A Director’s Quest by Hope McIntyre
My first encounter with the writing of Maria Irene Fornes was when I was doing my undergrad at the University of Saskatchewan. I was very interested in discovering work by female playwrights. I kept an on-going list of women playwrights and would go to the university library and check out play after play and read them in between classes, rehearsals and work. When I came across Fornes, I was immediately hooked. I remember reading several of her pieces and being struck by the style, the subtle political content and the language. I read up on her and loved how her work as a painter and her cross-cultural experience influenced her work. A peer did a student production of “Conduct of Life” during that time and I kept a copy of it, “Fefu and Her Friends” and my other favourite, “Mud” in my files of plays I love.
When I did my MFA I wanted so badly to direct “Fefu and Her Friends” but our thesis directing was part of a summer repertory and both due to the casting demands and my thesis committee’s lack of understanding of the play, I was turned down. I had to select another piece. It was disappointing but I knew one day the right situation for directing the play would come along. Then, while doing an apprenticeship in England, I had the opportunity to work on a film adaptation of “Mud” and play Mae. It was an amazing experience.
Needless to say, I have waited a long time to direct “Fefu and Her Friends” and am beyond excited to do so with a stellar cast and in the ideal venue. Why did this play hit such a chord with me? I think it was both the experimental use of space that opened my eyes as a young theatre student and that Fornes really does break all the rules, or as she would say she simply doesn’t believe there are any rules. There is so much to mine in her writing and at the same time her goal is to let the audience decide the meaning.
A few years back, I tried to contact Fornes to invite her to FemFest. I had always read about her work teaching playwriting and missed an opportunity years ago to do one of her masterclasses. I simply could not get away nor afford to travel to New York. It is one of those things I will always regret. My invite to her to do a masterclass at FemFest went unanswered. I later discovered that it was due to her failing health. In my mind she will always be this high spirited, energetic artist that I have read so much about. In reality she is now 83 years old. A few years ago she began showing signs of Alzheimer’s. She was put in a nursing home far from her theatre community in New York City. After an on-line petition and much advocacy she was moved last year to a nursing home where her theatre family could visit and care for her. The change in her was immediate. As a lesbian woman with no children or partner, her extended family is the theatre, the artists she worked with, the playwrights she taught and inspired and artists like myself who have admired her from afar. She has shown us the possibility of theatre.
I will give Fornes the final word: “…my intention is not necessarily to promote kindness to the opposite sex but something ultimately more interesting, which is that any human being is a member of our species and if we don’t allow our imagination to receive the experiences of others because they are of a different gender, we will shrivel and decay.”
For updates on where she is today, check out https://www.facebook.com/fornestherestimakeup .