María Irene Fornés
May 14, 1930 — October 30, 2018
Oh, our beloved maestra, Irene.
How great the gift to have been in the presence of, taught and befriended by this extraordinary artist.
Irene came into my life at the moment when I was most lost as a writer. She facilitated a journey for me that reminded me there was no writer to become, only to be the writer that I was. To listen to the sound of my own voice, to nurture it, to allow it to express itself.
The three hours in workshop every day were not enough. It was those minutes afterward, when she still had her mother by her side, and she would speak to me in Spanish (will I ever hear my name, Luisito, the same way again?) And she would say, in her lilting Cuban voice, “You know what is wonderful about your voice, Luisito? That it’s yours.” And Carmen, her mother, already in her late 90’s by then, in her little French beret, would chime in, ‘Si! Si!’. And I always wondered if she was speaking in generalities or directly to me.
The last time I brought Irene out to L.A. she was already on her journey with Alzheimer’s. I tell the story of the morning I get a call from the hotel in Pasadena, where I had put her up, informing me that Irene had checked out. I am overwhelmed as I drive a crazy passenger van I had rented for our writer’s retreat. Roaring down the 110 freeway, in tears, afraid of where she might be, this person who for a time had become a second mother to me, a mentor, the amazing teacher and artist that she was. And I am racing through the hotel looking for her. I find her out next to the pool, standing with her little suitcase, fully dressed, with hat and coat on, waiting. She looked like one of her paintings. I am doing everything to keep my emotions in check, and I come up to her and take her hand and she says, “Are we in Cuba?” I tell her that we are in Pasadena California, and she says, in her wonderful Irene voice, “Very good. Very good”, giving no sense of confusion or alarm. I am the one deep in feelings. I tell her that she is scheduled to teach a workshop later and I am wondering if she can do it. And she says, “Of course, Luisito” and we walk back to check her into the hotel again. We go back to her room and with no irony, she says, “Oh my goodness, I recently stayed in a room exactly like this one!” She did, indeed, teach a marvelous workshop at Plaza de la Raza, with an amazing list of Latinx artists from around the country. For many of us, people who had been in workshop with her, it was the last session with Irene.
I don’t know why, maybe because I had admired her so, listened to her every word, committed to those damn exercises and prompts, which just seemed to work for me, that I wondered if she would forget me too. I drove everyone to the airport the next day. I remember that she was going to sit between Eduardo Machado and Jorge Ignacio Cortinas on the flight back to New York. We all hugged goodbye and Irene reaches up to kiss me and holds on to my face with both hands and looks deep into my eyes. Maybe she knew my distress at this point, master to student, and she says, “Luisito, I remember you.”
And that was the last time we talked.
“Now let the weeping cease
Let no one mourn again
The love of God will bring you peace
There is no end”
Rest in Power, Maria Irene Fornes, Playwright and Maestra.
Maria Alexandria Beech
When the bus carrying Mexican and Latinx writers emptied in front of the Teotihuacan pyramid, two of us remained, a woman in her sixties and me. I looked at her and said, “I’m not climbing that and she said, “me neither.” We introduced ourselves and shook hands, chuckling at the foolery of climbing ancient steps. Much older than me, she was affable and relaxed in her smooth, freckled skin.
Later as we checked into our hotel rooms, we smiled as we looked over and realized that our rooms were adjacent to each other. One of us suggested meeting for dinner and after dinner, we hung around the bar drinking tequila.
It was 1997 and we were in Taxco, Mexico for the Mexican and US Latino writers conference. She was a playwright and I was a Columbia student with ambitions of being a fiction writer. I was there to study under novelist Cristina Garcia. She was there to teach a playwriting workshop.
Now, there’s an inexplicable ease between Cubans and Venezuelans that makes friendships easy. Both countries are former Spanish colonies on the Caribbean so our people chatter in a fast Spanish that permuted on the trading ships that travelled on the sea.
In the days leading to the workshops, we became friends. I had never heard her name but within days, I gleaned that she was a big deal. One student had been promised an A in a class if she shared o meal with her and wrote about it. Other students deferred to her during meals, laughing at her jokes and hanging on her every word.
While she enjoyed the attention, she seemed to appreciate that she had found a Latin American friend who treated her like a regular person. She told me her life story, including what brought her as a young painter from Cuba to the US. She’d never had formal theater training. She told me about her failures as a secretary and her challenges finding teachings gigs at universities in New York. (Some interviews were conducted by famous assholes.) She still sounded hurt by it all.
