Playwright and teacher Maria Irene Fornés died on Oct. 30 at the age of 88, leaving a legacy that includes the plays Fefu and Her Friends, The Conduct of Life, Sarita, and Abingdon Square, as well as countless students who credit her with changing their lives and the aesthetic possibilities of writing for the American theatre. This is one of three memorial tributes to the influential writer; others include one from Migdalia Cruz and one from Luis Alfaro.
The first time I met Fornés was on the page. Her publisher Bonnie Marranca taught a dramaturgy class at the University of California-San Diego, where I was obtaining my MFA in playwriting. It was my second year as a graduate student and I was having a difficult time of it.
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a playwright or why I had even applied for graduate study. I was at a loss as to what I wanted to write, deep in debt with student loans, and unsure of everything. Marranca asked the class to read a stack of plays, most of them published by PAJ. Four of them were written by Maria Irene Fornés. Despite my feelings of doubt and insecurity, I was nothing if not a dutiful student, and I set about reading the stack of texts that assigned.
The first play I read for the class was Fornés’s Sarita. I felt a kinship right away in terms of form and content. Here was a writer crafting a tale of class, power, sensuality, and love in a manner that was fresh, rigorous, playful, daring, and surprising. The short scenes felt like little spells. Each turn in a scene was unexpected and breathless in effect. Ah, this was exactly how I had been building (or at least trying to) my own plays! What? Someone else did this too?
I couldn’t believe I had never heard of Fornés before or that her work had never been on one of my syllabi in undergraduate school. I immediately read the rest of the plays that Marranca had assigned—Mud, The Conduct of Life, Promenade—and each act of reading felt like encountering a theatre filled with an absolute sense of freedom and a simultaneous sense of control.
I was hooked.
I asked Bonnie, and my first mentor and head of the UCSD Playwriting Program, Adele Edling Shank, about Fornés, and whether she taught. They both said yes, and that if I was interested, I should look up a program called Hispanic Playwrights in Residence Laboratory (HPRL) which was run by Fornés at INTAR Theatre in New York City.
My curiosity led me to a book called On New Ground, which TCG published in 1993. This truly groundbreaking anthology of new writing by Latinx-identified playwrights featured not only Fornés but also Lynne Alvarez, John Jesurun, Eduardo Machado, José Rivera, and Milcha Sanchez-Scott. The plays in this collection were unlike any I had read prior. I was again confounded that this kind of wide-ranging writing for live performance was possible! I remember looking at the development histories of most of the plays in the volume, and nearly all listed this mysterious HPRL, which my professors had suggested I apply to.
Suddenly, this double encounter—with Fornés’ writing and this anthology—galvanized me in a such a way that nearly all doubts about why in heck I wanted to be playwright were cast aside. I started working on what would become my thesis play Brazo Gitano. Just notes, mind you. But I wanted to have some kind of draft to submit to the place where some serious playwriting magic was happening: HPRL under Fornés.
Later in my second year of grad school, I received a call from the master herself! She said she had read my play Brazo Gitano and wanted to work with me.
At first, I was shocked.
She’s calling me herself and not asking an assistant to do so?
There was a silence on the line.
Irene was waiting for my answer.
I wanted to say yes. Of course. Yes. I want to go where the magic is. But… I was still deep in debt and I did want to get my degree. I had worked very hard for it.
So, with a sinking feeling, I replied, “I am so sorry, Irene. But I have to get my MFA.”
There was another silence, and then Irene said, “Oh, yes, I understand. Well, maybe we will work together someday.”
I sat on the one chair in my living room, thinking I had lost any chance of being in the presence of magic ever again.
I went to Adele Shank’s office later that day and told her what had happened. She said, “You got into HPRL with your play?”
“Yes. She wants to work with me.”
She smiled. “Well, she will do another workshop. I’m sure of it. Just let her know you’re still interested.”
I was too scared to call, already feeling as if I had blown my chance. So I wrote Irene a letter instead—words to the effect that if she were ever to teach at INTAR again, I would love to work with her, and so on.
Months went by. Soon I was in my third year of grad school and deep in production with my thesis play. I felt fearless in my writing and was taking all kinds of chances in the work. I was emboldened by Irene’s call of validation and by the spirit of the plays in that On New Ground collection, and also with the knowledge that maybe yes, one day I would get another shot at working with her.
