Maria Irene Fornes’s work creates worlds onstage, not just through her play’s texts but through her acutely tuned sense of design. Long recognized as one of the most influential playwrights and teachers of the 20th century, Fornes designed her own productions with a rigor that had few peers; Richard Foreman might be her only equal in terms of a total theatre artistry. As director of her own work, Fornes exerted control over the entire mise en scène, creating a style of architecture, lighting, and costuming onstage that provided alternately imposing or cramped environments for her meticulous staging and language. Fornes’s fully articulated design provided the canvas for some of the most ambitious plays of her oeuvre.
The 1980s to mid-1990s were a particularly fertile period of her career. During this time she wrote some of her most challenging work, including The Danube (1983), Mud (1983), Sarita (1984), The Conduct of Life (1985), Abingdon Square (1987), and the two “Night” plays: What of the Night? (1989), which was a Pulitzer finalist, and Enter the Night (1993).
What unites all these plays is their departure from Fornes’s language games of the 1960s and 1970s and an emphasis on an individual, most often a young woman, caught in a situation or a relationship she does not control. While Fornes may never take up the mantle of “feminist playwright,” her plays advance the idea that women are a vulnerable class, beset with a particular set of challenges. In addition to Fornes’s almost constant attention to various aspects and effects of misogyny, broader political and social concerns—poverty, torture, AIDS—surface in these plays.
Fornes did not place much stock in documentation. Records of her creative process and productions are scarce. The material that has made it into various archives, much of it still uncatalogued, is primarily scripts and notes. The lack of physical evidence of Fornes’s work presents a challenge for any retrospective consideration, particularly of this aspect of her work. But through the generosity of Fornes’s design collaborators, we’ve gathered crucial ephemera, research, and rarely seen production photos in an attempt to glimpse Fornes’s elegant, painterly productions. The hope is to help restore Fornes’s status as a hybrid artist who excelled in the visual as well as textual aspects of theatremaking.
Crucially, three of Fornes’s key collaborators from this period—set designer Donald Eastman, lighting designer Anne Militello, and costume designer Gabriel Berry—provide firsthand accounts of working with Fornes. “She was a genius visual artist,” Eastman told me. These three collaborators reveal the wildly creative, maddeningly exacting artist she is.
A Life’s Work
Fornes’s large body of work includes more than 35 original plays spanning 1961 to 2000. She directed the premieres of the vast majority of her own plays and also was at the helm of several productions of classics (Hedda Gabler, Uncle Vanya) and new works by emerging playwrights, often her playwriting students. Her pieces varied in length from brief one acts to full-length plays. Some works included songs, some included puppets or outrageous costuming. Fornes worked primarily in New York City, but traveled widely to direct and teach.
Fornes was born in Cuba and emigrated to New York in 1945 at the age of 14 with her mother Carmen. The two remained close, even sharing an apartment, for the rest of Carmen’s life. Fornes seems to have disdained formal schooling but received an excellent education in the arts scene downtown among painters, dancers, theater artists, musicians, and writers. She studied painting with Hans Hofmann, lived in Paris for a few years, saw the original production of En attendant Godot, and wrote her first performance text in 1961.
The first decade of Fornes’s activity produced plays that experimented with language, game structures, and the absurd. In the 1970s she continued to write and direct at least one play a year, and linked up with like-minded theatre artists to produce new plays under the banner of the newly formed New York Theatre Strategy. In 1977, she wrote her most well-known play, Fefu and Her Friends.
Fefu was a breakthrough. It established Fornes as one of the most exciting writers working in the United States. The play remains a classic of feminist drama and a touchstone for many theatre artists. The plot itself is odd and a bit beside the point: In 1935 eight women gather at Fefu’s comfortable country home to prepare for a public presentation on arts and education that will culminate in a request for donations for their “project,” the exact parameters of which are obscure. The freedom with which these women talk to each other about their marriages, their desires, and their self-loathing as women is what is revolutionary here. Una Chaudhuri observes of the play, “Fefu added a whole new palette of emotion: the darker, more violent, and more disturbing strata of the psyche.”
