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 Signature Theatre devoted its entire 1999-2000 season to her work, and her epic What of the Night? was a finalist for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize. Theater luminaries like Tony Kushner, Caryl Churchill, Paula Vogel, Lanford Wilson and Edward Albee have credited Irene as an inspiration and influence. “Her work has no precedents; it isn’t derived from anything,” Lanford Wilson once said of Irene. “She’s the most original of us all.” Paula Vogel contends: “In the work of every American playwright at the end of the 20th century, there are only two stages: before she has read Maria Irene Fornes and after.”
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 died on October 30, 2018, at the age of 88, in Manhattan. Charles McNulty wrote a beautiful, in-depth obituary in the Los Angeles Times, which you can read here.
photos by Marcella Matarese Scuderi (left) and Michelle Memran (right) © 2016