After enduring the post-graduate wasteland, Martyna Majok hit the theater scene this year with three major coups: a production of her play Ironbound at Rattlestick (in collaboration with Women’s Project) starring Marin Ireland, a playwriting fellowship at the Juilliard School, and a residency with The Playwrights of New York (PoNY), an organization that provides a year-long apartment in Midtown and a generous monthly stipend.
These successes come at the right time for Majok, who is no stranger to the life of a starving artist. Now living in a posh condo where Lewis Black lives on the top floor, Majok is quick to remind everyone that, the previous year, she could barely afford rent.
A Polish immigrant who spent her early years in a series of broken households with her single mother, Majok fuels her work with memories of her: Ironbound is a chamber piece about an immigrant who becomes an emotional shapeshifter to survive in a country where a woman’s worth is often tied to what she can offer a man. Not simply a biography, Ironbound is a deft examination of the false roles both women and men unconsciously play to find a safe place in the world.
I visited Majok at the PoNY apartment on a sunny and cold Saturday to pick her brain about Ironbound.
Tommy Smith (Rail): I know there’s been some sudden changes in the cast, particularly the lead actress. How do you think this will affect the play?
Majok: Marin Ireland is a fucking genius. I couldn’t be more thrilled to be working with her. I can’t wait for people to see her. She’s fierce as hell. And still very much open, vulnerable, real. You can see how much it costs the character of Darja to make the choices she makes. She gets this character—what she’s been through, how hard she’s gotta fight—and she presents her with grit and heart and intelligence. Marin is just so smart. It’s been a total joy watching what she does in the rehearsal room.
Rail: While Ironbound has taken some time to get to the stage, the draft of the play itself was conceived very rapidly.
Majok: I wrote it in a week. There was a bunch of shit going on in my life. I was traveling four hours one way to work half the week. I was doing one of those playwriting residencies in New Jersey. I was sleeping on a cot in the theater’s actor housing—cause it was like a ten thousand dollar gig—and then I would take the train from deep Jersey all the way to Penn Station. Then I would transfer from Penn Station to Grand Central. Then go back up to New Haven where my then-boyfriend now-husband was for the year and crash in his basement apartment. And it was like (Laughs)—it was the saddest, the worst. So I started reading Slavoj iek—I never read any philosophy or cultural theory—and I got so mad. I just got so riled up. Somebody who was summing up what I felt for most of my life.
Rail: Which was what?
Majok: That growing up under capitalism can make people treat other people like commodities. We don’t necessarily always treat people as human beings. There’s an appraisal. We’re just like, “What is the exchange? What can I get from you?” So we’ll act a certain way. And then I start thinking about my mom and the choices that she made. I judged the shit out of her growing up. Because of the choices she made with men that endangered us. And I was like, “If only she were stronger she could get out of these situations.” But then I remembered some of the situations I was getting myself into. I had just broken off an engagement with this guy who, you know, hindsight is 20/20—he basically saved my life because he paid my medical bills during a moment of terrible, terrible health problems. So when he proposed I was like, “Yep! Cool. Let’s do it. Why not? Because I’m not gonna be able to support myself in this way.” But I broke it off with him because I realized I had actually fallen out of love. And then I was about to marry a man who is really fucking poor—or as poor as I was—and I was like, “What am I doing? I’m in a basement apartment and Oh God what?” And my mother, she was like, “Okay, so you broke it off with this rich man and his rich family and now you’re gonna go be with this poor dude who’s gonna be an actor—okay!” And I was like, “It’s okay. It’s doesn’t matter. It’s love.” But as I was riding those trains and going into that basement apartment I was like, “Fuck, what am I doing?” And he was thinking the same thing, too. Who are we to marry for love? There is a caste system, and there is a way to move up, particularly for a woman. So all this shit was in my head. And I was like, “Oh God, I judged [my mom] so unfairly. I’m going through the same shit.” My [now-husband] and I got into a fight and I was like, “I’m staying down in New Jersey, I’m staying on my cot, and I’m gonna write and I’m gonna stay there for a week.” And I started writing [Ironbound], and I was done in a week. Pretty much. And it hasn’t changed too much from then. So that was like, “Oh, God, if that could only happen again!”
