I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Allen Frame How did you start directing your own work?
María Irene Fornés Having a play directed by someone else is like going to a religious school when you’re a child, you listen and obey. When you write a play you are in such an intimate relationship with it. This is yours, you created these characters. Even more than you created them, they came to you. Because in the process of creating a character or a world, one has to be humble, one has to allow for the play’s images to take over. That’s why I say it comes to you, it has befriended you, and if you are wise enough, you receive it. You have this very profound connection with it, and suddenly somebody who doesn’t know anything about it (who immediately starts reading the play thinking, “What do I want to do with it?”) comes and starts working on it and tells you how he is going to do things. And you can’t talk to anybody. The director says, “Write a note and talk to me after.” So you write a note and talk to him after, and the director doesn’t know what you’re talking about because you’re referring to something that happened earlier. So you can’t talk about what’s happening in rehearsal. You can only talk about things in general, and the director may be willing to try to understand but often doesn’t understand. They think they understand and they go and tell the actor what you’re talking about, and you hear it and it’s not the same. Now isn’t that absurd? Writers either suffer it or they direct. That they have to learn how to direct. Now the unfortunate thing is that nobody tells playwrights that they cannot just go and direct. They first have to learn acting, not to become actors, but to know what the process is. Not only that but they should take classes with different teachers so they know different techniques and ways of approaching it. They should take a couple of directing classes. Writing a play is not enough. Playwrights don’t think, “I am not going to suffer this anymore. I’m going to find out how to do it and then do it.” They say, “I’m not going to suffer this anymore. I’m going to do it.” Then they start doing it and from the beginning they don’t know what to do, and then they give up … . You don’t lose anything by learning.
AF But your involvement as a director is exciting to you and not anything like the problem of working with a director?
IF To me, that’s the fun part. Writing can he a lot of fun, too, if you manage to isolate yourself so that your world becomes the world of the play, and it can be very wonderful, but directing is a social thing. And also you make a date. You say, “Rehearsal at 1.” And you go there and whether you are inspired or not, you start working and then you get inspired. When you’re a writer you have to go home and you’re by yourself.
AF I thought your staging, when I saw it a few years ago at the American Place Theatre, of Fefu and Her Friends was ingenious. These women come together in the first act for a college reunion at Fefu’s house. There is a realistic set. Then in the second act, the audience is divided into four groups and led to three other sets in the backstage area and then the scenes take place in each of these areas as well as in the living room simultaneously, performed four times until each audience group has seen all four scenes. And the scenes are of the same length so that each audience group is ready to move at the same time. And you see characters leave the room occasionally and go into the scene of another room while that other scene is actually taking place. I found that the meaning inherent in this staging, what you experience from those shifts of perspective, to be as powerful as anything that was actually in the text.
IF Well, that’s what happens. That’s a result. Maybe unconsciously, but certainly there are all kinds of things that happen every time you make a move on stage or you make a decision which is the result of other moves. I don’t think anyone can anticipate. The reason why the four scenes in Fefu happen the way they happen is completely accidental—not accidental because I saw the possibility and realized it. It had to do with a performing place I wanted to rent at the time when I had just finished the first act and I was putting together the second. I was putting together the play using many different kinds of writing that I had done. Some of these monologues had nothing to do with the play but were just things I wrote, and I was feeding them into the play. I started also looking for a place to rent because at the time I was managing director of Theatre Strategy, a group of experimental playwrights, and I had to find a place for the plays to be performed, and the person who was assisting me said, “There is a loft on Lower Broadway advertised in the newspaper as a performing place. Would you like to look at it?” Now that place when I saw it was a wonderful place, but I didn’t think it was right for performance because the ceiling was too low and there were columns in the center which meant we couldn’t use the whole width of the loft and then we’d have to build bleachers so everybody could see. But I loved the way it looked so the person who ran the place took us to the front, it had been a factory, and the windows were all the width of the place and plants were all over, and I said, “Oh, this looks like a sun room in Fefu’s house.” And then he said, “Will you come to my office?” And there was this division and another division he called the green room and then the large performance area and on the other end of it was another partition he had made, and he had a beautiful little office there, Victorian furniture, beautiful desk. And when we sat down I said, “This could be Fefu’s library.” And then it hit me, and I thought I could do the play—the following scenes—in different places. And I said to him, “If I do the play here, can I use the whole place?” and he said, “Yes, would you like to see the kitchen?” And I said, “Kitchen!” He was wanting to turn the place into a theater but what he was mostly doing was catering.