We were drinking tequila a night or two before the workshops began when she said: “I think you should forget the fiction writers and take my workshop. I think you’ll like it.” There was something in the quiet way that she said it – in English – that convinced me to trust her.
By then, I was taken by her storytelling, by the hypnotizing movement of her arms and fingers as she spoke, each word deliberately chosen and spoken. She didn’t stumble, she didn’t struggle with words. She was a master.
I’ve been reflecting on the conversations we held in Spanish and on what made them special. For many Latin immigrants, English is a language we acquire (a survival skill!) after a world of Spanish already exists inside us. A second language requires a new persona and identity based on the culture attached to the language. A second language is performative; we’re never quite as at ease in the second language as the first. So when we meet others who speak Spanish, we are that child who still trusts, that mother who scolds and advises, that grandmother who loves and nurtures. That’s why I changed the course of my writing with one conversation; by the time she asked me to become a playwright, we were friends.
And so I took her workshop and learned to write plays from the inside out instead of from the outside in. I learned to detach my characters from myself so that they were separate people whose words I was simply transcribing though I had the privilege of imbuing their thoughts with poetry. I learned to create entire humans from scratch, instead of fragments and caricatures. I learned to trust that if I knew what happened at the beginning, the middle and end would reveal itself eventually. I learned to write plays. Many plays. Using her method, I’ve written about thirty full length plays, a musical, and many one acts. I never know what’s going to happen. I just find characters who have something to say to each other.
During a lecture at the majestic UNAM amphitheater in Taxco, she suddenly stopped and looked at me. “I think you’re an actor,” she said with her disarming Cuban accent, pointing at me with a thin, slightly crooked finger. Her skin was thin like rice paper. “I really do.” I turned beet red. Later, she told me that she wanted me to return to Columbia and ask her former pupil, Eduardo Machado, to continue teaching me to write plays. “Tell him I sent you.” And that’s exactly what I did.
When I returned to New York, I called her. We met in the West Village at a coffee shop and chatted. I noticed that she had forgotten little details that we had discussed in Mexico but thought nothing of it. After all, I’d never met a writer who wasn’t a flake, who didn’t forget everything. I had an urgent need to tell her how much she had changed my life, to thank her for teaching me to make humans which was essentially like making fire. She had taught me creation: I cannot describe how I loved her for that. She was almost a deity.
I returned to Columbia with its rigors and lost touch with her. Years later, while in grad school, (where I returned to study under Eduardo), I heard that she was very ill with Alzheimer’s in upstate New York. A few years later I asked a friend to drive me to her, my heart beating with every hour that we drew closer. When we finally arrived at the nursing facility, we were told that a flu outbreak would prevent us from seeing her. I was crushed. Still, the drive reminded me how much I loved her and appreciated what she had taught me.
After she was moved to the Amsterdam Nursing home in Manhattan, I visited her when I could. Often, I brought friends to meet her. Once we celebrated her birthday. My best friend played the keyboard and another young actor played the guitar. She was animated and happy. She clapped and sang the chorus of Cielito Lindo. Other times, I went alone after attending Mass at Notre Dame on 114th Street. During those times, I just held her hand and her eyes remained closed. Once, I was standing to leave and she didn’t want to let go of my hand. It was then that I realized that she knew, a part of her knew, that I was there.
I owe her everything. I owe my playwriting and screenwriting to her. I owe my commitment to my own version of events to her. I owe my zest for living and curiosity to her. She left her family behind to be an artist in New York. It doesn’t get more biblical than that. She’s my hero. And so I write these words grateful that she was my teacher. I don’t feel inconsolably sad that she is gone because now she’s free. She’s no longer trapped in a body or on the dementia floor of a nursing home.
I’m sad, but I sing praises to her and am quietly thankful to her, so thankful that she brought me to the theater and turned me into a creator. Theater is the stuff of gods. I can honestly say that I met one and that we became friends. Que en paz descanses, María Irene. Ahora si que puedes descansar en paz.
Poem I learned upon hearing of her death
It was a long night
Like a tumultuous sea
I tossed and turned
And checked the Time
2, 3, now 7,
And I wake up to
The news that
You are gone.
