Thursday, April 23, 2015

Maria Irene Fornes

This evening, the 2015 Edwin Booth Award for outstanding contributions to New York theatre was awarded to Maria Irene Fornes.

Unfortunately, Ms. Fornes was unable to attend the ceremony in her honor, due to the extraordinary illness from which she suffers. However, a special event at the Graduate Center of City University of New York paid tribute to her.

Jennifer Thompson coordinated a staged reading of scenes from Fefu and Her Friends, and Maria Alexandra Beech, a former student of Fornes, gave a moving speech in her honor. I was invited to read a selection of an interview Fornes gave a number of years ago, which thrilled me, since her play The Conduct of Life was a big influence on me in college and grad school.

This is the answer Fornes gave to the question of how long she had been directing her own plays:

Since 1968 with Molly’s Dream. That summer there was a workshop for playwrights at Tanglewood in connection with Boston University. They had a company of fine actors. The plays were done in elaborately directed readings, with a lot of people memorizing as much as they could. Robert Lewis was the director of the program, but he wasn’t directing any of the plays. I told him I wanted to direct and he said, “No. The directors will direct.” I said, “But this is a playwrights’ project and, as a playwright, I need to direct this play.” He said no. I was annoyed, but I asked Ed Setrakian because I knew him as an actor and liked him and thought, “Why not?”

Then Ed started doing things that I didn’t think were right. The play was very simple and he was making it too abstract. So I went to Bobby Lewis and said, “This is not right. He’s asking people to do this bizarre behavior. The play’s a kind of movie fantasy where people behave normally.” So Bobby Lewis said, “You have to ask Ed to do it the way you want. And if you have any problems, I’ll talk to him.” So Ed did what I asked and then he said to me, “I haven’t been able to sleep because of what you’re doing to me.” And I looked at him and said, “Ed, I’d rather you don’t sleep than I don’t sleep.”

I’d always been so timid. When a director would say, “Boo,” I would acquiesce. But that situation taught me never again to give in. I didn’t want to make Ed not sleep. I wanted to do it myself. If then it doesn’t come out right, I did it wrong and nobody else has to suffer. I promised myself that I wasn’t going to let anyone else direct my work. And I didn’t care if it never got done again.

So I went to New Dramatists—I was a member there—to do Molly’s Dream again. I wanted to do it with Julie Bovasso. They said, “All right, but we have to get you a director.” I said, “No, I want to direct it.” They said, “There’s a rule here that playwrights are not to direct.” And I started screaming, “I’m directing or I’m quitting. If this is a playwright’s organization you have to do what is good for the playwrights. What are you going to lose?” So they made an exception for me. I directed Julie Bovasso and it was a bumpy ride. I didn’t know her history of quitting and throwing chairs at directors. It worked because I didn’t have a director’s ego. I just wanted her to do my play. And she was wonderful.

I have no doubt she was! So congratulations to Maria Irene Fornes for yet another well deserved award.