When I worked with the actresses in Fefu in these spaces it was one of the most beautiful directing experiences for me because I was sitting with them right in the room. And it would be only us—whoever was in the scene and me sitting here. And it was more real to me than anything. Because when there’s a set and you’re on a stage, you’re further away. I would be sitting at the table with them. There was a table in this kitchen. Or in the study, I would be sitting in a chair, and it was completely quiet. There was total silence. To me that silence was necessary. If I had at that point written down stage directions which would have been forever binding, I would have said, “It’s important that the rooms be totally isolated so that there’s no sound at all.” Now when I was trying to synchronize the scenes, the sound of the other scenes was too loud, so we started putting curtains and blankets on the windows and the doors. My aim would have been to isolate the sound completely. Since we were not successful, there was a little bit of sound that drifted through it. It was actually the audience then that said, “What a wonderful thing that you hear the other conversations faintly. And sometimes you recognize lines, and sometimes they’re lines you’ve heard, and sometimes they’re lines you know you’re going to hear.” So you think, “Oh, my God! Of course!” But I didn’t know that. And I think when you deal with a play that’s completely a new form you know a little about it, and you say, “Yes, this is how it should be done,” because from what you see it’s exciting, but then you don’t anticipate many many other things.
AF There’s a heightened reality in your work that’s almost super-real. In Mud the writing was so compressed, so spare, that the play achieved an intensity that seemed super-real. One critic interpreted the story as a post-apocalyptic situation. The setting actually looked like something from the Depression era, but the terms of the play were so bleak and unpromising that the situation almost appeared to be a futuristic nightmare.
IF I understand seeing that, but I didn’t intend it. My plays are clean. Most plays have four, five vital moments in the play and the rest of the play is just getting to it. It’s just fill. I don’t know why, whether it’s just to create the sense that it’s real or that you have to spend two hours to experience the power (you have to see not just snapshots). But I find it very boring. I go to sleep when I see plays like that, and I go to sleep writing it. I would just actually fall asleep at the typewriter and would not be able to finish a scene written like that. What’s different now is that my work is much more emotional and connected to story. Because of that and the fact that the air around it is clean, it’s very strange. It reminds me a little bit of Edward Hopper’s paintings—where there’s something very real about the situation, it’s very mundane, but the air is always so clean you feel there’s something wrong.
AF It’s different from the “magic reality” of a lot of Latin American writers whose structure is also looser.
IF You mean the novelists?
IF The Latin American artist is almost always a surrealist, whether it be painters, artists, or poets. I don’t know that they ever see themselves as being surrealists. That’s just how they conceive art. Art is something you don’t just reproduce—what you see everyday doesn’t seem to be inspiring to them. But you do something with it so that it’s not bound by the law of reality. My work has always had that influence. I’ve never felt that it was necessary at all to write realistic plays. Moreover, the work that I’m doing now is much more based on reality than my work before.
AF You are Cuban?
AF When did you come to the US ?
IF In 1945, right after the second World War.
AF Did you grow up in a Spanish-speaking household?
IF Yes, you can tell by my accent. When I came here I was 15-and-a-half years old, and that’s the age when it’s really hard to lose your accent.
AF When did you get involved in theater?
IF When I was 29. I used to be a painter. I mean, I used to try to paint because I was not a painter; I was always just trying to get myself to do it. I think my theater is the way it is because I spent a few years painting.
AF I thought maybe sculpture because there’s such a strong sense of structure in your work.
IF I have to structure it. I have to make sure that the staging is something important, in the same way that if somebody comes in in the wrong scene I would say, “No, this is not your scene, you come in in the next.” When I was working in Seattle there was a scene where I wanted the actor’s hand to be in a particular place on the chair, and I said, “Try it further back,” and he kidded a little. And I said, “Don’t laugh. Wait till I get to the fingers.” Sometimes I’m not even hearing the words, what they’re saying, but I always know where people are and the distance between them and the wall and the furniture. It’s very important. Just yesterday I went to see a play that is directed exceptionally carefully and yet I would say it’s two weeks behind where it should be for opening in terms of the experience of people in relation to things, a little further this way, a little further that way.
AF You give a workshop for Hispanic playwrights through Intar in which the participants receive a sizable stipend while they take the workshop. Do you think that Hispanic immigrants to this country have more urgency about writing because they’ve been displaced from their cultures?
IF Well, I don’t know if they have the urgency. I have, and I think everybody should feel, in general, very concerned about a whole generation of people who come to this country from Latin America and because of their lack of connection with the arts don’t document their existence. They don’t document how they think, how they see. There is a spirit that is very special, like the spirits of any immigrant group, but other immigrant groups, perhaps because of their background, have had a need to document their spirit, their way of doing things, their way of reacting to things.
AF I find it bold of you to express your own sense of despair through a situation of poverty in Appalachia, as you did in Mud. My guess is your experience is nothing like the dire deprivation of those three characters. Were you criticized for this?
