When Martyna Majok got the call that she was co-honored with a 2023 Steinberg Playwright Award and that she and Mona Mansour would each be given $100,000 from the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust, she fell to her knees in the rain.
“A panel of incredibly well-respected and beloved, brilliant theater makers and culture curators came together and decided that what we make has value to the world and want us to continue doing that,” says Majok who won the Pulitzer Prize for her play, Cost of Living, and sees the award as a “soul-nourishing” gift. “They said, ‘we value the stories you tell. And therefore we value the lives of the people that you tell in these stories. We hear the work of your life and want more of it.’”
Since its inception, the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust has given over $100 million to theater organizations, with a particular focus on new play commissions, development, and production. The Steinberg Playwright Awards were created in 2008 to support, encourage, and spotlight exceptional playwriting. Given the pandemic’s impact on the theater industry, in 2022 the Trust focused the awards on early-to-mid career playwrights. They even doubled the prize amount for each recipient.
Mona Mansour had a similar reaction when she got the call that she was honored with a Steinberg Playwright (or Mimi) Award. “I almost couldn’t compute it because, it’s out of my realm. I believe my mouth dropped open for a solid minute. I thought, did that just happen?,” says Mansour, whose play, the Vagrant Trilogy, is an epic work about three generations of a displaced Palestinian family living in impermanence trying to find home. “In the midst of a highly unstable time in theater, this award comes as an enormous gift.”
Majok and Mansour each have a gift for writing complex and deeply flawed characters who struggle to matter in a world that doesn’t see them. “I got really interested in what it is like to grow up with this messaging and psychology that you don’t belong and are not welcome,” says Majok. “You have to make yourself enough just to be able to be in a place.”
As Majok explains, she believes that both her and Mansour tend to write about people who stay versus the ones who go. Children of immigrants, Majok was born in Poland and raised in New Jersey and Chicago. Mansour is the daughter of a Lebanese immigrant father and an American mother from Seattle.
“Mona Mansour tackles some of the toughest issues on the planet—not least the Palestine/Israel conflict—with tremendous empathy, gorgeous language, deep compassion, and nuanced insights. Her integrity is deeply impressive, and her achievements striking,” said Steinberg Trust advisory committee member and Public Theater artistic director, Oskar Eustis.
“Martyna Majok is an utterly unique voice. An immigrant from Eastern Europe, she creates characters who struggle to do right, despite enormous deprivations: financial, educational, and cultural. She ennobles people whom society marginalizes, restoring agency and heroic status to all. Her plays are intimate but epic, tremendously granular about human behavior, while linking that behavior to the deepest human dilemmas.”
For Mansour and Majok getting the Mimi is profoundly life-changing. “To get an award like this is a huge psychic change that emboldens you to create,” says Mansour. “Sometimes the best things you write are when you don’t know where it would go. You think, I don’t know who would do this, but I need to write this. And to be able to do that is such a such a gift.”
Majok adds that she hopes that she can make something worthy of this seismic act of belief, faith and love. “This trust could decide to give money to anything. And they’ve decided to give it to the expansion of culture and our hearts and souls,” she says. “And then to have chosen us to do that work is so overwhelmingly generous and kind.”
Jeryl Brunner: You both mentioned that this award is so transforming not only practically, but spiritually, especially post COVID-19. Can you share more about that?
Martyna Majok: I had a really hard time writing anything original during COVID because I felt like my brain and soul broke a little bit. The world said the thing that I had committed my life to, is completely discardable. We’re going to shut it all down and we don’t know when it’s going to come back. That was a hard place to create from. I started doing a lot of adaptations, mostly because it felt like I could be in conversation with somebody else, even if it was the ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I had to respond to something instead of having to pull it out of myself. I didn’t know how to respond to what was happening during that time.
Mona Mansour: I had a show, [The Vagrant Trilogies], that was about to go up and was put on pause for two years and blessedly came back. For those two years, obviously a lot of things happened in our culture that called leadership into question. We asked great questions, like “What is it we’re doing here?” And even coming back there were so many COVID-19 closures. In my cast, two incredible people who were understudies went on with no rehearsal. None.
