“Every aspect of my life is completely different from the day that I was sent the script,” says Katy Sullivan, star of Manhattan Theatre Club’s limited Broadway run of The Cost of Living, while wiping under her eyes.
It’s not the only time the actress, producer and four-time U.S. Paralympic champion has become emotional while discussing her multi-year journey with Ani, a quadriplegic and the ex-wife of an unemployed truck driver played by David Zayas. Speaking just days after her final performance as a character she’s owned for literal years — originating the role from its Williamstown Theatre Festival world premiere along with co-star Gregg Mozgala — Sullivan acknowledges it’s hard to let go of something that has not only become part of her but literally changed her life.
“We had the most lovely, generous audience ready to laugh and cry with us — just a glorious group of humans came. But I really had to work hard not to fall too much into self-indulgent emotion,” Sullivan says, about her final performance. “I do not live in that space, so for me to get through the show was a real big hurdle emotionally. I’ve spent six and a half years on and off with this character and with this person, and she’s become so dear to me. I’m so protective of her.”
Ani is a character Sullivan, a bilateral above-knee amputee, says she has become “so protective of,” fending off characterizations of her over the years as “so mad” and “so angry.” She’s wounded, the actress notes, and that takes a toll. But in that hurt, the Cost of Living star has found comfort and camaraderie with a character in Martyna Majok’s Pulitzer-winning play whose very presence on any stage, let alone Broadway, is a historical act. Right down to her very last performance.
“I said to David backstage right before the bathtub, ‘I’m going to do the best I can but —’ He was like, ‘It is what it is,’” she recalls. “It was all good until he started to leave and I say, ‘It’s been nice to get to know you.’ I could barely muster those words out of my mouth. I almost feel like I was saying that to Ani, not to Eddie. I was saying to her, ‘It’s been nice to get to know you.’”
Reflecting on her history-making Broadway performance, Sullivan spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about introducing Ani to different audiences over half a decade, the play’s emotional explorations of disability, class and love and how the success of the show reshaped her relationship to dignity and work.
You were with this play through every iteration, from Williamstown to Broadway. Can you talk about the significance for you of that transfer to Broadway, especially during a period when the whole country was rethinking its relationship to disability due to a global pandemic?
There’s definitely a sense of importance. There’s a level of importance and there’s a level of people taking the play seriously when it’s on Broadway, where it has that sort of pedigree on top of being a Pulitzer winner. I think people were more receptive to it. They were more eager to check it out and be like, “What is this whole thing about?” More so than when it was just a play Off-Broadway having not won a bunch of accolades, gotten a bunch of critical acclaim, and all of those things. In terms of acting, to me, Broadway is the typical you win or lose, you fall on your face or fly. But it felt to me like it was important, having it be the first play of its kind to be on Broadway where two performers with disabilities are playing characters that are written to have disabilities. I hope it has a ripple effect for more of that and more authentic representation and authentic storytelling. But I do also think people watched this play differently because of the pandemic. The play deals so much with isolation and with the human condition and dealing with loss. I think that what we globally went through in the last couple of years really informed how people watched this play and in a different way.
There’s a lot of powerful moments in Cost of Living. Was there a scene for you that felt particularly poignant to play or come back to again and again?
I think the scene in the bathtub — the emotional roller coaster of just that scene, of cracking a joke and crying, one line to the next. You have to really get yourself to the place to go on that ride. It’s so beautifully written. There’s so many little things that I love so much about it. This play feels so lived in. It feels so comfortable and dangerous and fun and funny. Literally, all you see of me is my neck and my head. I think I’m gonna get a tattoo of the bathtub. It just changed my life in so many ways. That scene is so stunning, vulnerable and heartbreaking. It’s about 20 minutes long, and I’ve done so many performances of the show that over the course of my life now I have spent just under three and a quarter days being publicly bathed by beautiful men. I don’t know anybody else that can say that. (Laughs.) But god, what a gift that scene is.
That scene felt really powerful because there is such a lack of narrative representation when it comes to love and people who have disabilities. And not in a pitying way, but in the actual, “I love and respect and care about you” way. This show really tackles that head-on.
I think that this piece demonstrates so beautifully that everyone is worthy of being loved and not for pity or not because you feel guilty. I think Martyna has written it in such a way, especially with the John and Jess scenes, where you truly believe she thinks she’s showing up there to Netflix and Chill. At the end of the play, it really is the two able-bodied people that are in the most need. One is like, “I’m gonna die in my car. I need shelter,” and the other person is like, “I can’t be alone. I just need someone to be here because I’m hearing ghosts.” There’s a line in the bathtub scene where my character says, “I need to know that it was for me, not for anything else.” And the next line is, “If I weren’t like this right now would you be here?” Eddie says, “Yes,” and Ani responds, “That’s not something I’ll ever know.” I think that’s also the difference between the characters. John is someone who was born with a disability and Ani is someone who has acquired a disability later in life and had a relationship before this disability. So she’s like I’m never going to be able to tell whether you are here because you pity me or you do love me. It’s so beautifully complicated and that’s what relationships are about.
