Martyna Majok was in previews for her newest play, Sanctuary City, when theatres across the city shut their doors in an effort to curb the coronavirus outbreak. Like countless productions and events, the world premiere, directed by Rebecca Frecknall and presented by New York Theatre Workshop, has been halted until further notice.
During this downtime, the Pulitzer Prize winner chatted with Playbill about Sanctuary City, her writing process and inspirations, and how she's navigating the pandemic as a writer.
Playbill: How do you approach writing a play at its earliest stages? Is it different for every piece?
Martyna Majok: I love this Leonard Cohen quote: “If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often.” How an idea emerges and how I then approach making a play out of that idea, is different every time. I feel like I learn to write plays anew with every new play. Or, rather, each new story teaches me how it wants to be written.
Once I have the idea and characters, I try to find the form—how we move through time and space, the scope, etc—that lets me access the story (the ending to which I almost never know). Sometimes that’s immediate, like with Sanctuary City. I thought I was writing notes for the play, then realized that the notes were the form. So I let it flow and in three days, had a first draft. With Ironbound, I knew the story I wanted to tell but was daunted with how to tell it because of the amount of time it would cover—22 years. When I found the rules of the space—that we wouldn’t ever leave this one bus stop—I then realized how time could work and wrote that first draft in five days.
Sometimes it takes time and a few trials, like with Cost of Living. I had these short pieces that I’d written over the course of a year that I realized were speaking to each other. Then it took me another year to figure out how they connect and impact each other. I still haven’t quite figured out the form for Queens, which already has had two productions. But I hope to.
At what stage in your process do you find feedback to be useful?
Depends on the type of feedback. When I first hear a new play out loud, I’m mostly listening to the audience’s responses during the reading—where they laughed or leaned in, if they did, things like that. I appreciate all you vocal audience members—thank you for being you. Hearing a new play out loud for the first time can be such a vulnerable experience. I just try to “meet” the play then.
The best kind of feedback or note is…
Compassionate and curious questions. To me, the most valuable feedback comes often from actors in a workshop setting. And it comes in the form of their generous commitment to what’s on the page (so I can see if it’s working or not) and questions about their characters, which I then use as inspiration to reveal or deepen those characters’ histories or sometimes subvert our assumptions about them—whatever feels true. And from someone outside the process, the most helpful type of feedback is something like: “This is what I felt or experienced in this specific moment. Is that what you intended?”
What was the spark that inspired Sanctuary City?
I was working on Queens one day, and a DREAMer character entered the world of the play. I had been struggling with writing that play—I think I was pulling an all-nighter, or maybe another all-nighter, to try to figure it out—and finally decided to clock out for the night. It was 3 AM, I was exhausted, but I couldn’t sleep. A memory from Jersey kept kicking around in my head—a person—brought on by that character in Queens. So, I got up out of bed and started writing notes, which were coming out as these short scenes of dialogue rather than descriptions. I realized a few pages in that the notes were the play; they were its form, and I decided to trust that. I remember feeling like I had to keep going, like I would lose the play otherwise. I wrote for basically three days straight til I had the full first draft of Sanctuary City.
Are there other kinds of art, besides theatre, that inspire you in your writing?
Usually something personal hits up against something outside myself, something in the world, and that’s how a play gets started for me. With Ironbound, that something from the outside was Slavoj Žižek’s book Violence. I think fiction—short stories, especially—inspire me. Film. Anecdotes. Observing people, relationships, the way we talk and tell stories. Music. These become the well from which I draw, consciously and not.
The world is unfamiliar and uncertain for many right now. Are you able to write? How are you feeling?
I was quite down immediately after the shutdown. I was grieving—still am—the production of Sanctuary City that we weren’t able to open. And the cancellations of other shows. The uncertainty of other opportunities. But especially Sanctuary City—because I so loved the people I was working with and was incredibly proud of what we’d made. Still, I know I’m one of the lucky ones in all this. My family and I are all healthy—for which I’m immensely grateful. And there are people all over the world who were already in dire, difficult circumstances, which have only gotten more dire and more difficult within this pandemic.
I’ve found comfort in the calls for compassion. For others as well as for ourselves. That we don’t need to be productive or creative right now, in maybe the traditional sense. I’m still working—though slowly—on a commission and projects I had before the shutdown. And we just put on a live Zoom benefit reading of Ironbound with the original New York City cast (on Play-PerView)—which was surprisingly good for my heart. But I’m trying to be kind to myself. I’m observing and remaining open to the world around me. Collecting moments. And living them.