Katy Sullivan on Saying Goodbye to Her History-Making Portrayal in Broadway’s ‘The Cost of Living’
“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.
This is not the first time that Sullivan, an actress, producer, and four-time U.S. Paralympic Champion, has felt emotional while talking about her multi-year journey alongside Ani, a quadriplegic, and the ex-wife to a truck driver, played by David Zayas. Sullivan spoke out days after her last performance as the character she had loved for literal years. She originated the role from its Williamstown Theatre Festival World Premiere with Gregg Mozgala.
“We had the most wonderful, generous audience ready and waiting to laugh with us — it was a magnificent group of people. Sullivan said that she had to resist the urge to indulge in self-indulgent emotions during her final performance. “I don’t live in that space so it was difficult for me to get through this show. I have been with this character for six and a quarter years, and she has become so dear to my heart. I am so protective of her .”
Ani, a character Sullivan plays, is a bilateral above-knee amputee. She says she has become “so protective” of her character, fending off characterizations over the years of her as “so mad”, and “so anger.” The Cost Of Living star found comfort and camaraderie in her shared hurt with a character from Martyna Majok’s Pulitzer-winning play. Her presence on any stage, let’s not forget Broadway, is a historic act. Even down to her last performance.
She recalls that she said to David backstage, right before the bathtub, “I’m going do the best I can, but –” He was like, “It is what is,” she says. It was all fine until he left. I said, “It’s been nice getting to know you.” It almost feels like I was speaking to Ani and not Eddie. I was telling her, “It’s been nice getting to know you.” ‘”
Sullivan talked to The Hollywood Reporter about her Broadway performance that made history, how she introduced Ani to different audiences over a period of ten years, her emotional explorations of disability and class, and how her relationship with dignity and work was reshaped by the success of the play.
You were there with this play in every iteration, from Williamstown through Broadway. Can you speak about the significance of the transfer to Broadway for you, especially in a time when the country was rethinking its relationship with disability due to a global epidemic?
There is a sense that the play is important. There is a level to which the play is important. It’s also taken seriously by people when it’s on Broadway. Broadway has that kind of pedigree, as well as being a Pulitzer Winner. People were more open to it. People were more open to seeing it and asking questions. This was more than when it was just an Off-Broadway play that had not won any accolades or received critical acclaim. Broadway is a typical theater where you either win or lose, and you can either fall on your head or fly. It felt important to me that it was the first Broadway play where two actors with disabilities were playing characters written for them. It will hopefully have a ripple effect that allows for more authentic representations and authentic storytelling. The pandemic made this play more interesting to me. The play is so focused on isolation, the human condition, and how to deal with loss. I believe that the global experiences of the past two years have influenced how people view this play in a different way.
There are many powerful moments in Cost Of Living . Did you find a scene that was particularly powerful?
The scene in the bathtub is my favorite. It’s the emotional roller coaster scene of laughing and crying one line at a time. You need to get to the right place to enjoy that ride. It’s beautifully written. It has so many small things that I love. This play feels so real. It feels so familiar, dangerous, funny, and fun. Literally, you only see my neck and my head. I think I’m going to get a tattoo of the tub. It has changed my life in so many ways. It is beautiful, heartbreaking, and vulnerable. 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 anyone else who can say that. (Laughs. ) What a gift this scene is.
This scene was really powerful, because there is so little narrative representation of love and people with disabilities. This is not in a demeaning way. It’s in the “I love, respect, and care about you” kind of way. This show tackles the issue head-on.
This piece shows that everyone is worthy to be loved, not because you feel guilty or for pity. Martyna has written the story in such a way that you can see she believes she is showing up on Netflix and Chill. The play ends with the two most in need people. One is like, “I’m gonna die in my car. I need shelter,” while the other person is like, “I can’t live alone.” I need someone to be there because I’m hearing ghosts.” Eddie replies, “Yes,” and Ani replies, “That’s something I won’t ever know.” This is also the difference between the characters. John was born with a disability, while Ani was born with one. Ani had a relationship before the disability. She says that I will never be able tell if you love me or pity me. It’s so beautifully complicated, and that’s the beauty of relationships.