Majok: A lot of our community spaces have been decimated by the pandemic. Playwrights aren’t running into each other as much to be able to share and commiserate their neuroses, which is so deeply important. What we do is a largely collaborative, community-based art making. But it requires us to be solitary for a period of time with our demons to be able to craft the things that open the doors for us to be able to collaborate with other people. That is a very difficult process to go through, particularly when Mona and I are writing about people dear to us and oftentimes dealing with intense political situations.
Mansour: We came through something, but we are now in a place where on the horizon you’re thinking, I don’t know what’s next. We lost the Sundance Theatre Lab, the Lark and Lincoln Center Directors Lab. So when you lose those places where you might run into people, literally loose the brick and mortar places, we’ve lost something.
Majok: And I will still be processing that for a while. Both Mona and I have done work for hire like TV, film and musicals now. It’s nourishing and can be really moving. But I’m afraid of losing myself—if I don’t make something that comes from me—that is original. I worry that I won’t continue to evolve as a human being. As much as I hate writing, It’s the fullest I feel having written—sitting with myself and seeing what’s inside my brain and heart. This award is saying it’s permitting and encouraging a return to that kind of art making.
Brunner: So how does getting the Mimi award help you in a practical way?
Mansour: I’ve always felt that theater risks being an art form that is created by people who have a nice amount of money.
Majok: People who can afford to fail.
Mansour: There is nothing wrong with that. But in an art scene, when you do not help up and down the food chain, you start to lose something. I’ve always said to myself, ‘no one forced you to do this. There’s speech pathology.’ And I say that without any irony. When you tell people you’re doing theater they don’t believe you. Very few people make a living from it. I had a friend once say to me, ‘Have you ever calculated what you make per hour?’ I replied, ‘Stop. Stop right now. Somehow, when it comes to the arts, there is this notion that it’s frivolity. Whether it’s my play or anyone’s play, it can speak to our souls and we need that. And that is something about American culture that I find fascinating. We devalue that.
What this allows me to do is to say, ‘I think I’m going to write this play and I have no idea where it could go.’ You have to be able to honor those impulses to see where they take you in order to serve not just your soul, but hopefully other people’s souls. To know that you’re not literally thinking, okay, how much do I have to last me for the next month, is truly amazing.
Majok: It’s also the way that we use our finite hours on the earth. When I was starting as a playwright, you work for free in the hopes that maybe someone will pay you for this thing that you do. I don’t believe any of us are thinking, ‘I’m going to be a playwright to become a millionaire.’ You have this desire to communicate and reach people in this specific form that for various reasons speaks to you as an individual in a way like no other art form. It gives access to your humanity that you can’t find in anything else.
Brunner: How does writing and having your plays performed nourish you?
Mansour: We gather to keep ourselves sane. And there’s something about the proximity. You are in the theater with that person. There are not a ton of experiences that require in-person. When we were first casting this workshop production of Urge for Going, we were all looking at YouTube and literally every single actor was playing an imam and then there he was playing a taxi driver. Thankfully that was over ten years ago that that has gotten a lot better. But there’s still so far to go. I feel a sense that it is my responsibility as an Arab American to put those characters in front of you. They might piss you off. They piss me off too.
Majok: I write so I don’t feel as alone. So I can be in community, ultimately with other people, making for other people. It’s a constant act of bringing more and more people to a kind of campfire. I’ve never been more moved than I have in the theater with other people. These lovely actors have devoted brain storage to the words that we have put together. They are able to share with other people, who are all dying together, to try to understand how to walk out of that theater and feel a little bit fuller in our lives. It bridges something that is so difficult for us to do in our daily lives.
We’re in an endeavor to vanquish the loneliness that we all walk through in the world. I saw my mother think that she was invisible and unimportant for so much of her life. I didn’t see the people who I grew up with represented with much dignity, integrity, humor, sexuality and flaws I knew they had. All these things make them full and complicated. You want to make people feel like real people that others can be in communion with and have a connection with them.