Rail: This play just sprang out of you while you had no money and you were living on a cot. How has your writing changed now you’re living in a multi-million dollar apartment?
Majok: Well, every morning that I wake up and haven’t won the Pulitzer I’m like, “Oh fuck, I’m failing.” (Laughs.) You know? Being in a multi-million dollar apartment that has a very specific end date—which is always in the back of my head, I cannot get that end date out of my head—that I have to perform. When you’re getting institutional support, man, there’s a performance anxiety. The weight rests heavy on my shoulders. To have to deliver something that’s worth this. No one’s explicitly asking for that, but I feel that there’s been an investment made. And I need to deliver. And I cannot get that out of my head. Or that they’ll be disappointed or some shit like that. It’s such a fucking female thing.
Rail: Same as your mom.
Majok: Same as my—OOh my God, you, get out of here, get out! (laughs) But yeah there has never been a place where I feel like I could just stretch out and be fine. Because I can’t actually. It’s done September 15. And I get to be kicked out to Queens or wherever the fuck—I gotta find another apartment.
Rail: Start looking now.
Rail: Everything you get as a playwright is like the island of the meerkats in The Life of Pi. (Laughter.) It’s beautiful and temporary. And that’s your life. You have to get back in the boat and go to the next thing. That’s your career more than writing.
Majok: Yeah, man, that is the one thing that has definitely changed. This past year was the year of applications. That’s why I’m in Juilliard now because I was like, (Laughs) “Oh this thing pays? I’ll fucking apply.” So I wrote this play Cost of Living last year, but very slowly and piece-meal. And it was an unsatisfying writing process until I got to the end—two months ago—because so much of my time last year I was working and teaching. And then if I had a moment to spare, it was either to work on Ironbound doing development or looking at Playwrights Center for submission opportunities and applying for fucking everything. That was its own fucking part-time job. I realized how much time I spent doing that last year and thought, if I got the PoNY, this year would be writing, just writing. But even now, if I’m staring at a computer screen or reading a book, preparing to actually write something new, I get tempted. The application is such instant gratification. You finish it, you send it, and you’re like (pumps arms downward) “Boom. I did my work as a playwright.” But you didn’t actually do the hard work as a playwright. You didn’t write the play. You rewrote your personal statement and just like, sent it. I don’t know. I can’t write about something I don’t really care about. But there’s the expectation to write a lot. Which is maybe why it’s so hard to write plays because I feel like I hold certain things like really strongly in my heart—certain experiences and shit—and there’s not that many things that I give a fuck about to make into a play. Holding that is a strain. You can only hold so many things.
Rail: What do you give a fuck about? You said you only write about the things you give a fuck about so what do you give a fuck about?
Majok: If somebody says some bullshit about an immigrant I go crazy. It’s the stuff that I was writing before I got to grad school, the stuff that I was writing my first year [of Yale], and once I wasn’t being given assignments, it’s the stuff that I always seem to turn to when thinking about writing anything. It just feels kind of weird saying that because it’s such like a (authoritative voice) “Good answer, good answer.” You know what I mean? It’s like, “Good job, our institutional dollars are all into it, I’m so glad I’m giving you all this money because you’re telling important stories about underrepresented people.” But it is what fucking matters. It is what matters to me and what I give a fuck about, what makes me so mad. Moments where I felt like I wasn’t seen. Or that my circumstances were misunderstood. Or that I’m judged—or my family’s judged—in a certain way that makes me feel like I want to be like, “No, actually: Here.” And the only way to do that is to just show that experience. Well I can tell somebody a thing. But it’s like reading the synopsis on Wikipedia versus seeing the actual thing. I can say as much as I want, but until they’ve seen a person go through the emotions on stage—the simulation of the experience—they’re not gonna really get it. Or maybe they won’t get it anyways. But it’s closer.
Ironbound, by Martyna Majok, directed by Daniella Topol, co-produced by Women’s Project Theater and Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, runs March 3 – April 10 at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (224 Waverly Place, Manhattan).
Cast: Josiah Bania, Shiloh Fernandez, Marin Ireland, Morgan Spector. Set and Lighting Design by Justin Townsend; Costume Design by Kaye Voyce; Sound Design by Jane Shaw.