The first play that Martyna Majok ever saw—in her last year of high school—was Cabaret. “It was the first time I had been in a room with music and stories,” she recalls. “The story took place in a dark time, but it was told with humor and beauty, and I really responded to it.”
Fifteen years later, Majok is the recipient of the 2018 Greenfield Prize (presented by the Hermitage Artist Retreat and its partner, the Greenfield Foundation) and the first female playwright to receive the prize, which comes with a $30,000 commission to write a new work. She’ll receive the award at a dinner this Sunday evening; in addition, Majok also will take part in two free programs. First, there’s a panel discussion on “New Voices in American Theater,” including playwright George Brant and Urbanite Theatre co-artistic director Brendan Ragan, at 3 p.m. April 7 at the Hermitage Palm House on Manasota Key Road in Englewood. That’s followed by a discussion with Majok, “My Life, My Work,” at 4 p.m. (Reservations are needed; call 941-475-2098 ext. 8.)
Majok, born in Poland, came to the United States as a child with her mother. “My childhood was turbulent,” she says, “with domestic violence, immigration issues. Growing up, I don’t think I really knew that being a playwright was a possibility. I am the first in my family go to college. The University of Chicago was on my list, and I knew there were a lot of Polish people there, so I thought, ‘I’ll go there.’ I didn’t realize what a prestigious school it was.”
Majok auditioned for college productions as an actress. “But I kept getting cast as the raped girl,” she says. “I was never the mom. So I started writing my own plays,” where she could create the characters she wanted to see onstage.
Among those plays: Cost of Living, Ironbound, Sanctuary City and her most recent, queens, which recently had a run at LCT3/Lincoln Center Theater in New York and has one coming up this summer at La Jolla Playhouse. The work features an all-female cast in its tale of two generations of immigrant women living in a basement apartment in Queens, and has received strongly positive reviews.
Majok says she has loved the experience of working, not only with the actresses, but with a design and production team mostly composed of women. “There was a wonderful level of shorthand we all had; no one had to explain anything or prove that it was true,” she says, “which means the conversations could go even deeper. I love the collaborative aspect of theater, working with actors and directors to tell the story in the best way. I don’t love to write; I find it agonizing. The writing is what I do so I can be in the rehearsal room.”
The subjects of Majok’s plays have tended to be, understandably, “immigrant stories, about people of low income, people who are marginalized, because that tends to be in my experience. Of course, in the theater, the people I am speaking to there are largely people outside that experience.”
The project she will focus on during the Hermitage residency that is part of her award is what the playwright laughingly calls a “hear me out” idea, since it might sound outlandish at first. “I’m writing a musical—the lyrics and the book—and it’s about Chernobyl [the 1986 nuclear disaster in Ukraine],” she says. “And I swear it will be funny.”
This, too, turns out to spring from personal experience. Majok has long suffered from health issues she couldn’t explain—until she was about 20 and her mother told her that they had been camping in a field during the Chernobyl incident, meaning they were possibly affected by the radioactive fallout. “I’ve wanted to write about this for 10 years now,” says Majok. Thanks to the Greenfield Prize, she will—and in 2020, Sarasota audiences will see the result in an Asolo Rep presentation.
To learn more about the Greenfield Prize, visit greenfieldprize.org.