The plays of the 1980s and early 1990s are a deepening of Fornes’s concerns in Fefu. They are similarly political, stark, difficult, feminist. In Mud (1983), Mae, a desperately poor woman living in an unnamed rural area, reaches beyond a stifling relationship with Lloyd for real companionship with an older man named Henry. Mae’s thirst for knowledge and freedom ends with her murder.
The Conduct of Life (1985) concerns three women—Leticia, a wife, Olimpia, a servant, and Nena, a kidnapped, violated girl—trapped in a home dominated by Orlando, a military officer in an unnamed Latin American country. Orphaned Marion marries an older man, Juster, in Abingdon Square (1987), set in the early 20th century in New York City. Marion’s restlessness leads her to more than one assignation. She ultimately runs back into the arms of her husband just as he lies dying.
In Enter the Night (1993), three friends with complicated relationships to illness gather in a loft apartment in an unnamed city. Jack is (wrongly) convinced he has AIDS and passed it on to his partner, who recently died, Tressa is a nurse who cares for the dying, and Paula is a farmer with a serious heart condition. The three cling to each other over a 24-hour period, seeking companionship and love in the face of death.
These plays, and the others of this period, range across time periods and locations. They almost all feature a young woman looking outside herself and her station for something better. Most do not end happily. The beauty in these plays resides in Fornes’s poetic language and in the stage architecture she created for each premiere and any subsequent production that she herself directed. The dire circumstances of her characters’ lives unfold before us in jewel-like rooms of precision and order.
When her creative energy was at its peak, Fornes found a second career in teaching. She taught all over the world, but had the most impact as “La Maestra” at INTAR Hispanic Playwrights in Residence Lab, which she founded and led from 1981 to 1992. Fornes, revered as a teacher of playwrights, would usually begin her sessions with some kind of physical warm-up, like yoga. Then students would gather at desks in a circle to write, based on a prompt from Fornes designed to help writers access their subconscious. Fornes describes one typical exercise in a 1997 interview with Maria M. Delgado:
I have people do a visualization exercise. For example, I would have people remember a moment in their lives before the age of nine where there was something that had to do with water. I am not asking for something dramatic or significant. It can be the simplest thing. My aim is to make them understand that they can and should concentrate on simple things, as well as important, dramatic, extraordinary things.
Fornes instilled in her students the freedom to be simple and not worry about being entertaining. She encouraged her students to follow their impulses, no matter how humble, or conversely, how outrageous, as a way to reach truth.
Over the course of her long career, Fornes’s plays premiered at Judson Poets’ Theater and INTAR, among other off-off-Broadway theatres, and she had ongoing relationships with Theatre for the New City and Padua Hills Playwrights Festival in California. She won a record nine Obies. She was a subject of the Signature Theatre season in 1999-2000, which featured four of her plays, including one premiere directed by Fornes, Letters from Cuba, which was Fornes’s final work. As of this writing, Fornes lives at Amsterdam House in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan and is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
I first encountered the work of Maria Irene Fornes when I was 21 and a junior in college, casting about for a play to direct for my senior thesis in directing. A professor handed me Abingdon Square. I spent the next year preparing and rehearsing the 33 scenes that comprise this play about a young woman’s sexual awakening in the run-up to World War I. I was hooked on how Fornes’s scenes alternated between a recognizable romantic narrative and true strangeness. While Marion has an affair and is tormented with guilt (a plot as old as the hills), she assuages her guilt by reciting Dante with her arms held above her head until she is sweating and faint (a strange, startling, and beautiful image).
In the next two decades, I have gone on to direct Drowning, What of the Night?, Enter the Night, and Promenade, and staged readings of The Summer at Gossensass and The Office. I use Fornes’s plays with my directing students at Barnard College. I am drawn first and always to Fornes’s language: the exacting way characters speak to each other, describe their inner states, and try so desperately to be understood. They do not rant or scream. Her characters simply put word after word, imagining a future that may or may not arrive.
