Last Monday, Martyna Majok (A.B. ’07) won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play Cost of Living. The Pulitzer Prize Board described the play as “an honest, original work that invites audiences to examine diverse perceptions of privilege and human connection through two pairs of mismatched individuals: a former trucker and his recently paralyzed ex-wife, and an arrogant young man with cerebral palsy and his new caregiver.”
Majok was completely blindsided by the win. “No notice of you’re a finalist—nothing. The Pulitzer folks didn’t even call me; they still haven’t called me! It was all from my agent and the Internet, which is why I’m like, are you sure? You don’t want to take it back?” Majok said in a phone interview, laughing. “I thought it was like some sort of angel that comes down and bestoweth upon thee the Pulitzer.”
Majok traces her love of theater and playwriting back to her undergraduate years at the University of Chicago. Here, Majok delved into theater, first as a performer, and then as a writer.
“Martyna really worked all of the opportunities that existed while she was here,” said Heidi Coleman, director of undergraduate studies in theater and performance studies. “She used the system exactly as it was designed, which was to give her an opportunity to try out all these aspects of theater, as well as of writing.”
David Bevington, professor emeritus in English, also remembers Majok fondly. “Extraordinarily gifted, deeply artistic in her temperament, a natural performer—she is a powerhouse.”
Majok graduated with a B.A. in English, and used her first play wander/standing as her thesis. “I contacted the English department and I was like, can I have fifty bucks to buy some cakes and to put a reading on of this play as my thesis presentation?” she recalled. “Yeah, it was terrible, it was such a bad play—it’s like the terrible play you write when you’re in your 20s.”
Now, Majok is a model for aspiring playwrights at UChicago.
“She is a bit of a beacon for where you could go. We have many playwrights, but writing itself can be so isolating at times, and you don’t know if anything’s going to happen,” Coleman explains. “So having Martyna come out of U of C, she sort of makes the argument for why the Core matters. Why being involved in UT (University Theater) helps your career as an artist. That you can have a career as an artist. That you can, as a female playwright, be recognized.”
Warm, vulnerable, and extraordinarily funny, Majok sat down with The Chicago Maroon to chat about her recent win, her time at UChicago, and the development of Cost of Living.
The Chicago Maroon: When did you find out about the Pulitzer, and what was your reaction?
Martyna Majok: Oh my God, it was so ridiculous. I was actually supposed to be doing jury duty, so I’m glad I postponed it! My husband had the day off work, and we were planning on doing our taxes. He had been working nonstop, so he was taking a nap on the couch, so I started catching up on other work. At around three or so I got a phone call from my agent, and I heard screaming and my agent was like, “Well, you won the Pulitzer.” And I got so mad at him! I was like, how dare you, do you know much this means to me, this is not funny!
CM: What was the first thing you did?
MM: The first thing I wanted to do was call my mom, and she’s in Poland right now. She’s been closing up our family home that she was born in—that I was born in—this tiny little apartment in this coal mining region in Poland. So I went on Facebook, and my post about the Pulitzer was like, Mom, answer the phone! And then my family eventually found her, and two hours later she called me and freaked out.
CM: How did you decide on UChicago?
MM: I grew up in Kearny, working-class Jersey. I was the first person in my family to go to college, and in high school I was working a bunch of part-time jobs and helping to pay rent. I didn’t really have much help applying to college—I didn’t visit any places. So when it was November I was like, “Oh shit! I should probably apply to college.” I looked at what the top fifty schools were, and I thought, “Oh, Chicago—blues and Polish people, that sounds awesome! I’ll apply there,” not knowing anything about the school.
Then I got the brochure and was like, seduced with the life of the mind. This creativity and weirdness, an embracing of many possibilities, that was just so thrilling—it’s like a geek paradise. I think one of my essay questions was “How do you feel about Wednesday?” Or like, “Wednesday. Discuss.” You could go any direction—an invitation to think so creatively that I responded to. I applied and was just floored that I got in, and the only reason I was able to go is because I was basically an entirely funded scholarship kid. I wouldn’t have been able to go otherwise.
CM: How did you get involved in theater?
MM: When I got to UChicago, I hadn’t done theater. I didn’t have a drama program in high school and I didn’t really see theatre until I was 17 or 18. I saw the Sam Mendez production of Cabaret, which is a good first show to see! It was just this beautiful, sexy, dark, funny-as-hell story, and it didn’t compromise what it was about, while still being a really generous and exciting experience for an audience member. So when I got to UChicago, I was like, I wanna be in theater! But I didn’t know what that meant.
[At the RSO fair] you’re going from one table to the other, and I was like, I’m gonna go to the theatre table. It was UT and the First Floor Theater, and I walked in, and I was like, Oh, everyone here has gone to theater camp, and they’ve been doing theater forever; I don’t belong here. So I stayed away for a year.
