Last year, Katy Sullivan made her Broadway debut as Ani in Cost of Living, a play she's remained with throughout several iterations over the past seven years—including Off-Broadway, in London, and in Los Angeles.
With this, she became the first-ever actress who is an amputee to perform on Broadway, and now, she's the first ever Tony-nominated amputee in general (Sullivan was born without the lower half of her legs). Cost of Living, by Martyna Majok, is also now nominated for Best Play, an especially important accolade because the play featured two disabled actors, and was applauded for its frank and moving examination of human connection—across class, racial lines, and disability.
With numerous conversations sparked throughout the theatre community in recent years surrounding diversity and inclusion, Sullivan knows that disability representation has come a long way. This season, Sullivan shared the stage with Gregg Mozgala in Cost of Living, who has cerebral palsy. Then the Camelot Broadway revival featured two actors with disabilities: Anthony Michael Lopez, who wears a prosthetic leg and Marilee Talkington who is legally blind. And A Doll's House has Michael Patrick Thornton, who uses a wheelchair, in its cast.
At the same time, Sullivan admits that there is a long way to go. But she, like countless others, is up for the challenge. A fierce disability advocate, an eternal theatre lover, a Paralympic champion, and now a Broadway star gearing up for the Tonys, Sullivan talked to Playbill about her lifelong journey to this monumental moment.
Your start in theatre goes all the way back to middle school. What was the first production you fell in love with?
It really started with going to see a children’s theatre production in Tuscaloosa, Alabama of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The girl who played Violet went to my elementary school, and my brain cracked open and I was like, “wait, I know her, can I do this too?” I begged my parents to let me audition for a children’s production of Sleeping Beauty, and they were very cautious, like, you know, their sweet disabled child saying they want to go audition for this thing.
My parents were like, “you may not be exactly what they’re looking for,” but I sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and they cast me. [Theatre] has been baked into my DNA from being a little kid, it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I would do anything in theatre, I would paint sets, I was a stage manager at times.
Although disability representation had a long way to go (and still does), during your childhood, were there any characters or stories in theatre that really spoke to you about your experience, though they may have not been about disability?
The options felt so limited. But, early on in the beginnings of my professional career, I was doing a production of Lady Windermere’s Fan in Chicago, and one of my cast mates broke his leg. And they were trying to figure out, how do we still incorporate him into the play? When they found this antique wheelchair and they sat him down, it was like, my brain exploded in some way, because it makes his character so much more interesting. He doesn't have to talk about it, he never talked about it, and that was the beginning for me of the idea of, well, why can't that lawyer have a prosthetic? Why can't Mary Jane in Jesus Hopped The ‘A’ Train have a pair of prosthetic legs? Why can't Sally Bowles? Those were the beginnings of those moments for me.
Obviously, it's really empowering and powerful when you are playing a character that's written specifically with a disability in mind, and you flesh all that out and dig real deep into that. But it's also equally as interesting to take a character that people have seen before, and turn it on its ear like that.
You are a Tony nominee for playing Ani in Martyna Majok's Cost of Living. You've performed this role across so many different runs: Off-Broadway, Los Angeles, London, Broadway. How has the role evolved with you though out the years?
When you're an actor and you get the opportunity to live with a character for seven years, there is a depth. Stepping away from it, then coming back, it feels like you're visiting an old friend. It feels like this sort of homecoming. And when you have the luxury of being able to go away and come back to a character, there are things that are illuminated that you go, “Oh my gosh, I didn't ever think about it that way!” So often, as actors doing theatre, you get cast in a show, you do a less-than-two-month run, and then you have to say “so long,” and don't know if you’ll ever meet that character again.
To have this experience has been extraordinary, and a challenge of figuring out ways that it doesn’t slowly become stale.
One historical event that really ties into the themes of Cost of Living also comes right in between your previous runs in the play and your most recent Broadway run. How has the meaning of Cost of Living expanded or changed for you throughout the COVID-19 pandemic?
To me, at the end of the day, it's really a play about connection. It's a play about people needing each other on a fundamental level. And I think COVID and that whole experience that we globally had, there was separation, there was distance, there were feelings of isolation. Those are such huge themes that Martyna dives into, of isolation and caregiving, and the fragility of life, and especially, “I don’t know what I don’t know.” In the Eddie [played by Tony nominee David Zayas] and Ani situation, he walks out of the room and leaves her in a bathtub, and they don't know that all of a sudden, her life is in danger. And that's what that whole experience felt like, "Can I go outside? Am I safe? Is it safe?" That absolutely colored and changed my approach to this piece.
What has your experience been as a disabled performer in each of the cities you’ve been in, particularly London, where accessibility might differ from what the ADA has implemented here?
London has its challenges. But you know, way before New York City had accessible cabs—with ramps that come out the side of them and things like that—London did. So in some ways there's a bit more accessibility to London. New York City has a ways to go in the world of being an accessible place.
But I think the most impactful thing doing the play in different places was the feeling of how the audiences reacted in different ways. It’s a very East Coast, like New Jersey/New York play. So when you do the show in Manhattan, people laugh at certain things, like jokes about the train, which in London, they don't know what that means. But no matter what, this play is confronting in a lot of ways, because it makes people look at the fragility of life, and we're not used to seeing disabled bodies on stage.
Specifically, doing the show in London, everybody was like, “We have no idea how audiences are going to react to this play.” And we got standing ovations almost every night, which is not very British! It just goes to show that scooting people a little bit outside of their comfort zone might impact them in a really beautiful way.
A burning question: doing Cost of Living in the Friedman Theatre, was it actually accessible, or made more accessible for you and your cast mates?