Over the years as I worked more deeply on her plays, Fornes’s scenic sense began to reveal itself to me: walls, always walls, with outsized or undersized doors and windows to break the flat planes—elements that to us in the Western hemisphere signal “room.” Places of safety or of entrapment, but always inside. Scott T. Cummings, in his indispensable study of the totality of Fornes’s work, identifies the hallmarks of Fornes’s scenic design: “long, straight lines and flat surfaces; isolated, iconic pieces of furniture; a lack of decorative detail; and architectural elements that lead deep inside.” The rooms become their own worlds with little sense of an outside. While Fornes drew from the real and recognizable world for the problems her characters faced (poverty, AIDS, broken hearts), at the same time her rooms were clearly lifted, different, emphatically not our world at the same time. She took perfectly ordinary features of everyday homes but scrubbed them clean, set them apart from each other, and put space around everything. The space is important. It was as if Fornes paid attention not only to the physical objects that composed a space but also cared about the oxygen the actors breathed. She designed that as well.
Fornes’s stage directions illustrate the austerity with which she envisioned the spaces for her plays. From What of the Night?:
Rainbow’s bedroom. A small room. On the left wall, upstage, there is a small door; downstage of the door there is a small window. Downstage of the window there is a chair. In the upper righthand corner of the room there is a small bed with metal foot and headboard. On the bed there is a nightgown. To the left of the bed there is a night table. On the night table there is a book, a pitcher of water, and a glass. On the back wall there hangs a painting of a landscape.
Two rooms in Abingdon Square:
The living room of a house on Tenth Street. To the right is a double door which leans toward the foyer and the main door. On the back wall there are two large French doors. On the right there are double doors that lead to other rooms. Up center, a few feet from the back wall, are a sofa and two armchairs. On each side of the sofa there is a tall stand with a vase. Down left there are a chess table and two side chairs; down right there is a small desk. There is one chair on the upstage side of the desk and another on the right side. During intermission a telephone is placed on the desk.
An attic room or closet. A platform about two feet high on the left side of the stage. On the back wall there is a small door.
The spare rooms leave actors with nowhere to hide. If the room is big, like the living room on Tenth Street, a woman walking from one side of the room to the other is exposed, vulnerable; if the room is small, it is unimaginably cramped, impossible for the actor to even turn around. Fornes exposes her characters so that we may more clearly see their struggles, both physical and psychic. As Cummings writes, “The rhythm of changing figure–ground relationships over the course of the play reinforced the psychic connection between character and domestic setting and helped make the stage space feel like an inner sanctum or cell, both site and symbol of a character’s most interior struggle.”
As Cummings indicates, Fornes creates plays with characters who are struggling, who are in touch with pain, loss, and forceful change. Conversely, Fornes the woman is a lovely presence, petite and pretty. By all accounts, she is tough as hell too. She relishes hard work and getting her hands dirty. She worked alongside her designers and required the highest level of commitment from them. Donald Eastman remembers Fornes interviewing him before they started working together. “She asked me, ‘Do you know how to make something of quality?’ She asked me, ‘Are you afraid of hard work?’ ‘No, no, no!’” Eastman says, laughing. The two clicked, and thus began more than a decade of projects together.
Fornes’s combination of lovely and tough was attractive. Gabriel Berry describes the writer’s two sides: “She’s enormously charming. She has beautiful feet, small feet, and she was quite vain. She would wear these very tightly strapped old lady shoes, but at that point they were sort of retro and chic. There’s no doubt that she has an enormous ego, and I think that most interesting people do. Why wouldn’t you?”
The Team: Eastman, Militello, Berry
Scenic designer Donald Eastman, lighting designer Anne Militello, and costume designer Gabriel Berry all came to work with Fornes between 1980 and 1983. The three met and first worked together during La MaMa’s 20th anniversary season, 1981-1982. La MaMa’s founder, downtown legend Ellen Stewart, brought the three together for several shows during those years.
Eastman began as a designer for opera. His first piece with Fornes was Evelyn Brown (A Diary) at Theater for the New City in 1980. The design was a complicated interior with more than a dozen doors and many corridors, stairways, and windows often only partly visible to the audience. The second production, A Visit in 1981, Eastman brought in Berry to do the costumes. “I did the lighting, which was horrendous,” Eastman concedes. “So the next time a show came up, I said, ‘We have to get Anne Militello—Irene will really like her. She’s a hard worker, which means a lot with Irene, and her lighting is beautiful.’ And so we all joined together.”
