Late night October 30, 2018. Fellow playwright Migdalia Cruz lets me know La Maestra has died. A flood of memories overcomes me. I trained with Fornés for four and half years at INTAR in New York City. She also directed my play Any Place But Here in 1995 at the beginning stages of my professional writing life. Throughout the years, there was a book Maria Delgado and I put together in tribute to her artistry as playwright, director and educator, Conducting a Life: Reflections on the Theatre of María Irene Fornés (Smith & Kraus, 2000), and a special section on her impact as a teacher of playwriting for PAJ. But always, in the years between and past, the voice of La Maestra in the ear whispering “Don’t settle for anything but the best from yourself as an artist. Don’t disappoint the page when you write upon it.”
Postcard on a writing desk: a black-and-white photograph of a young woman. She is draped across a chaise lounge. She smiles insouciantly. She dares the photographer to capture her.
When I mention Fornés in writing rooms, especially when I teach, I am often met with blank faces. Few if any have heard of her. Some may have heard of Fefu and Her Friends, others may know Mud—her “hit!” a colleague tells me once—but mostly, a sea of curious stares. I say, “She is our Caryl Churchill. If you wish to make comparisons.” The sea tends to be silent until I bring the plays—published by Bonnie Marranca at PAJ—into the room, and then there is this mad and wondrous energy that overtakes those encountering Fornés’ works for the first time. And then, only then, will I hear back “Why have we not heard about her before?”
I could tell them that one of the founders of the off-off-Broadway movement may have been triply silenced by patriarchal ones that created the official “canon” due to the fact that she was female, Cuban, and a lesbian. I could also say that Fornés was beyond brilliant but was not, despite her inestimable sense of mischief and charm, the easiest person in the world with which to get along. She was famous for her exacting and sometimes volcanic temper, and perhaps this was less welcome to those that may have withstood such temperament from a male genius rather than a female one. The winner of nine Obie Awards was short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama only once, and while some of her contemporaries—Sam Shepard, Terrence McNally, John Guare, and Edward Albee—were regularly mentioned in industry and academic platforms as being luminaries of American drama, Fornés’ name was hardly ever noted in the same breath. Hers were the “weird plays, the odd plays, the too short plays or the too elliptical plays.” How to contend with Fornés? What was she up to?
Pretty much everything. As a director, designer, writer, translator, educator, she impacted the lives of those that collaborated with her as well as those she taught. The list of writers that trained with her includes Tony Kushner, David Henry Hwang, Anne Washburn, and Sarah Ruhl. But it was at INTAR Hispanic Playwrights in Residence Laboratory in New York City and at Padua Hills Playwrights Workshop in California where the depth of her impact was most felt. Let’s consider for a moment some of the artists she mentored at INTAR: Milcha Sanchez-Scott, Lisa Loomer, Cherrie Moraga, Eduardo Machado, Migdalia Cruz, Nilo Cruz, Ana Maria Simo, Carmelita Tropicana, Octavio Solis. At Padua Hills, alongside colleagues Sam Shepard and Murray Mednick, the earliest works of John Steppling, John O’Keefe, Jon Robin Baitz, Julie Hebert, and Kelly Stuart were first seen. She taught master classes at many colleges, universities, theatres and writers’ colonies, but at both INTAR and Padua Hills, the return-engagement, as it were, mentorships occurred. It’s wasn’t just one class, but seven years of classes (from 1984 to 1991) that Migdalia Cruz studied with her at INTAR. I trained with Irene from 1988-1991 with slight overlap into 1992. Months and years of mentorship with a master artist outside of an academic setting, and even then, is rare in the theatre world. It is a testament to Fornés’ dedication to not only sustaining her own theatre-maker’s life, which was often precarious, but also to working in depth with her students that need be remarked.
Postcard on a writing desk: a woman in her middle years, wearing a black suit and a dapper tie, red ruby lips and a sharp hat cocked to one side. She has seen the world. She has faced it. She does not suffer fools. Nor should she.
In write-ups after her passing, journalists spoke of her extraordinary legacy, and how she wrote perhaps against the grain of what was common in American theatre, which always makes me think of the title and subject of Wendy Wasserstein’s early play Uncommon Women and Others. Is being uncommon such a burden? How long will women be held up to the common standard? And what does ‘common’ mean anyway?
The fact that her plays covered wide and seemingly unusual formal ground has perplexed many. But if you look at her body of work from 1965 to 2000, what you see is actually a fascinating through line of shared themes, concepts and ideas from play to play, even if formally there is variety. Her interest in the dynamics of class and power are nearly always at the center of the works in some way, as is her focus on human desire (for love, learning, transformation and more). Before the word ‘intersectional’ was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, Fornés was making intersectional work exploring class, gender, race, ethnicity, and sexuality. The people in her plays are often contradictory, deeply flawed and at odds with their environment. The playfulness in her writing sits alongside stark portraits of despair. She is as much Philip Barry and Mae West as she is Brecht and von Horvath.
Postcards on a writing desk, framed by the student’s eye: a woman in her later years. She may be writing her last play. She may not know it is her last play. There are notes for at least two other big plays somewhere midst her stacks of books and papers and fabrics. She holds the pen between her fingers. She has been doing this a long time. She remembers when it was maybe the first time that word and page/stage became one. It is a cold day in Manhattan, and she says to her student, “Abingdon Square was done at the National Theatre in London. Regional Theatres in the United States were doing it. All of a sudden, the work was being seen in bigger theatres. It’s my only play about the middle class. Perhaps that’s why.”
In August of 2018, Michelle Memran’s documentary The Rest I Make Up was screened at MOMA in New York City. Filmed over the span of fifteen years, the movie charts Irene’s initial diagnosis and descent into Alzheimer’s disease. It is a portrait of an artist losing the page and losing time, but also somehow finding through the lens and Memran’s loving gaze, a chance to ‘write’ and teach again. At one point in the film, Fornés runs into playwrights Constance Congdon and John Guare on the streets of Greenwich Village. It is a chance encounter caught by the camera. The encounter is brief and warm. You can feel a world of history among them midst the ‘hellos.’ A few moments later, Congdon and Guare go their separate ways. Irene stares at the camera. She remarks on how fleeting these moments are now, and, how much New York City has changed. It is a casually startling scene. And a reminder, especially for those of us that knew her, about how she had the astounding and sometimes confounding capacity to both be in the moment and see beyond it.
We will miss Irene. But she is with us. In every breath uttered by one of her students that have passed down her teaching method, and on the pages and stages of the wondrous many writers, directors and theatremakers that cite her as an influence.
María Irene Fornés (1930-2018) was an avant-garde, experimental playwright who won nine Obie awards, including a lifetime achievement award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for her play And What of the Night? in 1990. Fornés’ notable work includes Fefu and Her Friends and Mud. She joined the Dramatists Guild in 1965 and served on Council from 1988 until her death.