A wise soul,
And for once,
I don’t cry or
Think, what if,
I was your student
I sat with you
And held your hand,
Like two lost friends.
I always found you
On your wheelchair
Next to the window
And I didn’t know
If you wanted to be there.
The view was better,
Than in your windowless
Now you’re at ease,
Released from the shiny hallway,
And woman placed near you,
Who talked endlessly of
Ice cream and her missing sweater,
And the young man who
Why he was on the dementia floor,
A nurse always at the door.
I am not sad,
Because you were too free,
To be there,
Among everyone who forgot,
Forgotten in so ways,
You came alive
When I brought my mother
You spoke Spanish to her,
As you must have
Spoken to pretty women
When you were a Cuban girl.
I’ll always remember
Our time in Taxco,
That’s the Irene I knew,
Funny, bored, revered,
Wise beyond any years,
I will always thank you
For teaching me to ask
My characters questions,
And then to listen,
And to listen, to listen
To their responses.
You will never get lost
In a play
If you listen
To what they have
With your people,
With your ancestors:
I imagine that Batista
And Fidel will come calling,
Other dimensions need
I know how much you suffered,
Now your face is painted on walls,
And enshrined in festivals.
But I know how much you suffered.
You are free now.
Go in peace,
José Cruz González
María Irene Fornés helped us early on at South Coast Repertory’s Hispanic Playwrights Project while I was the project director. Having her there was a huge boost of confidence and mentorship. She helped so many of us to become artists and to find our way in the world as she had done. ¡Adelante, María!
“Go back to Fornés,” advised Irma Mayorga, one of my first playwriting mentors, when I told her I was inspired by Cherríe Moraga and Ricardo Bracho. “Those writers are within Irene’s lineage. So read her work. But don’t start with Fefu.”
Thus, I devoured Fornés’ classic plays, such as Mud and Sarita, and could detect the influence her works had on a whole generation of playwrights, whether they worked directly with her or not. And in my own writing, particularly as a multicultural mutt with ancestors hailing from Mexico, Austria, and Appalachia, I took away from Fornés how to thrive in my own nuances. After all, as Anne García-Romero notes in The Fornés Frame, the Latina playwrights inspired by Fornés “question rather than reinforce homogenous cultural identity.”
Three years after Irma’s advice, several colleagues who took the inaugural Fornés Playwriting Workshop encouraged me to apply for the second round in summer 2017. They both described the experience with instructor Migdalia Cruz as “life changing.” Ryan Oliveira, a Chicago-based playwright, said he’d never approach his characters the same way again.
This is what Migdalia, firmly rooted in Fornés’ teachings as a former student of hers, delivered to us as a guide, a mentor, and a playwright. Through workshop sessions that required us to visit old memories while conjuring new scenarios, she facilitated ways in which we could unlock generations of voices in our bodies to craft honest stories. The daily cycle of physical exercises, meditation, and writing with prompts that Migdalia threw to us allowed me to churn out raw material, all of which I’ll now re-purpose toward current and future projects. And in a community with fellow writers from around the country, it was nothing short of sacred to hear the fresh, unedited material that my peers could generate in the sessions.
The best part of Migdalia’s teaching is that she doesn’t push absolutist ways of writing plays. She speaks from experience on what she knows works and doesn’t work, but rather than laying out an established formula (as many teachers are wont to do), she drives writers to find the creativity within themselves to create their plays. (By the time we reached the read-throughs of everyone’s scenes, I saw how they had unearthed sensitive material with which to work.) This speaks to the core of my one-on-one session with Migdalia the morning after we submitted our scenes for the showcase. The notes she gave me, rather than providing simple remedies for latent lines or ideas, challenged me as a writer to explore the characters further by playing with their dialects and considering how they end the scene. I went home that evening and, as Fornés recommended to her students, got to play with the scene rather than succumb to thinking I had done something wrong. By uplifting students and luring out their individual voices, Migdalia cultivates an environment where students flourish and write wrenching material they didn’t know they could. Migdalia never made us feel like we were there just to impress her; she instead invigorated us to give our best.
The workshop, thankfully, culminated in a reading with a professional director and actors at a well-known theatre in Chicago. In addition to a professional credit, this gave writers the necessary opportunity to hear the work we labored with for a week’s time. In my writing career so far, this particular play, Chocolate Gravy & White Jesus, has proven the most harrowing to write. While I’ve long explored personal narrative work, this play has required me to revisit neglected memories from childhood, to dissect the steady tensions between mothers and their gay sons, and to write about a region, Appalachia, which has long summoned a sense of shame. But the strategies Migdalia utilizes allowed us to explore these kinds of themes and not only write quality material, but heal.
