María Irene Fornés is one of the most influential voices in the theatre, and yet you may not know her name. Having written (and directed) over 40 plays, Fornés was at the forefront of the Off-Off-Broadway experimental theatre movement of the 1960s. Often known as “Mother Avant-Garde,” Fornés was also a nine-time Obie winner and a 1990 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her And What of the Night?. She has left her mark on some of the most formidable playwrights in American history, including Pulitzer Prize finalist John Guare and winners Edward Albee and Paula Vogel ("If it hadn't been for Fornes' The Danube, there'd be no Baltimore Waltz," Vogel says.) Born in Cuba May 14, 1930, Fornés is now the subject of Michelle Memran’s documentary The Rest I Make Up, which screens August 23–29 at the Museum of Modern Art.
Here, we shed light on some of the most fascinating facts of the living playwright’s life and historic contributions:
1. Fornés “learned by osmosis.”
According to scholar Scott Cummings, Fornés attended three-and-a-half years of school at Escuela Publican No. 12 in Havana, Cuba. After that she learned through experience, travel, and exposure to culture through museums and movies. “She learned, in effect,” he said, “by osmosis.”
2. Her father shaped her outside-the-box way of thinking.
Fornés’ father, Carlos, studied Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti and passed along the teachings to his six children. According to Harriet Sohmers Zwerling, a former lover of Fornés, “She said that if her father hadn’t been much of a thinker, she wouldn’t have been much of a writer.”
3. Fornés is dyslexic and not as much of a reader as her dad.
Her inspiration came from “spoken conversations, overheard dialogue, found objects, and her own unfettered imagination, more so than books—though she would sometimes use passages from books when she was stuck in a play, opening to a random excerpt. (Some of these actually ended up in her plays, which involved characters opening books and reading passages aloud.)”
4. She got her start in writing by accident.
As told in Cummings’ book, Fornés and writer Susan Sontag were together one evening and Sontag complained about her struggles with a novel she was writing. Fornés decided they would not go out but stay in and write. “As if to prove how simple it was, Fornés sat down to write as well. With no experience and no idea how to start, she opened up a cookbook at random and started a short story using the first word of each sentence on the page,” he wrote. Fornés claims: “I might never have thought of writing if I hadn’t pretended I was going to show Susan how easy it was.”
5. Letters also inspired her work
One of Fornés’ earliest attempts at playwriting was translating letters written to her great-grandfather from a Spanish cousin. She did turn those letters into a “play” known as La Viuda, though many consider this more of a precursor to her dramatic writing than her first work.
6. She did find success with letters from another family member.
Her eldest brother, Rafael, was the only sibling to stay in Cuba. His letters to his sister (addressed “Querida Marinca” for her nickname) became the basis for the play Letters From Cuba.
7. For all her accomplishments in theatre, Fornés began as a painter.
When Zwerling and Fornés became a couple in 1954, they traveled to Provincetown where Fornés studied painting with Hans Hofmann. The writer credits Hofmann with teaching her the “‘push and pull’ of color. She said his use of color and the dynamic of what one color does in relation to another had a huge effect on her writing.”