While each designer worked in different combinations on Fornes’s plays beginning in the early 1980s, the first show that all three collaborated on together with Fornes was The Danube (1984) at American Place Theater. “When Anne and Donald and I were working with her, we were just in a groove,” says Berry. “We were in the same place, and things just grooved.”
While Fornes famously worked site-specifically and allowed chance to determine some aspects of her plays (a thrift store find of 1930s dresses inspired the setting for Fefu; the red dirt at Padua Hills inspired the design for Mud), once Irene found a team of designers she was able to realize her singular vision without constraint, and with less reliance on site-specific modes and chance operations.
And though Fornes’s journey toward the final design with each artist was different and utilized different tools, the success of Fornes’s relationship with each designer seems to be that they understood what she liked. Each was also willing to learn more about what was possible in their respective fields through listening to Fornes and following her lead. All were at the beginnings of their careers; Militello was the youngest. It’s exciting to think about these three artists, who were talented, open, generous, and ready to work on a shoestring toward achieving the demanding vision put forth by Fornes in a growing body of work over the course of a decade or longer. “If we got a $300 fee we were in hog heaven,” Eastman recalls.
Each designer expressed how fortunate they felt to have worked with Fornes and each other. Berry again: “It was so natural and so wonderful and we had such a great time. We miss it.” Recalls Militello, “The thing is with Irene, once she found her family team, which was us, she knew that she could trust us, that our intentions were to learn from her and to work with her and help. She liked our ideas too. She found her collaborators. And she could fly with us. We could do anything with her.”
Process: Story, Emotion, Revision
At age 21, Anne Militello moved to New York City from San Francisco, where she had been working at the Magic Theatre with Sam Shepard, Ed Harris, Peter Coyote, and others. “Sam Shepard suggested to me that in New York I should look up three people, and that’s it: Stewart at La MaMa, Johnny Dodd the lighting designer, and Maria Irene Fornes.”
Militello sought out Fornes and saw Evelyn Brown (A Diary), designed by Eastman. For Militello, working with Fornes was a departure from the directors she had collaborated with up to that point, at first in a way that had to do with gender: “When I started working with Irene, she had a level of respect. She was female, you know, and…I instantly saw.” Fornes offered Militello a different way of embarking on the design process as well. “She really talked about emotion, but in a much more involved way than the others. Irene really got into the characters and made me understand why—what the heartbreak was of this character, and why she couldn’t have her love, and who was going to kill who over passion. It was really all about passion.”
The design process sometimes began without a script. Eastman: “She never gave us scripts. She was still writing the script when we were starting, at least when I was starting out. She was still writing it.” Militello picks up the thread: “We’d meet and she would tell us the story. And it would be like the most wonderful story time. That was it. These elaborate, beautiful stories and the emotion. And so you just couldn’t wait to sink your teeth into it.”
Berry remembers actual scripts, at least some of the time: “You get the script, and she would talk some about the characters. But usually it was nuances and emotions she was conveying, rather than, This woman was a 14-year-old girl in Cuba or something. More of it was just having tea together. You’d be socializing and talking a little bit, but most of the information I ever received was by proxy, by just being in the room and absorbing things, as opposed to actual directions or insights. I would be there when Donald would be showing her a set model, and she would move things around.”
Of the three designers, Berry was the only one who remembers sharing research with Fornes. “One of the ways we used to work together is, I would get old photographs and we would look at them together. It would be personal snapshots of people. They would be starting from the turn of the 20th century. We would get a lot of our ideas about how we wanted somebody to look from these pictures of people in their backyard, you know, peeling potatoes or whatever. Sometimes we looked at Sears catalogues from 1918, but we usually ended up in the early ’40s. If you wanted to do something she liked, then you gave her high-rise pleated plants on men, and you gave her a little bit of a padded shoulder and a well-defined waist and hip for the women.” The plays landed somewhere near the 1940s so often that Berry calls the period look that Fornes favors “Irene Time.”
