Lessons from Irene
María Irene Fornés by A.E. Kieren
María Irene Fornés by A.E. Kieren

What does mentorship mean to a playwright? Often early in your career it can be about craft. Like learning to construct the best chair when you train with an expert carpenter. The desire to know the tricks and tools of the trade course through you - you want to learn everything right away! But sometimes it is more about trying to understand what a life in the arts - in the theatre - can mean, and seeking guidance about how to go about it, even if there is no one way. 

I remember running into Wallace Shawn at the theatre once, when I was on a visit to New York City, while I was still in undergraduate school at UNCC, and I brazenly asked him, “Mr. Shawn, I am an admirer of your work, how does one become a playwright?” To which he replied (and I paraphrase), “Well, some say if you go to Yale, that can make you a playwright, in the business sense of things, but really, there is no one way of becoming anything; you just are, and you keep doing it until you find your way.” I remember being daunted and a little befuddled when he said that. I wanted the magic formula! Of course, only much later did I realize that he was right. 

But magic does exist to some degree. If you seek it out.

Case in point: I am in graduate school and I am reading an anthology of Latine playwriting entitled On New Ground (Published by TCG). It features works by Lynne Alvarez, John Jesurun, María Irene Fornés, Jose Rivera, and more. I remember being astonished by this collection of plays. They were unlike anything I had ever read before. I kept thinking, “where did these plays come from?” I looked at the epigraph of most of the plays in the collection and more than half of them mentioned INTAR’s Hispanic Playwrights in Residence Laboratory (HPRL) as a starting ground for the works. Who led the HPRL? None other than María Irene Fornés. I said to myself, “I want to be in the room where the magic happens.” So, I applied to be part of the HPRL. 

I had no idea if my work would even be read. Although I was in graduate school, I was not at all in any way in a “career” mentality - which was perhaps, in retrospect, not the wisest frame of mind. I was all about exploring and chasing the muse. But I had hopes that the magic place might call me, and not a month after I sent in my play for consideration to the HPRL did I receive a call indeed from Fornes herself. 

“Hello, I read your play. It’s very interesting and wild. I want to work with you.” 

In that moment, I didn’t know what to do. One foot in grad school, another foot maybe in NYC? I told Irene “I need to get my MFA. I have spent so much money in tuition and am paying off student debt, and I cannot drop everything right now.”

A moment. 

Irene replied, “Well, I may do the Lab again. Perhaps in the future we will meet.”

I spent my last year of graduate school dreaming of being part of the HPRL, and simultaneously thinking I had blown my one and only chance to do so by not dropping everything and saying “yes” right away. 

Fast forward to six months after graduate school. I am in that post-MFA state of feeling unmoored, thinking about why I had chosen to study theatre in the first place, and what was I going to do with my life, when Irene called again, out of the blue.

“Hello. This is Irene. I am still thinking about the play you sent me last year. I still want to work with you. Would it be possible?”

This time I did drop everything, and said, “Yes.” I ran/flew to New York City, uprooted my entire life, and stepped into the room where the magic happened.

My first encounter with Irene in person was when I walked into the HPRL studio at INTAR. It was winter. I was ill-equipped for the weather. I was nervous and feeling imposter syndrome in a big way. Irene was rolling out an old carpet, as I walked in, and she said, “Help me with this?”

I did so. She smiled. We rolled the carpet out together. 

A circle of wooden desks and chairs faced us. Irene sat down. The rest of the playwrights walked in. Six of us in total. We sat down at the desks. Irene asked us to open our notebooks and close our eyes. She asked us to breathe and start writing. 

For three hours, guided by her prompts, we wrote. In near silence. I remember thinking “when will the lessons begin?” 

But no formal lessons were offered. No rulebook. No “how to’s.” No “this is what a play is or isn’t.” Just writing, prompts, the feeling of being in the room, all of us working individually and yet also somehow together. 

Three weeks into this, I remember asking myself again, “But when will Irene give us a lecture on playwriting?” 

But no lecture was given. Again, more writing, short, sharp comments from Irene on material we would read aloud, most of it focused on “telling the truth about our characters, and being tender with them.” 

After three months, suddenly, a play seemed to materialize from the notebook. Almost as if it had written itself. Ah, was this the magic? 

Irene looked over at our notebooks and said, “There is only work. And to keep working.”

For four years, I worked under Irene’s watchful gaze. A bit later, she directed a revival of my play Any Place But Here at Theater for the New City - a play I wrote at HPRL. During that time, the lessons I craved were doled out in ways that were mysterious and elusive. Only once in my memory was there a ‘lecture day’ at HPRL. It happened quite by accident. We had been writing for two hours and everyone was exhausted. And Irene could sense (I think) that we were seeking something else from the process. She was doodling in her notebook, closed it, and started talking about the unities of time and place in the theatre, which shocked me, given that her own work hardly ever adheres to the Aristotelian “unities.” This then led to a monologue, of sorts, about what plays need, and why playwrights are in service to the play and not the other way around, which somehow then led to an anecdote about Sam Shepard and how they were both at the birth of what would be known as “Off-Off- Broadway,” and how she sometimes wondered if she maybe could have been better at finding a “niche” for her plays the way Sam had, in her opinion. A great deal of the monologue was about wanting our plays - the plays that were being written at HPRL - to succeed, and how she felt that maybe they were too strange and that this was a problem. Because what were we doing, then? We were playwrights! We were not meant to write works that would not be seen! 

And then she said something that startled me, “Maybe this isn’t working. Maybe we need to stop.” 

There was a silence that seemed to last an eternity. 

Stop? What did she mean? No. We couldn’t stop. This was the Lab. This was where we were fearless! Revolutionary! Champions of the strange and unpredictable and true!

And then, she rose and said, slyly, “Let’s go to lunch. Tomorrow we work again.”

In the years since Irene’s passing, I think a lot about the astonishing body of theatre works she made, and how the path she blazed for so many of us in the field is still to be acknowledged, and how people sometimes still say “How strange those plays are. How unlike anything and anyone else.” Irene’s diligence and dedication to this art form, as artist and teacher, was a lesson in and of itself.  

What did I learn from her? I learned everything. 

Caridad Svich and María Irene Fornés. Photo: Michelle Memran
Caridad Svich and María Irene Fornés. Photo: Michelle Memran


Caridad Svich
Caridad Svich

received the 2023 Flora Roberts Award, the Premio LATA for Special Achievement in Theatrical Adaptation, and the 2012 Obie for Lifetime Achievement. She is an inductee into the 2023 class of the College of Fellows of American Theatre. Published works include JARMAN (all this maddening beauty) and other plays (Intellect UK, 2016) and Toward a Future Theatre (Methuen Drama, 2022). She serves as Co-Artistic Director of New Works at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in New York City. caridadsvich.com