Teaching Fornes: Preserving Fornesian Techniques in Critical Context
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Teaching Fornes:
Preserving Fornesian Techniques in Critical Context

"The best way to wrap your mind around the plays of Maria Irene Fornes . . . is to abandon all hope of understanding them."

—Steven Drukman (36)

"The rift, I submit, does not lie between the written and spoken word, but between the archive of supposedly enduring materials . . . and the so-called ephemeral repertoire of embodied practice/knowledge."

—Diana Taylor (19)

The camera shows a face, small and wiry, with unruly teeth and an aquiline nose (Fig. 1). Peppered grey hair flies in various directions; heavy-set black glasses come on and off as the woman speaks. I am watching footage from the as-yet-to-be-released documentary on Maria Irene Fornes by Michelle Memran (Fig. 2).1 As I watch, the woman at the center of the film reveals a biting wit, a virtuosic creativity, and an inability to stay focused on any one subject as her mind wanders from one topic to the next. As Memran noted to me, this film, originally shot on a low-budget Hi-8 Camcorder, has become a documentary on her relationship with Irene Fornes in light of the playwright's dementia. Memran's work was also instrumental in the diagnosis of this condition, as Fornes only agreed to seek medical advice after watching a clip of herself, filmed only a few days before, of which she had no recollection (Fig. 3).2

This film can be thought of as the last great work of Fornes's prolific career. It reveals her preternatural ability to create scraps of creative cloth in the face of narrative disruption. It also signals a turn from Fornes's neat if not broadly sculptured work in which she was the agent, playwright, and teacher of all things Fornesian to the communities in Off-Off Broadway theatre, the Padua Hills Playwriting Festival, the INTAR Playwriting Lab, and others. Fornes, as the film clearly shows, remains the agent of her own creative world—and yet she cannot pass this world on to others, faced, as she is, with narrative erosion.

Two of Fornes's central contributions, the intertwined impact of which this article seeks to unpack, are her role as a teacher of playwriting and directing, and her impact as a preeminent, albeit undervalued, playwright of the 1960s and '70s Off-Off Broadway movement. Both these roles merit reflection and the concretization of her lineage, and yet the ways in which the textual versus nontextual aspects of her career are remembered will necessarily be very different. One of the last projects that Fornes focused on before the onset of her illness was a compilation of her playwriting exercises in a volume that was tentatively titled The Anatomy of Inspiration. This book has not been, and probably will not be, published. We are thus at a moment of shift from the teachings of the teacher to the retelling of her stories by her students. At present, Caridad Svich, at the request of Bonnie Marranca, is gathering exercises from many of Fornes's students that are scheduled to appear in the PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art in 2009. This may be the only document to stand in for the one that Fornes will not complete. This is also a liminal moment in the formation [End Page 207] of her archive: many of her documents have been gathered, but sit in boxes awaiting a direction and a location before any sorting or cataloguing can begin.

Fig. 1. Phone call. Maria Irene Fornes reminisces on the telephone with relatives in Havana. (Source: Photograph from the documentary, "The Rest I Make Up": Documenting Irene. Copyright © 2009 by Michelle Memran.)
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Fig. 1.

Phone call. Maria Irene Fornes reminisces on the telephone with relatives in Havana. (Source: Photograph from the documentary, "The Rest I Make Up": Documenting Irene. Copyright © 2009 by Michelle Memran.)

For the most part, the lineage of Fornesian style and techniques has become an oral one, and one that will arrive to us secondhand, susceptible to the peregrinations and individualization of Fornes's many students. One hears this in the frequent anecdotes that many people tell about her: the constant presence of her mother, Carmen (Fig. 4); the quality of her voice; the precision of her stage direction. The shift that comes from a student interpreting and...