It’s easy to imagine that with each new venue for this show, it felt like returning to something both old and new. What was the most important thing about your performance every time Ani returned 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 can you keep the same scenes and the same lines? What is the new? I was constantly looking at the world with a new set of eyes. I’ve had five different Eddies. I like to say I feel like Elizabeth Taylor. (Laughs. ) This is a great way to spark new ideas because they will make different choices. They will say things in a new way. It is by nature different. It’s also about trying to find a deeper sense of groundedness in her. I feel like I just felt so comfortable in her skin this Broadway. It was like being with an old friend. It was difficult to do the last performance. I don’t know if this character will ever be played again. It is hard to swallow that. I have spent six and a quarter years with her, trying my best to understand her and finding out more about her. It was difficult emotionally to just be able to say, “OK, moving onto the next thing.”
This really shows the education and exposure issues among those who are watching you. What level of preparedness do you feel audiences were for your character?
All of those comments were made from mature sources, I must say. But culturally, there is a new wave of authenticity seekers. I believe that people younger than the Boomers are seeking authenticity and find it refreshing. These kinds of things are what people are most ready for. I mean, I am definitely ready in my career to play these complex characters instead of having to deal with the leg reveal. This was the main thing I did on the sitcom or cop series. It was where I perfected my salute, because Afghanistan is the only place young and fit people can lose their legs. We’re at a tipping moment for all of these things, but we need to be more than just performers with disabilities. I believe we need more performers with disabilities and more people with disabilities working together. We need more disabled writers. We need more producers, people behind the camera and at the table in the rehearsal area who share these experiences. This is where we are at the moment, I believe.
A somewhat similar situation occurred this season with Hadestown between an actor and an audience member using a captioning device. Similar in that it was clear that accessibility means that everyone in the space must be educated about accessibility. 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?
It was unfortunate that this whole thing happened. It was unfortunate that the actress received all kinds of hate. It was a mistake. Although it was a miscommunication, I wish she had acted immediately to clarify that it was a misinterpretation and that it was a mistake. There were a few people using those devices in our home, but our house manager informed our stage manager and the stage manager was able to say, “Hey everyone, just to make sure you know, somebody in the house right is going to use the device.” This all boils down to the lack of a clear communication policy. Although it was unfortunate, I believe there were enough conversations over the course of eight days that stage managers across Broadway were able to say, “OK, we’re going to let everyone know.” It was incredible to see how many people with disabilities came to our show. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that on Broadway, Wicked or whatever. It was exciting to see [The Cost of Living be a piece people wanted to see, and they felt that I was also welcome here.
Having participated in various staged Cost Of Living , runs, how were those runs in terms accessibility — onstage, behindstage, and in the audience? Your time with MTC on Broadway was something that stood out.
MTC deserves a little credit for all they did to make it happen. Did they always hit the mark? They put in effort to accessibility, from the stage to the dressing room. Regan [Linton] is my understudy and is a wheelchair user. The [Samuel J. Friedman Theatre] has only one dressing area that is at the stage level. Two actresses need to have access to a dressing area, so they wanted to give me the option to have my own. So I got the one that was actually built in the building and they then built a separate dressing area in the wings for her. He gave her space, and she could access the stage whenever she needed. MTC also took seats in the front row. People were going to attend the show because they could see themselves on Broadway. Instead of forcing them to sit in the back, they chose to take seats from the front row.
