MARTYNA MAJOK

2015 PoNY FELLOW

Martyna Majok was born in Bytom, Poland, and aged in Jersey and Chicago. Her plays include MOUSE IN A JAR, THE FRIENDSHIP OF HER THIGHS, PETTY HARBOUR, REWILDING, WOMEN AT THE WELL, and IRONBOUND (top ten play for the 2014 Kilroys' list). Martyna’s work has been presented and developed with Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Marin Theatre Company, Round House Theatre, Actors Theatre of Louisville, The John F. Kennedy Center, Satori Group, New York Stage & Film, the claque, Yale Cabaret, The Playwright and Director Center of Moscow, HERE Arts Center, Red Tape Theatre, and The LIDA Project, among others. Martyna has been awarded The David Calicchio Emerging American Playwright Prize, The 2050 Fellowship from New York Theatre Workshop, Aurora Theatre’s Global Age Project Prize, The National New Play Network's Smith Prize for Political Playwriting, The Jane Chambers Student Feminist Playwriting Prize, The Merage Fellowship for the American Dream, The Olga and Paul Menn Award in Playwriting, The Howard Stein Scholarship for Playwriting, a Puffin Foundation grant, residencies at Ragdale and Fuller Road, commissions from EST/Sloan Foundation, Walkabout Theatre, and The Foundry Theatre, and publications by Samuel French and Smith & Kraus. BA: University of Chicago; MFA: Yale School of Drama. She has taught playwriting at Wesleyan, The New Haven Co-Op High School, New Jersey Repertory Company, and SUNY Purchase, and assisted Paula Vogel at Yale. She is developing a musical about modern-day Chernobyl for The Foundry Theatre. Proud member of Ensemble Studio Theatre's Youngblood, The 2014-2016 Women's Project Lab, and Ars Nova's Uncharted. Martyna was the 2012-2013 NNPN playwright-in-residence at New Jersey Repertory Company. Her last name is pronounced "my-oak."

Pony Martyna Majok

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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH MARTYNA MAJOK

1. What was the moment like when you first found out that you were the 2015 PoNY Fellow?

I broke down for what felt like a solid five minutes. I've never been shaken by career news like I was by this. Once the nominations came in in November, I started the application process which consisted of a few rounds of sending in plays, writing essays, and interviewing until early March. My interview came on a day after which I'd spent the entire weekend trying to finish writing a play for a reading slated for that Monday while also reading and responding to many weeks worth of plays for mid-semester conferences with my SUNY Purchase students. I had a handful of hours of sleep to my name. And a pretty bad cold. I felt completely out of it when I first walked into the interview room at The Lark. And also terrified. This award, especially after my past few months, would have changed everything. I'd been in the room for an hour already, responding to the committee's question when they asked me how my life would change if I were given the PoNY. I surprised myself with my own answer. Ask me at any other time and I probably would have mentioned how much more time and space I would have to create plays. But what I said instead was that I'd be able to see my family. And that was the first time I broke. I think The Lark's witnessed me cry more than my closest friends at this point. I started talking about how irresponsible I felt in choosing to become a playwright.

I haven't seen some of my family in Poland for over 7 years -- and I'll never get back my chance to see some of them again. I haven't felt able to go back because of the cost of a ticket, my hand-to-mouth lifestyle that meant I needed to stay here and work to pay rent and bills, and my own desires to work as hard as possible on writing. Also, who the hell did I think I was -- an immigrant kid of a single mother, not coming from wealth, with a bunch of debt and zero financial safety net -- who did I think I was to try to be a playwright? This past year and a half -- my first year and a half in NYC -- I lived in 12 different sublets before landing an apartment. So 13 places total in 18 months. When I moved here from grad school (which I could only go to because it was fully funded), I didn't have enough for a security deposit so I ended up jumping around from place to place. It felt impossible to be able to both save any money and survive the day to day in this city. Then, my third month in NYC, my second sublet turned out to be infested with bedbugs. That decimated any money I had and I sort of never financially recovered. Everything ended costing me more because I didn't have enough money up front. I'll tell ya what -- it's expensive to be poor. Maybe it was because I was sick-delirious, but I just started Real Talkin' this group of interviewers. And by the time I realized I should probably shut up, it was too late. I was pretty sure I just screwed my chances for one of the greatest opportunities a playwright could be given. And something happened after I left the room that day. Having spoken those words out loud, I really had to confront what I was feeling about the choices I made. I felt irresponsible. My life - this choice - felt dangerous and unsustainable. What was I gonna do? What if I got sick? What if what if. I started having this crisis of faith. I love this. I love being a playwright more than anything. But what was I doing trying to make this my life?

