Katy Sullivan: Broadway’s First Amputee Actress

[EDITOR’S NOTE, 10/19/22: In the few weeks since we published this article in our September/October print edition, the cork has popped on Katy Sullivan’s career. Her performance on Broadway in Cost of Living has generated major buzz among theater critics and audiences alike. The mainstream media have taken notice, and so have Tony Award prognosticators, who now have Sullivan in the early running for a nomination. We’ve expanded the original article with some additional material from our interview, which took place this summer.]

When we asked Katy Sullivan how it felt to be just the second amputee (and first amputee woman) ever cast in a Broadway show, she wasn’t sure how to answer. She didn’t realize she held that honor.

But Sullivan is keenly aware of what an honor it’s been to perform as Ani, one of the main characters in the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Cost of Living. An intimate portrait of two people with disabilities and their caregivers, the show drew packed houses and stellar reviews during its 2017 off-Broadway run. Unfortunately, a planned Broadway production got tabled for months because of the pandemic. The Manhattan Theatre Club reactivated the project this year, putting Sullivan back in her wheelchair as profane, irascible Ani. 

“She’s not necessarily the most likable person,” laughs Sullivan. “She’s been hurt. She’s overcoming this disability that’s been sort of thrust upon her, she’s trying to manage her relationship with her ex-husband, and it’s a complicated story. It’s not just about disability.”

People says Sullivan “is making history on Broadway,” the New York Times calls her performance “worth its weight in gold,” and Variety lauds the entire cast’s “sensational and delicately inhabited performances.Cost of Living has been extended by one week, into early November. For ticket information, visit manhattantheatre club.com.

Our conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

Almost five years passed between Cost of Living‘s winning the Pulitzer Prize (in 2018) and its debut on Broadway. Is that a normal timeline, or did COVID slow everything down?
COVID changed a lot of things and a lot of people’s lives. I think the Manhattan Theatre Club’s intention was always to bring this show to Broadway, especially once the play won the Pulitzer Prize in 2018. It was just a question of when and how it fit into their season. They might have wanted to do it sooner, but you know what? All things in their own space and their own time. We were hoping that it was eventually going to happen, but you never know it’s actually happening until you sign a contract.

Before you, the only amputee who ever performed on Broadway was David Connolly, who had a part in Shenandoah in 1987. That’s 35 years ago.
Interesting. I do think one of the cool things about Cost of Living is that we don’t always see disabled bodies on stage, and we don’t usually have them portrayed in such an authentic way. That’s one of the reasons why this play is so powerful, and people walk away from it really moved and inspired. It doesn’t happen every day that you see a performer with a disability on stage, especially on Broadway. It shouldn’t be this novel thing, but it is. I’m excited to be part of the progress. I know a ton of performers with disabilities, and one of us kicking the door down can’t help but lead the way for other people. If more people get opportunities based on something I’m getting to do, that would be amazing and humbling. I really hope my role will be a tipping point instead of a one-off.

Greg [Mozgala, her co-star] and I have been with this project since it was a workshop. So to go from sitting around a table and discussing the characters in the scene, and having the writer change things around and come back the next day—to get from the point where you’re creating a character from scratch to having it go to Broadway, that’s the dream. That’s the dream for any actor, able-bodied or disabled.

Five or six years have passed since you created that role. And they’ve been intense, traumatic years. Do you think those experiences will inform the way you play Ani in 2022?
You can’t help but have a character evolve with you as a person. I have changed as a person since 2016 or 2017. We’ve all had massive changes happen with COVID, and life has totally changed. So I think Ani can’t help but be slightly different than she has been in the past.

She’ll also change based on whose eyes I’m looking into. I have a new [actor playing my] husband in this production, so that’s going to change everything. It can’t help but change everything. It’s a different person who has different intentions and a different way of saying lines and doing blocking. He’s going to make it his own, which will ultimately change my performance. And that’s good. It’s going to breathe some fresh air into this character. 

And then there’s just the level of gratitude I have to be back in the theater. I’m going to show up every single day, so excited to have audiences in the seats. Broadway shut down for a year and a half, and I haven’t done a play in three years. That’s a long stretch of time to be away from something you love so much.

I noticed that your new stage husband, David Zayas, is an alumnus of Dexter, as you are. Presumably that’s just a coincidence?
It’s actually really funny. When I found out they were considering David, I thought: “Well, how very Dexter is that?” He was one of the only original cast members that made an appearance in the season of Dexter I appeared in. We didn’t have any scenes together in Dexter, but we’d see each other on set occasionally. The last time I saw him before this, we were on the red carpet at the Dexter premiere. So we’re both part of the Dexter universe, which is really quite small world. [Read more about Sullivan’s role on Dexter here.]

Is live performance more rewarding to you than screen acting?
Here’s the difference. With a television show, you have no control over your performance. You do five or six takes, or whatever you need to get the scene, and then you just have to let it go. You have no control over how they edit it or how you’re portrayed in any way. But theater is one of those things where you get out there and you’re on the roller coaster from beginning to end. You get to own your performance in a way that I think only exists in theater.

Does the Broadway mystique bring up any anxieties or fears?
Not at all. I’m just really excited. I saw my first Broadway show when I was 17, and I stood outside the theater in tears afterwards. This was on a school trip, and my teacher was like, “Oh my gosh, what’s wrong?” And I told her, “I just want to do what those people are doing.” From the time I was a teenager, all I wanted to do was to be an actor and to be a performer. So my goal heading into this show is to be present and not let a moment of it slip by without acknowledging where I’ve come from, how far I’ve come, and how hard I’ve worked to get to this place. I just want to show up, be present, do my job, and be excited and thankful to do it every day.

Theater is such an incredible thing to be involved in. It teaches you to get out of your comfort zone, to rely on other people, to pull up your sleeves and really do some hard work. It can be so fulfilling, and whether or not you end up on Broadway, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s awesome.

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