It’s easy to imagine that with each new venue for this show, it felt like returning to something both old and new. What became important to you in terms of your performance each time you brought Ani back to the stage?
I think the two things that were the most important to me going into each consecutive production was number one, as an actor who has now done this well over 200 performances over the span of five productions, how do you keep that fresh? How do you keep the same scenes, the same lines? What is it that is new? Luckily I was constantly having to look into a different set of eyes. I’ve had five different Eddies. I like to say that I think I’ve reached my full Elizabeth Taylor. (Laughs.) But that is an invaluable way to spark fresh newness because they are going to make different choices. They’re going to say things in a different way. It, by nature, is different. The other thing about it is trying to get to a deeper place of groundedness in her and I think that this time around on Broadway I really just felt so comfortable in her skin. It was like hanging out with an old friend. And doing the last performance was really hard — emotionally difficult — because I don’t know if I will ever play this character again. That is a hard pill to swallow. I’ve spent on and off six and a half years of my life with her, trying to understand her and digging deeper into who she is and why she does what she does. Then just to be able to go, “OK, moving on to the next thing” — it’s an emotionally hard thing to do.
That really reveals an exposure and education issue among those watching you. How ready do you feel like audiences were for your character — in the sense of how educated do you feel like audiences are about actors with disabilities?
I have to say all of those comments came from mature sources. But I think there is a wave, culturally, of looking for authenticity. I think that people younger than Boomers are looking for that and when they see it, they find it mostly refreshing. I think people are ready for these kinds of things. I mean, I definitely am ready, in my career, to play these complicated characters instead of being on television and dealing with the leg reveal. That was the big thing on the sitcom or cop show where I perfect my salute because the only way someone fit and young loses their legs is in Afghanistan, right? So I think that we’re at a tipping point for all of this, but I think we need not only just being performers with disabilities and more opportunities for performers with disabilities and more forms of disability working consistently. We need more writers with disabilities. We need more producers and people either behind the camera or behind the table in the rehearsal room, that have these shared experiences. That is where we are, I think.
A somewhat similar situation occurred this season with Hadestown between an actor and an audience member using a captioning device. Similar in that it became clear that part of making spaces accessible is actually making sure everyone in that space is educated about what accessibility looks like. Education is frequently talked about as a hurdle with disability inclusion, so did that feel like a necessary growing pain of making theater more inclusive?
I think it was unfortunate how that whole thing unfolded. The actress ended up getting all sorts of hate and that’s not necessary. It was a mistake. It was a misunderstanding though I also wish she had come out immediately and said it was a misunderstanding and it was a mistake. We had a couple of people using those devices in our house, but the difference was our house manager let our stage manager know and then the stage manager was like, “Hey everybody, just so you know, somebody in house right is going to be using the device.” So to me, that whole situation comes down to the fact that there was not enough of a communication policy about what was going on. I think that it was an unfortunate situation, but I think there were enough conversations that happened in that course of probably eight days that I’m sure stage managers across Broadway were like, “OK, we’re gonna make sure we let people know.” I feel like it was amazing to see how many humans with disabilities came to see our show and I don’t know that I’ve ever seen that across Broadway when I go see Wicked or whatever. It was thrilling to have [The Cost of Living] be a piece that people not only wanted to see themselves reflected in but they felt like I am also welcome here.
Having been part of various staged versions of Cost of Living, how were those runs in terms of accessibility — onstage, backstage, in the audience? It seems something was notable about your time on Broadway with MTC.
I have to toot MTC’s horn a bit because they really worked very hard to get all of that right. Did they hit the mark on the head every single time? No, but they put effort into accessibility — from access to the stage to the dressing rooms. My understudy is an actress named Regan [Linton] and she is a wheelchair user. At the [Samuel J. Friedman Theatre], there’s only one dressing room that is on the stage level. They have two actresses that need access to a dressing room and they wanted to give me the option of having my own space. So I got the one that’s actually built in the building, and then they built on the stage in the wings a separate dressing room that was just for her. So he had her space and she had access to the stage to wherever she needed. Not only that, but MTC took out seats in the front row. People were going to come to the show just by the nature of being able to see themselves reflected on a Broadway stage and instead of having them show up and sit in the back of the orchestra, they decided to pull seats out of the front row.
