when you were in a position like the one the character’s in, that you’ve separated yourself from who you’re writing and the situation you’re writing about. It means there’s something hiding from you in that moment. You haven’t been allowing yourself to see the true depths of this thing you’re dealing with. Because it can be difficult. For me, I have to go back to the times when that thing happened, or something like that thing. It’s not necessarily the same situation you’re writing about, but recalling that last time you felt grief or betrayal helps to find your way back into the life of your character and what they might feel they have to do next. And also, drinking. Drinking helps when I’m stuck.
CR: I was gonna say, wine’s gotta be an answer here. So I keep saying this but I’ll say it again, I love queens, and I wonder what the process has been like working with all women—
MM: Highly recommend.
CR: Amazing. Tell me more, are there stark differences or—
MM: It’s been great. There’s always a moment, each time I’ve developed it with actors, where someone realizes somewhere midway through the process that we’re all women in the room. And then—this is what happened to me when I first noticed—then the conversation moves very quickly to shorthand. We talk about certain things without having to give context or much explanation. We feel united in an experience, which lets us celebrate and listen to our differences within that experience. There was one process where I realized everyone in the room was either an immigrant or first generation. Which was very exciting. I realized that I could talk about certain things that I might have to give context for in other rehearsal rooms. You don’t have to explain—
CR: There’s a fluency.
MM: Exactly, there’s a fluency. We make this work because we’re trying to unearth the things that are hard to express or articulate. And part of that is being in a supportive place to be able to talk about all these things. As a playwright, I’m hoping to make something that feels universal while being very specific. And being in rooms with this play with all women–with all of our differences, we share so many common experiences. We can get right to the difficult thing.
CR: Totally, less codes to switch through.
MM: Yeah. I’m realizing right now I’ve mostly worked with female directors. It wasn’t a conscious choice.
CR: Yeah, what are some of the things you’ve learned from your collaborators? Could you talk about some of the lessons you’ve learned about how to work successfully with collaborators?
MM: I think it’s how to have a conversation in pursuit of clarity and truth. The process of making theater – once you’re in rehearsal – can feel fast. Sometimes you get lost or you feel you have to make decisions quickly. And as long as you trust the person you’re working with, and you want them to succeed and they want you to succeed, you respect one another. All the directors I’ve really connected with, we’ve both been able to say, I don’t understand that, let’s investigate that, let’s talk and drink.
CR: Always drink. This one’s a big question: I wonder if you have thoughts about what essential changes you think need to be made in the field right now.
MM: Oh man. You know, I see the changes happening slowly, in terms of diversity of stories. I’ll be curious to see what [The Dramatists Guild and The Lilly Awards’s] The Count is this year. But I guess here’s something…and how to say this without insulting people…I feel like I’ve been seeing a lot of plays lately that are actively about nothing. Like that’s the point. The ennui of comfort and being dissatisfied with that.
CR: With comfort?
MM: Yeah, and lots of what is the meaning of life plays that just sort of…
CR: Can’t help but betray privilege?
MM: Maybe it’s just not for me. Because there is a way to raise the what does it all mean question that can be outside of privilege or outside of comfort or is more inclusive of other experiences that are not just that, that isn’t just everyone else has this thing, why don’t I have this thing. I get that people are often writing from their experience and you can’t fault them for that. But anytime you get to stage a play, you are given a platform to address a lot of people and there is an immense privilege in that. I think we have to be more responsible about what we make that conversation about. Just to recognize that not everyone has the opportunity to hear their story, let alone their words on that kind of platform. I think playwrights should use it well. With great power comes great responsibility.
CR: Yep, we’ve all gotta learn from Spider Man.
MM: Who doesn’t?! I feel like there’s sometimes this classism – this idea that because one character is a lawyer or a king or “established,” that they’re stronger, more valid characters than characters from lower classes. You have to treat your characters with integrity no matter their background.
