Maria Irene Fornes, author of such Off-Broadway classics as Fefu and Her Friends and Promenade, is considered by many to be one of the greatest figures in late-20th-century theatre. Thirty-six years and an extraordinary eight Obies after making her theatrical debut, the Cuban born artist is the subject of a season-long celebration at the Signature Theatre, where her newest play, Letters From Cuba, premieres on February 20, directed by the author herself. (Earlier productions this season were revivals of Mud and Drowning, directed by David Esbjornson, and Enter the Night, directed by Sonja Moser.) Playbill On-Line asked the playwright about her plays, other people's plays and the theatre in general.
Playbill On-Line: You've spent a good deal of your theatrical career working on the fringe. Can you tell us where you see theatre headed as it enters a new century?
Maria Irene Fornes: Oh my God! Do you think I know? I really have no idea. I think that the audiences are fickle -- as they should be, because they should just respond to what they're interested in and what tickles them. And, anyway, what do you mean by theatre -- the avant-garde? The old Broadway theatres? The more mainstream Off-Off-Broadway theatres? There are different audiences for each one, so it's really hard to say. I don't know whether people prefer to see more theatre that deals with naturalistic characters or whether they're more interested in something more fanciful or shocking. I don't even know what is happening today, you know. As you spend more time in theatre, you get involved with your own writing and going to see the work of friends whose work you like; you don't really have time to just go to theatre often [enough] to know what's happening. So maybe I should ask you -- what is happening? [laughs]
PBOL: Well, let me ask you this: Who are the playwrights whose work you like?
MIF: The ones that come to mind: Mac Wellman, Erik Ehn. I always find Richard Foreman very interesting -- difficult and sometimes annoying, but you know that he is doing something that is hard, and he's suffering. Some of Tony Kushner's things I just love. I recently saw a play of Marlane Meyer's, The Chemistry of Change. It reminded me of some of my plays like Mud: There's nothing about those characters that you find to admire, respect, or like. And yet, there is something about the composition of the work -- a dynamic that is very serious, very important, but that is not ugly. It is fascinating the way a tornado is fascinating, or a beast that is so strange, you cannot fathom it or believe how it happens. But you see it happening; it is true. It is not from some crazy kid who [simply] wrote a wild play. It is true. I feel her play has that quality.
PBOL: How do you decide what subjects to tackle in your own writing?
MIF: I never decide what I'm going to write ahead of time. I either write something somebody commissions me to write, or I write something that at the moment arouses my curiosity. I don't write out of a desire to tell the audience something but out of a desire to investigate. It's like a curiosity that makes you want to visit a town or a country -- a whole big area where there is something that pulls you to spend time there. Because when you write a play, it's a year that you're spending in that world, with those people. It has to be that you want to find something out and then stay there to see how it evolves.
PBOL: Before this season, how often had you revisited your older plays?
MIR: Oh, I do my plays all the time. In fact, my play Fefu and Her Friends I have directed maybe six or seven different productions. I always do a little rewriting. [I say,] "It's really not complete, that section; I need to write three more lines." Or, "It's not clear enough." Or, "That breath -- I cut it off too early; there's a little more breath left." I even ask the publishers when they do reprints, would they include these changes. There's always something that you realize could have been a little better. PBOL: Were any changes made during the Signature revivals earlier this season?
MIF: The rewrite of a play usually comes because I am directing it. Although there was a section in Mud... At the beginning of the play there was a lot of cursing, and I always felt that the cursing was not natural to rural people. These characters don't curse the way people curse in the cities. No matter how uneducated, how completely ill-mannered they may be, cursing is a city kind of thing. When I did the play in New York the first time [in 1983] at Theater for the New City, I asked a house manager, who was a fellow from Appalachia, "Is it real? Is it the actual language?" And he thought for a moment and said, "It is perhaps not the language itself, but it is the way they think and the way they see things. It's very true." He felt like he was back home, so that made me feel very good. I suspected when I wrote it that perhaps my language, coming from Spanish, still having an accent -- I'm sure that if I have an accent in my vocal chords, I have an accent in my writing, too. But, apparently, it didn't matter. So I was very happy. But in the recent production I found a way for the first time to take the cursing from that first scene and replace it with something that is very similar, but is almost like the way children would speak of sexuality. It just came to me in rehearsal one day.
PBOL: Let's talk about rewriting on a grander scale: If there were one thing you could improve about the state of theatre today, what would it be?
MIF: The audiences. [laughs] No, let me be serious. Improve? Well, I would love to see theatres that could produce wonderful performances of the work of those people who I think are extraordinary. And they would be running for a long time. But I don't know if the audiences would like it. You see, again it is a question of the audiences. If the audiences would love these plays, they would be running.