'Cost of Living' star Katy Sullivan on changing representation on stage
Martyna Majok's play Cost of Living premiered at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts in 2016, opened Off-Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2017, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2018, and played in London in 2019. Now, the show will make its Broadway debut, also with MTC, this fall. Only two people have been involved in all those productions: Majok, of course, and Katy Sullivan.
In Cost of Living, the stories of the disabled, the working-class, immigrants, and more converge with four people for whom giving, receiving, and needing care goes both ways. Sullivan plays Ani, a Jersey girl with a brash sense of humor and a mean streak toward her estranged husband, Eddie. She is also a recent double leg amputee, which brings Eddie back into her life. The couple's story is told in parallel with that of John, a Princeton grad with cerebral palsy, and his hired caretaker, Jess.
No one in Cost of Living is putting on a disability: Sullivan was born without legs, and Gregg Mozgala, who previously played John off Broadway, has cerebral palsy. That alone sets the show apart in an already slim category of Broadway shows with disabled characters in the script. It also makes Sullivan a figure in a "revolution of change," as she put it, toward greater disability representation in the arts. Now, young actors can see her — an Outer Critics Circle Award nominee and Theatre World Award winner for her Off-Broadway Cost of Living performance — and not feel, as Sullivan did, like a "round peg in a square hole."
But like Ani, Sullivan is much more than her disability. She's a sunny person with a hearty laugh. She's an athlete, having competed in Paralympic track and field. And she's someone who values connection with others — something she believes all audiences at Cost of Living will share.
"Ultimately, we all need something: we need each other," Sullivan said. "That doesn't have anything to do with physical circumstance or anything like that. It comes down to the human condition."
Have your performance or your relationship with the show changed over time?
The fact that I have been with this piece for a number of years, and particularly what we've globally gone through in the last couple years — I don't think anybody approaches their art the way perhaps they did before a global pandemic. It's something that makes you look at your humanity and isolation and loneliness. This play is so much about those things, about that feeling of loneliness, and what [it means] to be in relationship with other people.
Without even trying, so much has tectonically changed in my perspective of this character. The biggest thing is the idea of of needing each other.
What makes this play so exciting, and exciting to be a part of, is how it speaks universally to people that wouldn't necessarily think it's a play for them. But at the heart of it, I think everyone will take away a little bit of seeing themselves on stage, especially for how diverse the cast is. I certainly hope so. That's so important for people to walk into the theatre and see themselves reflected in some way, somewhere.
Have you ever seen your disability represented on stage before playing Ani?
No. Growing up, wanting to be an actor, I didn't have anyone to point to and say, "Well, that person did this, so I can too." To some extent, it's challenging being a part of that revolution of change. It's also incredibly exciting to be a part of that. It's also challenging — you go through periods of time where you're super busy and there's a lot going on, and then no one thinks of writing a character that has a physical difference like I have specifically.
I remember saying at one point that I never saw anyone that looked like me on television until I was on television. It's a lot to walk around carrying, but also, thank God people are not going to be able to say that, eventually. We'll get there.
By playing Ani, did you learn anything new about the experiences of people who become disabled later in life?
I have the incredible benefit of of having people in my life that have those lived experiences, that have been faced with a huge life-changing event and tried to take away from their experiences: What is that newness, and how does one say, "Okay, how do I live my life from this point forward?"
It's interesting, though, because being someone who was born with a physical difference, I had that evolution of the grieving process later. As a child, I just wanted to play on the playground. I didn't necessarily know I was different, or it wasn't something I thought about all the time. But it was really adolescence that was like, wow, okay, people will look at me differently, people might not want to date me because of this, or — fill in the blank. Those experiences I have, that feeling of wanting to be that round peg in a square hole — I have other places in my life where I can draw from.
Has your time as a Paralympic athlete informed your acting career at all?
I was an actor way before I was [an athlete]. I went to acting school, so sports and athletics was the random chapter in my life. I used more of my acting training in being an athlete than I necessarily used being an athlete as an actor. I didn't feel like an athlete, so I would go, "How would an athlete act? I think an athlete would wake up at four and they'd go to the gym or they'd eat this apple instead of these potato chips." I approached it from that place because it was such a huge step out of my comfort zone.
Also, being an actor is one of the most athletic things you can do, especially theatre. You've got to stretch. You got to prepare yourself vocally, physically, all of those things. And then you get on the roller coaster ride and you have to ride it all the way to the end. There's no second take. It is committing physically to doing something, and that's the same as being an athlete.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
Originally published on