But one day I was at the Reg and walking around, and I stumbled upon this collection of Sarah Kane’s plays. I was drawn to that amazing picture of the kid in Chechnya that’s on her collected works book, and I picked it up and started reading it right there. And there’s something about being a young woman in her early 20s that’s really important for you to find Sarah Kane at that time. Then I kept reading all these other new plays, and it was like a whole new world was opening to me in a certain section of the Regenstein Library. I was encountering all these plays and exciting work that I just didn’t know existed. Even though I lived 15 minutes away from New York in Jersey, it was still a world that was very outside. Nobody went to theater in my working class family—we were just trying to survive.
So the next quarter, I saw that they were going to stage Crave in the UT season, and I was like, I’m gonna audition, dammit! I don’t care if I don’t belong! And I got in, and ever since then I was in a production of something every quarter. I started out as an actor I guess, which is sort of the gateway drug to theater, [before] you figure out where you actually belong!
CM: So you found playwriting in college, but did you have any idea about your future before that?
MM: Not a clue. I remember having existential freak-outs in my second year like, oh fuck, I have to declare, what am I gonna do? And knowing I was about to disappoint my mother very heavily and not make good on the immigrant kid pact to become a doctor or lawyer and buy a house.
I wrote my first full-length play the autumn of my fourth year, and I somehow got [funding from] the Merage Foundation for the American Dream. It was this foundation started by two Iranian immigrants who were trying to help immigrant students from certain universities push through their American dream, basically for two years out of college. They realized that so many students think they have to go the practical route, as I was thinking, and have to let go of a lot of the dream aspect of America. I think most people used it to help them pay tuition payments. For me, I used it to buy myself time to read and write at the Chicago Public Library and see theater while I was cocktail waitressing—it was like financial security. So I applied for that and I told myself, if I get it, I can be a playwright. As long as someone’s paying me, I can be a playwright.
So half the week I would cocktail waitress, and the other half of the week I was at the Harold Washington Library, and I got an alumni card for the Reg and would read everything. I just devoured everything I could, and during workshops I tried to write. And I knew the fellowship was ending at a certain point, so what’s my next? How will I be supported in some way in the theater? So I applied and I got into the Yale School of Drama on a tuition-free, stipend, free health insurance, so I thought, OK, I can be a playwright for three more years! And then I was like, well now it’s too late to be a lawyer I guess.
CM: Why did you love UChicago so much?
MM: I think the fact that I found the theater there—I mean, honestly, the fact that I had a scholarship, I felt incredibly lucky. Everything was super eye-opening; I had never been asked to think in the ways that that school asked me to think in. It made some foundational impact on how I view the world—how I view storytelling. It’s not just social realism. There are so many aspects of how to look at a story beyond the surface, and that was U of C for me.
CM: How did Cost of Living come to be?
MM: It mostly came out of grief and economic despair. I had just written Ironbound and moved to New York and everything fell apart. But I was able to write short plays. That first monologue pretty much came out fully formed, one night after getting fired from a job. So I had this monologue and I was like, I don’t know what this is, it means something but I don’t know, so I kind of put it away.
A few months later, I was in this group called Young Blood, run through Ensemble Studio Theatre, here in New York. I wrote a skeleton of the John and Jess storyline, and I presented it at this one 10-minute play festival. And the thing to know about this festival is that it happens at 1 p.m. on a Sunday and there’s an open bar. They serve unlimited brunch food and unlimited alcohol and it’s the warmest audience in the world. Usually the plays are comedic, and it’s a good, fun time. So my play was the fourth out of five plays, and I thought it was a comedy! The first moment, there’s a woman onstage, and she’s calling to somebody offstage, and we don’t know who it is, and as soon as the actor playing John enters in his wheelchair, the audience turns dead silent.
Up until then, they were laughing and hooting and hollering and having a great time, and as soon as this disabled body appears onstage—I don’t even know what it was. Were they uncomfortable? Did they think, oh now this is a serious play? Pretty soon after, John has the first joke, and at that moment they were like oh, okay, we can laugh. I was so fascinated by that reaction that I thought, this needs to be a bigger play, a play for disabled actors and disabled characters where they are not pitied, they are sexual beings, they’re complicated. So many stories about disabled people that are popular are of two kinds: one of the dying with dignity story, and the noble, saintly, inspirational story. I wanted to write a story that would challenge those two things.
CM: What do you want to see from future playwriting programs?
MM: Funding, I think, is the most important thing. I can guarantee, 100 percent, I would not be a playwright if I didn’t have the support I got from fellowships and scholarships and awards and things like that. There’s just no way. The year I was writing Cost of Living, I was barely surviving. If we don’t support the voices that come from low incomes, we’re essentially preparing ourselves to have a very limited amount of stories available to us in theater.
CM: Do you have any advice for college students and aspiring artists?
MM: Just reading as much as possible, devouring the art that is what you want to do. I loved UChicago, but one of the best educations I got was from the public library. UChicago helped me to see—to be able to take plays apart like a machine and see how they work. It steered my way of thinking. But learning who came before, what they did, who you’re in conversation with, who you disagree with and want to correct through your writing or art? Educating yourself is the most important thing.
This interview has been edited for clarity.