A slight rain suddenly stops when Irene appears on the corner of Waverly and Sixth Avenue. She looks much younger than when I last saw her, dressed now in a thrift-store silk navy coat, circa 1930s, and a black wool cap tilted gently to the left. She opens her arms for a hug.
“You are more beautiful every time I see you,” she says.
I laugh. “Then we should meet more often.”
Irene bats her graying head. “No, you see, if you try too hard,” she says, having slipped her arm through mine, “if you try too hard, the angels forget.”
If angels exist, they surely have not forgotten Maria Irene Fornes. Mother Avant-Garde. Sappho of the Stage. Maria “call me Irene” Fornes. The Cuban playwright and director, now 72 years old, has been called the greatest and the least acknowledged female playwright of our time. There have been numerous books and underground articles, Obies and accolades, paying homage to Irene’s work, from Fefu and Her Friends to Abingdon Square. Finally, three years ago, the Signature Theatre honored her, the only woman on a male roster that included Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, and Edward Albee, by producing a season of her plays.
Despite what many would call a distinguished “career,” Irene decries the notion. “What does that mean, career?” she asks. “Isn’t it peculiar that most people spend most of their days dealing with details that have nothing to do with their lives?”
Unlike any other, Irene cultivates the spontaneous spirit of a 12-year-old. She has spent 40 years writing plays and conducting her life as if critics and convention simply did not exist. “I never decided to become a playwright,” she declares. “It decided itself.”
In cafés she discusses, at length, everything from ironing boards to electricity, Greenwich Village to flying kites. She prefers to walk down quiet residential streets and when she sees something peculiar, she points.
“Aha, look at that building,” she says, halting mid-street. “That building … the top … there … looks like it should not be in New York.”
I agree. “More like Morocco.”
She laughs mischievously and says, “They stuck a Turkish temple on top of a highrise!”
We freeze on the sidewalk and gaze up at the apartment building. A couple passes us, turns, and retraces its steps. The bearded man, maybe in his mid-sixties, taps Irene on the arm.
“Irene,” he says. “How good it is to see you!”
Irene takes his outstretched hand, greeting him affectionately. He introduces his female friend, who is graciously effusive about meeting the legendary Ms. Fornes. After they had walked on, I ask Irene, “Who was that anyway?”
“I don’t know,” she whispers. “But he had very soft hands.”
Art as Religion
Irene and I first met two years ago, when I was writing an article on the ongoing feud between playwrights and critics. I interviewed her over a lunch of lentil soup, curried rice, and Kingfisher beer. Five minutes into our meeting I discovered that Irene had about as much interest in critics as she did in catching the Superbowl on TV.
“Did I read reviews? No. Maybe if they wrote something funny about me, then I would, you know, to get a good laugh. But as a rule, we did not think about what critics wrote and whether we were going to succeed as playwrights,” she said. “There was no such thing. We did theater because we needed to do it.”
I would later learn that when Irene said “we” this usually meant the playwrights and directors, including Sam Shepard, Adrienne Kennedy, Rochelle Owens, and Rosalyn Drexler, who pioneered the Off-Off Broadway movement in the ’60s. This group, often headed by Irene, would later join forces to form the New York Theatre Strategy to promote the production of experimental theater. Early on, Irene began working with the Judson Church (a.k.a. Judson Poets Theatre), where she staged plays in the choir pit for audiences seated on pews and floor cushions. This is where she collaborated with pianist—and Reverend—Al Carmines to create such plays as Promenade and Dr. Kheal.
“Al would get on that piano, and it would be magic,” she said. “That church was sacred. What happened there was magic.”
Irene was never particularly religious in the traditional sense. For her, the theater served the same function as conventional religion.
“Theater is a service where the god keeps changing,” she confessed. “Sometimes it’s the actor. Sometimes it’s the director. Sometimes it’s the stage manager. Sometimes, but almost never, it’s the playwright.”
“Art is religion, then?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Art is completely religion.”
Art as Disorder
When I spoke to Irene last week, she was organizing papers in her apartment.
“Suddenly there was an invasion of paper,” she said. “The paper came in from every nook and cranny in the world. I blinked and there they were suddenly piles everywhere. My ironing board is covered with letters from my brother.”
Those letters, coincidentally, became fodder for the play Letters From Cuba—where Irene lived until she was 15, before most of her family migrated to America. Though she often visits Cuba and has written plays in Spanish, Irene considers New York her creative home and English her writing tongue. She has spent over 30 years in the same West Village apartment and has collected boxes of discarded bits of dialogue, on everything from used napkins to gum wrappers, train tickets to receipts.