On first productions of her plays that she herself directed—that is, almost all of them—Fornes endlessly revised. This is not uncommon for a first production of a new play, but perhaps because Fornes was also directing, she felt even more freedom to change text. In an interview with Una Chaudhuri, Fornes explained her rewriting process: “Any play that I write has many drafts…When I direct a play, the first time is usually a workshop, so I do a lot of revisions…If I find something that could be improved, something I hadn’t noticed before, I keep revising it. So with every single play of mine, on the first production, the changes are incredible—endless changes, on every single one of my plays, without exception.”
Fornes’s predilection for revision extended into her scenic design, an area that would seem to be less flexible. But her production schedule allowed for longer stays in the theatre than most companies enjoy now; more importantly, Eastman was always game. He says, “We never once did a show when we would move in on a Friday and open on a Thursday. It always seemed like we had time to actually build the scenery in the theatre. She liked rehearsing on the set, even when it was just being started. All of that. And she would get revelations and say things like, ‘We’d like to take that and put it over there, and take that and put it over there, wouldn’t that be beautiful?’” Eastman laughed. “Yes it would, Irene! You’d just go, ‘Yes, it would.’”
Fornes worked outside mainstream institutional theatres, where funds may have been easier to corral. But she found freedom in the downtown spaces that championed her work. She liked to be handed the keys to a space—and often was. Eastman recalls the dawning realization about the kind of artist he had hooked up with: “She’s not only a designer, an architect, but a builder. The great thing I discovered, even with those moderate fees, was that she always had production money. She always had money to pay for scenery and costumes and lighting. Because that was important to her. That’s when I clued in that it was a total theatre experience. She wanted a unique space that these plays came alive in, and that we weren’t pulling out in a conventional way.”
Eastman continues: “I realized that Irene truly loved production. She was entirely an architect in devising a new and unique space made of both familiar elements, and elements new and unique to the play. Irene is someone to whom you would never say, ‘Irene, look at the bare stage, look at that brick wall.’ She’d say, ‘Why do you want to use that one, when we can build our own and it can be whatever we want?’”
During the 1980s to mid-1990s. Fornes steadily produced work. Eastman remembers the cycle: “It always seemed as though it took six or eight months, and a production would come along. She would get through one, and kind of build up and get the space and collect the money and we’d go on to the next.”
Eastman, who describes himself as a surrealist, found a sympathetic collaborator in Fornes. Both artists take pleasure in combining and distorting elements of reality to create a stage reality that possesses its own logic. Eastman recounts the process of designing his second production with Fornes, A Visit: “Irene said, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be charming if we had a door over here?’ and I put a door there and she said, ‘Make it a little door.’ And I’d go, What? It was breaking all the rules of architecture. I learned after a couple productions to just go with it. Because those ended up being the details everyone talked about.”
Eastman emphasizes the way Fornes thinks in images: “Constantly, everything was a picture. The way she would say: Now raise your hand, now raise it higher, now open it up, turn it, can you do that every time? It was all picture-making. And we were like Vermeer placing the background, making it alive.”
It’s interesting to note that the interplay between the actor’s body and the architecture completed the picture. The most important aspect of any of Eastman and Fornes’s stage designs was the playing space available to the actor. The viewer’s eye was directed toward the actor’s body, voice, and immense need. The monolithic, iconic quality of Fornes’s spaces contrast with her language, which is particular, filled with content about the minutiae of living, and issues from the body of the actor.
In addition to the blank-canvas hallmark of Fornes’s designs, she also usually created a “space within” onstage to which a character could retreat to think, to work, or to become. Eastman compares it to Elizabethan design. “She always loved the enter above. Something up above, floating there, or a niche that would be in the wall that would become a major acting area.” Militello recalls how Fornes would use these spaces apart: “She’d have a character in the foreground in complete darkness with somebody very far upstage, often on a second level in half light, and that would be the only thing. And the person in the foreground was doing a monologue, while the person in the background wasn’t speaking at all. It was mind-blowingly stunning. These were her ideas.”