The wheelchair-accessible seats were on both sides of the front row of the house. It was like honoring the play and inviting everyone to see it. Nearly every show had someone who was in that area. There was actually a blog. I don’t recall who it was, but they wrote a post saying that the “hottest ticket on Broadway right this moment is the accessible row at The Cost of Living.” ” MTC certainly put their money where it was needed. They also brought in performers with disabilities from other parts of the nation to be understudies. They provided me with an apartment right around the corner so I didn’t have to struggle to get to the theater and make the commute. This whole piece, in terms of how we make it accessible, is really a great example of how we can make this process more accessible for the actors and the audience. I give MTC a gold Star.
This play was a rare exception in theater because you weren’t the only one casting or representing your role. Multiple characters with disabilities were played by multiple actors with disabilities. How could it not be the only one? How did performing in concert with other performers with disabilities help to elevate the story that audiences were relating to?
When you say these things, the first thing that comes to mind is Martyna’s benefit of putting her foot down. She said “No, these characters were being played authentically and by individuals who live their lives with disabilities.” This adds an extra layer of intrigue before anyone opens their mouths. There are moments of real danger, especially towards the end, when I am in the bathtub scene. When I slip into the bathtub there is a real moment where the audience doesn’t know if there was an incident or if it’s part of the show. If it’s me, or the character, that’s not OK. If you have a non-disabled person in that role, and they slip in the toilet, it might startle them but there won’t be an immediate feeling of “Oh God, is she OK?”
They’re intimate and almost feel like someone is being nakedly transferred to a shower. The beauty of this piece is that they are doing an intimate thing, bathing and also discussing the night at the bar. People were able to see a world they had never seen before. It was amazing to see the impact it had on the people who walked out on stage, just because they were disabled. Another thing I want to mention is that people tried to figure out if the wheelchair was a trick one several times throughout this entire process. Because I can’t move, my legs are folded under you. A friend of mine was leaving the theater. She had seen the previews early and was captivated by the idea that it was mirrors. People are so used to seeing disabled people on stage, they immediately want to know the trick. 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 it all up?
Three months before we started, they called me and showed me blueprints. They were very open to me looking at them and let me choose the dressing room layout. I knew that they were going to give me an apartment well before, basically since 2020. They were as concerned about you not having to worry about it, and we don’t want you to have difficulty getting 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. As a performer, how has this concept and the show’s themes about working-class people changed your perspective? Did the show alter your relationship with dignity in your work?
It’s the dignity and the quality of my work that I have gained over the course of this career. It almost felt like a stunt at first. I was a victim of a plane crash and that’s how my SAG card was obtained. I was a prop for humans. On certain sets, I felt like I was being paid to use parts of my body because it is what I look like. It felt like a contract, you know? How much does it cost you to boost your self-esteem? How much does it cost to buy self-esteem? It is hard to believe that the cost of this now is much higher than it was when you were younger. I was trying to get a job to be allowed in, and I can’t remember how much. It feels like this has changed so much. Just last month, they had a movie in which an amputee actress was needed. I read the script and thought, “This is inspiration porn. It makes me want to throw it up.” The movie was at a big studio, and I was like no. Because my worth is no longer for sale in this way. I want to play complex three-dimensional characters that can be in situations such as a plane crash or filling in the gaps. However, the person must have a story that makes me worth selling.
Do actors with disabilities feel that they have an equal chance at these roles? Are they people first or are they a character based on their disability?
We are getting there, I think. It’s starting to look like it. I will mention the character I played in Dexter : New Blood last year. The thing that appealed to me about that role is that her disability was only part of her personality. It wasn’t a plot point. It was not intended to emotionally manipulate the audience in any manner. It was never even discussed. She was just a woman who did a good job at her job. We didn’t even mention the fact that she was a wheelchair-bound employee at this police station. This was so refreshing, as it is something that has never happened to my in this way. Some of the things I’m seeing now — there is one role in which I will be the first disabled person to play a particular character, and that scares me. It’s a complicated, three-dimensional, and glorious character that scares me to the shit. Yes, we are starting to see more complicated characters. I was sort of comic relief on Dexter. I was silly and goofy but it wasn’t manipulation due to the disability.
Interview edited to ensure clarity and length.