“The is something I’ve done all my life—long before I started writing plays. Somebody would say something in the street, walking by me, and I would like the way it was said. Or I’d visualize the beginning of a conversation—a phrase only—three lines—things that just came to my mind—like when you’re sitting there and kind of putting on shoes and you hear people talking and you just write it down.”
Then, whenever Irene felt blocked writing a scene, she referred to her piles, often closing her eyes and blindly pulling a scrap from the box.
“Whatever line my finger is in that’s what I start with,” she said. “I don’t stray. The thing has to be as spontaneous as possible. It can be silly. It doesn’t matter. But you’re going to get the machinery going. The beginning of something interesting is coming out.”
In her writing workshops, which she has taught throughout the world, she has often urged her students to start scenes with similar scraps of dialogue. In one workshop, which I participated in last year at the Flea Theatre, she gave us these lines in a writing exercise:
He can’t get away with it.
How do I get there?
She cut her hair too short.
Can I have the letter back?
She suggested we use these as guides, or as dialogue, to get the momentum going. “The more banal the more useful they are,” she admitted. “The second you start molding it, pushing the scene to go in a certain direction, the characters stop talking.”
Irene learned this technique from watching Lee Strasberg teach his students at the Actor’s Studio, where she would sneak into his classes, with a notebook, hoping to go unnoticed in the sea of struggling artists.
“‘Moment to moment,’” she said, “is what Lee would say to his students. Moment to moment. Do not think about where your character is going. The moment you do, it’s over. I have never once in writing a play given a thought about what the scene’s about or what I want to say to the audience. I have nothing to say to the audience. I don’t give a damn about the audience. The audience isn’t there when I’m writing a play.”
Art as Dynamic
Irene’s teaching technique has always been far from traditional drama school fare. “I don’t think I would have lasted as a student in drama school,” she said. “I would have gotten too bored.”
To keep tedium at bay, she started each of her workshops with at least 20 minutes of slightly strenuous yoga. Then she encouraged students to visualize their characters. Some students paced, others closed their eyes, and a few nervously gnawed away nails. After a few minutes, Irene suggested the class draw a simple sketch of the character. “What color does your character wear?” she asked. “Is your character tired in the eyes?”
Fitting that before she wrote plays, Irene aspired to be a painter. In the ’50s, Irene entrenched herself in the Greenwich Village art scene and studied with Abstract Expressionist painter Hans Hofmann. Hofmann, she said, shaped her sense of character and also cultivated her desire to direct.
“So much of his class had to do with dynamic. The dynamic of two shapes. Two colors. Hofmann would call it ‘push and pull.’ Two colors next to each other have a certain dynamic. They effect each other. That kind of observation helped me a lot in playwriting. I was much more interested in dynamic than anything analytical the actor would say.”
Irene remembered that Hofmann instructed his students to paint on paper. When he came around to look at the work, he would politely ask, “May I?”
“‘May I’ meant ‘can I cut it up,’” said Irene. “And he would take the page and tear it very carefully. With a fine knife he would take a certain section and turn one side upside-down, or take it from the left to the right. But you could immediately understand what he meant by dynamic.”
Irene’s painting career petered out in Paris, where she lived la vie boheme in 1954. She soon realized that painting was, for her, a step toward something other.
Art as Inspiration
During the three years she stayed in Paris, Irene saw the production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot that inspired her to write plays. “He was very gloomy but he had a great sense of humor,” she said. “He had the whole audience laughing. When I saw Beckett, I thought, ‘why did I have to see this to think I could do it?’”
Later she would become equally as moved by Ionesco and Brecht—playwrights who portrayed the tragic elements of life with absurdist non-linear hilarity.
What Beckett did for Irene, many would say she has done for contemporary theater playwrights and directors. Not only has she opened doors for female, Hispanic, and experimental artists, but she remains a reminder of a playful insight that seems to be missing in mainstream theater, and life in general, today.
Tony Kushner, I believe, articulated it best when he wrote: “Every time I listen to Fornes, or read or see one of her plays, I feel this: she breathes, has always breathed, a finer, purer, sharper air.”
IN DIALOGUE is a column written by playwrights about playwrights, with a focus on showcasing new texts. If you are a playwright, and would like to write a column, please contact Emily DeVoti at: [email protected]
MICHELLE MEMRAN is a freelance writer and filmmaker living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.