Theater

‘Ironbound’ Playwright Martyna Majok Discusses Theater’s Money Problem and ‘Pleasing Mama’

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Martyna Majok has had a lot of success lately. Majok is this year’s recipient of the prestigious Playwrights of New York fellowship, a generous monthly stipend and year of rent-free living at the so-called PONY apartment, as well as a fellow at the Juilliard School. Now she’s preparing for the New York premiere of her play Ironbound — the brisk story of a Polish immigrant who finds herself in a series of romantic relationships defined more by money than love — opening Thursday at the Rattlestick.

Two weeks before the show’s debut, film actress Gina Gershon dropped out of the lead role, replaced by theater veteran Marin Ireland. The headline-grabbing departure momentarily threatened to overshadow the play itself, despite, in this writer’s opinion, Ireland’s late entry representing a significant improvement over Gershon, whose main advantage in the role seemed to be her resemblance to Majok’s mother (the inspiration for the story’s protagonist).

Even amid all this upheaval, Majok maintains an undeniable charm. An immigrant from Poland, she speaks at a quick-fire clip, her sentences like speeding trains running simultaneously through an immeasurably busy station. Like her characters, Majok runs the risk of being misunderstood, her verbal volleys often leaping between subjects mid-sentence. The writer of a recent New York Times interview was clearly baffled, with the result being that the playwright’s winding words were trampled into flat Gray Lady–isms. Our conversation was a little more freewheeling. With very little prodding and barely any questions, we crammed three hours’ worth of material into just over one hour of tape. (Even so, the following has been edited for length and clarity.)

VV: Your play has received quite a diverse reaction.

Martyna Majok: Ironbound was developed and produced in the two wealthiest counties in America: Marin [in Northern California] and Montgomery County in the D.C. suburbs. And I thought, “Oh, boy.” They’re George Lucasland and the land of the policymakers. So I thought, “How the fuck is this play gonna go? I hate rich people.” But people dug it. The women fucking got it, especially, yet others misunderstood. And I was like, “Oh, that’s good, that’s good.” Because you’re just hoping to show a fucking person for people to empathize with, and then when they see them on the subway or they see them on the street they’ll be like, “Oh, I understand. My heart is open.” Some douchebag person will say something awful about this group of people, and maybe that one person will say instead, “Actually…”

You’re the jester. The playwright is the jester.

Whatever pays me, dude. I just need enough money to be able to do this stuff that — because I’m not doing TV. I don’t really have a desire to do TV. I mean: I love TV. I want to go to L.A., agents. I’ll say what I gotta say. But it’s not the joy of making a story in a room with people. That rehearsal process is the fucking best. Wait — I, like, jump all over the place. This is why it’s hard for me to write plays. Because I’m like [makes spraying machine gun gesture] “Dh-dh-dh-dh-dh.” So: the theater with rich people. The art form of theater wasn’t asking to be put into these places that are inaccessible to so many people. It was a method of storytelling that’s been co-opted by institutions that realize it’s expensive to produce, so they charge a bunch of money, and now some people can’t come to this thing.

But there are different tiers of venues. Let’s say you’re in the Seventies and you know you’re a great electric guitarist. You’re not going to go to Lincoln Center. You’re going to go to CBGBs. Playwrights complain about their work not being included at certain venues, but theaters are not homogenized by any stretch of the imagination. Ensemble Studio Theatre is like a jazz venue. Soho Rep is CBGBs. Lincoln Center is the symphony or a chamber orchestra. You have to pitch your piece to those different venues.

I think the reason why people get all up in arms about not being included is that no one’s saying that about Soho Rep or EST or the Public. They’re saying that about the Manhattan Theatre Club because they have the fucking money. They will be up in arms about MTC because your play will be potentially better. If you’re doing a play and the ceiling is higher, [an audience] will give it the benefit of assuming that it is about something greater. That’s opposed to if you’re doing it in a low ceiling in a black-box whatever. The play might be fucking good, but you’re not necessarily opening it up to a universality. The space — the money — does matter. And sometimes it makes it worse. There’s some plays where I’m like, “You just threw tons of money at it and you made it worse. You made the play worse. There was limitless money at your disposal.” That said, I wish Ironbound were happening at a bigger theater. I wish. Cause I saw it at Roundhouse with a 400-seat theater. And it was a giant thing. And it made the play bigger.

But on some level, MTC is like the Grand Ole Opry. And it would be strange to be a punk musician and complain about not being allowed to have your music at the Grand Ole Opry. Just like Johnny Rotten wasn’t going to A Prairie Home Companion and going, “Why aren’t you playing my punk songs?” Unless you do what Johnny Cash did with Nine Inch Nails songs and Soundgarden songs — he found a way to put metal music inside of a country song.

You take this thing you want to make and you put it in a slightly different form. Or you have elements of a thing that belongs to another place. It could make things richer. You’re still your own. You’re just trying to get to this place. Like putting industrial rock into a country song —

Or Hamilton.

Right. I wish my shit was at the fucking Public, man, because they found the way to be able to do that. Granted, with celebrities. I didn’t write Ironbound to be a big actor vehicle, but once I realized that it could be, I thought, “Oh! Great.” But then I got burned. And after that I could no longer be satisfied with a small thing, you know?

Keep that in mind on September 15 [when the next PONY fellow takes over the apartment].

I know. It’s a horrible mentality. I wish I was fine with being the downtown sort of thing. It’s not like I want to have Lynne Meadow direct my shit. But I do want something like the Public where it’s like you can tell those stories. And they’re the most exciting stories, right? The most exciting work. And they found ways of making it high-profile. Usually with a celebrity or some whatever. They’re seen a different way. A Public show is seen different. Like, even if it’s the same play produced at the Public versus EST, it would been seen in a different way. So maybe it’s not just about the building. Because if you brought the same play from EST to the Manhattan Theatre Club, it might actually hurt you. Because they have the reputation of, like, dead theater.

The venue actually decides the content of the theater as much as the play itself.

Yeah, it’s part of the reception of the audience…. I feel like now we have to write these personal statements that say what we do. And before we would just do those things and not, like, say that you were holding up a sign for your cause. Just, like, you’d do those things that interested you. I was like, “Oh, I was writing about poor people and ladies with agendas and appetites and male-female”…you know, that sort of stuff. Immigrants. That’s what I was doing, but I wasn’t calling it that. I was just interested in that. And then people [in grad school] would get annoyed. “Oh, she brought in another accent play. We have to learn another accent play.”

Accent play?

An accent play. They were like, “Oh, God, she brought in her dialect play, we gotta go.” And somebody made a crack or something, something about the fact that I brought another immigrant play, and I was like, “Fine. Fine.” So I’ll just, like, try and write a Paula Vogel play. And I was trying to please Mama.

Mama?

[The Yale School of Drama] can feel like a bubble. You are on an island, and the only people with you are nine other writers and Paula Vogel. I often thought, “What would Paula like?” And then I started writing what I thought were Paula plays. I was writing things [that] I felt like I had to write and that weren’t…inspired. I would wait until the very last minute and stay up all night and be miserable and cry and tell myself this is a mistake; I made a mistake in my life. You can’t actually make your career as a playwright. Like, for the rest of your life. Your star will rise and then it will peter out or fall or whatever. And there’s no guarantee that people aren’t going to get tired of you, you’re not going to fuck up somewhere along the way. Write some bullshit or say stupid shit, and people won’t like you anymore and then they’ll stop giving you money.

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