How It Began
“Little camera,” Irene said, “I tell you things I didn’t even know I knew.”
In 1999, the incomparable Cuban-American dramatist Maria “call me Irene” Fornes agreed to meet a young aspiring writer (director Michelle Memran), to be interviewed for American Theatre magazine. The article was about the rancorous relationship between playwrights and the critics who review their work. Minutes into their meeting, Irene made it clear that she could care less about critics. “I’m not making a play so it can be reviewed,” she said. “I’m making it because I have to. Who cares about whether they like it or not.”
Six hours later, the interview questions remained unanswered but their friendship had begun.
As Michelle and Irene started spending increasing amounts of time together, it became clear that Irene – then in her 70s – was suffering from an undiagnosed dementia. Her career had halted. Irene told Michelle that she had stopped writing and didn’t know why. Michelle told Irene that she wanted to write a play but didn’t know how.
One afternoon, in August 2003, they ventured to Brighton Beach with bathing suits and a never-used Hi-8 camera.
“Irene, does the camera make you uncomfortable?” asked Michelle, in a noisy beachside café.
“Don’t you understand,” Irene answered coyly into the lens, “the camera to me is my beloved, the one who wants me always, and I give everything . . . I have . . . to a camera.”
This is how the film began. These two women—one young and one old, both lost in their own lives but with a shared urge to create—came together in a journey that revealed how the creative spirit continues to thrive even as one’s ability to create is compromised. In The Rest I Make Up the camera becomes a catalyst for collaboration, capturing Irene’s ability to teach, to inspire, and to turn the scraps of everyday life into moments worthy of wonder and delight. The feature-length documentary follows Irene’s memories, weaving together footage of the present with archival from the past, all the while moving mentor and student towards an ever-deepening connection in the face of forgetting. In doing so, The Rest I Make Up celebrates the fierce and unquenchable spontaneity that is Maria Irene Fornes—a virtuosic theater artist and educator whose plays and writing workshops helped shape American theater.
“This film can be thought of as the last great work of Fornes’s prolific career.”
Gwendolyn Alker, Theatre Topics
“I didn’t decide to become a playwright,” Irene once said. “It decided itself. When something happens by accident, I trust it.”
Just as Irene didn’t set out to become a playwright, I never set out to become a filmmaker. No, that day on Brighton Beach in 2003 was a glorious accident. Irene’s response to the camera and my response to filming her was a beautiful surprise for us both. Initially the film was our way to keep the creative process alive in each of us, and the process—at least at the time—was very much the product.
Today I am able to see clearly the reason I stayed committed to the project years after I stopped filming (due to Irene’s advancing dementia). The reason I kept working with the tapes, combing through hundreds of hours of footage, was because there was a story I had to tell. Eventually I met an editor—Melissa Neidich—who cared as deeply for the material as I did, and what we unearthed was a story about the power of friendship and creativity, and what it means to remain an artist through all the vicissitudes of one’s life.
That is the heart of the story I’m telling, but I am also making this film because it confronts a prevailing attitude about aging and Alzheimer’s disease that I feel passionate about challenging and that I believe needs to change. In our society today there’s a pervasive view that people lose their value as they lose their short-term memories, which confines multitudes of elders to a life of invisibility and isolation while they are still capable of meaningful relationship. The Rest I Make Up counters that assumption by inviting us to live for a while with an irrepressibly vital and generative playwright who—even in the face of eroding memory, even as she no longer formally writes and teaches—is experiencing a remarkably creative period of her life.
The film’s title, The Rest I Make Up, is taken from lyrics to one of Irene’s songs in Promenade: “I know everything. Half of it I really know. The rest I make up.” It is a testament to the way life can creatively increase even as it is cognitively disappearing, and to the way a teacher can continue to lead a student even as the student begins to lead the teacher. Over the past fifty years, there have been thousands of artists and writers who have worked with Irene or taken her legendary workshops. And each of them has an Irene story to tell. The Rest I Make Up is mine.
