NuMuse begins this new century highlighting a playwright whose work and career has been a beacon in the dark for writers sickened by the miasma of mainstream American theatre. I am, of course, speaking about playwright, director, translator, lyricist and renowned teacher, "Mother Avant Garde," Maria Irene Fornes. The author of more than two dozen works for the stage, among them the celebrated Fefu and Her Friends, Mud, The Danube, Sarita and the Conduct of Life, Ms. Fornes has been, since the sixties, conducting with exemplary tenacity and scrupulousness, a unique career in the American theatre.
Ms. Fornes was born in Havana, Cuba and came to the United States in 1945. From 1954-57 she left New York for Paris to work on her painting career. She returned to work as a textile designer from 1957-60 and became a permanent fixture in the off-Broadway theatre, writing, directing and producing award winning plays for more than three decades.
A Fornes play is rarely plot-driven. More often, structure is the consequence of characters represented by their participation in small and frequently absurd scenes whose juxtapositions equal dramatic events. The play endows a significance to small acts with punctilious theatrical framing. Characters and audience alike are continually subjected to the carefully crafted extraliterary spectacle of the human body, light, music, color and space. Her method of playwriting is visual; she builds rather than writes text.
By the end of the 1960's, the wide open experimental theatre environment began to change and by 1968 the directors had taken over. Most of the playwrights who were active in the early years of the Off-Off Broadway movement became outcasts. Women playwrights found that they had to make unconscionable compromises to get produced, or if produced, their plays were transformed into vehicles for feminine violations.
Consequently, Adrienne Kennedy, Megan Terry, Rosalyn Drexler, Rochelle Owens, along with Sam Shepard and Ed Bullins formed the New York Theatre Strategy dedicated to the production of experimental work which Fornes ran for five of its six years. The Workshop allowed playwrights to set their own pace, be involved with their own work and that of others, twenty-four hours a day, testing their ideas without worry of pleasing the audience.
While still running the New York Theatre Strategy, Fornes began her long standing association with the Hispanic American Arts Center of INTAR, where she set up her world famous writer's workshop. At INTAR, Fornes arranged a Buddhist temple for playwrights, a light and open space similar to a visual arts studio where participants write simultaneously in a common studio as in a painting class.
Fornes' workshop was an incubator for playwriting talent and many of the playwrights who honed their skills there are now revitalizing American theatre. Playwriting workshop leaders, both in the lab and academia, owe a great debt to the Fornesian technique.
In 1999, New York's Signature Theatre, the only company in the country to devote each season to the work of a single living playwright, chose Maria Irene Fornes to be its artist-in-residence. Other accolades include eight Obies, one which cited her for sustained achievement in 1982, election into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Sciences in 1982, and the New York State Governor's Arts Award in 1990, where she was proclaimed for her contribution to experimental, women and Latina theatre.
Maria Irene Fornes readily admits that she has not been willing to change her style or subject matter even though it is considered too difficult and financially risky for mainstream productions. All of this only adds to her reputation as a model for those of us seeking a morally responsible career in Theatre.
Because of her long and impressive career in the avant garde, Fornes is breathing rarefied air. She is an experimental artist who despite the pressures of time, money and fashion offers a true alternative. "Mother Avant Garde" maintains her unique place in the annals of American theatre and embodies the aesthetics of NuMuse and the playwrights who grace its pages.
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