BWW Exclusive: On COST OF LIVING- Disability and Representation On Stage
I was sent the script of Cost Of Living by Martyna Majok the week of Valentine's Day 2016. I burned through it in one sitting. First impressions were that this was not your average project 'about disability' - this writer had a very unique voice and was using it to say some pretty profound stuff. When people ask me what the show is about, I have a hard time boiling it down to a sound bite - and my opinion keeps changing. It's about the act of providing care to someone and how that changes the dynamic of a relationship and surviving something 'tragic,' but at what COST? It's a beautiful dance between two seemingly unrelated stories, each with a person who needs care and a caregiver. It's about two relationships - one is brand new and the other has run its course. It explores those with means and those just trying to make ends meet, and all the stuff in-between that 'is not to be understood.'
I was being considered to play the character of ANI:
'She is in a wheelchair. Incomplete spinal cord injury.
Quadriplegic. Though one arm/hand is partially functioning.
...She has her own ways and she is fine with those ways and those that do not agree don't need to stick around - as many haven't.'
I was immediately terrified of this character and I knew that that probably meant I needed to do this play.
I wasn't even sure that they would really consider casting me. I knew that it was the request of the playwright to cast a performer with a disability in the role, but I am a double-above-the-knee amputee and Ani was written to have a spinal cord injury. I just hoped that they would be willing to give me a shot. I don't use a wheelchair in my life, but I know how much sitting in one changes how you move. It's very different than sitting in a regular chair and even though this audition was NOT in person, I wanted to honor Ani and her physical experience. So, I had to figure out a way to borrow one to use to film my audition. Easier said than done. Have you ever tried to borrow someone's wheelchair who actually needs it? I've considered buying a chair for this very purpose but I never seem to think of doing that until I have an audition the next day. The chair was just one piece to my preparation for this audition. There were a lot of moving parts, physicality, dialect, and potentially a huge actor trap, playing the anger. (I would learn that this would prove to be an on-going challenge of embodying Ani.) We got the scenes 'in the can' and sent them off.
Getting a call back, this time in-person, was exciting but the struggle continued... I still didn't own a wheelchair, but it was very important to me to roll into the room as Ani (or as close as I could get to her) and how she would move. This time, I was in luck, my good friend was visiting me in Los Angeles from Nashville and she was a wheelchair-user. Two problems, one, she has incredibly narrow hips and two, if I used her chair, she would be totally immobile. What are good friends for, right? She sat in my car while I wheeled into the building, kinda lopsided, and barely squeezed into her tiny chair. (Don't worry - she's getting comp tickets to the show.)
Once inside, I asked Jo Bonney, the director, if the playwright had ever been a caregiver because the authenticity of her scenes was mind blowing. It turns out she had, to a man with cerebral palsy, much like the character John in the play. And she breathes that life experience into this piece with seamless ease and care.
I was thrilled when I got the call from my agent saying that they wanted me to come to New York for a week-long workshop of the play. Working on a new play lends itself to very exciting flexibility and change. With Martyna in the room, there was a constant eye on making the communication, the imagery and the structure of the piece stronger. It truly is a living, breathing thing. As I have gotten more experienced as an actor, my love for table work has grown greatly. As a young performer, that deep dive into the script would stress me out, like it was a test for me to fail. What I have learned is that it's at the table where you start to create a road map of where you are going together as a team. Being a part of the workshop, and seeing the impact just reading Martyna's words had on those gathered that day, it was undeniable that this was a special piece of art.
I left the reading that afternoon unsure of my involvement with the play moving forward, but I had fallen in love with Ani in those five days in a way that I wasn't expecting. I had grown to realize that Ani wasn't an angry victim of circumstance. She was perhaps one of the most practical, pragmatic characters that I had ever encountered. This is, again, the beauty of the world that Martyna has created, not leaning into the conventional image of someone who has a disability as unable or needy. Ani is incredibly clear about the fact that she put herself in this situation and she is not willing to take advantage of the guilt that her ex feels about where she is now. In their last scene together, Ani asks Eddie, "If I weren't like this right now, would you be here?" This is a question that is a real struggle for him to answer.
I didn't even make it to dinner that night before hearing from my agent that she had an offer from Williamstown Theatre Festival. Up to and until this point my focus was so much on winning the role that actually taking her from page to stage was incredibly daunting.
Working on this play has been one of the most challenging things I've ever done as an actor.
Ani's stillness was very intimidating to me. Being still seems simple until you are told that you CANNOT move. That's when your nose has never itched more. But, it was in being still that I had to get laser focused on what the need was. What did Ani want in each moment? What was she trying to do with her words? Jo Bonney and I started talking to each other about the script in more musical terms, like inflection up or down. Even the way that Martyna placed the words on the page began to look like a score to me.
The way the characters overlapped each other.
Where there were breaks in verbal communication.
Where do you breathe?
More and more, Cost Of Living became less and less about disability and more about people trying to figure out how to deal with each other and the relationships they are in through this set of circumstances. And within the dialogue, the vocabulary of 'disability' is not really used much: spinal cord injury, cerebral palsy, amputee, handicapped, wheelchair. By leaving it out mostly and letting the images speak for themselves, it draws in an audience to care about the people and leaves them feeling less like they just sat through a health class.
Having the gift of bringing this play now to the Manhattan Theatre Club and sharing this story with New York audiences is one of the most exciting events in my career to date. Ani continues to be a complicated, challenging puzzle (both physically and mentally) for me but one I have grown to love so dearly. The reaction that we have been getting from audiences so far has been truly exceptional. Just last night walking home from the theatre, I was stopped as I crossed the street by a car full of people thanking me for my work.
It seems to me (after living in Los Angeles for 10 years) that the theatre community is taking major steps forward in inclusion in a way that Hollywood should take more notice of. MTC has even gone the extra mile to cast performers with disabilities as the understudies of John and Ani. Individuals with disabilities are the largest minority in the country and the least represented in our media and entertainment. We need MORE of this type of authentic, three-dimensional story telling that treats us as human beings, flaws and all, and instead of focusing on being inspired by or feeling bad for these characters, learning from their humanity.
If you aren't seen, you don't exist. It's time to change that for this community. It's a revolution that's time has come and I am lucky to be a part of that revolution.
Manhattan Theatre Club's New York premiere of Cost of Living, the new play byMartyna Majok (Ironbound, Mouse in a Jar), directed by Jo Bonney (Father Comes Home from the Wars; By the Way, Meet Vera Stark), runs through July 16 at MTC at New York City Center - Stage I (131 West 55th Street).