Two days later, John Eisner reaches out to schedule some follow-up questions. I can't tell whether this is good or bad that there are follow-up questions. I go out onto my fire escape on a cold March morning to have some privacy to talk with him and Sandi on the phone. They ask me a few more questions. My husband is inside the apartment, preparing for an audition he was about to head out for, but he knows who I'm talking to on the phone and he is there inside our tiny apartment, hoping so hard on my behalf, eager to be there for me either way. The follow-up ends and I come inside. How did it go? I don't know I don't know. And we sit down and think about what to do if this doesn't happen. In that moment, it really felt like an either/or. Either I get this award...or he books a huge job...or we have to think about what else to do with our lives. We might have to pursue a different life. We might have to start over.

Then the phone rings. It's John and Sandi. And our lives completely change.

I spend the rest of the day laugh-crying and busting out dancing while I try to write four letters of rec for the internships my students were applying for this summer (whose deadlines were that day). And I call my mom and tell her we're going to Poland.

That phone call was my happiest moment in NYC.

2. In your (relatively) short career you have gotten a lot of awards and honors. How does being a part of PoNY compare to those experiences?

The PoNY is one of its kind. Ask a playwright to define their dream situation in NYC and I bet they would describe the PoNY. It is an award that really understands the realities and challenges of this profession (and this city) and goes above and beyond addressing them. My greatest struggle last year was housing. And that tends to be most of our greatest struggles as playwrights in one form or another -- how do we pay the rent while still creating work that we often don't get paid for until many months (or years) after its completion? How do we keep ourselves afloat during the making of new things? Maybe we'll get a commission. Which are incredible, incredible opportunities and relationships between playwrights and theatres. But they are not always something we can count on getting. And I don't know any that come with health insurance. I'm blown away every time I remember what the PoNY fellowship includes -- artistic support during and beyond this year, health insurance, an apartment, a living stipend! This is going to help me so much more than just this year. It's going to prepare me financially and artistically for the next few years ahead. I really do feel like I'm entering into a kind of family with how much support is being promised to me through this fellowship.

3. As you go into this Fellowship are you entering it with play ideas in your head that you want to develop over the year? Are you hoping to come up with all new ideas? Is it a mixture of both?

Definitely a mix of both. I've got two projects that are floating in my head right now. One is a gypsy punk/Slavic folk musical (my first!) about the modern day area of Chernobyl and the people who refused to leave after the evacuation in 1986 or who have returned to reclaim their homes -- regardless of how dangerous they're told it is. And the other is a new play that emerged from a few short pieces. I'm not sure how to describe it -- this one's one of those plays that refuses to be controlled by me -- but is has to do with two inter-ability couples, care-giving, class, and change.

What I'm excited about with this fellowship is the chance to be able to think in a different way. What will I make when I'm able to slow down and hustle less? What story will come to mind in this completely different atmosphere? What will I be able to read or see or experience that inspires a play? I want to come into that apartment with a few concrete ideas for plays and an open heart and mind ready to invite new ideas to move in. And I can't wait for the Playwrights Workshop with Arthur Kopit. I was able to sit in on one session last week and witness how risk is rewarded and met with mutual risk. That seems like an ideal breeding ground for quality, considered work. I just can't wait.

