An Avant-Garde Theater Artist Gets Her Due

María Irene Fornés in 2000.CreditRuth Fremson/The New York Times

María Irene Fornés never had a play that opened on Broadway. Few of her 40 full-length works are regularly presented on major professional stages. Yet as anonymous as she is in the wider culture, she is revered by many in the theater world.

“Irene is in the pantheon of the great writers like Beckett or Pinter or Caryl Churchill,” the director JoAnne Akalaitis, a former artistic director of the Public Theater, said in an interview. “She simply fell through the cracks.”

Her plays were often considered too avant-garde or challenging for mainstream audiences. But in the coming week, Ms. Fornés — who is 88 and suffering from dementia — will receive the full attention of two esteemed institutions.

At the Public Theater on Monday, Ms. Akalaitis will lead a 12-hour marathon of staged readings of her works, featuring actors like Michael Cerveris and Kathleen Chalfant. And at the Museum of Modern Art, a documentary by Michelle Memran about Ms. Fornés and her battle with memory loss runs through Aug. 29.

The playwright is not expected to attend either event. But a diverse contingent of artists, across disciplines and generations, spearheaded the tributes, saying they owe much of their own success to Ms. Fornés’s guidance and artistry. Here, eight of them describe what made her special.

The Polymath

A scene from a 1973 production of Ms. Fornés’s “Tango Palace” in New York. It was her first play and had its premiere in 1963.Creditvia Michael Smith

Ms. Fornés was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1930 and immigrated to New York at 15 after her father died of a heart attack. She dabbled in writing, painting and dance, and immersed herself in the Greenwich Village counterculture of the ‘50s and ‘60s. (She even dated Susan Sontag for a spell.)

She began writing absurdist and biting plays at the Judson Poets’ Theater; she would not only direct her own productions but would lead many aspects of their creation.

“She did everything. She could design clothing and costumes. She painted and sewed,” Crystal Field, an actor and eventual co-founder of the Theater for the New City, said in an interview. “I wanted to be in anything and everything that she ever wrote.”

The Transgressor


A scene from her play “The Danube,” from 1983.CreditAnne Militello

Long before site-specific and immersive theater came into vogue in works like “Sleep No More” and “Then She Fell,” Ms. Fornés toyed with innovative presentations: In her 1977 work “Fefu and Her Friends” — created by the New York Theater Strategy, a now-defunct avant-garde organization that Ms. Fornés ran — actors appeared not just onstage but roamed in several locations, and the audience moved with them.

“It opened the door to thinking about theatrical space as a world beyond the stage,” Ms. Akalaitis said.

Her subject matter was equally radical. Her plays dealt with rape, torture, murder and poverty. As a director, she would rehearse scenes over and over again to push actors to their limits.

Sheila Dabney, an Obie-winning actress and a frequent collaborator, recalled being so affected by playing Joan of Arc in Ms. Fornés’s “A Matter of Faith” that she would hide under the stage after performances, shellshocked and speechless. “Instead of hitting anger in a surface kind of way, we’d explore it for a minute and twist on its ear and bend it back or open its jaws too wide,” she said.

Ms. Fornés would eventually coax the actress out from under the stage and bring her home.

The Mentor


Ms. Fornés with the playwright Nilo Cruz, who was one of her students, in 2000.CreditRuth Fremson/The New York Times

Mr. Cerveris played the Glazier in her 1988 play “Abingdon Square” — decades before he would win Tony Awards for “Assassins” and “Fun Home.”

He remembered a moment during that production in which Ms. Fornés slyly revealed the motivation of one character who asked the character Mr. Cerveris played seemingly random questions: She didn’t want to hear his answers, but rather loved to see his teeth.

“It was one of my favorite directions I’ve ever heard anybody give anybody,” he said. “It gives so much specificity and wonder at the same time.”

While Ms. Fornés wrote at a breakneck pace — including “And What of the Night?” a 1990 Pulitzer Prize finalist — she turned her focus toward mentoring the next generation of writers. Award-winning playwrights that she taught included Tony Kushner, Paula Vogel, Sarah Ruhl and David Henry Hwang.

But many more of her students came from the Latino/Latina community through her work as a director and teacher at the INTAR Hispanic American Arts Center.

There, she led workshops that included yoga, meditation and visualization exercises. “Even when I write nowadays, I practice her technique,” said Nilo Cruz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. “I remember her voice: ‘Close your eyes and let a character come to you.’ ”

The Instigator

Ms. Fornés was notoriously tough on her most prized students. “She hated my plays,” Eduardo Machado, who would later walk in Ms. Fornés’ footsteps as the artistic director of INTAR, said. “She read my first play and crossed out all the lines and told me they weren’t any good.”

But even her most aggressive teaching techniques were done in service of empowering her students to tell their own stories. “I love her very much because the person that gives you the ability to express yourself ends up being one of the most important people you encounter in your life,” Mr. Machado said.

The playwright Migdalia Cruz similarly experienced a breakthrough during an exercise in Ms. Fornés’s class, in which she unearthed a traumatic memory from her childhood in the South Bronx of someone being raped and thrown off a building to their death.

“I remember thinking, this can’t possibly be what playwriting is. That’s not what Columbia taught me,” she recalled. “But when I read it aloud, Irene said, ‘Finally. You’ve found your voice.’ It was life- affirming because I realized I have all this history I need inside me.”

The Lifelong Learner


Maria Irene Fornés, left, and Michelle Memran, as seen in Ms. Memran’s documentary film, “The Rest I Make Up.”CreditWomen Make Movies

Memory loss cut into Ms. Fornés’ productivity in the early 2000s, a period poignantly captured in Ms. Memran’s documentary, “The Rest I Make Up.”

But despite her struggles, she threw herself into creating the documentary, a form that neither she nor Ms. Memran had ever worked with before.

“She was always giving me permission that it’s O.K. to not know what I’m doing,” Ms. Memran said. “Irene was open to the accidents and to her imagination. She trusted that, so I learned to trust that in myself.”

Follow Andrew Chow on Twitter:@andrewrchow.

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