In the disquieting months after receiving my MFA—months of drift and feeling again that I had chosen the wrong artistic path—suddenly another call.
It was Irene again. She said, “I’m still thinking about your play. I wonder if you might wish to be part of HPRL?”
I dropped everything, everything in my life, and ran to New York City with the weight of a student loan still upon me and little to no savings in my bank account, and my poor parents wondering what in heaven’s name was I doing but offering emotional support all the same.
Irene had said that all writers in HPRL received a stipend but that she could increase mine a bit if I became her assistant. It would mean getting there before everyone else, opening the room, setting it up, and taking notes while she was teaching. At the time she was working on, or thinking about working on, a book on playwriting called The Anatomy of Inspiration, and she needed someone to notate how the classes were run while also being a writer in the room.
I was up for the challenge. Even if it meant staying with friends in New Jersey and taking two trains and a subway to get to the lab every day.
The morning when I walked into the rehearsal/lab space at INTAR on 53rd Street, Irene was unrolling an old carpet and laying it out on the floor. I had what probably were three coats on and my bookbag from grad school slung over my shoulder. I was exhausted from the double train ride as well as the one on the subway and was aching for coffee, but knew I had promised to be punctual, because that was the deal we struck.
I stood in the spartan room a bit unmoored.
“Yes. Are you—?”
“Well then, let’s get to work.”
And work it was! For what ended up being four consecutive years of writing, exploring and note-taking, and meeting fellow writers like Octavio Solis, Nilo Cruz, Migdalia Cruz, Carmelita Tropicana, and even Holly Hughes (who would sit in with us sometimes and write). And, yes, also, Irene’s elderly mother Carmen, who would often sleep in a corner of the rehearsal space while Irene guided us through prompt after prompt, patiently, devotedly asking us to seek our own truths as writers.
Nothing less than the truth.
She wouldn’t put up with any so-called cleverness or nonsense in our writing.
Sometimes, it was maddening and difficult to weather the relentlessness and ferocity of her gaze, but when we worked through whatever we needed to work through, the results were always invariably surprising, and I’d wonder, where did this writing come from?
Much has been written and likely will be written again about Irene’s methodology of using intensive creative visualization as a way to open the unconscious and allow writers to discover the story worlds and characters that would eventually make their plays. But I would add that while the early stages of free writing were essentially about unlocking habitual patterns in order to truly be receptive to new ones, the greater emphasis later in the workshop process at the lab was on framing and shaping raw material, and it was there that you were witness to Irene’s extraordinary ability to teach writers about form and structure without ever directly calling it so.
Those four years at INTAR yielded four plays from me, one of which, Any Place But Here, Irene ended up directing in its second New York City production, sometime after her tenure at HPRL was over at INTAR, when she was in residence at Theater for the New City. By then I was nearly two years out of the lab and what some might call “in the world as a writer.”
I remember walking into the large theatre space at Theater for the New City and witnessing Irene’s beautiful, shattering, funny, astute production of my play—a play I wrote sitting next to her in the lab at INTAR, not knowing where these characters had come from or why they were speaking to me with such urgency, only knowing that Irene said we should be fearless and risk everything in our theatre, and that if we were not doing so, we were just being lazy.
Tough words. But always said with a sly smile, and with the hard-won knowledge of someone who had made herself in a new country, and had sustained, by then, a writing life spanning 20 years.
The house lights came up. The audience slipped away. I looked for Irene backstage. She was giving notes to the actors, even though they had opened my play more than a week before.
I touched Irene’s shoulder.
Our eyes met.
“Oh my, Caridad.”
“Did you like it? Did you like the production?”
My teacher was asking me?
Didn’t she know?
“Yes,” I said. “Yes,” with a smile, and tears in my eyes.
Caridad Svich has written more than 100 plays, among them 12 Ophelias, Iphigenia Crash Land Falls…, Fugitive Pieces, Red Bike, and The House of the Spirits (based on Isabel Allende’s novel). With Maria Delgado, she co-edited Conducting a Life: Reflections on the Theatre of Maria Irene Fornés published by Smith & Kraus.