If Fornes’s play spaces exist on the continuum between realistic and abstract, the lighting looks that Fornes favors move the design towards the abstract. For Fornes, the reason to have lighting onstage was not primarily for illumination but as a way to perform an X-ray on a character’s soul. Militello explains, “Doing a light plot was unimportant. That’s not to say that where the lights were positioned was unimportant, but the technical process, which is stressed so much to young students in theatre schools—your plot’s gotta be good, you gotta have this covered and that covered—wasn’t about anything like that It was about: How are you going to express emotionally what’s happening? With Irene everything was precise. She taught me about darkness where the others hadn’t.”
How light changed over the course of a play was another aspect of design that Fornes influenced. Eastman, who did not design Mud (“Irene writes one of the greatest plays ever, and I’m not available”), saw the production and spoke rapturously about Militello’s “transition” cues between the 17 scenes. “All of a sudden a scene would end, and people would just get up, and she would maybe move over and take a chair and put it to the table and someone would go out the door and someone else would walk in and sit down and she’d open up her ironing board. And there was no such thing as a blackout. Anne would do this thing where she’d somehow deconstruct the cue you were in and start building the cue you were going to. So there was not a quote-unquote ‘light change.’ It was just this constant massaging of the space with light. That was another word Irene used.”
The word “massage” also came up in my conversation with costume designer Berry. It seems to connote a way of working that is not forceful or aggressive, but exploratory and steady. Berry and Fornes both work this way when it comes to costumes, or more accurately in the case of Fornes’s plays, clothes. Berry remembers, “Most of the time I scavenged and assembled and massaged stuff.”
Berry took a circuitous route to costume design. At one point she studied chemical textile technology, and that path led to her presenting a paper at an UNESCO conference in Zagreb on degradation patterns in Peruvian mummy bundles. “I stayed on in Europe for a while and ended up in Budapest. I had a fever, but I was still touring around. I was at the Workers Museum, which was in an old castle overlooking the river and across to Pest, and a voice spoke to me and told me to go to New York and be a costume designer.” Berry’s first New York show was The Enchanted Pig with Charles Ludlam and the Ridiculous Theatrical Company in 1979, and her first show with Fornes was A Visit two years later.
Just as with Eastman and his scenic designs, Fornes would be hands-on in fittings with actors. Berry remembers one fitting with actress Florence Tarlow for A Visit. “She was the visual definition of a battle axe. And I remember this session where I put stuff on her—Irene was there—and my process is to just throw things on people and see what sticks. I had a bag of old lace pieces or something, and Irene picked up the bag and started sort of laying pieces, individual pieces of lace across Florence’s substantial bosom. And there was such tenderness in it and such love and such appreciation…it was just Irene to the max.”
One design lesson that Berry learned from Fornes is related to tenderness and appreciation: “What I got from her, which is something that I’d like to think is a hallmark of my work now, is that you want to spend time with every person onstage. I want to dress everybody so that you want to spend time with them. You’re interested in them. You don’t dismiss them.”
Fornes, ever the hands-on director/designer, brought her collaborators to the table and folded their visions into hers. Berry: “It was interesting to me to read in later notes on her where she claims as her own ideas that came from other people, like me. But in another way that’s correct, ’cause she birthed them, somehow by being in the room.”
Berry’s affection for Fornes is clear; if she was taken in by the playwright a little, that was okay. The art made it worth it.
“I think the thing about Irene you never forget is that she was a charming and flirtatious woman in all her dealings with you. She was always going to seduce you by her charm and attractiveness. It was part of encountering her. It was always a pleasure to be with her. If she had you, she had you. And she had us all.”
Alice Reagan is a director and teaches at Barnard College.
Sources include Una Chaudhuri’s interview with Fornes in Speaking on Stage: Interviews with Contemporary American Playwrights; Scott T. Cummings’s Maria Irene Fornes and an article on “The Poetry of Space in a Box” in The Theater of Maria Irene Fornes; an interview with Maria Delgado in Conducting a Life: Reflections on the Theatre of Maria Irene Fornes.