4. Your writing has been described in a lot of different ways. Some of it has been described as having a more "traditional" arc, some of it has been described as a series of vignettes, and I heard you have expressed an interest in doing more devised work. Is your diverse writing style a conscious thing or is it just something that happened over time? Or to put it another way, if you were writing a play with a traditional narrative now would you actively make sure that the next thing you write is in a different format?

I feel like structure comes from story. Structure is the experience of a story, the way in which we live through something in the 90 minutes or 2 hours or however long we are all in a room together in the dark. For some stories, we need to feel a little displaced, a little voyeuristic. For others, we need to be addressed by a character who is seeking our camaraderie and witness to her journey. For others, we set the timer on stage and feel the temperature rise between two characters with a mission. Or we need to understand this experience first before we can appreciate this other one, even if that's not necessarily the order in which things happened. I'm actually fascinated by structure these days because it doesn't come naturally to me. I like looking at it like a scientist -- what if we did this or what happens if we do that? I used to approach structure unconsciously. These days I think about it much more when I'm considering what story I want to tell. But then that kind of control, I'm learning, only works for some plays. Some of them are gonna do what they're gonna do and you've just gotta meet them more on their terms. And then you can start sculpting something.

I don't think it's intentional but it does seem like, play to play, I switch up styles. The best experiences I've had writing have involved me going in with intention -- I want to tell this story for this reason -- but with enough mystery about something -- but how will I also incorporate this thing or why do I keep bringing in this completely strange thing? -- so that I'm not ahead of myself. There are just some things that you can't plan for until you're writing -- and that's usually the most exciting and complicated stuff.

I'd say if there are styles I return to, they're stories that are grounded in a certain kind of social or political reality but that contain ruptures of theatricality. The world opens up to something otherworldly or larger than its very specific self. And there are types of characters I return to often. I tend to write immigrants or displaced people, women with appetites and drives, the working class. Also, I think humor is incredibly important. I've been playing with time a lot lately, with past and present, with who characters were bumping up against who they are now. And I love considering place. A location feels like another character to me. I've loved the experiences I've had with devised work because I value being in a room with actors. Workshops, whether in the "traditional" playwright-of-a-play method or in a room with artists and no script, are my favorite part of making theatre. I'm inspired by collaborators that say yes and want to build things with me. If I had all the answers, I'd sit in a room alone and write prose. I love testing and learning with other people. But I try to keep aware that I'm making something for an audience. I'm not interested in obscurity for its own sake. I think that's what a lot of people think when they hear "devised work." I feel like you've got to endeavor to communicate as a playwright, in whatever form is right for the story. In making plays, I try to be generous. There are many kinds of pleasures in the theatre. Terror can be a pleasure in the theatre. Unease. Dread. So can laughter, obviously, and delight. But being made to feel or think things is, for me, the point of leaving my home and going to the theatre.

5. By law I have to ask about your writing process, so let me ask it this way. Has your writing process changed much over the years? If so, how?

Well if it's law... I've never been able to answer this question well, I think. My process this past year and a half went sort of like Fuck! Deadline! Write! Nap for an hour! Get up! Write!!! Oh God there's the sun! But deadlines - and an expectant audience - do help motivate me to get to work.

In terms of writing, something I've noticed is that I usually have a story in my head that relates to something I witnessed or experienced. And then at some point I'll encounter something or I'll read something seemingly contradictory or unrelated to the story I had in my head that inadvertently gets me thinking about that experience in a different way. It clicks something into place for me. Or the other way around -- something outside myself makes me see in myself and my experiences which, in turn, helps me see back outside again. With "Ironbound," it was reading Slavoj Zizek's "Violence" on my 4-hour bi-weekly commute to and from my job that helped me see the play. With "Petty Harbour," it was hearing the Newfoundland dialect. With "Mouse in a Jar," it was being told about a scientific experiment. Some take longer to write than others. And some are presented as halves first and then completed after some time away. "Ironbound" came practically fully formed in a week. I wish I had a more stable process. I guess it all comes down to balancing what you know and what you're about to find out.