Photo by Michael Smith
Middle photo courtesy of Chris Bennion © 1987
Harper’s Magazine, December 2016
The Rest I Make Up: Maria Irene Fornes
The Brooklyn Rail, October 4, 2016
THE REST I MAKE UP: Maria Irene Fornes
We Are Moving Stories, September 28, 2016
Maria Irene Fornes: The Rest I Make Up
Curve Magazine, September 27, 2016
Creativity, Aging, and Alzheimer’s: A Conversation with Michelle Memran
HowlRound, May 2016
Fornés and Her Friends
American Theatre, March 23, 2016
Teaching Fornes: Preserving Fornesian Techniques in Critical Context
Theatre Topics, September 2, 2009
Moment to Moment with Maria Irene Fornes
The Brooklyn Rail, October 1, 2002
Maria Irene Fornes has been called the greatest and least known dramatist of our time. She’s written over 40 plays, won nine OBIE awards, and mentored thousands of playwrights across the globe. Off-Broadway’s
But Fornes did not set out to become a playwright. After arriving in New York City from Cuba in 1945, she worked mostly in textiles and even traveled as a painter to Paris in the 1950s. Not until the 1960s did Fornes write what she considered to be her first real play—Tango Palace—which catapulted her into the vanguard of the nascent Off-Off Broadway theater movement and a downtown DIY aesthetic that continues to thrive today. Often referred to as the American theater’s “Mother Avant-Garde,” Fornes steadfastly refused to adhere to any rules or formulas in playwriting, choosing instead to follow her characters’ lead in order to better get at her core question: What does it mean to be a human being?
As a teacher and director of the INTAR Hispanic Playwrights in Residence Lab in the 1980s, she mentored a generation of Latino/a playwrights, including Cherríe Moraga, Migdalia Cruz, Nilo Cruz, Caridad Svich, and Eduardo Machado. In 2005, while presenting Fornes with the Theater Practitioner Award at TCG’s conference in Seattle, Machado said: “She told us that we were going to change the theater, that we were going to create a world where Latino writers in America had a voice, and she willed it into all of us. And none of us would be here without her. She is the architect of how we create theater, how we teach, and the way we lead our lives.”
Fornes celebrated her 87th birthday on May 14th, 2017. She currently lives at Amsterdam Nursing Home in New York City, and visitors are always welcome. There is a Fornes Support Group where you can coordinate a visit and keep current on Irene’s health, as well as a Rest I Make Up Facebook page where you can follow the film’s progress.
photos by Marcella Matarese Scuderi (left) and Michelle Memran (right) © 2016
“Every time I listen to Fornes, or read or see one of her plays, I feel this: she breathes, has always breathed, a finer, purer, sharper air.”
Michelle Memran is a journalist, artist and filmmaker. For nearly twenty years she’s worked as a Reporter-Researcher in New York City, primarily for Vanity Fair magazine. She’s also written about theater for Newsweek, The New York Times, The Brooklyn Rail and American Theatre magazine. The Rest I Make Up is her first film, for which she has received funding from the New York State Council on the Arts, Frameline, Astraea, piece by piece productions, and numerous individual donors. After spending two years editing in residencies at Brown University and the MacDowell Colony, Michelle began working with editor Melissa Neidich (Dark Days, Two Towns of Jasper), and together they have just completed a rough cut of this feature-length documentary.
