In Memoriam: María Irene Fornés

Julia Miles, LPTW Co-Founder & Playwright María Irene Fornés

María Irene Fornés was born in Havana, Cuba in 1930, immigrated to the U.S. in 1945 with her mother and sister, became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1951, and died in Manhattan on October 30, 2018. She tried her hand at painting, loved to dance and sing, wrote more than 40 plays, taught playwriting to thousands of students, and some say rewrote the rules of the American theatre.

[2] Invite to 2018-11-12 Theater Hall of Fame Induction

Invitation to the 48th Annual Theater Hall of Fame. Fornés was inducted at the 2018 ceremony.

From Susan Sontag’s preface to the PAJ collection of four of Fornés’ plays (Mud, The Danube, Conduct of Life, and Sarita):

“Fornés’ work has always been intelligent, often funny, never vulgar or cynical; both delicate and visceral. Now it is something more. (The turning point, I think, was the splendid Fefu and Her Friends with its much larger palette of sympathies, for both Julia’s incurable despair and Emma’s irrepressible jubilation.) The plays have always been about wisdom: what it means to be wise. They are getting wiser.

“It is perhaps not appropriate here to do more than allude to her great distinction and subtlety as a director of her own plays, and as an inspiring and original teacher (working mainly with young Hispanic-American playwrights). But it seems impossible not to connect the truthfulness in Fornés’s plays, their alertness of depicting, their unfacile compassionateness, with a certain character, a certain virtue. In the words of a Northern Sung landscape painter, Kuo Hsi, if the artist can develop a natural, sincere, gentle, and honest heart, then he will immediately be … able to comprehend the aspect of tears and smiles and of objects, pointed or oblique, bent or inclined, and they will be so clear in his mind that he will be able to put them down spontaneously with his paint brush.”

“Hers seems to be an admirable temperament, unaffectedly independent, highminded, ardent. And one of the few agreeable spectacles which our culture affords is to watch the steady ripening of this beautiful talent.”

[5] Fornes among 2018 THOF inductees on the wall

From LPTW member Linda S. Chapman, Associate Artistic Director of New York Theatre Workshop:

“I was awakened to the work of Irene during the summer of 1980, embarking on my first producing job at Theatre for the New City, where Fornés’ Evelyn Brown: A Diary was then playing. Soon after came A Visit, replete with porcelain breasts and penises, The Danube, with its beautiful inverted back stage wall and Hungarian language tapes, a liberating Mud, and some years later, Conduct of Life. I met her assistant director and student, Eduardo Machado, and her exquisite design team of Donald Eastman, Gabriel Berry and Anne Militello. Irene’s direction and design sense were as distinct and impressive to me as her writing; every delicate choice conveying subtle meaning and providing aesthetic cohesion. Through Irene, I learned how vital every element of production is to the whole. I’ll never forget the exact character of the simple wooden tables that graced many of her productions at that time.”

“I want to take a moment to note those organizations supporting Irene and her work over the years. Irene knew TNC’s Crystal Field and George Bartenieff from the Judson Poet’s Theatre, her early artistic home. Julia Miles, one of the League’s founders, was her ardent and loyal producer at The Women’s Project. Padua Hills and INTAR were other constants in Irene’s theatrical constellation, and The Signature Theatre rounded out her life’s work in honoring her over the course of a season.”

[3] Estelle Parsons 2018-11-12 (photo credit Martha Steketee)

LPTW Member Estelle Parsons inducts Fornes into Theater Hall of Fame. Photo: Martha Wade Steketee

From LPTW member Martha Wade Steketee, dramaturg and critic:

“I know Irene through those who loved her. Playwright colleagues invoke her name in conversations and essays about influences and favorite teachers; fellow audience members speak of how their perceptions of theatrical possibilities are or were forever changed by Irene’s poetic stage play; magical humans like Michelle Memran who has created the beautiful film The Rest I Make Up about their two-decade friendship and how Irene lived as an artist in the moment to the end of her life.”

[4] Morgan Jenness for Irene Fornes 2018-11-12 (photo credit Martha Steketee)

Friend and agent Morgan Jenness received the award. Photo: Martha Wade Steketee

“Each year Fornés has been on the ballot for the annual Theater Hall of Fame, and I’ve eagerly voted for her as a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. This year, finally, with marvelous theatrical timing – after the February 2018 world premiere of Memran’s film at MOMA and the August 2018 Fornes Marathon at the Public, Fornés was finally voted into the Hall of Fame. She passed away just a few weeks before the celebration on Monday November 12, 2018, but I and others in attendance learned that she had been told of the honor before she died.”

“Estelle Parsons inducted Fornés, recalling a number of her plays including Mud, which Parsons has directed at The Actors Studio, and The Office in which Parsons appeared Off Broadway with Gene Wilder. When The Office went on to Broadway with different actors and director and flopped, Parsons told us, Fornés resolved to always direct her own plays. Friend and agent Morgan Jenness received the award with aplomb, and delivered words assembled from Fornés’ writings and interviews, including thoughts on art as religion and her fears of being forgotten.”

“Irene, your legacy is thriving and growing.”

Some pieces on the Fornés legacy:

Michelle Memran, “Moment to Moment: with Maria Irene Fornes,” The Brooklyn Rail 2002-10-1

Allan Kozinn, “Theater World Friends Bring Ailing Playwright Closer To Home,” The New York Times 2013-2-6

Isaac Butler, “Fornés and Her Friends,” American Theatre 2016-3-23

Alice Reagan, “Maria Irene Fornes, World Builder,” American Theatre 2017-7-5

Martha Wade Steketee, “’The Camera is My Beloved’ — Michelle Memran Creates Documentary Art with María Irene Fornés,” HowlRound 2018-6-28

Charles McNulty, “Obie-winning playwright María Irene Fornés, who rewrote the rules of the American theater, dies at 88,” The Los Angeles Times 2018-10-31

Luis Alfaro, “La Maestra Fornés Has Left the Room, But What a Room!,” American Theatre 2018-10-31

Janelle Okwodu, “María Irene Fornés, the Cuban Playwright Who Changed Theater, Dies at 88,” Vogue 2018-10-31

Migdalia Cruz, “The Maria Irene Fornés Playlist,” American Theatre 2018-11-1

Caridad Svich, “Fornés and the Magic in the Room,” American Theatre 2018-11-7