IF I grew up during the depression in poverty. No. But when I did a shorter version of it at the Padua the Hills Playwright’s Festival last year there was a critic who said I treated men like pigs. And I was shocked by that because first of all I think these three people are wonderful. I think if you’re going to call the men pigs then call them all pigs because they’re all quite brutal in some way and quite tender in another sense. But the men are not anymore piggish than she is. They have a bigger heart than she has. She’s more self-centered, more ambitious, in a way harder than they are. The three of them are trying to survive as best they can. And they’re not bad people. That critic is anticipating that I’m going to write a play which has a feminist point of view, maybe because I wrote Fefu which is a pro-feminine play rather than a feminist play. I think Mae is a sexist role reversed. If Mae were a young man who wants to go to learn and was married to this slightly mentally retarded woman, and he would say, “Woman, you sleep on the floor, now this other woman who has a third grade education is going to come to the house and sleep in my bed, you go sleep on the floor,” then they would think that that guy was a son of a bitch and these two women are hardworking, honorable women who are victimized by this devil of a person. Now because Mae is a woman and these other two are men—you know what I mean? I think Mud is a feminist play but for a different reason. I think it is a feminist play because the central character is a woman, and the theme is one that writers usually deal with through a male character. The subject matter is—a person who has a mind, a little mind, she’s not a brilliant person, but the mind is opening, and she begins to feel obsessed with it, and she would do anything in the world to find the light. And some people can understand that as a subject matter only if it were a male character wanting to find that. It has nothing to do with men and women. It has to do with poverty and isolation and a mind. This mind is in the body of a female.
AF How do you start a play?
IF My plays usually start in manners that are very arbitrary. I try for my head not to interfere, and I try to see what’s coming out. When I wrote the first scenes of Mud in a writing workshop I was doing at Theater for the New City, I didn’t envision the characters in the country. In my mind they were in some European city. It was very general and vague. They were in some kind of basement, and they were very poor. When I arrived in California ready to start rehearsal all I had was that one scene. In fact, I was already a week late. They had already set up auditions for me. I thought, “I’ll work on that scene because it wasn’t even finished so I have a good scene for auditions and the actors think there is a play behind it.” The next day some people were going to a flea market near where we were, and I went with them because I often need objects or furniture to get a hold on a play. I need the props. We were at the flea market and I was looking for my set. (Also, you know, we had to put on these plays for hardly any money at all so when you find something cheap, then you write a play about that.) There were two little country chairs that were, for the two of them, only five dollars. They were very nice. They had been stripped down to the wood, and they were wonderful, and I said, “That’s very good.” Then we went a little further, and there were a hoe, and axe, and a pitchfork, also very cheap. The axe was ten dollars. The hoe and pitch fork were two for five dollars. And I thought, “This is a sign. I think it’s going to be a play in the country.” Then I went a little further and there was the prettiest little wooden ironing board for three dollars. Those things are antiques. You know, they cost thirty, fifty, seventy dollars anywhere. So I said, “That’s it, that’s my play. Now I know where they live, they live in the country. The play takes place in their living room or wherever they have two chairs, and I know what he does, he works the land, and I know what she does, she irons.” The reason why she’s ironing all the time is because that ironing board was so pretty and so cheap. A couple of days later they asked me for the title of the play. They needed it for the program and the press releases. So I said, “I’ll tell you in a couple of hours.” As we worked on the speech where Mae keeps saying, “You’re going to die in the mud,” etc. I thought, “Oh,” and so that was the title.
AF One thing I liked about Danube was the use of the frequently changing backdrops. It seemed as though you were making a reference to the passing pageantry of theater. They rolled up and they rolled down, and they were in direct contrast to the style of the play, which made them almost satirize proscenium theater with curtain and lavish backdrops. It was like an intellectual comment on …
IF What is the comment?
AF A reference to theatrical convention.
IF What is the reference, though?
AF Theater’s use of illusion. You used the painted backdrops to express an obvious illusion while you used the foreign language tapes to break down the illusion of their speech, interrupting it between lines with the tapes.
IF But the idea of illusion. Is that something that is presented as a mistake, as false?
AF No, when I say satire, that’s not right. It was humorous to see the incongruousness of an experimental play about the end of the world using these backdrops, which were a throwback to an old kind of theater. You could say you were celebrating a tradition rather than satirizing it.
IF Yes, that is it. To me the quality of those language tapes has the same quality as those backdrops, which is a kind of innocence. I just loved those tapes, the little skit they make for a language lesson. And I long for that innocence. To me the loss of that innocence and over-sophistication is a crime against humanity. It’s like a violation of the personality or the environment with pollution.
AF In your work you often juxtapose beauty and horror.
IF Right. And innocence … A lot of people have said to me about Mud and Sarita that they like it, they feel very much, but they feel at the very end there is a hole. “What are you saying?” they ask. “That there’s no hope?” One of the critics said of Mud that it’s saying there’s no way out. I wasn’t saying any such thing. Even though Sarita has a tragic ending—she kills her lover and then goes crazy and to a mental institution—I’m not saying any such thing! I’m showing what could happen. Precisely. I’m giving them an example of what is possible. There are works, though, in which you feel the writer is relishing in the despair, in the pain. And now, how can you tell the difference between one and the other? It’s something you feel in your heart. You know the writer doesn’t have to show the good side. It doesn’t have to be there. It’s in the spirit of the work and you know in the spirit of the work immediately whether the writer is just relishing in pain. Maybe it is that these people who want the uplifting message right in the character’s lives rather than in the spirit of the play—maybe it is that they can’t tell the difference in those that are relishing in pain and those that are talking about goodness.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee