Post image for Fornes and Artistic Mentorship

(This post is a part of the Artistic Innovation blog salon curated by Caridad Svich for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

Artists need mentors to expand understanding of craft and notions of artistic innovation in their field. Mentors can empower a younger generation by sharing approaches to hone and develop artistic voice. I studied playwriting with Maria Irene Fornes before and during graduate school. Her mentorship transformed my writing and my comprehension of the options available for those who create works for the theater.  Fornes began teaching playwriting in 1966 at the Judson Workshop in New York City and continued to train generations of playwrights for approximately thirty-five years at universities, theaters and playwriting organizations across the U.S. as well as internationally including Mexico, India, Scotland and England. Fornes’ pedagogy radically departs from more traditional schools of playwriting that focus on Aristotelian principles such as rising action, climax and resolution. Originally trained as a painter, Fornes utilizes many fine art techniques in her teaching, including visualization, collage, portrait drawing and constructing set models. Fornes encourages the development of each playwright’s individual voice over and above any cultural, political or artistic agenda. She privileges each playwright’s unique process versus a prescribed formula.

However, character creation is the cornerstone of Fornes’ pedagogy. Rather than instructing her students to generate an airtight structure that focuses on conflict and resolution, Fornes guides playwrights through a process that helps them intuitively connect to character, which then can become the foundation of a play’s construction. Fornes seems more interested in the genesis of an idiosyncratic character driven theatrical world than a pre-determined well-made structure. She also encourages multiplicity of ideas, forms and cultural influences on the path toward writing a play.

The power of her presence and the generative access she provides has inspired me deeply. Eschewing any type of conversation of what a play is, or the elements of plot, character or conflict, Fornes’ method catapults me right into the center of my creativity as a playwright, with the task of internally and subjectively discovering the play I need to write. This intuitive and artistically innovative methodology has largely influenced my path as a playwright and teacher. Though her formal teaching career ended in the mid 2000s due to her declining health, Fornes and her work continue to guide me.

Fornes, now 83, suffers from Alzheimer’s. Earlier this year, Morgan Jenness, her agent, and Michelle Memran, a filmmaker who has spent the last decade creating The Rest I Make Up,  a documentary about Fornes, valiantly galvanized the theater community to support an ailing Fornes and successfully advocated for her transfer from a residence in upstate New York to one in upper Manhattan where her students and colleagues could consistently spend time with her. (Read NYT article.)

I recently went to visit my beloved mentor alone during a trip to Manhattan. I kept in mind the advice from friends that Maria Irene now responds most to music and Spanish. After I entered her room, I turned on her CD player and the joyful rhythms and forceful voice of Cuban singer, Albita,  filled the air. Then, I began to speak to her in Spanish: “Maria Irene eres maravillosa, increible, te quiero mucho. Cuanto me alegro verte.” (Maria Irene, you are marvelous, incredible, I love you very much. I’m so happy to see you.)

As the Caribbean ballads continued, she whispered, “Cuba.” Fornes left Cuba when she was 14 and these childhood memories now surfaced as she ran her fingers from her eyes down her cheeks to indicate tears. I gently touched her arms and began to hold her hand. I recalled that one of my playwriting colleagues who visited her previously did ‘hand dancing’ with her and so I slowly moved her hands in mine while our arms swayed to the music.  As the third song played, a remarkable shift occurred and she started talking to me in non-stop Spanish. Sometimes her sentences were linear, other times they ended with a repetition of words like “Mamá” or “Papá”. I did my best to engage in conversation. She seemed to tell me a story about what might have been a childhood friend who had something taken out of her hands. She at one point declared, “Soy bonita, Maria Irene Fornes…very beautiful.” She later slowly caressed my arms and then my face. She said, “Besito” and beckoned me forward so she could kiss my cheek. We continued ‘hand dancing’ while I smiled, relishing the moment. Next, she ordered, “No. Más serio” and I realized she was directing me to be more serious. She then began to make grand gestures with her face and arms and I started to mirror her. She laughed and looked at me straight in the eye. She pointed to herself and then to me.

After I said goodbye, a veil descended and a vacant look once again transformed her into an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s. However, I left her room feeling incredibly moved and infinitely grateful. In the classroom, Maria Irene Fornes taught me to explore language, form, character and structure in innovative ways that empower my theatrical voice. In her residence room, she taught me to use language, gesture, memory and music to profoundly engage one another. She continues to show me that always, the artistic spirit endures.

Anne García-Romero’s plays include Provenance, Paloma, Earthquake Chica, Mary Peabody in Cuba, Land of Benjamin Franklin, Desert Longing, Juanita’s Statue and Santa Concepción. Her plays have been developed and produced at the New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater, The Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, Arielle Tepper Productions’ Summer Play Festival (Off-Broadway), The Mark Taper Forum, Hartford Stage, South Coast Repertory, INTAR, HERE, New Georges, National Hispanic Cultural Center, Borderlands Theater, Nevada Repertory Company, Jungle Theater and East L.A. Repertory. She’s received commissions from the NYSF/Public Theater, The Mark Taper Forum and South Coast Repertory. Her plays are published by Broadway Play Publishing, Playscripts and NoPassport Press. Ms. García-Romero is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Film, Television and Theatre at the University of Notre Dame. She holds an MFA in Playwriting from the Yale School of Drama, is a Resident Playwright at Chicago Dramatists and an alumna of New Dramatists.