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Interview: Martyna Majok on Returning to Sanctuary City, 18 Months After It Started Previews

Majok's new play reopens at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, presented by New York Theatre Workshop.

It was there, and then it wasn't. Martyna Majok's new play Sanctuary City was in previews at the Lucille Lortel Theatre on March 12, 2020, and then, just like everything else, it vanished into thin air.

New York Theatre Workshop kept the set up (they usually operate out of their own space on East 4th Street, and have been presumably renting the Lortel, clear across down, for more than 18 months). Posters remained in the window (a little waterlogged and graffitied). The cast studied their performances for reference in an archival video shot less than 24 hours after the shutdown announcement was made. And Majok went through the motions of grief.

We talked over Zoom; me at home, Majok in the stage manager's office at the Lortel, where re-rehearsals for the debut of Sanctuary City were underway (the three-character drama, directed by Rebecca Frecknall, is once again in previews). It's been a fraught but emotional process, encompassing excitement, fear, and everything in between. And for the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, it reminds her exactly why she loves making theater.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Martyna Majok
(© Jenny Anderson)

It must have been the weirdest kind of déjà vu to walk back into that theater.

It was strange! I think I've been having dreams of the theater for 18 months and the size of it has grown in my dreams and imagination. I thought I was walking into a Broadway theater and then I was like "Oh, wait." But the set has been up the entire time. I was like "Are the tech tables still here?" And they were like "No, remember we were doing previews?"

What was the experience like for you to have the show closed and everything stop right as you were about to open?

I went right into the bargaining mode of grief. What if we do one more show and call Jesse Green to show up and review it really quickly? It felt so important to have some sort of record that this thing had existed, because it felt like without the review…You know, if a play falls in the woods? And they were like, "Martyna, no. Six just closed. They're not even going to have their party." Twenty-four hours after it was announced we had to shut down, the Workshop recorded it and made that happen in like twelve hours, and then it was a strange "See you soon" — question mark.

We celebrated what would have been our opening on Zoom and toasted the show, trying to create some kind of ritual. I think a surprising thing was how the absence of an opening and closing made it especially difficult to deal with for me.

Did you watch that recording?

Yeah. I cried. It's kind of beautiful. It has this double meaning of knowing that this was the goodbye. The emotional moments of the play became much more emotional because they were aware that this might be the last time they're doing it.

I think we all thought we would come back in a month, and then the whole disappointment rollercoaster happened for about three months. It became "Tell me the furthest amount of time that we might come back in, and I can be pleasantly surprised if it's earlier." We were all learning on the fly how to deal with our emotions without having any sort of rituals around departing. It just felt like "It's done. Go deal with that for 18 months."

Jasai Chase-Owens and Sharlene Cruz in Sanctuary City
(© Joan Marcus)

How does everything that has happened to the country, the world, the relationships you developed over that first rehearsal process, impact where you are now in terms of restarting?

Over the year, a poster in the window of the theater was vandalized. Somebody wrote "This is about illegals" on one of the posters. But it was so horribly misspelled that it must have been, like, a Trumper taking the piss and being like "This is about illegals!" They had to replace it. So what has happened in the world is obviously in the room. The play is going to kind of be holding what has happened in a year and a half, and I think I'm looking at through a different lens of…If a country has made a way of living impossible for certain people, how do we still care for ourselves and others when the rules and laws might not actually want those people to thrive?

In the room, there have been parts where I've been surprised at how very normal it is and how very seamless it is. And then there are aspects where the normalcy feels very strange. We had the meet and greet, which was a handful of people at the theater, and I was surprised we were even having a meet and greet, and everyone was wearing masks. And then we just jumped back into it. The actors came in off book and off blocking book, which was immensely moving to me, because their remembering it means they've been working on it. They've held onto this script, and they were able to watch themselves for reference in that archival video. Now we're just sort of deepening it, and I'm making adjustments here and there.

One of the things I love most is that New York Theatre Workshop is setting aside Sunday shows for audience bubbles, for those who don't necessarily feel comfortable yet in large group settings. That's something Broadway certainly isn't doing, and when we saw other shows, it felt very strange to be in such a crowded room again.

I wonder if that's something to do with the…We're in an in-between place. There's a newness and a strangeness of how normal we are. It feels like we've had a knee injury and we're trying to run a marathon, but we might just make it down a few blocks. When I start worrying about what's going to happen…Are people going to show up? Is what we're asking them to do safe and responsible…When all these questions come up, oh, my god, I don't know.

We're trying our best. We're testing three times a week. I'm not going out so I'm not the asshole who brings in the Covid. I'm just trying to be responsible so that we can actually share what I'm really proud of, and what has given me such joy, that has filled my soul for a year and a half.

When I'm sitting in our little red seats in the Lortel, I'm so fucking happy and I feel like "Ah, yes, this is what I'm supposed to be doing with my life." And then the spiral of "will people come" and "is it safe?" But I just have to trust that we're doing things as safely as we can and we're constantly rewriting that to make it even more safe. We're really trying. So I'm happy and scared and all of the things, but mostly grateful to be with this lovely team of people. I don't know I've ever had as happy of a time working on a play as this one.

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