Tied to this, the workshop gave a hopeful glance for our futures as writers, which the thought of can sometimes overwhelm us amid side hustles and financial hurdles. On the second-to-last day, we watched a snippet of the upcoming Fornés documentary. Near the end, Fornés says, “I never thought of playwriting as a way to earn a living. But it is a way to earn a life.” This is not just a phrase that will arm me as a writer, but it is the philosophy that Migdalia tought in the workshop. She didn’t only teaching how to write plays, but how to invigorate our work with the weight of the ancestors and the responsibility of history at our backs.
I met La Gran Dama in Manhattan during the early 90’s when Ediciones El Milagro in Mexico City was putting together an anthology of North American Drama. Authors included Fornes, Albee, Shepherd, Mamet, Wilson and myself, among others. The editors in Mexico asked me to approach Fornes for permission to publish Conduct of Life and wanted her to recommend a translator. When I asked who could translate it she said: “Carajo, yo mismo hago la traducción.” And she did!
I first met Maria Irene Fornes when I was an actor working with INTAR’s Hispanic Playwrights-in-Residence Laboratory, which she founded. I got to not only be exposed to her as a writer and teacher, but also to the gifts of many of the groups members who would go on to become important playwrights in their own right, Migdalia Cruz, Lisa Loomer, and Eduardo Machado. Nothing seemed formed in that room. Everything seemed organic and born of the moment. There was a foundation, yes of course there was, but not a foundation made of granite to hold you down. There was no gravity in the room. The work that came out of the laboratory came to be known as The Box Plays, which were a series of short plays that were presented at The Public theatre as part of Festival Latino which I was honored to be a part of. We were given permission by La Fornes to fly and many of us, like myself, are still flying thanks to her magnificence.
Marco Antonio Rodriguez
A unique, brilliant, inquisitive, loving, free spirit! I had the privilege of playing the role of Orlando in a production of The Conduct Of Life many years ago and was particularly struck by the depths she dove into to explore the human condition. Her voice was not just LatinX. Her voice was ALL of us. Thank you, Maria Irene. Por tu entrega y tu LUZ!
From the very first time I walked into the cold upstairs rehearsal hall at INTAR 2 in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen, I was unsettled by her presence. I had only known about her through a work of hers I’d recently seen in Dallas, but here she was, a smiling bespectacled woman in a small frame firmly ordering me to take off my shoes and stand on an old Persian rug for some movement exercises. I thought, What is this shite? I came here to write my play. What am I doing splayed out on the floor making odd noises with my mouth? But that was how we started each morning in late 1988 at her signature Hispanic Playwrights-in-Residence Lab at INTAR, taking almost 40 minutes to do yoga stretches and lie still on the rug breathing out the concerns of the day into the stale air of the room. Irene led us through these exercises meticulously, giving us time to dream, even if it was about nothing. Gradually, my resistances caved into the revolutionary idea that writing is a process that involves the whole body, not just the mind, that trapped in the balls and sockets of our joints are the people and stories waiting to be shown their place on the page. Sometimes, lying prone on the rug, I would turn my head to peek at her and find her in that focused blissful state she worked to conjure in all of us. This morning ritual truly was an important component in her writing practice and it turned out to be the first step in changing my approach to writing forever.
Over the course of the Lab, thanks to Irene, I lost my “voice” and found a truer, more resonant one inside me. We became friends, and she attended my very first premiere in San Francisco of a now-lost play “Impatiens”, further cementing our bond. We continued to visit with each other, both in New York and San Francisco, but with less frequency, until the annual TCG Conference in Seattle, where, between the breakout sessions and plenaries, she requested a private conference. We met outside one of the theatres and talked. We sat and held hands and strolled about and talked for perhaps fifteen minutes. I won’t divulge what was said, but as we parted and Michelle Memran ushered her back inside the theatre, I realized something had changed in her. I watched her small frame get smaller still as she receded into the distance and, by dribs and drabs, I began to mourn for her. By dribs and drabs, I have felt her slipping away. And now that she is gone, I ache for those mornings when we laid on the rug and simply breathed together, lacing our dreams in the air between us.