CR: Well, also it would be pretty historically inaccurate to say that all of leaders are “strong characters” just because they’ve been given a place in history.
CR: The last question I want to ask you is if there’s a question in your life or in your work right now that you’re grappling with?
MM: Yeah, I’m actively dealing with what’s the right balance of shorthand and explanation of experience. I understand that, at least at the moment, your typical audience is going to be comprised mostly of theater people and people with disposable income. So I think about an audience’s relationship to an experience onstage they may not have had in life. How much of that do I have to explain versus how much of it can I just show?
CR: Yes, I’ve been thinking about that exact thing a lot lately, what the responsibility of the playwright and director, the text and the choices made with it to the audience when the majority of them will not have gone through what they’re watching onstage. Where is the line of when you’re doing that story a disservice by over-explaining or by under-explaining? How do you include everyone and not assume a baseline understanding without pandering—
MM: It’s hard to know what an audience is getting sometimes.
CR: Exactly, how do you meet people where they’re at when it’s a stretch for them to go where you’re trying to take them?
MM: Yeah, I’m wondering with queens how much of the immigration process I need to explain. What does overstaying a visa actually mean, what rights are kept from you, things like that. I’m trying to balance that, how much is too much.
CR: Totally – what moments will benefit from a really clear, practical or intellectual understanding and what moments just don’t need it?
MM: Exactly. Which is why it’s like, four hours long right now. I’m shooting for three.
CR: A tight three hours.
MM: Yeah, man!
CR: It’s an epic.
MM: I keep thinking like, I could have just had three plays! I should have stretched this out and had three productions!
CR: I know but that’s part of what’s so cool about it, defying that pressure for the 90 minute four-hander!
MM: It was never the plan! But every time I turned a corner, there was just more there, more story. So I just figured I have to do this.
Martyna Majok was born in Bytom, Poland, and aged in Jersey and Chicago. Her plays have been performed and developed at The O’Neill Theater Center, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Manhattan Theatre Club, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Rattlestick Playwrights Theater/Women’s Project Theatre, Ensemble Studio Theatre, Round House Theatre, LAByrinth Theatre Company, The John F. Kennedy Center, Dorset Theatre Festival, Marin Theatre Company, and New York Stage & Film, among others. Awards include The Dramatists Guild’s Lanford Wilson Award, The Lilly Awards’ Stacey Mindich Prize, Helen Merrill Emerging Playwright Award, Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding Original New Play or Musical (Helen Hayes Awards), The Ashland New Plays Festival Women’s Invitational Prize, The Kennedy Center’s Jean Kennedy Smith Award, Marin Theatre’s David Calicchio Emerging American Playwright Prize, New York Theatre Workshop’s 2050 Fellowship, Aurora Theatre’s Global Age Project Prize, National New Play Network’s Smith Prize for Political Playwriting, Jane Chambers Student Feminist Playwriting Prize, and The Merage Foundation Fellowship for the American Dream. Commissions from Lincoln Center, The Bush Theatre in London, The Geffen Playhouse, La Jolla Playhouse, South Coast Rep, Manhattan Theatre Club, Marin Theatre Company, and The Foundry Theatre. Publications by Dramatists Play Service, Samuel French, TCG, and Smith & Kraus. Residencies at SPACE on Ryder Farm, Fuller Road, Marble House Project, and Ragdale. BA: University of Chicago; MFA: Yale School of Drama, The Juilliard School. She has taught playwriting at Williams College, Wesleyan University, SUNY Purchase, Primary Stages ESPA, NJRep, and as an assistant to Paula Vogel at Yale. Alumna of EST’s Youngblood and Women’s Project Lab. Martyna is a Core Writer at Playwrights Center and a member of The Dramatists Guild, The Writers Guild of America East, and New York Theatre Workshop’s Usual Suspects. Martyna was a 2012-2013 NNPN playwright-in-residence and the 2015-2016 PoNY Fellow at the Lark Play Development Center.