The wheelchair-accessible seats were on both sides of the front row of the house. It was like honoring what this play was and who would come to see it. And almost every show there was someone who was in that space. There was actually a blog — I can’t remember who — but they published a post that was like, “the hottest ticket on Broadway right now is the accessible row at The Cost of Living.” So MTC did put their money where their mouth was to some extent. Not to mention the fact that they cast performers with disabilities as understudies and they brought them from other parts of the country. They gave me an apartment around the corner [from the theater] so that I wouldn’t have to be struggling to get to the theater or struggling with the commute. In terms of how do we make this process, this whole piece really, not only accessible to the actors working on the show, but the audience members, I have to give MTC a gold star.
This play was a very rare exception in the theater world because you weren’t alone in either your casting or your role representation. There were multiple characters with disabilities played by multiple performers with disabilities. How was it not being the only one? And how did being in concert with fellow performers with disabilities elevate the story that audiences were connecting to?
The first thing that comes to my mind when you say those things is the benefit of Martyna putting her foot down and saying “No, these characters are being played authentically by individuals that live their lives with disabilities.” It adds a layer of unspoken intrigue immediately before any of us open our mouths. But there’s also, especially towards the end of my part in the show in the bathtub scene, moments of real danger. That when I slip into the bathtub, there’s a real moment in that space, where for a split second, the audience does not know if there was an accident or if it’s in the show. If I am OK or if it’s the character that’s not OK. I think that if you’ve had a nondisabled person playing that role and they slip in the bathroom, you might startle them, but there’s not going to be that immediate feeling of “Oh god, is she OK?” I think that the other thing is just seeing disabled bodies on stage, it’s not something that we’re used to seeing in any way shape or form.
And they’re intimate things that are happening like somebody’s being transferred into a shower totally naked. The beauty of the piece is that they’re doing this very incredibly intimate thing of bathing but also talking about the jerk at the bar the night before. People got to look inside a world that they’ve never seen before. And the impact that had on people walking out of there just by the nature of being a disabled person on stage is incredible. The other thing I will say is that throughout this whole process, people — even with me sitting in a wheelchair without my prosthesis on — more than once were trying to figure out if it was a trick wheelchair. Like were my legs folded up underneath you cause I don’t move, I’m paralyzed. I had a friend that was leaving the theater, she saw the show early on in previews, and someone was talking in the bathroom about how they thought it was like mirrors. We’re so not used to seeing real disabled bodies on stage that people are immediately looking for what the trick is. It’s what the smoke and mirrors is and it’s like, oh my god, it’s 2022.
And MTC reached out ahead of time to help set all that up?
They actually called me to the offices three months before we started and they had me look at blueprints and they were like, these are the options for what the dressing room situation could be and they let me choose so I was totally part of that. I knew that they were going to give me an apartment well before, basically since 2020. They were just like we don’t want to worry about that, we don’t want you to have to struggle to get to work.
The Cost of Living is also a story about working people of a certain economic class, which for me, touched on the concept of the dignity of work. How has that concept and the show’s themes around working-class people translated for you as a performer? Did the show change your relationship to dignity within your work at all?
I think it’s the dignity and also the quality of work that has evolved for me over the course of my career. Early on, it’s almost like it was a stunt. I was a plane crash victim and that’s how I got my SAG card. I was a human prop. There were times on certain sets that I, in some ways, felt like I was being paid to use my body because of what my body looks like. It felt contractual, you know? How much does it cost to buy your self-esteem? How much does that cost to you? I have to say the cost of that now is way higher than it was when I was younger because I was just trying to get a job and be allowed in. I feel like that has evolved so greatly. Even just this last month, there was a movie that they’re looking for an actress who is an amputee. I read the script and I was like, “This is inspiration porn and it makes me want to throw up.” It’s at a big studio and I was like, no. Because my worth is not for sale in that way anymore. I want to play complicated three-dimensional people that can be in these situations where they’re in a plane crash or fill in the gaps, but the person has to have a narrative around that that is worth putting that part of me up for sale.
Do you feel like actors with disabilities are getting an equal shot at those kinds of roles — where they are people first, versus a characterization led by their condition?
I think we’re getting there. I’m seeing glimpses of it. I will say the character I played on Dexter: New Blood last year, the thing that was so appealing to me about that role was that her disability was just part of who she was. It was not a plot point. It was not emotionally manipulating the audience in any way. It was not even discussed. She was just a woman who was good at her job. We didn’t make a single mention of the fact that she worked at this police station in a wheelchair. That was so refreshing because that has never happened to me in that way. Some of the things that are coming up for me now — there’s one role where I will be the first disabled woman to play a certain character and that terrifies me. It is a three-dimensional, complicated, glorious character that scares the shit out of me. So yes, we’re starting to see these complicated or less complicated characters. I was sort of comic relief on Dexter. I was silly and goofy, but it wasn’t a manipulation because of the disability.
Interview edited for length and clarity.