Conversation with Maria Irene Fornes
Maria Irene Fornes was the subject of a “Conversation With” session in October  at the Guild. Here’s the transcript of that conversation, moderated by Kia Corthron and revised for publication by Ms. Fornes, with questions from the audience identified by the letter “Q”.
KIA CORTHRON: When did you start writing plays?
MARIA IRENE FORNES: Well, first I studied the violin, then the piano, then the guitar. I took ballet lessons. Then I started drawing, then painting. Then I started writing plays. However, during all that time I didn’t think of practicing an art as a profession. It was more doing a thing I was interested in doing—which is the way professions should be, but usually there are other pretensions involved.
I grew up in an artistic environment. My father set up contests and games where we would write a poem and then everyone voted on who wrote the best one. Or we all sang the same song and then we voted on who gave the best rendition. None of us could sing but whoever won would be happy until the next time when he or she would probably lose, since his winning had more to do with chance than quality.
So my interest in art was a question of personal pleasure. My father didn’t think too much about professional choices for us, except for my oldest brother whom he thought should study drafting. But my brother chose to go to art school. Then, much later, he came to the conclusion that his two younger daughters, my sister and I, should take up secretarial skills in case we ever needed to work. So we went to the Havana Business Academy. I soon gave it up to study the violin. My oldest sister was hanging around with artists in Havana. She played the piano and she encouraged me to start the violin. It was a disaster. I was not musical and violin is not an accommodating instrument. I was thirteen then. After that I studied drawing with one of my sister’s friends. I was in New York by then, and a couple of years later I was in Paris, where I was supposed to be painting but I spent most of my time sitting in cafes. I was, and still am, very moved by painting, but my personal creativity was not to emerge full force with my efforts in painting. It did three years later after I returned to New York when I started writing plays.
I was working as a textile designer not doing too well and suddenly it happened. I started writing a play and I felt something I had never felt before. It was like a volcano. I was driven and obsessed. I couldn’t stop. I was fascinated with the process and with the result. For the first time work was a source of happiness and not an obligation. But I still didn’t see it as a profession. That is, I didn’t see it as something I should earn money from. However, only three years or so later I was earning some money from it.
CORTHRON: Was painting a great influence on your work as a writer?
FORNES: Yes. The years I spent painting were of enormous value for me as a playwright because theater is a visual art. But also because, in painting, composition and juxtaposition are very important, while in playwriting the tendency for literalness makes it difficult to develop a sophisticated sense of structure. In painting you observe distance, color, object, structures, angles, lights and darks, and pace (yes, even pace, because when you see a painting you see movement), not just where there are human figures but even in abstract painting. You notice the space between things – where he or she is in relation to the table, the chair, the vase, the door. In theater it’s the same. The position of things, the space between the character and the wall, the distance from the back, from the left, from the chair—these are not things you can interpret in a psychological way. I don’t mean that if the dog is far from the master, it means that the dog is angry at the master. The relationships of things in space is intangible. It is aesthetic but it is also spiritual. And it is felt with as much power as the words they speak. For a painter these things are important. For a set designer they should be important. For a director they should be important. And everything that is important for theater should be important for a playwright. The playwright should not say, “The director will take care of that. The designer will take care of that. The actor will take care of that.” Indeed they will take care of those things. But the work will gain if you take care of them too, because then those elements are an intrinsic part of the work and they will add powerful dimensions to it. In theater these things should not pull attention to themselves. That is, they should not create an air of pretentiousness. But they should be acknowledged and dealt with because they can enrich the work.
CORTHRON:How important is the design of the set?
FORNES: The set is a primary element in a production. It’s not enough for the set to be a literal representation of a familiar place. Nor should it be an abstraction which is flat and doesn’t create interesting possibilities for energies to circulate and come forth. This may sound hokey but it isn’t. There are sets that are alive structurally and those that are dead structurally, no matter how beautiful or accurate they may be. The conception of the set should take into account that certain moments of the play would have more energy if they are performed in certain areas or levels of the stage: in a corner, in the center, downstage, up a little higher, sitting on a ledge, walking down stairs. This awareness, of course, has a powerful effort on style, mood and even meaning. The structuring of these energies may seem difficult, but that is only because we are not in the habit of paying attention to it. We can observe the value and practice of space structure in theater pieces that are less traditional, in performance pieces, in modern dance, in installations. The creators of these works understand the importance of spatial structuring.
Theater has many elements and levels, and to be able to write plays one should have available all these elements—which is to say that one should be interested in all the arts. And of course one should be greatly interested in the complexity of human nature, which is immense.
CORTHRON: Do you have a clear idea of the set from the start?
FORNES: No. I don’t see the characters on a stage when I’m starting. I see real places, and quite a variety of them. If I see the characters in a variety of places the characters are less trapped and I get to know them better. I see the stage when I do the last draft. Then I eliminate characters, locations, events, ideas.
Q: How do you write a play? Where do you start?