I have to say that well before we were in rehearsal, we had so many conversations about how do we do this the right way, the safe way? MTC went above and beyond, really trying very hard to make the whole space workable and accessible for everybody. The other thing they did, that I really applaud, is our understudies were performers with disabilities. They did not cast an able-bodied understudy to understudy me or Gregg. That provides jobs, that provides opportunity for other performers with disabilities.
In doing that, they had to make some accommodations, because my understudy was an actress who uses a wheelchair. There was one dressing room on the ground floor, so in the wings of the theatre, they built a dressing room for Regan Linton, my understudy. We adapted the backstage the way that we needed to.
MTC gets a gold star from me. They really wanted to do this in the right way, and it continues today. They're calling me today, trying to figure out accessibility at the Tonys.
That’s so good to hear. I did notice when I went to the Friedman for Cost of Living, it was one of the only theatres I’ve ever seen that had an elevator for the audience.
Right? And it’s not necessarily just someone in a wheelchair, I mean, you could break your foot, you might just have a bad knee. We're not indestructible. Broadway in general has a really long way to go in terms of accessibility. And in a lot of ways, that silently sends the message that performers with disabilities are not—I don’t know if it’s not welcome, but how easy is it for a performer with a disability to work onstage in New York? It's challenging, and I hope that changes, and I hope that being part of this rising tide raises our boats.
I shouldn't be the only actress who's an amputee to ever be on Broadway. It's 2023, we need to be more inclusive, and there are so many performers with disabilities that are so talented and ready. They're ready to do this work, and they deserve to.
Is there a specific takeaway you hoped able-bodied audiences walked away with after seeing Cost of Living?
None of us get out of this unscathed. I had a friend who always used to call people “TABs,” because they were temporarily able-bodied. We're all going to end up using something at some point, whether it be a hearing aid, or glasses, or a prosthetic, or a wheelchair. I really hope people walk away with the idea of the fragility of life and how precious it is, and, and what it actually means to need someone and to take care of another person.
What can Broadway do to be more inclusive with disability? Are there specific action items that we can just put into this article?
Casting directors out there: call people in, give them an opportunity to show what they can do, and an opportunity to start to build relationships. It is slowly starting to change. There’s a couple of performers with disabilities in Camelot. You're starting to be able to kind of point at like, “Oh, this is happening! And that's happening!”
But there are characters on Broadway currently that should be played by a performer with a disability, and they're not. I think when the disabled community starts to get that same level of outrage of like, “Hey, we should be telling our own stories,” I think that's when you’ll really see the tide turn.
We're already moving in that direction. People are trying to do the right thing. We are getting to the point where an able-bodied person plays a disabled character in a film and people go, “Why didn't you cast this [right]?” And then, you can point at all the films, like CODA, and say, "Look how effective this was and how beautiful this piece was," because it was told authentically with people who have lived with this experience.
Is there an existing play or musical that you think could be adapted or expanded upon to tell a story about/involving disability?
I mean, there are so many! The thing I’m getting to do next is I’m playing Richard III in Chicago [at Chicago Shakespeare Theater]. And we’re doing a take of him in a totally different way. There’s a line [in Richard III] that says “sent into this world scarce half-made up.” But it’s also not just one play. People with disabilities are the largest minority in this country, and the least represented on our stages and on our screens. There are so many stories that can be cracked open and elevated in a really cool way just by adding that basic, human element underneath it. Let’s try all of the things, you know?
What are your thoughts going into Richard III? Is there anything you’re thinking about right now, or are you just thinking, “let’s get through the Tonys first!”
My script is literally on the table behind me! I’m waking up in the middle of the night mumbling about “the winter of our discontent” already. I’m already kind of freaking out, I’m nervous! I mean…”what is a disabled character you’d like to play?” is a short list, and Richard III is at the very top of that list.
I’m scared, but I know from past experiences, that's where the gold is. In terms of him as a character, I'm thinking about one of the things that's very interesting about him, is just his audacity to have the guts to say, “This is what I want.” And it's such an extreme to say, “I want to be the king of England, unfortunately, that means I'm going to have to kill multiple members of my family to get there.” This is really extreme stuff. But what is that your access to a character? For me, I understand ambition. I understand drive and a determination to not take no for an answer. This is maybe going to sound arrogant but I don't think you're a person who ends up at the Paralympics, or a person who ends up in the position I’m currently in if you don't have a hell of a lot of ambition.
That’s not arrogant at all when you have to fight for yourself and push through so much in a world where disability inclusion is not there yet.
And that is sort of the beautiful theatricalization of Richard being like, “There is no reason why I wouldn’t be a better king than that guy, and the only reason why people don't see me that way is that I'm not ‘normal.’”
Speaking of drive and determination, how has your experience with athletics and the Paralympics differed from your experience in theatre? Is there something either community could learn from the other?
They are so similar to me in so many ways. I was not an athlete growing up. I was a kid who was born without her legs. If you had told me at 16 that I was going to be a sprinter in the Paralympics, I probably would have laughed in your face. 16 year old Katy believed much more firmly that I would be on Broadway than I ever believed that I would be running track at an Olympic games.
But there's a set, there are characters, there are costumes, there's an audience. I really had to look at track like I was playing a character, because I was so intimidated by the entire thing. I was so not an athlete. But what I ended up doing was going, “OK, if this was a character I was playing, how would I play this character?” It was totally fake it ‘til you make it. Somehow, with a lot of blood, sweat, tears, and agony, I ended up at the Paralympics kind of playing my own little version of Sasha Fierce.