Between The Lines: Cost of Living

BETWEEN THE LINES – COST OF LIVING: A weekly look at the creative process through a literary lens.

Cost of Living examines stories of disability, privilege, and marginalization. WTF Associate Director Laura Savia sat down with playwright Martyna Majok and director Jo Bonney to discuss why these stories are important and why Williamstown Theatre Festival is the right place to tell them.

What was the impetus for writing Cost of Living?

[MARTYNA MAJOK] I wrote it in separate pieces. The first thing I wrote was the opening Eddie monologue. It was my first year in New York: that was the year my husband and I lived in thirteen apartments because of various financial struggles. I had just lost my job, we had no money, were barely recovering from bedbugs, and there was a blizzard outside. I started writing Eddie Torres to, I guess, escape my thoughts about all that. Maybe also for solidarity. It came out fully formed that night. But I put it away, thinking who wants a ten minute monologue? A month later, I started thinking about another time in my life when I was really struggling financially. I thought about the jobs I was doing then: cocktail waitressing and working for a man with cerebral palsy. And so I started writing with that in mind. A few months after that, still dealing with our apartment troubles, I wrote a short piece that ended up becoming the first Eddie and Ani scene. I realized that there was this current of grief in these scenes. And that I was also writing characters with disabilities. I didn’t want to write an “issue play” about disability; I just wanted it to feature characters and actors who had disabilities. My ties to disability are personal and professional. There’s a family connection. And I’ve collaborated in making work with artists with disabilities. These stories are very underrepresented.

[LS] And Gregg Mozgala, who plays John, has been with the project since the beginning, right?

[MM] Since the beginning, yes. I didn’t necessarily write it for him, but I knew him; I met him five years ago.

[LS] And Jo, what drew you to the piece?

[JO BONNEY] Two things. It’s a great story. When you read many scripts, as I do, it’s thrilling to get one that has you turning page after page; you see no reason to put it down to check your email or deal with anything else. When you read the script straight through, beginning to end, then you know you’re dealing with a story that’s going to interest you. But also, I realized something as I was reading it: I’ve had — I think we’ve all had — friends and colleagues who have dealt with a variety of issues. For instance, when I was young I had a friend who was born during the polio epidemic; her mother contracted polio when she was pregnant. My friend was born with a non-functioning leg and her mother ended up in a wheelchair. So I’d spent a lot of time around this family, and it was always clear they were just a family that went about their business everyday. I’ve had other friends during the course of my life, friends who have dealt with cancer, friends who’ve become paralyzed from a fall and ended up using a wheelchair, friends with cerebral palsy. And I realized, I never see these people represented on stage! It’s the craziest thing. And at the same time, as Martyna said, the focus of the play isn’t on disability; that just happens to be an element of who they are. The story is about their lives — the way they move forward, their loves and the baggage they carry. How they deal with life, as we all do.

[MM] You know, it’s interesting. We do actually have stories of people with disabilities onstage. We have The Miracle Worker, and others, but they are a certain kind of story —inspirational, against the- odds stories or “right-to-die with dignity” stories. A friend of mine in Chicago, where I worked with a group of playwrights with disabilities, said that whenever you look at a disabled person, you’re staring mortality in the face. He feels that when you’re looking at him, you’re imagining your body’s own frailty and the capability for it to break. I don’t know many plays that dramatize that kind of story.

[JB] We’re talking about this one aspect, but the play has bigger themes: class structure, the way economics control choices, the reality of privilege versus marginalization. The list goes on.

[LS] Jo, I do want to talk about your history at Williamstown. You directed Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls in 2005, and Carey Perloff’s Kinship last year. How does the WTF experience differ from that of other theaters?

[JB] You know, people joke that it’s summer camp for the theatre scene, and there is that. It’s so rare for everyone to come together in a situation where you’re making work but at the same time, gathering to eat together, drink together, and see each other’s work. There’s something very special and supportive about that kind of community. And it’s really fun! It’s also interesting what Mandy [Greenfield] is focusing on now. She’s really committed to the development of new work, which is wonderful. At the same time she knows that the concentrated rehearsal period in the Festival setting means we must carefully nurture new work year-round. It’s important not to expose work before it is ready. I believe the Festival is protective of that process, which is why I was excited to come back. Also the Festival has such rich tradition — you talk to people who’ve been coming here decade after decade, and you see the photos on the wall of all the artists who have passed through over the years and you think “I’m a part of this tradition!” And then you have Martyna, here for the first time. Mandy is adding new voices and artists who will be the future of theatre. They’re part of the continuum that goes way back.

[LS] Martyna, you’ve had a huge year, with being the PoNY Fellow and winning the MacArthur award, to a critically acclaimed run of Ironbound in Washington, D.C. and then New York; the Williamstown Theatre Festival production of Cost of Living will transfer to Manhattan Theater Club in the coming theatrical season: you have a lot going on! We often talk about artists’ careers launching — what does it feel like to be at this moment of “launch,” and how do you stay centered at a time like this?

[JB] I mean, I hope it’s a launch, but you don’t know. The only thing I can control, in terms of what I’m working on, is to be as honest as I humanly can be in the things that I’m making. And I can call myself out and make sure I’m making the things that I’m proud of standing behind, and the stories I want to tell.