FORNES: There are many ways to start a play. But too frequently playwrights try to define their characters too early. And of course this tends to flatten them. When characters become one-note they don’t budge and the writing becomes harder rather than easier. Sometimes you even have to write scenes where the character is totally different- maybe even the opposite of what you want them to be- just to free them from your own yoke. You have to let your characters manifest themselves in response to their wishes and their instructs and in relation to the other characters. Otherwise they are not going to have any dimension. What you have available to you to compose a play is only your characters’ voices. If you control them too much they will go flat just like a child goes flat whose mother says, “Say this and say that.”
The playwright has to have a sense of language as it comes out of the mouth of the characters. This sense is not just an ear. It’s more than that, because an ear can be just a sense of the rhythm of different dialects. Of course it has to do with rhythm, but more than that it has to do with the way the character thinks. Not the logic of the character’s thought, but a knowledge of the most primary place where the character’s thoughts are formed. Sometimes there is more meaning in the positioning of the words in a sentence than in the meaning of the sentence itself.
We can fall into a trap and think that our characters have to be theater characters (characters that already exist in the theatrical tradition) so that, unconsciously, we begin to adjust them to outlines of characters that have already existed. We do the same with scenes. We think of scenes and then rewrite and reshape them until they have a familiar ring to them. And we think it’s this that makes them theatrical. But some scenes are theatrical and some are not. Don’t doubt that. Scenes can be theatrical without reminding us of scenes that have been done before. A scene that is theatrical and fresh is delightful and amazing. And if it is dramatic and fresh it can be devastating and amazing.
Q: Why has it been important to you to direct your own plays?
FORNES: Mainly because I like directing. I don’t recommend that every playwright direct their work. But I don’t see anything wrong if someone who wants to do it, and does it well, does it.
Q: How does one learn to direct?
FORNES: The same way you learn everything else in theater. You see everything you can. You observe. You watch. You analyze. You watch people direct. You offer yourself as an assistant, a helper, a gofer to a director, a costume designer, a props person. You try to get into meetings between directors and designers, between directors and playwrights. You sit in lighting sessions where the director and light designer discuss the cues. You learn what the light designer does to change a light cue. You assist stage managers so you learn the ropes backstage. You stage manage so you get a sense of the total run of the show. You watch silent comedy movies and vaudeville type comedians to learn about timing. You watch black-and-white movies and look at photos of German Expressionist theater productions to learn about lighting. You not only have to learn what things are and how to do them, but you have to learn how to deal with other people and their work. That’s how we learn anything. We see other people do something and we learn to do it. And we do as they do or we do different but we know what the standards are and what is acceptable and how to break the norm when the norm needs to be broken. You have to not be afraid to be intimate with the work of your colleagues. To deal with other people’s work and creativity is very intimate. And you have to be tactful but not pussyfoot around and waste time. And you have to say what you mean and even be blunt if you have to. You have to trust yourself because it is you who has to be guardian to the whole of the work and not to be shy to tell everyone exactly what you think and what you need. And to be trusting and frank. And to say so when you don’t know the answer to something. You have to learn a lot of technical things so you know what is possible and what is not possible, and you know how to realize things technically so if someone says it can’t be done you can tell them how to do it.
Q: If you feel in doubt about a character, who do you trust to read the play and give you advice?
FORNES: A play, in a sense, is like a riddle that’s in your head. I think that is what it is, and has been, for writers. Writers want the plays to be successful but it’s not like a free-for-all. It’s something that intrigues you and that you need to sort out. So you construct a path, a search, through a labyrinth that leads to the riddle. That path is the writing of the play. You need to do it yourself. Someone could help a writer who is starting. This person could point out that some things are obscure or some things are interesting or could lead to something. But the result would not be a profound play. Maybe it would be a way for the person to notice certain things. And learn from them. Things that hopefully the person will understand and be able to deal with from there on. But depending on this kind of help, I think, is not advisable. To me the work is a search in yourself with discipline, with rigor, to try to illuminate something, usually something very mysterious. You have to be very disciplined with yourself, always looking to see if there is a possibility to make the play better even if others say the play is good, never lying to yourself about something you know needs work. But I guess I feel a kind of religiosity about making theater, especially the writing and the acting. The director, I feel, is more like a guide, a spiritual guide, and the conduit between the writing and the actor and the audience. The director is the priest and the writing and the actors are the wine and the host in the chalice.
Q: How do you write? Do you write every day?
FORNES: Recently I have been using a computer. I work all the time, not because I have a schedule, but because I have deadlines. And they give me nightmares. I dread when a deadline is approaching and I am not ready with the work, so I keep working and working. However, if you don’t have a deadline it’s hard to make yourself work every day. I feel lucky that I have had to keep going because of deadlines.
Q: Susan Sontag has described you as one of the two writers who writes about violence without getting into a complicit relationship with the violence. Do you agree?
FORNES: Of course when I write about violence I am at war with brutality, with viciousness. However, to write abut it I cannot write a one-sided argument. I have to be as eloquent in portraying the violator as I am in portraying the victim. When you read a novel which deals with violence or you see a film you just favor whose side the author or authors are on. You know if the intention is to titillate or to bring awareness, inspire compassion, or create an affinity between the viewer and the victim.