piece by piece productions
piece by piece productions is a not-for-profit producing organization started in 1999 by Wendy vanden Heuvel. Productions have included: Medea, directed by Deborah Warner with Fiona Shaw on Broadway (associate producer); The Tricky Part by Martin Moran (2004 Obie award and two Drama Desk nominations including Outstanding Play); All The Rage by Martin Moran, produced with Rising Phoenix Repertory and The Barrow Group (Lucille Lortel Award, Outstanding Solo Show 2013); The Walworth Farce by Enda Walsh, Mabou Mines DollHouse, Emma Rice’s Brief Encounter, and Let The Right One In, all in association with St. Ann’s Warehouse; My Name is Rachel Corrie in association with The Royal Court Theatre; Slipping in association with Rising Phoenix Repertory and Rattlestick Playwrights Theater; Elective Affinities by David Adjmi, co-produced with Rising Phoenix Repertory and Soho Rep; Lee Breuer’s La Divina Caricatura in association with St. Ann’s Warehouse, La MaMa ETC, Mabou Mines, and Dovetail Productions; Hundred Days by The Bengsons and Kate E. Ryan, co-produced with Z Space (TBA Outstanding New Musical 2014). piece by piece productions has been a producer on The Lake Lucille Chekhov Project since 2010 (Ivanov, Seagull) with co-creators Brian Mertes and Melissa Kievman. Film: The Seagull: The Lake Lucille Chekhov Project, directed by Brian Mertes.
Melissa Neidich is an award-winning documentary editor, working in the field for twenty years. Notable documentaries she has edited include: Soul in the Hole, which won an Independent Spirit Award; Dark Days, which also won an Independent Spirit Award and a Sundance Audience Award; and Two Towns of Jasper, which won a Dupont Award. Her latest feature—Out of the Clear Blue Sky— opened to rave reviews.
Max Avery Lichtenstein
Heather Winters is an American film producer, director, writer and a two-time Sundance winning executive producer. She executive produced Morgan Spurlock’s Academy Award-nominated and Sundance-winning documentary, Super Size Me, and Anthony Haney-Jardine’s Sundance-winning dramatic feature, Anywhere, U.S.A. Heather executive produced AJ Schnack’s documentary, Convention, and is the co-writer and producer of the documentary, Class Act. Her directorial debut, TWO: The Story of Roman & Nyro, released by Virgil Films and Morgan Spurlock presents, premiered on Netflix in 2014 and garnered several awards, including the HBO Hometown Hero Award. Heather is the founder of White Dock and Studio-on-Hudson production companies and is a film consultant, producer’s rep and guest professor of film at Sarah Lawrence College.
Shelby Siegel is an Emmy-award winning editor working in both narrative and documentary film. Being particularly drawn to documentaries that experiment with form and style, her past films include Tarnation, Capturing the Friedmans, Helvetica, and Urbanized. She’s also consulted on several films, including the Oscar-nominated Cutie and the Boxer, and recently received Emmy and ACE awards for her editing on Andrew Jarecki’s The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, a six-part documentary series for HBO.
Katie is a collaborative theater artist and author of new performance for both traditional and alternative spaces. She is co-Artistic Director of the OBIE Award winning PearlDamour, an interdisciplinary company she shares with playwright Lisa D’Amour. Recognition for PearlDamour includes two NEA Our Town grants, four MAP fund awards, and a 2009 Creative Capital artist award. Katie will be a 2016/17 Anschutz Fellow at Princeton University, where her teaching and research will focus on the concept of the Artist-Citizen. Katie’s play Arnie Louis and Bob recently had its world premiere at Trinity Rep in Providence.
After spending a magical semester at the University of Havana while in college, Alison joined the team in 2004 and facilitated our two-week trip to Cuba—effortlessly handling endless logistics in both languages. If she had to pick one Irene quote to re-read every day, it would be: “I would like to do this job the rest of my life. It is pleasant and I earn enough to live well. Or well enough as I do not necessarily want to lead a life of great luxury. I do not need to have my own swimming pool.”
Stefanie has worked on the post-production phase for several documentaries and feature films, including The Kids Are All Right and the crowdfunding phenomenon My Reincarnation, for which she received an Emmy nomination as Coordinating Producer. She is currently assisting in the development of the feature fiction film, The Tale, directed by Jennifer Fox and executive produced by Oren Moverman.
© Photo courtesy of
Marcella Matarese Scuderi
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